At dawn during the month of May, the wealthy Lopakhin and the servant Dunyasha are waiting for Madame Ranevsky and her daughter Anya to return from France to their Russian country estate which is famed for its remarkable cherry orchard. It has been five years since they have been abroad. Their neighbor Lopakhin is there to greet them with the nervous maid waiting in what used to be called the nursery. They make small talk until Lopakhin remembers a time from his childhood: "when I was only fifteen my father . . . struck me in the face with his fist and my nose bled." He tells how Madame Ranevsky, still a slender young girl, called him a "little peasant" as she took care of him (p. 1). He explains that yes, indeed, his father was a serf, but he himself has managed to advance and become a gentleman.
At this point, the clerk Ephikhodof, who is in love with the servant Dunyasha, enters with a nosegay of flowers for her. Lopakhin sends Dunyasha for a drink, and the men talk about the weather. When Dunyasha returns, the clerk falls over his own feet as he leaves. Dunyasha tells Lopakhin that Ephikhodof has proposed and confides in him that despite her boredom, she does not love Ephikhodof because he is so clumsy.
Finally, Madame Ranevsky makes her entrance with her entourage: her brother Gayef; her older daughter Barbara, who was left at home to run the estate; her younger seventeen-year-old daughter Anya; Anya's governess Charlotte, who is leading a dog, and her neighbor Pishtchik. Highly emotional and overjoyed to be home, Madam Ranevsky breaks into tears: "my nursery, my dear beautiful nursery! This is where I used to sleep when I was a little girl" (3). After happy greetings everyone exits except the servant Dunyasha and the younger daughter Anya, who grew up together. Dunyasha tells Anya that Trophimof, the tutor to Madame Ranevsky's young son Grisha, whose death through drowning resulted in the family's flight to France, has remained in the house.
Barbara the older daughter enters. She is delighted to see her younger sister after five years and orders Dunyasha to make coffee for her mother Madame Ranevsky. The sisters' happiness, however, is marred by the family's financial problems. It seems their aristocratic mother spends money as if she is still in possession of her fortune even though there is not enough money left even to pay the interest on the mortgage. If a payment isn't made soon the cherry orchard, which amounts to the whole estate, will be sold. Lopakhin makes a brief appearance at this point and teases the sisters. Rumors have been flying that he is interested in marrying Barbara, and she certainly hopes this is true. But so far he has said nothing to her. She is tearful when she tells her sister about his hesitation: "he can't be bothered with me. He hardly takes any notice" (5).
Yasha, the servant who has accompanied Madame Ranevsky to France, enters carrying the luggage. When Dunyasha addresses him he looks puzzled until she explains who she is. When he left she was a child. When he recognizes her he embraces her and calls her a "little cucumber," and when he runs after her she squeals in delight.
Meanwhile, Anya tells Barbara that they must tell their mother that the tutor Trophimof is in the house. The sisters recall their father's death six years earlier and the death the year after that of their seven-year-old brother Grisha. This sad event prompted their mother to flee Russia. Anya is worried that the appearance of Trophimof might upset their mother. At this point the elderly Firs, a former serf turned servant, enters talking to himself. He is ecstatic to finally have his mistress Madame Ranevsky home: "My mistress has come home; at last I've seen her. Now I'm ready to die" (6).
At this point, Madame Ranevsky, her brother Gayef, and their neighbors Lopakhin and Pishtchik enter. Gayef is preoccupied with billiards and his conversation is littered with references to the game. Anya leaves to go to bed as Firs happily serves coffee to his grateful mistress. At this point, Barbara bluntly tells the neighbors to go home, but they insist on hanging on to compliment Madame Ranevsky. Lopakhin tells her: "My father was your father's serf, and your grandfather's serf before him . . . I love you like a sister" (8). Beside herself with joy, Madame Ranevsky kisses the furniture. Then her brother Gayef changes the jubilant atmosphere by announcing the deaths that have occurred since they left.
Before he leaves, Lopakhin tells Madame Ranevsky of his plan to save the cherry orchard estate from auction. She must, he insists, cut down the cherry orchard and demolish the house so she can build and sell villas at a profit and thus pay off the interest on her large mortgage. Madame Ranevsky and her brother look befuddled, as if such a suggestion is beyond their ken: "you don't know what you are talking about" (9). Uncomfortable, their other neighbor Pishtchik asks Madame Ranevsky about Paris.
Next, Barbara enters with Yasha, who hands Madame Ranevsky two telegrams from Paris. She rips them up without reading them. Looking around in remembrance, Gayef announces that the cupboard is one hundred years old and then gets on his knees to pay homage to it while he continues to make inane comments about billiards. Everyone is embarrassed. To break the ice, Pishtchik swallows a box of Madame Ranevsky's pills and everyone laughs as Firs mutters incomprehensibly. The governess Charlotte comes in at this point and begins to tease Lopakhin. She refuses to do a magic trick and after saying goodnight is followed by Lopakhin who says he will return in three weeks. He tells Madame Ranevsky if she changes her mind about clearing the land for profitable villas, he can solve her money problems immediately. Pishtchik begs Madame Ranevsky for a loan to pay his mortgage but she has to refuse. As the others go to their beds, Madame Ranevsky and her brother Gayef look at the orchard and fondly remember days gone by: "it shines like silver on moonlit nights . . . you've not forgotten?" (11).
