Last night I watched the film adaptation of Anton Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’, recalling a similar play staged in Singapore but adapted to China, the same tale of a wealthy family’s decline, a particular Russian specialty, recalling the fate of the Romanov dynasty, due more to revolution but also to mismanagement or wrong decisions or profligacy by the family head. There is a strain of fatalism and romanticism in these stories; destiny foretells their decline, their natures placing them in a path of destruction, unable to bend the arc of their fate. Is this the same for families everywhere, as parents grow old and continue on their way, their offspring bewildered, scattered all over the world, unable to find a narrative that can sustain the story of the clan. When did the road turn to disaster? Was it the fault of the matriarch, sheltering children instead of throwing them to the wind, to find their place in the world, but instead kept in familial embrace, distorting their independence and growth like in the film ‘Failure to Launch’ starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey. Sometimes wealth, even meager fortunes, can distort characters, spare money spent indulgently, corrupting sensible thinking.
To be Russian means to be a romantic, to ponder the tragedy of the Tsars, or the Romanovs, the collapse of the Communist dream, lost fortunes, forlorn dreams and illusions, of failed revolutions. It is also the story of family, the decline of clans and their affluence, the rapture caused by change. Similar to the collapse of the sugar trade in Negros, the play of generations as the dream of the elderly vanish into illusions, the twilight of old age. In a way, the Russian story is similar to the German story, with Wagner’s twilight of the gods, the fall of the Nazis, the trauma of the world wars. There is despair in the soul, unlike the optimism of the French or the English or the Americans, where providence seems to shine in abundance. Perhaps it is the protestant ethic, the hard edge accounting, where the puritan reigns in terms of currency, though extravagant in all else. The French had their revolution, but they also had Napoleon to bring back their mojo, unlike the Germans who had Hitler and the Russian had their Stalin. In Chekov’s play, the orchard is lost, like the fall of the Soviet empire, and perhaps Ukraine as their leaders lean westward to Europe, a tragedy the Russian in the Kremlin hope to avoid, like losing the orchard to the newly rich.
Each family have their own orchard, the old family home, crumbling and decrepit, their inhabitants long gone except the elderly, living in a dream of a beautiful past, imprisoned in memories like the old butler left behind inside the old house in Chekov’s play. The orchard can also be a dream no longer valid, like the illusions of an aging playboy, or a penniless aristocrat, clinging to hope no longer there. Or perhaps it is a failure of optimism, missing the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, the Englishman in the Hindu desert in full regalia drinking tea, or in the African jungle, the optimism of both Roosevelt fighting against all odds. Perhaps it is the failure of the imagination that is at stake here, an imagination that has reason and one verging in insanity. Churchill had imagination to fight against the Nazi hordes while the heroine in Chekov’s play was living a false hope similar to Blanche in Tennessee William’s ‘A Streetcar named Desire’, on the verge of dementia. In a way, it is the story of aging, when one needs to accept the onset of time, as one’s bones start to creak, one heart ages, or muscles decay, the mind forgets and old dreams remain, hopefully to be picked up by the young so a new journey takes place, bringing the torch to a distant land, and fulfil the hopes of those who have passed.