Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

The Bedbug is one of many Russian plays of the 1920’s that address the issue of the New Economic Policy. Most of them unsparingly satirize the greed of NEPmen who seek to line their own pockets during the relaxation of revolutionary discipline. Among the best are Boris Romashov’s Vozdushny pirog (pr. 1925; the sweet souffle), Mikhail Bulgakov’s Zoykina kvartira (pr. 1926; Zoya’s Apartment, 1970), and Nikolay Erdman’s Samoubiytsa (pr. 1928; The Suicide, 1975). In each play the central character is an entrepreneur who, caught up in the acquisitive spirit of the decade, struggles to succeed by grandiose or immoral schemes. As satiric dramatists since Aristophanes have done, Mayakovsky, Romashov, Erdman, and Bulgakov freely infuse their central plots with comic, absurd, and fantastic elements.

Although Mayakovsky was primarily a poet, he wrote twelve dramatic works; no two of these works are alike in form. They range from an extended verse monologue starring the poet himself to a pantomime about a revolutionary hero to an onstage pageant allegorizing the ascendance of the worker class. By using surprising combinations of visual and verbal elements, Mayakovsky provided the revolutionary theater that a revolutionary society demanded. What Mayakovsky’s theatrical works have in common are the celebration of socialist ideals and his withering scorn for bourgeois culture. Mayakovsky is never sentimental when he glorifies the proletariat and is uncompromising when he attacks its enemies. The absurdities, grotesqueries, and fantasy which permeate his theatricals provide an energy that exalts the working class’s struggle even as it ridicules the bourgeoisie’s complacency.

Less than a year after the first production of The Bedbug, the Meyerhold Theater staged Mayakovsky’s next play, Banya (pr., pb. 1930; The Bathhouse, 1963). It too satirized individuals in Soviet society who used powerful positions to make themselves rich or to tyrannize ordinary citizens. The Bathhouse offended many Soviet bureaucrats and the play failed. About ten weeks later Mayakovsky committed suicide, unhappy with himself, with the women he loved, and with an increasingly unsympathetic society. A week after his death, the Moscow Circus Theater celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution with Mayakovsky’s pageant, Moskva gorit (pr. 1930; Moscow Is Burning, 1973). Epic in scale and fervent in sentiment, Moscow Is Burning depicts the victory of the working classes.

The Bedbug ranks among the most imaginative political satires of the twentieth century. Along with George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Karel Capek’s Valka s mloky (1936; The War with the Newts, 1937), for example, it warns of the fatal flaw that undoes revolutionary gains. Human beings new to the exercise of social authority easily fall for the oldest temptation in politics—self-aggrandizement.

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Critical Evaluation