Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1061
The play opens in the cluttered basement workshop of Comrade Chudakov. He and Foskin busy themselves with blueprints and scientific equipment. Velosipedkin enters and teasingly asks if the inventor Chudakov has yet to change the course of the river Volga. Chudakov responds by advising Velosipedkin to throw away his watch, explaining that he has invented a machine to travel across time. Velosipedkin and Foskin speculate about how to make money with such a device.
As Chudakov expresses disgust with their attitude, an English visitor enters, accompanied by a bureaucrat, an interpreter, and a reporter. The visiting Mr. Pont Kich is anxious to see the latest triumph of Soviet science. Gladly Chudakov explains the principles behind his device, but later Velosipedkin chides him for failing to realize that Kich is likely a Western spy—to be safe, Velosipedkin picked Kich’s pocket of a notebook. The visitor is immediately forgotten, however, when Polya enters. With her husband Pobedonosikov, the nation’s most important bureaucrat, she lives in an apartment above the workshop. Polya brings money—surreptitiously given to her by Pobedonosikov’s own bookkeeper—for parts for the time machine. After Foskin fetches the parts, Chudakov activates the machine for a test. There is a loud noise and a cloud of smoke: The test is a success. Inside the previously empty machine lies a cryptic piece of paper from the future. Interpreting this letter as a warning that the machine occupies a spot where some future catastrophe will happen, Chudakov pleads for his friends’ help in securing government money and manpower to elevate the machine to empty, safe air.
Act 2 occurs at Pobedonosikov’s office. Outside his door (on which is posted a sign, “If you haven’t been announced, don’t come in!”), his aide Optimistenko keeps at bay a long line of petitioners. Chudakov and Velosipedkin rush in. Ignoring the waiting line, they confront the chief’s assistant. To their momentary delight, Optimistenko immediately replies that a decision has already been made about their request. Their hopes are shattered by his next sentence: “It is rejected.”
On the other side of the door Pobedonosikov dictates a memo filled with revolutionary sentiment hamstrung by bureaucratic procedures. He pauses momentarily to accept delivery of a Louis Quatorze sofa; appropriately the hammer and sickle replaces aristocratic gilt along its arms and over its fabric. He pauses again to consult with a painter about his official portrait; the artist’s commission will be paid by the chief’s grateful employees. Suddenly his bookkeeper enters and announces that funds are short. Though the bookkeeper has gambled away some government money, he reminds Pobedonosikov in a whisper that the chief has also benefited from financial irregularities—such as extra travel funds for a “stenographer” on business trips. The scene fades as Chudakov and Velosipedkin futilely argue with the immovable Optimistenko.
For the third act, the stage is filled with theater seats facing the audience. Characters from the first two acts sit down and stare at the audience. The director of the play enters to ask what they are doing. The characters vehemently object to their assigned roles. Pobedonosikov thinks, for instance, that the bureau chief is too undignified for onstage portrayal. The reporter complains that the play fails to fulfill the purpose of socialist art: to uplift the audience with ideals and aspirations. Apparently convinced, the director offers to rewrite the script and stages an impromptu pantomime as a demonstration of his solidarity with the Revolution. The director choreographs a ballet depicting Labor’s triumph over Capital. An unexpected disturbance breaks out as Velosipedkin fights his way past an usher to sit beside Pobedonosikov. The Young Communist pleads Chudakov’s case for new funds and additional personnel. Annoyed by the interruption which reminds them to return to the play, the characters vacate their seats.
Act 4 begins outside Pobedonosikov’s apartment. Suitcase in hand for a trip with his “stenographer,” the bureau chief tries to leave. Jealously Polya restrains him. Pobedonosikov breaks free, but on the stairs he runs into Chudakov and his helpers carrying the time machine up to the roof. Pobedonosikov returns to Polya and suggests that she go find his gun—and use it on herself. Seconds later a shot rings out just as an explosion obscures the time machine. From the swirling smoke emerges the Phosphorescent Woman, who announces that she comes from the year 2030. She hands the bewildered Pobedonosikov a mandate. The chief greets her as a fellow bureaucrat and hypocritically embraces Chudakov as his scientific protégé.
Act 5 reveals the content of the mandate. At Pobedonosikov’s office a new sign hangs: “Bureau for Selection and Transfer to the Age of Communism.” Now it is Pobedonosikov’s turn to talk his way past Optimistenko as the Phosphorescent Woman conducts interviews in the chief’s old office. Addressing potential transferees, she describes the perfect communist society of the future that their heroic efforts now—amid shortages and inconveniences—will produce. She intends to bring the best workers among them into the golden age of the next century by using Chudakov’s machine. Among the deserving candidates are Pobedonosikov’s wife and his secretary-typist; both have been exploited. When the Phosphorescent Woman speaks with the chief, his conversation baffles her. It is filled with complaints about others, denials of responsibility, and requests for privilege.