Peter Trophimof, the unkempt tutor, breaks into their reverie when he enters with Barbara. Madame Ranevsky is shocked until she recognizes her son's tutor. She hugs him and begins to cry as thoughts of her dead son rush back and she notices how he has aged. The neighbor Pishtchik and Gayef say goodnight but once more Pishtchik begs Madame Ranevsky for money to make his mortgage payment. Despite her earlier refusal on grounds that she does not have the money, this time she helplessly acquiesces. As the others take their leave, Barbara informs the servant Yasha that his old mother desires to see him and has been waiting since yesterday. Yasha complains and says his mother is a nuisance, after which Barbara calls him an "unnatural son" (13).
Their uncle Gayef next discusses the family's dire financial situation with Barbara and Anya and suggests perhaps that their long-forgotten aunt might provide an economic solution. However, he cautions that the aunt might not give them a loan because their mother, Madame Ranevsky, chose not to marry a nobleman and has led a somewhat less than moral life. After her husband's death, Madame Ranevsky became the mistress of another man. Anya becomes angry because her uncle Gayef has criticized her mother. He is forced to apologize: "Lord save me from myself" (14). Barbara attempts to get her sister Anya to go to bed as the tutor Trophimof watches, muttering after Anya "My sunshine! My spring!" (16).
It is vital to examine the Cherry Orchard's historical background to more fully understand Chekhov's play. It wasn't until 1865 that the centuries old feudal system of serfdom came to an end in Russia and although this momentous historical event occurred about fifteen years prior to the action occurring in Act I, it remains central to the dramatic action. Until this time, almost 50 percent of Russian peasants were tied like slaves to the land. After Czar Alexander II released the serfs in the Emancipation Manifesto a great deal of social change, and oftentimes chaos, resulted. This historical movement can be viewed especially through the character of Lopakhin who, although born a serf, has become a wealthy landowner. And, while his father and grandfather before him were serfs, what some would call slaves, to Madame Ranevsky's family, he now can visit at will the cherry orchard estate as a neighbor. However, despite his new found social status, there are noticeable differences surrounding Lopakhin's class status. While he speaks lightly of his background as a "peasant," it is difficult for the reader to figure out just where Lopakhin stands. Readers should attempt to determine the ambiguity between his words and actions. Is Lopakhin a true friend to the Ranevsky family or is his heart filled with smoldering resentment? It is interesting to view how he treats the nervous servant Dunyasha first as a familiar friend by confiding her a troubling childhood incident with his father, and then later as a social upstart who should remember her place: "you are too refined . . . you should remember your place" (2). In short, Lopakhin illustrates the great social change inherent in Russia's newfound class mobility.
Chekhov's other characters also illustrate the aristocracy's reaction to this major social upheaval. While the serfs have become upwardly mobile, the obverse is apparent in the aristocracy. They seem to be frozen to the point of complete inactivity and thus are forced down the social ladder. Madame Ranevsky has been unable to face reality; the death of her former way of life represented here by the death of her son Grisha forces her to run away from the pain to Paris and allow her estate to decay. Upon her return, she realizes the error of her ways and comes face to face with the fact that she is in imminent danger of losing her estate. However, she is unable to face facts, constantly gives money to people like a benefactress and takes cover in denial: "I am like a little girl, still" (3). Her ability to deny unpleasant facts becomes apparent when her brother Gayef announces that in their absence certain members of the household and friends have died. Nonplussed, Madame Ranevsky exhibits no sorrow and displays more emotion about her furniture than about former friends: "my darling old cupboard!" (8). Simply, she is a woman of excess throwing money around like confetti with no idea of its value and the harm she is doing her family.
Similarly, Madame Ranevsky's brother Gayef whose mind dwells obsessively on billiards, instead of on the real danger of losing his income, represents the decaying Russian aristocracy. Barbara, who unlike her flighty mother runs around like a stern mother jingling an exceptionally full key ring, has been left to control the estate but her hands are tied. She is powerless because her mother continues to spend money as she did when she was younger, when times were very different. Anya, Madame Ranevsky's youngest daughter, is an idealist who sees her mother in the true light of day and realizes the dire financial consequences the family faces. She has seen first hand how Madame Ranevsky has poured out money in Paris, especially upon her undeserving, abusive lover. Both daughters must come to terms with social changes in the entire society if they are to live any semblance of a happy life.
The eighty-seven-year-old servant Firs represents the feudal Russia of the past, when serfs belonged to the landowner like, for instance, a horse. But Firs looks back on his past life as a serf with great longing, barely living life in the foggy present. Indeed, many of his words make absolutely no sense. He has remained a serf in his mind despite Liberation, waiting longingly for the return of his mistress from Paris, while the other freed serf Lopakhin has risen socially to become richer than their former mistress.
Madame Ranevsky and her brother Gayef are in a manner of speaking similar to Firs. They are out of touch with reality and thus cannot conceive of cutting down the cherry orchard because such a thought would be like cutting away their past, even though such an option would insure a comfortable future for them both. They cannot comprehend that they, and their aristocratic way of life, is doomed. Regardless of what they do, the orchard will be cut down to make way for villas built for Russia's emerging middle class. The aristocratic Pishtchik also demonstrates this temporal phenomenon. He, however, is a leech, bleeding others with his charm. Even though he is fully aware of the poor state of Madame Ranevsky's finances, he manipulates her into giving him money she doesn't have because he is aware that she is incapable of saying no. The servant Yasha is also a parasite of sorts. He disregards his old mother who he hasn't seen for five years and thinks only of returning to Paris where he lived high off his mistress. We can feel sure Yasha has pocketed some of this money for himself.
As a dramatist, Chekhov remains highly regarded for his dramatic technique called indirect action, in which the action described in the characters speech does not occur on the stage. The action thus remains indirect. For example, in the opening scene Lopakhin speaks of past occurrences to describe how he has risen like a star in the world while his neighbor Madame Ranevsky has fallen to earth.