Days of the Turbins

by Mikhail Bulgakov
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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

Days of the Turbins is universally cited as the first really successful Soviet play. The Soviet theater in the early 1920’s, recovering from the civil war and reassessing its resources in the light of the new society, played mostly propaganda plays and nineteenth century classics in new interpretations. In its Moscow Art Theatre production, Mikhail Bulgakov’s play struck theatergoers as representing onstage the nature of the real experience through which they had lived. As a result, it was enormously successful, being performed almost a thousand times between 1926 and 1941, even with a hiatus from 1929 to 1932, when it was banned as politically unacceptable. It was reapproved for performance by Joseph Stalin himself. The play has since had new productions in various theaters across the former Soviet Union and has appeared onstage in Riga, Prague, London, and New York.

Its popularity with audiences gives one no idea of the hostile reception by Soviet critics. Only with great difficulty did Stanislavsky of the Moscow Art Theatre manage to gain official permission to stage it at all. The reluctant support of Anatoly Lunacharsky, then Commissar for People’s Enlightenment, who held that the play was politically unobjectionable, was able to counter the increasingly shrill objections of the censors from the Repertory Committee. These and other party critics held that the play glorified enemies of the Revolution, that there were no positive characters in it to assert the values of the Revolution, and that the Moscow Art Theatre itself was bourgeois in orientation in its persistence in producing the play. The play was nevertheless allowed to open, though only after numerous changes were made to accommodate the censors.

Attacks on the play and on Bulgakov gained ground in the late 1920’s, with greater party control over literature and with the rise in power of the RAPP, the association devoted to proletarian literature. It was during RAPP’s period of greatest ascendancy and at Stalin’s assumption of power that the play was banned. Defenders of the play vainly argued that the Turbins were shown accepting the defeat of their way of life and that the play showed most of them supporting the Reds by the end of the play. The characters were in the critics’ view unacceptably attractive as enemies of the people.

In spite of the critical attacks, Bulgakov was the most sought-after Soviet playwright from 1926 to 1928. He continued to write plays; after 1928, however, Bulgakov’s work was neither published nor performed for some years. Days of the Turbins made Bulgakov perhaps too popular. It was essential from the critics’ point of view that he be brought into line; thus, he never saw several of his plays produced, and several others had a very short stage life, in spite of his eminence and his great talent. He finally left the Moscow Art Theatre and concentrated on his novel, The Master and Margarita, before his untimely death.

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