Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

Mayakovsky intends the audience to answer Pobedonosikov’s question, in their own minds if not aloud, with a resounding “Yes!” Each of the six acts ridicules in a different way the bureaucracy’s usurpation of control over both social goals and individual lives. The growth of bureaucracy in the late 1920’s resulted...

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Mayakovsky intends the audience to answer Pobedonosikov’s question, in their own minds if not aloud, with a resounding “Yes!” Each of the six acts ridicules in a different way the bureaucracy’s usurpation of control over both social goals and individual lives. The growth of bureaucracy in the late 1920’s resulted from two elements in Soviet society. First, Marxist-Leninist ideology encouraged the formation of numerous people’s soviets, committees, unions, and congresses in all areas of life: health services, transportation, the arts, industry, and housing. Second, the Communist Party’s desire to control these decision-making groups led to the establishment of parallel party organizations within these committees, unions, and congresses. The result was a complex, multitiered, ponderous machinery of government, which had the power to approve or disapprove everything but did not have the responsibility to produce anything.

The Bathhouse thus portrays the creative energies of socialist workers—who are represented in Chudakov, Velosipedkin, and the Phosphorescent Woman—wrestling with a stifling bureaucratic system, embodied in the character of Bureau Chief Pobedonosikov and his minions. Mayakovsky’s presentation of the conflict is as much journalistic as it is literary, for the problem was current and crucial; it needed immediate rather than leisurely response.

Chudakov, Velosipedkin, and the Phosphorescent Woman represent the virtues and values of the good socialist citizen. They do not hesitate to work hard. They look forward to the future when the benefits for which they fought the October Revolution—social equality, economic sufficiency, and political harmony—will be enjoyed by all comrades. Chudakov’s time machine is both the image of their goal and their realization that modern-day socialism is still evolving and maturing.

Pobedonosikov, Optimistenko, and the other officials prove that bureaucracy tends to obstruct the efforts of hard-working citizens and to reward itself instead. Pobedonosikov’s title, Chief of the Bureau of Coordination, neatly captures the difficulty in a phrase. His title does not specify whom or what he coordinates or why coordination is necessary, yet it gives him authority that seems to be all encompassing. Incomprehensible purpose wedded to unquestionable power is a recipe for the return of tyranny. Given the right to make decisions without the obligation to achieve a goal or the responsibility to answer to anyone, Pobedonosikov attends only to his self-aggrandizement. In public he delights in the show of power: Citizens must wait in long lines to see him, artists create furniture and pictures to decorate his office, and he flaunts his salary and fringe benefits. Pobedonosikov is no less a petty tyrant in personal relationships: He betrays his wife, exploits his “stenographer,” and torments his typist.

Mayakovsky presents neither the good citizens nor the bad bureaucrats as individuals. Both groups represent characteristics of society, some of which he believed passionately in and some of which he deeply hated. Mayakovsky loudly boasted of his sympathies and animadversions in the poems and plays prior to The Bathhouse. He had no reason to hide them in this play. He once explained his choice of title by describing his play as a bathhouse designed to wash bureaucrats just as a Turkish bath washes its customers. With steam, hot water, and rough massage, it attacks the layers of dust and dirt.

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