While The Bedbug was in rehearsal, newspaper reports quoted Mayakovsky to the effect that the play’s central problem is “unmasking the bourgeoisie of today.” That statement is not the whole story, however. While it describes the first four scenes set in contemporary times (the late 1920’s), it does not adequately describe the ambiguity of the last five scenes set in “the future,” 1979.
To understand Mayakovsky’s formulation of the play’s problem, some historical background is necessary. Like many supporters of the 1917 Revolution, Mayakovsky expected a workers’ socialist state to replace the overthrown Czarist state. While the comparative handful of aristocrats could be exiled, imprisoned, or executed, the workers’ state would have to incorporate the much larger middle-class or bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the bourgeoisie possessed unproletarian values: It shared the aristocracy’s penchant for opulence and material possessions. Lenin’s attempt to break the bourgeoisie during the Civil War (1918-1920) by radical measures was not successful. In 1921 Lenin announced a New Economic Policy (NEP), which permitted some forms of capitalism and private ownership. To revolutionary purists, the NEP was a concession to the antisocialist values of the bourgeoisie. In 1928 the NEP was itself abrogated by the first of the five-year plans, which reasserted the authority of the state in all economic matters.
The first part of the play holds up to ridicule those who—like the Renaissance family and Oleg—still aspire to middle-class ideals in a socialist society. It also satirizes, in the character of Ivan, those Communist Party members who forget their proletarian origins and adopt bourgeois ambitions. Ivan’s buying spree, his engagement to Elzevir, and his name change represent the corruption of proletarians who are content with the mere trappings of change while still longing for an easy, comfortable private life. Ivan Prisypkin is a foolish figure compared with the outspoken, clear-thinking socialists such as the hostel residents and the usher at the wedding. Although Ivan has a worker’s identity cards and can use revolutionary jargon, he nevertheless typifies bourgeois attitudes.
The second part of the play, set fifty years in the future, was doubtless intended to show how trivial Prisypkian attitudes and values will seem to the perfect Communist society. His behavior baffles the professor and the director; although some citizens imitate his vices, the normative reaction is expressed by Zoya: The man she almost killed herself for in 1929 appears contemptible in 1979. Ivan is the bedbug of socialism. Producing nothing himself, he sustains his life by being a parasite. At the final curtain, when Ivan recognizes other bedbugs among the audience, Mayakovsky strikingly reminds viewers of the play’s original problem—identifying the bourgeoisie among them.
Some commentators find, however, that the second half of the play is more than a simple, second satiric thrust against the announced problem. They note that Mayakovsky’s future society seems sterile, uniform, and dull. The play’s final image of Ivan in a cage may be an emblem of society’s triumph over disorder, but it is also an image of the individual’s defeat. These commentators point out that when The Bedbug returned to the stage in the 1950’s, after the death of Josef Stalin, many performances played the second part as a tragedy—and won audience approval. To some, Ivan Prisypkin’s fate prophesied the Terror of the 1930’s and the gulag of the 1940’s, in which millions of ordinary Russian citizens perished at the hands of a state suspicious of their political loyalty. Those who note the dark spirit of the last half identify a second satiric victim—a Soviet state evolving toward technological advancement and social homogeneity but losing its humanity.
Both Mayakovsky and the...
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play’s director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, realized that as they staged the future, it indeed seemed mechanical and lifeless, but neither could solve the problem of translating a utopian future into dramatic images. The difficulty was probably philosophical as well as theatrical. Mayakovsky’s revolutionary ideals were anarchist; he actually sympathized somewhat with the human bedbugs of the world. They, too, play a role in the scheme of things. Although a wise citizenry will never let the parasites be in charge, it may well allow them to live as they wish. Mayakovsky wants bedbugs controlled even as he realizes how dangerous and self-deceptive efforts to exterminate them would be.