The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

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...

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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 apparently perished, though at least one body is missing. In solemn ranks the firemen exit up the aisles, warning the audience not to mix alcohol and open flame at home.

It is fifty years later, 1979, as the fifth scene begins. The stage represents a huge amphitheater filled with tiers of loudspeakers and cinema screens. Workers prepare the equipment for the upcoming electronic conference that will permit citizens from every nation in the Federation (a socialist revolution has triumphed worldwide) to converse and vote. When all stations are tuned in, the President of the Institute for Human Resurrection announces that a frozen male body was found during an excavation. The President asks the Federation to vote: Should the body be unfrozen as research into Socialism’s past or kept refrigerated lest the man carry with him the old Russian diseases of arrogance and sycophancy? Citizens vote electronically to thaw the frozen figure.

Scene 6 takes place in a modern laboratory, where a professor and his assistant make preparations for the man’s resurrection. The assistant is Zoya, fifty years older and wiser than the day she nearly committed suicide. A team of surgeons brings the corpse’s temperature and pulse to normal. The man awakes; he is Ivan Prisypkin. Disoriented, he notices in dismay the calendar date: May 12, 1979. He looks frantically about the strange environment in search of a familiar sight. Outside he views endless automobiles but neither horses nor people. Ivan faints in Zoya’s arms, thinking that she is his mother. Ivan has brought one familiar thing from his world into the future: A bedbug lodged in his collar has also been frozen and thawed.

Scene 7, in a futuristic geometric garden, opens with a reporter recounting the dire effects of this “resurrected mammal” upon society. He has brought back the old, bad social habits from Communism’s early days. Men drink to excess while women chase the latest crazes in fashion and dance. Both sexes show an alarming predilection for saccharin sentiments about love. The journalist’s account is interrupted by the zoo director and associates in frantic pursuit of the escaped bedbug. Aided by firemen, the director captures the insect, and news cameras record the achievement.

The set for scene 8 is a hospital room. Here in a bright, clean, clinical environment, Ivan lives dissolutely. He never bathes; he drinks constantly. Zoya offers Ivan books, hoping to reclaim his humanity, but he laments the old days of his prosperity and the older days before prosperity when he danced, sang, and worked. Suddenly, reading the piece of paper that is wrapping the books, Ivan cries out that he is saved.

The final scene is set at the zoo. A large cage, decorated with flags, sits at center stage, and a crowd begins to gather around a speaker’s platform for a ceremony. The zoo director explains the purpose of the ceremony: to free the populace from the plague of Ivan Prisypkin by locking him up. The paper that Ivan read in the previous scene was the call for a volunteer to act as host for the bedbug, and Ivan is delighted to let the parasite feed upon him. Now rendered harmless in their isolated symbiosis, Ivan and the bedbug will be an educational curiosity for the citizenry. The doctor frees Ivan for a moment to let him show that he can imitate a human, but the resurrected man frightens the audience by urging them to enter his cage to ease his loneliness. Attendants wrestle him offstage, the director fumigates the speaker’s platform, and the band plays a fireman’s march to quiet the crowd.

Dramatic Devices

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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 or emotion; they push, pull, and poke one another. The wedding reception, for example, becomes especially athletic when the usher picks a fight that escalates into a melee that leads in turn to the fatal fire. The director’s hunt for the bedbug several scenes later requires skillful pantomime to create the convincing illusion of people chasing an insect.

Mayakovsky’s language also confronts the audience. He employs the same verbal tactics which had proven to be effective propaganda weapons during the October Revolution and the Civil War. In those years he wrote slogans and short poems— striking because of a pun or a rhyme or diction choice—that were designed to stir readers to anger, commitment, or action. Mayakovsky’s knack for composing bold, memorable, accusatory phrases is evident throughout The Bedbug. From the play’s outset the audience realizes that it must listen carefully. Instead of joining conversations, speakers often intrude or interrupt for a line or two before exiting. The purpose of the interruption varies: Sometimes it advances the plot; sometimes it insults another character; sometimes it wittily alludes to contemporary events.

Mayakovsky exploits language’s playful resources. Characters unexpectedly speak in rhyme, invent a metaphor, or use political jargon to describe nonpolitical events. For example, Ivan tries to explain the end of his romance with Zoya by saying that his love has been “liquidated.” Oleg’s toast at the wedding reception intermingles the picturesque and the profane in doggerel verse that one translator captures by rhyming “Elzevir” and “beer.” The speech of Mayakovsky’s characters often mimics the public languages of journalism and politics; the world of The Bedbug sounds like the world the audience hears daily.

Mayakovsky abandons the conventions of the nineteenth century theater for the techniques of cinema. (Mayakovsky wrote several screenplays and acted in two films.) He abandons the notion of the set as a stable slice of reality in favor of presenting a kaleidoscope of changing scenes. He creates characters who exist to move along the plot or embody themes rather than characters who develop rounded identities. His plotting forgoes the traditional dramatic rhythm of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement; in its place Mayakovsky juxtaposes individually striking or meaningful scenes—a technique espoused by his contemporary, Russian filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein. The Bedbug indeed spits in the faces of the audience—both those with bourgeois values and those who expect traditional drama.

Places Discussed

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*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.

Bibliography

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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.

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