The final act returns to Chudakov’s basement, where passengers are loading for the trip to the next century. Velosipedkin leads forward a large crowd waving placards and singing“Time Marches On.” Their song boisterously celebrates socialism’s relentless march toward victory. At the last moment Optimistenko and Pobedonosikov fall into old habits: The assistant wants a dining car added to the vehicle, and the chief refuses to stand for the whole trip. (Chudakov’s reminder that the voyage will take only a second makes no impression.) Pobedonosikov causes further delay by demanding space for his luggage, hunting dogs and rifles, and briefcases full of documents. Impulsively he tries to assert authority over the machine and begins dictating a memo. In unison the other passengers cast Pobedonosikov and his assistant from the time machine at the same moment Chudakov throws a switch. The time vehicle disappears. The stunned bureaucrats are left alone onstage. As the curtain falls, Pobedonosikov wonders aloud: “Are people like me of no use to Communism?”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510
Mayakovsky’s plan to steam-clean Soviet bureaucrats is a modern version of the satirist’s ancient ambition. Like his predecessors Aristophanes, Ben Jonson, and Molière in theatrical satire, Mayakovsky aims to improve human beings by exposing their viciousness and ridiculing their follies. Realizing that viciousness and folly are deeply entrenched in this case, Mayakovsky approaches exposure and ridicule in imaginative, unconventional ways. Only by violating the audience’s normal expectations of a play can Mayakovsky hope to communicate to it his own strong indignation.
The play’s subtitle suggests the imaginative unconventionality and unconventional imagination from which Mayakovsky constructs the play. “A Drama in Six Acts with a Circus and Fireworks” is a theatrical conundrum, paradox, impossibility. A drama ought to have five acts, not six. It should create highly individual characters, not embodiments of social tendencies. It should have a clear resolution, not an inconclusive outcome split between present and future. Nevertheless, The Bathhouse has dramatic elements: it has love, sex, greed, crime, and heroism—all the staples of theatrical plot lines.
However, it has other qualities that Mayakovsky hints at in the phrase “with a circus and fireworks.” As the bathhouse is not literally present in the play, neither is a circus or a fireworks display. The Bathhouse itself, though, is a circus and fireworks. It is as much spectacle as it is drama; Mayakovsky treats the stage as a platform. Rebelling against the nineteenth century convention that the stage is a room whose wall the audience can look through, Mayakovsky treats the stage as a platform raised above the spectator’s eye level. To keep the audience’s attention focused upward, the dramatist must use striking sound effects and create unexpected visual impressions.
The characters’ names themselves are sound effects. Pobedonosikov (“nose for winning”), Chudakov (“wonderful strangeness”), and Velosipedkin (“fast moving”) recall at every repetition the central quality of its owner. Each character has his or her own dialect: Optimistenko gives petitioners bad news with cheerful insincerity, Pont Kich speaks elegant, incomprehensible English, and the Phosphorescent Woman bluntly challenges all cant and jargon. The dialogue varies from set speeches to the rapid exchange of phrases; its climax is a choral ode, “Time Marches On,” sung by the transferees to the future. On Mayakovsky’s platform exists a marketplace of sounds constantly rich and stimulating.
Mayakovsky strives for strong visual impressions. The Phosphorescent Woman, a symbol of socialist perfection, shines like no citizen of 1930 can. Mayakovsky creates memorable visual tableaux: actors seated in the theater chairs facing the audience seated in theater chairs (act 3), a bifurcated stage (act 2) where action takes place with dancelike precision on alternate sides of Pobedonosikov’s door, and the explosions of the time machine that bring the Phosphorescent Woman suddenly onstage and later whisk the transferees away. Perhaps the best visual effect is invisible: the time machine itself. There are no props, structures, or appurtenances to define it. The cast creates it with pantomime, perhaps in the same way citizens create the good state—by acting as if it is really there.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 127
Sources for Further Study
Alexandrova, Vera. “Vladimir Mayakovsky.” In A History of Soviet Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1963.
Brown, Edward J. Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Moore, Harry T., and Albert Parry. “Soviet Theatre to the Second World War.” In Twentieth Century Russian Literature. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.
Russell, Robert. “Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug and The Bathhouse.” In Russian Drama of the Revolutionary Period. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1988.
Segel, Harold. “The 1920’s and the Early 1930’s: Social Comedy, Absurd and Grotesque NEP Satire, Melodrama.” In Twentieth Century Russian Drama: From Gorky to the Present. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Terras, Victor. Vladimir Mayakovsky. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Woroszylski, Wiktor. The Life of Mayakovsky. New York: Orion Press, 1970.
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