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"The Cherry Orchard" is the masterpiece of Anton Chekhov. It is also his swan song-to his craft and almost to life itself, for in less than six months after it reached the stage of the Moscow Art Theatre, January 30 (our calendar), 1904, he was finally overcome in the long struggle against the illness which had kept him in the South and had prevented him from attending. the premieres of his previous plays, "The Seagull," "Uncle Vanya" and "The Three Sisters." Like the sad and pensive radiance of Indian summer was Chekhov's association with the Art Theatre ' during the months of composition and rehearsal and the triumphal hour of production of this pathetic study of a passing generation. Chekhov, too, was passing-Anton Pavlovitch, who had made the Moscow Art Theatre famous at the same time that the theatre was conferring a like boon upon the playwright. Chekhov was passing; his associates felt the presentiment, whether they admitted it or not. Severely simple and apparently effortless in structure and in its limpid, illuminating detail, "The Cherry Orchard" really cost its author painful and protracted labor. "The Three Sisters" was barely started on its long and honored career early in 1901 when the Art Theatre asked Chekhovic for another manuscript. He refused, for he still considered himself a story teller rather than a playwright, despite his three emphatic successes on the stage. Shortly after, though, his conversations contained hints of a new dramatic idea growing in his mind. By the summer of 1902 not only the outline of the plot but the name of the play were determined.
Another year passed before the new play reached anything like final proportions. "My play 'The Cherry Orchard' is not yet finished"; he wrote to Constantine Stanislavsky, the director of the theatre, in July, 1903, "it makes slow progress, which I put down to laziness, fine weather, and the difficulty of the subject." And again, in the early autumn, he confesses in a letter to a friend: "I write four lines a day and those with intolerable torment." The manuscript was completed at last and sent off to Moscow and until November, the playwright's letters are filled with suggestions for interpreting the various roles.
When the cold dry winter set in, the physicians permitted Chekhov-who, by the way, was a physician himself by profession-to return to Moscow to attend rehearsals of the new play. This time he remained for the premiere, which was accidentally set for his name-day.
And what a premiere it was The Art Theatre made it the occasion for celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Chekhov's entry upon a literary career. There was no longer any doubt about the public reception of a play from his pen. The battle had been won. A new tradition had been established. The three preceding plays remained in the repertory, held in deeper and deeper affection as the years passed. The premiere of the fourth could be made a gala occasion without timidity or fear of embarrassing aftermath.
Every literary and dramatic and public organization in Moscow, therefore, including the Art Theatre itself in the person of one of its co-founders, Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, united to bestow honors on the playwright. The strict custom of the Art Theatre, whereby not even applause is permitted to break the continuity of a performance, was violated for once. After the third act, while Chekhov stood shy and confused on the stage, deputation followed deputation to pay him tribute, including even a representative from the Small Imperial Theatre, home of classical traditions and the Art Theatre's bitterest rival.