Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745

Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote The Bedbug as a satire on the Soviet society in the late 1920’s. This is evident from many aspects of the play and from his biography. Mayakovsky was a staunch supporter of the communist system throughout his life. During the revolution, he willingly lent his services to...

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Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote The Bedbug as a satire on the Soviet society in the late 1920’s. This is evident from many aspects of the play and from his biography. Mayakovsky was a staunch supporter of the communist system throughout his life. During the revolution, he willingly lent his services to the revolutionary cause, “setting my heel on the throat of my own song,” as he said in one of his poems. He was displeased with the New Economic Policy established by Vladimir Ilich Lenin in 1921 to bring Russia back from the ruins of the revolution and civil war. He was even more displeased with the First Five-Year Plan, instituted in 1928 by Joseph Stalin after the country had recovered economically. The worst aspect of that plan, according to Mayakovsky, was the establishment of a huge army of bureaucrats, who were always a thorn in his side. It should be kept in mind that when the play premiered in Moscow on February 13, 1929, most of the audience consisted of exactly the kind of bureaucrats Mayakovsky satirized. The official reaction to the play was highly critical, and the author was accused of being against the state. Had he not committed suicide on April 14, 1930—caused in part by the “failure” of The Bedbug and other works—many believe that he might have become a victim of the purges.

The main source of his disillusionment and bitterness was his fear that the proletariat, for whose sake the revolution was fought, was being betrayed. The betrayal is embodied in the characters of Ivan Prisypkin and Elzevir Davidovna. Both belong to the working class, but during the New Economic Policy they want to join the more affluent society that was created by the freer economic policies. The couple pretends to belong still to the workers’ union, which is Mayakovsky’s way of criticizing the entire leadership. As a member of the victorious class, Prisypkin demands the benefits of victory (“what did I fight for?”): more and better material goods, a wife above a regular worker status, and “a horn of plenty.” At the high point of his and Elzevir’s rise, he changes his name to Pierre Skripkin (alluding to French culture and to a Russian name for a violin player) and adds Renaissance to Elzevir’s last name. The wedding, opulent and ostentatious, mirrors their nouveau riche status. That almost all the wedding guests perish during the merrymaking is poetic justice.

The satire becomes more serious in the second half of the play. On the one hand, Mayakovsky criticizes the future Soviet society as sterile, nameless, devoid of love and compassion. On the other hand, the resurrected Prisypkin stands as a museum exhibit, filthy and utterly disoriented, to be feared and shunned in the advanced society for which he was supposed to have fought. Mayakovsky makes it clear that in such society there is no room for people of lower classes and workers. Prisypkin’s painful cries—“Where am I?” and “Why am I alone in the cage?” and “Why am I suffering?”—underscore the betrayal of the working class. Addressing the audience made up of the people who should have guaranteed the victory of the working class, Mayakovsky is posing a disturbing question about who are the real traitors in the struggle. Although one may call Mayakovsky an early dissident, it must be pointed out that he satirized his society not as an opponent but as an idealistic believer in the cause. He remained true to his belief; he was shunned and presumably would have been killed.

The play is written in a modernistic style, fashionable in the 1920’s. It features fast-moving scenes instead of acts, a film technique of which Mayakovsky was fond. The characters are not individuals but types, expressing ideas and slogans rather than individual experience. Satire is the strongest thrust of the play. Mayakovsky uses satire unsparingly, often in a pungent, racy language that never misses its mark. As in his poetry, he frequently plays on words and phrases, always reaching for the strongest effect. For example, Oleg Bard, playing on Prisypkin’s desire for his home to be a horn of plenty, solemnly declares that Comrade Prisypkin’s “pants must be like a horn of plenty.” That The Bedbug must have delighted many spectators the first time around, despite official disclaimers, is evident from the success of the play when it was staged again in the late 1950’s and later, running simultaneously in two Moscow theaters.

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