Ranevskaya and the deadly burden of the cherry orchard

I’m fascinated at the moment by what the therapist, and I’d say philosopher, Judith Hemming calls group conscience. She’s interviewed by Robert Rowland Smith in Robert’s new project on innovation. Roughly, the idea is that we spend much of our lives serving our belonging to groups.

‘Most of what counts as identity is actually to do with the relational dynamics that hold us and summon us and push us and drive us,’ she explains. ‘It is more relevant and interesting to study the forces around us and the nature of the forces around us than it is to home in, as individualism has encouraged us to do, to home in on the individual.’

For many, the most powerful group that we belong to is the family, though a country, belief or organisation can similarly shape a life. ‘The group is much more influential on us than the strong emphasis on the individual has allowed us to see,’ Hemming continues. Her therapeutic practice, called constellations, aims in part to help people see how the groups they belong to impact them. It can be a painful process as well as a challenging one as it conflicts with the freedom we tend to think we enjoy as individuals. However, acknowledging what is, is ultimately a liberating experience as it means we can draw from our belonging, rather than struggling to bear it.

The process, and what can go wrong, is well displayed in Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard, currently at the National Theatre. Seeing it at the weekend, it came across to me as a study in such group family entanglements.

To cut to the chase: Ranevskaya, the landowner, must sell the cherry orchard to pay her family debts. It’s ostensibly a financial matter, though when we learn that the wealth the cherry orchard supplied was bought on the back of serf labour, it becomes clear that another kind of debt is being paid. Her life has been paid for by the lives of others. Their deaths seal a bond between her and the serfs. This is the group to which she belongs and out of an unconscious loyalty to those who have died, she too is drawn to death in life.

That this is the fundamental problem Ranevskaya faces is suggested by the details that emerge during the play. For one thing, she has tried to kill herself. Another recurrent feature is that the men closest to her make a habit of dying. She takes husbands/lovers who drink and gamble themselves to destruction.

Then, there is her son who died by drowning. She is unable to mourn this loss: though he died five years before, she is still readily and swiftly prompted to tears by it. Under the group reading of the situation, what she has not been able to do is mourn the losses of all those others who have died. The deaths immediately around her are the way that the long dead haunt her with the debt she owes.

Ranevskaya is even unable to hold onto the money she gains from the orchard. Hence, her parlous financial state. Though consciously she identifies the orchard with her youth, it is as if, unconsciously, she knows that the orchard is the cause of her unhappiness and she wants to give it away.

A moment of truth comes in the voice of the socialist Trofimov, who complains that the orchard prevents him running away with Anya, Ranevskaya’s daughter. It holds them back, he observes. They are tied to it. Though he doesn’t complete the thought, the death/debt owed to the serfs and the land blocks what would flow between them too.

That the burden passes down the generations is evident in another stuck relationship as well, between Varya, Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter, and the man who loves her and, by marriage, could save the family estate as he has money. But she is literally unable to speak to him of her love for him. It is as if her family must pay the debt at their expense, not marry their way out of it.

The tragedy is complete when at the end, Firs dies on stage, remarking that life is over and he has not lived. That, in a way, is a comment on all the family’s lives. Because they have not been able to face the group truth of their life, they have tragically and unwittingly given their lives to pay the debt of their family conscience that drew its life from those of the serfs.