Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Visual Representation of the Boundary between Past and Present: Chekhov's the Cherry Orchard and Suzman's the Free State

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Visual Representation of the Boundary between Past and Present: Chekhov's the Cherry Orchard and Suzman's the Free State

Article excerpt


The first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994 marked a definite temporal boundary between the past (the time of apartheid) and the present (the time of democracy). Viljoen and Van der Merwe2 describe the state of South Africa after apartheid as liminal - a state usually associated with postcolonial contexts, as postcolonialism entails social change. Gilbert and Tompkins defme postcolonialism as an "engagement with and contestation of colonialism's discourses, power structures, and social hierarchies,"3 its specifically political agenda being "to dismantle the hegemonic boundaries and the determinants that create unequal relations of power based on binary oppositions."4 In essence, then, postcolonialism is concerned with the dissolving of the boundaries between various binary oppositions such as ?us' vs ?them', ?black' vs ?white', or ?colonized' vs ?colonizer'. Yet, as social change implies the crossing of a boundary between past and present, postcolonialism also creates new boundaries as it dismantles old ones.

While the concept of boundaries is investigated in all genres of (notably postcolonial) literature, drama is a genre which offers interesting possibilities in this regard. Because drama is intended to be performed, it is an audiovisual medium. Spatial or even conceptual boundaries can be explored visually on stage, as Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Janet Suzman's South African adaptation, The Free State, show. This essay aims to investigate how the boundary between past and present is not only described in these plays but also shown visually through enactment and the attempts by the characters to re-create the past.

The Cherry Orchard depicts a Russian noblewoman, Lyubov Ranyevskaya, and her brother, Leonid Gayev, in the process of losing their estate because of their extravagant life-style. After the abolition of serfdom, the Gayev family has to compete economically with the lower classes but are unable to do so, leading to the bankruptcy of their estate. Lopakhin, their peasantbom businessman friend, devises a plan which would save the family's estate, but one that entails the chopping-down of their beloved cherry orchard to make space for a practical housing development. Unable to contemplate the loss of their orchard, the family rejects the plan, thereby losing their estate. Although Lyubov claims to be very attached to the estate, she gave it over to the charge of her adopted daughter, Varya, after her husband died of alcohol abuse and her infant son drowned. The play opens with Lyubov returning to the home of her childhood and youth after an absence of five years. Chekhov uses the medium of theatre to explore the ensuing juxtaposition of past and present, both verbally and visually.

When Suzman transposed this text to the South African context, she meticulously preserved the structure of Chekhov's play. The plot of The Free State is essentially the same as that of The Cherry Orchard, although the setting has been changed from early-twentieth-century Russia to post-apartheid South Africa. Lyubov Ranyevskaya becomes Lulu Rademeyer, who, with her brother, Leo Guyver, is not prepared to cut down her cherry orchard in order to save her estate. Leko Lebaka, their black businessman friend, then buys the land at auction, after various failed attempts to persuade the family to divide their land into plots to be leased out. As whites, Lulu and Leo can no longer enjoy the benefits of apartheid, and need to compete for business and employment opportunities on the same footing as those the apartheid government once regarded as inferior. Although Suzman keeps to Chekhov's structure in her text, she reduces his visual juxtaposition between past and present. However, she adds certain elements to the play which are specifically relevant to the postcolonial context, such as a preoccupation with politics and the symbolic significance of the farm.

Social change in Russia and South Africa

Although Chekhov's Russia is not considered a postcolonial context, it is a place concerned with a similar boundary between past and present, as serfdom had been abolished the year after Chekhov's birth5 although the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, which marked the end of the Romanov dynasty and Imperial Russia, happened only thirteen years after his death in 1904. …

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