Critical Context

An earlier Mayakovsky play, Klop (pr. 1929; The Bedbug, 1960), had the goal, in Mayakovsky’s words, of “unmasking the bourgeoisie of today.” Set both in 1929 and in an efficient (but strangely unappealing) socialist future, the satirical play was successfully performed. The Bathhouse did not fare as well. Although Vladimir Lenin himself, father of the Bolshevik Revolution, warned of the dangers of bureaucracy, The Bathhouse mounted such a savage attack on governmental bureaucracy that it offended much of its audience when first produced. Audiences viewed it stonily, as if they did not understand. Critics reviewed it harshly, understanding only too well its satire on the current state of the nation. Mayakovsky said publicly that he would try to fix it, but he changed nothing. Despondent over the failure of The Bathhouse as well as over events in his personal life, Mayakovsky committed suicide only three months after its initial production. Since that time, the play has gained significant recognition.

Technically the play is typically Mayakovsky. Its outward appearances are as unconventional as much of his previous work in poetry and drama was. His verse scatters words across a page; if other poets fit words together to express an idea, Mayakovsky separates them to express an idea. His drama collects elements from many sources (politics, history, literature, religion) and mimics the varied ways that people assemble (in rallies, on public transportation, at parties). Mayakovsky was a tireless experimenter who used literature to confront readers. He did not wish to amuse them, entertain them, or educate them; he wanted to provoke them into action.

Thematically The Bathhouse represents Mayakovsky’s divergence from the path along which the Soviet Union was headed. An activist before the October Revolution, a tireless propagandist during the Revolution and Civil War, Mayakovsky cared more for action than for ideology. As the Communist Party solidified its control of the nation in the 1920’s and proclaimed ideological conformity to be the ultimate civic virtue, Mayakovsky found himself increasingly on the fringe. To him revolution was heroic; it freed the individual from the chains of custom and habit. To his contemporaries revolution became increasingly hollow; it was only lip service paid to social ideals to hide the crafty accumulation of comforts and possessions.