A bar as a stage curtain, which cuts across and structures the space. A cushion, filled with cherry pits. A ghost light, which watches over the room when no one is around and the other lights are off. A costume, which could be as much a work uniform as a scrap of wallflower. These are the elements that Anaïs Wenger borrows from the realm of theatre to compose her Tragédie Moyenne (average tragedy). But how can a curtain, a pillow, a lamp, and a costume turn into a tragedy, however average? What meanings these objects convey, what story do they tell? It is the story of a revolution: the one that, slow but relentless, engulfs the lives of the characters in Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard, staged for the first time on the 17th of January 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre, under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavski and within sets designed by Victor Simov.
The staging took place one year after the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, emerged as an autonomous political faction from the RSDLP, after splitting from the Mensheviks; eight years before the formation of the Bolsheviks’ party; thirteen years before the October Revolution, that is, the proletarian insurrection, which overthrew the tzarist regime and led the Bolsheviks to seize power and establish a new socio-political order. All of this, about half a century after the abolition of the feudal and serfdom systems in Russia: a historical event that paved the way to the decline of aristocracy and the long-running uprising that was making its way gradually (and invisibly for some), while Chekhov was writing his play and Stanislavski was staging it. For this reason, perhaps, the play itself is pregnant with revolution, of which the mysterious strident sound of a breaking violin string that punctuates the second and fourth acts bears the omen.
Revealingly, the 1861 emancipation of serfs is evoked twice in the play, both times by the decrepit and loyal manservant Firs. With his senile ramblings, the latter personifies the decay of the old order into muttering madness. At his side, a number of symbolic agents of social change walk the scene: decadent aristocrats, emancipated maids and serfs, a nouveau-riche merchant, a student and revolutionary, anonymous officials, a stranger. Through their dialogues (which rather sound like soliloquies, symptomatic of the fundamental incommunicability between the parties), the play dramatizes the socioeconomic forces making terms in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. It conjures, almost prophetically, the revolt those forces unleashed, materialized by the final cutting of the cherry orchard: an epitome of the disgraced landowners’ ancient splendour, which ends up being sold in order to pay off their debts and eventually destroyed. By extension, the felling of the orchard is a symbol of social change at large and, ultimately, of the impending Revolution.
Yet, no rampaging insurgency is staged in The Cherry Orchard. It is rather a matter of social processes, nearly imperceptible in terms of action on the reduced time scale of the play. In the latter, kings and queens, gods and heroes, with whom the former ruling class used to identify, are supplanted by ordinary characters standing for different social classes. Destiny and Fate are replaced by more or less trivial manifestations of regime shifts and class struggle. Sensational action gives way to the absence of facts, giving the impression that nothing is happening at all, apart from the felling of the cherry orchard in the end of the play. It is an average tragedy, indeed: moderate, middle-size, modest, mediocre even. With Chekhov and Stanislavski, in other words, theatre becomes a way to stage social change and its morphing power structures. Comically, according to Chekhov; tragically according to Stanislavski. And everything in it contributes to the pursuit of this aim, curtains and lamps and costumes included. Props and scenic devices are there to render acting as natural and the scene as plausible as possible, contributing to the suspension of the audience’s incredulity, while participating symbolically in the construction of meaning. This becomes all the more evident in the fourth and final act of the play, when the family of landowners leaves its former estate, the felling of the cherry orchard begins, and old Firs, left behind by his masters, let himself die on the sofa, murmuring. This is the moment upon which Anaïs Wenger takes action.
Looking at Tragédie Moyenne with The Cherry Orchard in mind, indeed, it appears that the exhibition has been conceived by Wenger as an extension of the play’s fourth and final act and, in particular, of its staging directed by Stanislavski on 17th January 1904. It is an extension in time and space, but also an extension of its symbolic layout, for the artist makes abstraction of the scenic elements envisioned by Chekhov and designed by Simov, intensifying their allegorical scope. If the extension in time is fairly clear, the conceptual work done on space and on the symbolic construction underlying the play is more complex.
On the one hand, the curtain that cuts diagonally across La Placette recalls the set designed by Simov for the fourth act of Chekhov’s play. There, the audience, instead of sitting and watching the scene from behind an invisible wall (the customary “fourth wall” of bourgeois theatre, still in use today) was placed in the corner of a fictional space, created by rotating the stage diagonally across the room. This spatial arrangement, echoed in Wenger’s installation, was intended to problematize the very notion of the “fourth wall”: not to break it, but rather to intensify the emotional involvement and increase the empathy of the reception. Ultimately, the scenographic device suggested a breach in the closed scheme of the bourgeois living-room, breaking out of the claustrophobic interior of the house, only to transpose the scene to the equally claustrophobic exterior of the Russian world. By retracing this pattern and recalling its history, the curtain hanging across Tragédie Moyenne induces a reflection on the narrative agency of space and its structures on those who dwell in it.
On the other hand, the objects composing Wenger’s installation operate symbolically, as both metaphors and metonymies of the tropes and props envisaged by Chekov in the script. The work uniform, made of the same material of the wallflower, recalls the process of identification between Firs and the couch on which he lays and dies, evoking metaphorically the objectification of the worker. The very sofa on which moribund First lays, eventually fading into it, seems to represent the fulfilment of the servant’s destiny: that of forever being an object among objects. The cushion conceived by Wenger functions as a synecdoche of that very couch, as well as of the cherry orchard, for it contains cherry pits that have been heated before the beginning of the opening and left to cool during the evening―like the ashes of a burnt tree trunk or the dead body of Firs. By extension, it evokes the decline of aristocracy and the end of the related social system. In line with the cushion, the curtain metaphorically crystallizes social change. In fact, what comes down at the end of Chekhov’s play, preceded by the returning strident sound of a breaking violin string, is not only a curtain falling on the scene: it is the axe falling on the trunks of the cherry trees, or the cherry trees falling themselves. Ultimately, it conjures a revolution to come: the light that comes on once the curtain falls.
Tragically, Stanislavski would say; comically, Chekhov would rebut.