The Play

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...

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Dramatic Devices

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...

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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.