The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Bedbug begins outside a state-owned department store in a typical Russian city. Peddlers walk up and down the theater aisles hawking buttons, apples, balloons, underwear, and so on. Ivan Prisypkin enters, enthralled with the variety of merchandise for sale. Ivan is an ordinary worker, recently enfranchised by the 1917 Revolution. Anxious to possess goods, he buys ignorantly, comically mistaking brassieres for “aristocratic bonnets.” His future mother-in-law Rosalie tries to restrain his extravagance, but her neighbor Oleg assures her that workers are now entitled to the fruits of successful revolution. Ivan’s shopping spree is halted by an encounter with Zoya, his former girlfriend. When Zoya rebukes Ivan for his fickleness, he blithely admits that he deserted her for a smarter, more bosomy, and better-dressed daughter of the bourgeoisie, Elzevir. Zoya attempts to argue, but Rosalie attacks her. A militiaman hastily intervenes as the scene ends.

The next scene occurs inside the hostel where Ivan, Zoya, and other workers live; machinists and clerks ridicule Ivan’s recent infatuation with cologne and neckties. They discover a box of business cards upon which Ivan has printed a French version of his name, Pierre Skripkin. When a resident enters and announces that Ivan has quit his job to marry a shopowner’s daughter, the group collectively laments Ivan’s loss of revolutionary ideals. Ivan returns, sporting patent leather shoes and carrying packages. While his peers watch in disgust, Ivan takes dancing lessons from Oleg. Suddenly another resident bursts in with news that Zoya shot herself. As the workers rush out to learn her fate, Ivan collects his belongings and hails a cab to take him to the Renaissance home.

The stage for scene 3 is Rosalie’s beauty shop, gaily decorated for the wedding of Ivan and Elzevir. As master of ceremonies, Oleg proclaims the wedding of Ivan and Elzevir the image of Labor uniting with Capital in socialist society. An usher, proletarian in sympathies and taste, increasingly resents the opulent revelry and starts a fight with an intoxicated guest. When a general melee erupts, Elzevir backs into a stove and accidentally knocks it over: First her veil, then the entire room, catches fire.

Scene 4 is brief. Firemen sift through the now-darkened stage and report to the chief. The fire raged uncontrollably; all the wedding guests...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Bedbug consistently involves theatergoers by breaking down the barriers that traditionally separate actors from audience. From the opening scene where peddlers stroll through the orchestra aisles to the conclusion when Ivan directly addresses the audience, Mayakovsky refuses to let observers sit passively. If the play is to succeed at “unmasking the bourgeoisie,” the playwright must make each member of the audience worry that he or she is under scrutiny and may be exposed. As one worker described the effect of a performance, “the play spit in the faces of everybody who is like Prisypkin.”

Each of the play’s nine scenes presents a different, striking physical appearance. Some—the department store, the wedding reception, the concluding public ceremony—crowd the stage with numerous characters. Others—the claustrophobic hostel, the eerie flamelit reception ruins, the stark white cell where Ivan lives— effectively use dramatic lighting. A third group of scenes presents startling technological visions: the amphitheater of loudspeakers and screens, the resurrection laboratory with its gleaming, complicated equipment, the geometrical plaza dotted with artificial trees blooming with consumer products.

Physical gestures and movements by characters create a visual, active choreography that complements the settings. Actors and actresses seldom stand still as they exchange lines; they run, dance, or stagger drunkenly. They grab one another or brandish objects to emphasize an idea...

(The entire section is 622 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Tambov (1929)

*Tambov (1929). Russian city located about 260 miles southeast of Moscow that provides the play’s principal setting. Ivan Prisypkin, a former Communist Party member, moves among the working-class parts of this city in the year 1929 with casual familiarity. However, when he is thrust fifty years into the future, he is an alien who can have no place. Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Tambov is a generic provincial Soviet city, without any hint of the cultural riches of the actual city, which was the home of such eminent figures as Alexander Pushkin and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Scenes set in 1929 Tambov include such typical settings as a state department store, a workers’ hostel, and an enormous beauty parlor. Mayakovsky’s stage directions describe these settings only briefly, enough to evoke the images of these stock elements of the early years of Soviet society.

Tambov (1979)

Tambov (1979). By contrast, Mayakovsky provides much more extensive descriptions of sets for his imaginary Tambov of the future. An enormous amphitheater with its long-distance voting system is described in detail, a collection of radio loudspeakers with semaphore arms and colored electric lights taking the place of human voters. This set in particular is the most telling of the dehumanization of Mayakovsky’s future Soviet society. Other future sets include a revivification chamber, a plaza with strange metal trees that produce their fruits on plates, and a zoo in which Prisypkin is confined when he proves incapable of functioning in this “perfected” society.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Alexandrova, Vera. “Vladimir Mayakovsky,” in her A History of Soviet Literature, 1963.

Brown, Edward J. Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. A seminal study of Mayakovsky as a man and a writer by a leading American scholar of Soviet literature. Mayakovsky’s role in the revolution, as reflected in his works, is emphasized.

Metchenko, Alexei, ed. Vladimir Mayakovsky: Innovator. Translated by Alex Miller. Moscow: Progress, 1976. Twenty-six articles, mostly by Russian scholars, about Mayakovsky’s innovations in his poetry and plays. Of special interest is Valentin Pluchek’s article, “The New Drama.”

Moore, Harry T., and Albert Parry. “Soviet Theatre to the Second World War,” in their Twentieth Century Russian Literature, 1974.

Russell, Robert. “Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug and The Bathhouse,” in his Russian Drama of the Revolutionary Period, 1988.

Segel, Harold B. “The 1920s and the Early 1930s: Social Comedy, Absurd and Grotesque NEP Satire, Melodrama,” in his Twentieth Century Russian Drama, 1979.

Shklovskii, Viktor B. Mayakovsky and His Circle. Edited and Translated by Lily Feiler. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. Recollections and critical remarks about Mayakovsky, including his plays, by one of the most respected modern Russian critics and Mayakovsky’s contemporary.

Terras, Victor. Vladimir Mayakovsky. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Analysis of Mayakovsky’s poetry and plays, as well as his role in literature and events of his time. The best brief English-language introduction to his works.

Woroszylski, Wiktor. The Life of Mayakovsky. Translated by Boesaw Taborski. New York: Orion Press, 1970. An objective biography by a contemporary Polish poet, based on documents and opinions of Mayakovsky’s contemporaries. His contribution to theater and cinema is discussed at length.

Yershov, Peter. Comedy in the Soviet Theatre, 1956.