Mikhail Bulgakov Essay - Critical Essays

Mikhail Bulgakov Drama Analysis

Like most playwrights living during a pivotal historical epoch, Mikhail Bulgakov used his artistic talents to write satires and what can only be called historical plays. His major themes recur throughout his work: a condemnation of hypocrisy and dishonesty, a depiction of individuals caught in social and political turbulence, and a portrayal of the cruelty and arbitrariness of authority. Despite the intrinsic seriousness of these issues, Bulgakov’s treatment of them invariably includes humor. This humor, stemming from several sources, is quite varied. Dominant sometimes is dialogue rife with wit, or comically mechanical caricatures, or the extreme absurdity of situation. Yet always present is the tension between the seriousness and the comedy, the tension of the ongoingness of human existence.

With the exception of plays such as A Cabal of Hypocrites, in which a central character is featured, Bulgakov focuses on groups of characters and the changing relationships within the group as it is subjected to external change. Examples of this kind of focus would include the family and friends in Days of the Turbins, who must confront a political situation that changes almost hourly, and the group of soldiers and refugees in Flight, who must adapt not only to a changing political climate but also to constant changes in locale. These characters are distinguished by their adaptability, their resiliency; not really heroic (there is no King Lear among them), they are prepared to compromise, for their struggle is not to maintain their individual essence in a world with which they are at odds, but merely to get by, to survive, in a world that is so mutable that comprehension of it seems to be out of the question. In this sense, Bulgakov is a modern playwright indeed.

Days of the Turbins

It is no fluke that Bulgakov is known best as a playwright for his first major play, Days of the Turbins; it is his best play. Here, he has created individualized characters with whom the audience sympathizes, characters who are not merely mouthpieces for political statements or present merely for the opportunity to comment on particular situations. Though the novel on which the play is based is sweeping in scope and episodic in structure, the play itself is tightly structured, the first three acts depicting two days’ action and the final act providing a kind of epilogue.

The significant plot events occur during act 2 and act 3. Here, the demise of the German-supported regime of the Ukranian nationalist Hetman is depicted from three distinct perspectives: from the general headquarters at the Hetman’s palace (act 2, scene 1); from the headquarters of opposing cavalry commander Bolbotun, whose forces are closing in on Kiev (act 2, scene 2); and from the more personal perspective of Alexei Turbin’s command post, as the young colonel must react to the fact that the battle is lost before it has begun (act 3, scene 1). The pervading chaos in the first of these scenes at the Hetman’s palace is typically Bulgakovian. The personable Shervinsky arrives at his post to perform his role as duty officer, only to learn that the officer he is replacing has already deserted his post. Then, rapidly, the Germans announce their withdrawal, the Hetman and his commanding officers flee in disguise, Shervinsky exchanges his uniform for civilian dress, and capping the chaos, he abandons the headquarters to the comic peasant Fyodor. When the scene shifts to the opposing camp, the audience glimpses the barbarity and cruelty in store for the citizens of Kiev when the city is taken by Bolbotun. In act 3, scene 1, Alexei Turbin, who knows that his two hundred untrained troops are the final defense against this brutality and that he has already been deserted by the Germans and the Ukrainian generals, decides to disband his troops in order to save their lives. The scene is filled with mutinies, random shots in the dark, and confusion, and it ends with Alexei’s death, as the transition of power is completed.

If these scenes offer events that are both historically significant and structurally central to the action, they are finally less important in the context of the play than those scenes that come before and after them, for in Bulgakov’s drama, it is usually the characters’ reaction to the events, rather than the events themselves, that merits full attention. Framing the military scenes are scenes in the Turbin apartment, which serves as a bulwark against the chaos of the Civil War. In the first act, the apartment is a gathering place for friends and family, and, if it has a chaotic atmosphere of its own, it is a chaos of gaiety—drinking, singing, eating, and illicit flirtation. As a succession of characters enters the apartment to escape the cold outside, it becomes clear that the apartment provides more than warmth and shelter. It provides an escape from the pending destruction outside and a preservation of the old society, with the only female character, the charming Elena, at its hub. Lariosik, a cousin visiting in search of a safe harbor, sums up the shared feeling, “the cream-colored curtain . . . behind them you can rest your soul . . . you forget about all the horrors of the Civil War.”

Politically, the assembly in the Turbin apartment is for Russia, a Russia that probably no longer exists outside its walls, and opposed to all the powers contesting for control. Though the men are fighting for the Hetman, they cannot drink his toast, and the only toast on which they can agree is to the health of Elena. In Bulgakov’s plays, authority is nearly always presented negatively, at its best bungling and cowardly, at its worst arbitrary and brutal.

After the central political events, the characters return to the apartment, this time to hide, and the cream-colored curtains provide a different kind of refuge. With Alexei dead and young Nikolai wounded, the tone changes from gaiety to seriousness, and the men bicker over their courage...

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