That Which Is Lost: 'The Cherry Orchard' & 'The Winter's Tale'

By O'Reilly, Mollie Wilson | Commonweal, March 13, 2009 | Go to article overview

That Which Is Lost: 'The Cherry Orchard' & 'The Winter's Tale'


O'Reilly, Mollie Wilson, Commonweal


The third act of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale contains what may be the most famous stage direction in English-language drama: "Exit, pursued by a bear." The character making this unfortunate exit is Antigonus, a courtier who has just fulfilled his commission to abandon the infant Perdita in the wilderness of Bohemia. "Poor wretch," he laments over the child, "That for thy mother's fault art thus exposed / To loss and what may follow!" The sudden appearance of the bear following this speech is only one of the challenges of interpreting The Winter's Tale. Like the surprise bear attack, the play itself is an unsettling mix of comedy and tragedy.

In staging The Winter's Tale for the Bridge Project--an American-British collaboration now beginning its world tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music--director Sam Mendes (who also directed the films American Beauty and Revolutionary Road) answers the challenge of the bear scene with typically impish invention. There is no "pursuit," and we never see Antigonus "exit": the bear--an actor in a bearskin costume--lumbers onstage behind his oblivious victim and looms there throughout Antigonus's farewell address to the infant. There is a flash of "lightning" as the animal closes in, followed by darkness (which obscures both actors' exits). The hulking ursine figure is at once ridiculous and haunting, and Mendes's staging allows these competing impressions to play out together.

The busy, fantastical plot of The Winter's Tale sets it in stark contrast to the other half of the Bridge Project's double bill, Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (in a new translation by Tom Stoppard). Where the characters of The Writer's Tale suffer from impetuosity, Chekhov's pre-Revolutionary Russians are undone by their tragic failure to act. But, like The Winter's Tale, this last play of Chekhov's combines humor and pathos, often in the same moment. Setting the two works side by side, on the same stage and with the same cast, draws them into a rewarding conversation--one that is enriched, and occasionally obscured, by Mendes's boldly theatrical direction.

The productions are stitched together by a Shakespearean epigraph projected onto the set at the start of each: "O call back yesterday, bid time return." (Bringing in a third text, Richard II, as a means of interpreting these two is the kind of overreach Mendes seems unable to resist.) Both The Cherry Orchard and The Writer's Tale are suffused with longing for the past: in Chekhov's play, a family of Russian gentry reunite at their estate just as it is about to go up for auction to cover their debts. Retaining ownership would require leveling the cherished orchard to lease plots of land to middle-class weekenders. But the upper-class characters are hopelessly attached to the past, and the members of the servant class (epitomized by the faithful, elderly steward Firs) are nearly as dependent on the outmoded system of patronage and service. Everyone takes refuge in denial except the ambitious Lopakhin, a peasant's son who heeds his own advice and buys the estate out from under the astonished owners.

The attitude toward the past in The Winter's Tale is more complex than the hopeless nostalgia of The Cherry Orchard. Though Shakespeare's characters long for simpler times, they make the difficult journey through sin and suffering to redemption. Mistakenly convinced that his queen, Hermione, has been unfaithful, the jealous King Leontes imprisons her, turns on the king of Bohemia (his imagined rival), causes his own son's death, and banishes his infant daughter. He sends for an "oracle" that he expects will confirm the righteousness of his actions. Instead, the oracle declares him "a jealous tyrant" and proclaims, "The king shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found." Only after the death of his son and the apparent death of Hermione does Leontes recognize his guilt, and he devotes himself immediately to penitence: "Once a day I'll visit / The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there / Shall be my recreation. …

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