Tom Stoppard's terrific new adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York seems especially resonant today. In Chekhov's last play, finished in 1903, a wealthy, irresponsible Russian family ignores mounting debts and winds up losing its estate. Thanks to sweeping social changes, a former peasant on the property, Lopakhin, is rich enough to buy it. He plans to chop down the beloved cherry orchard and turn it into a subdivision. The production, which stars Sinéad Cusack, Simon Russell Beale, Ethan Hawke and Rebecca Hall, will travel to Europe this spring. Stoppard spoke with NEWSWEEK'S Cathleen McGuigan. Excerpts:
"The Cherry Orchard" rings a lot of bells today. Do you see it as a work with contemporary relevance?
Well, it's hard to say no to that question when you're talking about Chekhov, but the relevance has to do with the thought that human nature doesn't change very much. His plays reflect the complexity of human psychology and behavior more than any other playwright's I can think of. But it's not really a strong analogy if you're talking about what we're calling the financial meltdown. People have always lost their homes and fortunes. But I think with Chekhov, it's the specific as well as the general, the individual character. It's not about rich people losing their money.
But Chekhov was reflecting the enormous social changes that had taken place in Russia. Look at Lopakhin, from a family of serfs, who ends up buying the estate.
That's absolutely true. It's a snapshot of a great, slow-rolling change that continued until the 1917 revolution. But I don't think people are fascinated by Chekhov's work because of its historical implications. It has much more to do with looking at a kind of mirror—you see yourself, and ask, "Would I have done that? Would I have made the same mistake? Would I have married the girl? Would I have despaired of that?" He was not someone who made moral judgments about his characters. He doesn't presume to know more about their motives and reasoning than the play shows. Chekhov understood that people are mysterious and can't be reduced to what we nowadays call motivation. That's why he is one of only a handful of people who originated the modern theater.
Obviously, Chekhov has had a big influence on you.
There isn't a simple cause and effect here. There have been times when you look at a play or read a book and you think, that is something I'd like to think about when I'm doing my own work. Okay. But the deeper answer is it's quite hard not to be influenced by things. It all feeds into what you're thinking next. I think probably I've been influenced by Chekhov and Walt Disney, if you see what I mean.
Your adaptation is true to Chekhov's insistence that "The Cherry Orchard" is a comedy, though it is typically played as a much darker work.
There's a kind of wryness—I'm sure Chekhov didn't expect you to have an evening of loud laughter. It's a comedy of self-recognition. Very often in Chekhov, where he exhibits a little bit of human behavior that you recognize as true, you give a little laugh. It's like a reflex.
It's a play about comic human foibles, even if it has a quote-unquote sad ending.
It's not a sad ending for Lopakhin—he ends up as the owner for what he says is the most beautiful estate on God's earth. I keep hovering on the edge of saying something that I daren't because it seems so utterly pretentious—but it's about chaos mathematics. Chekhov keeps reminding me of that because there aren't clean boundaries between one state and another. In Chekhov, everything blends into its opposite, just fractionally, and this is sort of unsettling. And that's why you end up 100 years later asking, "Is that moment tragic or comic?"
Lopakhin buys the estate—and his father had never even been allowed in the kitchen. That made me think of Obama, in his Inaugural Address, saying that his father could not have been served in a restaurant in Washington, D.C., 60 years ago.
I just had the same thought. The family in the play, though, wasn't fighting the sale of the estate on social grounds—they considered themselves liberals. What they suffered from was the inability to adjust to reality.
In the last few years, you've written an epic drama about 19th-century Russian intellectuals, "The Coast of Utopia," and now you've done this Chekhov adaptation. Do you feel you're spending too much time in Russia?
I don't know why I end up writing the plays I write. I'm just getting into a television project now—a dramatization of a 20th-century novel. I'm not into a play at the moment, and I would certainly like to be. And I'm not sniffing about Russian subjects at all.
Thanks for your time. You dodged beautifully any question that tried to put a contemporary meaning of "The Cherry Orchard" into a tidy box.
Uh-huh. That sounds a bit a Chekhovian.