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The play Chekhov wrote about Israel and Palestine

Anton Chekhov (artist unknown)

In one week I will be leaving my post as theatre critic for the newspaper Israel Hayom. I may write about the stage again, but so far no one has asked for my services and my final days in the position feel much like a last bow.

I am at risk of being, in the words of the world’s greatest playwright: “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no longer”. Thus, I felt it important to choose well what would be my last play to review. The choice fell on Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard”, a production of Jerusalem’s Khan theatre.

There were two reasons for this. First: the Khan is the only theatre in Israel that hadn’t truly let me down even once, through my days of reviewing. Yes, a few of the shows were weaker than others, but none was a true disappointment and often, as in the case of Pinter’s “New World Order”, the more difficult they were, the more worthwhile.

The other reason is that “The Cherry Orchard” is, in the simple and direct words of my dear fellow critic Zvi Goren: “a play about Israel.”

How so? please follow a brief synopsis. As the curtain rises, we watch the grand manor house of Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya filling up with her and her entourage. Madame Ranevskaya (portrayed with much finesse and power at the Khan by Leora Rivlin) left to Paris after the tragic death of her son. She lived there with a French lover, but soon ran out of funds, being simply horrible with money. Now she returns to her home, her beloved, longed-for, home.

However, her lack of fiscal talent threatens to destroy that home. The manor house is in serious debt and is to be sold at an auction. Madame Ranevskaya and her brother Leonid are enormously attached to every object around them. Leonid literally speaks to one of the bookcases in second person singular, expressing his reverance towards it. More than anything else they both love the estate’s grand cherry orchard, but love won’t save that orchard from being sold.

What would save it? Yermolai Lopakhin, a neighbor whose father was a serf on the same estate, has an idea: If the family agreed to have the estate split into four, the cherry orchard cut down and the house demolished, and if they then agreed to have four vacation houses erected on the grounds, well, then they could easily get a new loan. It would allow them to buy their own property at the auction and will easily be paid back by the vacation homes’ rent.

Spoiler: this doesn’t happen. The emotional attachment to the past, to the land, to the sacred objects, is simply too great. Madame Ranevskaya sends her brother and Lupakhin to the auction and throws a great party while they’re gone. As the band plays and everyone gets drunk, she loses all that she ever owned. Lupakhin himself buys the estate and takes the ax on the cherry trees, avenging, in a way, the harsh treatment suffered by his serf ancestors.

Mr. Goren’s comment makes perfect sense. This is all about us. If we remain too attached to our ideal vision of our country and not allow it to be split-up or to otherwise change, we will lose everything. We may sing and dance and be merry as the house goes to the dogs, but to the dogs it shall go, taking its very fine theatres with it. I’d rather write a review of the Khan than a lament. So let’s please take Mr. Chekhov warning seriously.

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    1. Sorry to hear that allowing the original owners of I/P, the Palestinians, to recover a (small) part of their homeland can best be expressed as letting Israel “go to the dogs”, a perhaps rather dogged form of words.

      Otherwise, and even so, this is a very apt analysis.

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    2. I was hoping not to be misunderstood. “going to the dogs” would be the opposite of giving the Palestinians their share. In my eyes, sharing the land through a pragmatic solution that involves compromise can be likened to splitting the estate and building the vacation homes.

      The family in the play refuses to compromise. We refuse to compromise. The result may be a terrible war or some other form of “going to the dogs”. In a way, we’re going to the dogs already by allowing our moral fabric to deteriorate through maintaining the occupation.

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