The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1524

Days of the Turbins, a dramatization of the playwright’s novel Belaya gvar diya (1927, 1929; The White Guard , 1971), represents a White (loyalist) family’s reactions to the triumph of the Red Army in Kiev at a crisis of the postrevolutionary civil war, as that conflict took shape in...

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Days of the Turbins, a dramatization of the playwright’s novel Belaya gvar diya (1927, 1929; The White Guard, 1971), represents a White (loyalist) family’s reactions to the triumph of the Red Army in Kiev at a crisis of the postrevolutionary civil war, as that conflict took shape in the Ukraine. The complex, shifting political situation there would have been known to the 1926 Soviet audience at the play’s premiere, but some brief background is necessary for most readers outside the Soviet Union.

The city of Kiev was a battleground of crisscrossing efforts among those seeking a socialist and independent Ukraine, Bolsheviks seeking to establish the new regime, and forces loyal to the old regime or to the March democratic revolution. In 1918, after the Bolsheviks had seized power in St. Petersburg, Ukrainians long restless under Russian rule began seeking an independent Ukraine. They turned to their own governing body, the Rada, for leadership; its military forces were led by the socialist-oriented Symon Petlyura. Soviet armies entered Kiev in February, 1918, however, and the Rada sought help from the Germans, who had, until the Bolsheviks pulled the country out of the conflict, been engaged in World War I against Russian armies. The Germans did defeat the Soviets in Kiev, whereupon Petlyura and the Rada returned. Soon after, the Germans installed an unpopular and reactionary puppet government under Herman Skoropadsky, the Hetman of the play. Skoropadsky’s government collapsed when the Germans acknowledged general defeat in November, 1918, and the play begins at the moment of their unceremonious retreat from Kiev. Petlyura became commander in chief for a fragmentary Rada in this vacuum but was again defeated in February, 1919, upon the return of the Soviet army. At this point, the play ends, as surviving Turbin family members turn toward the future, a Soviet Ukraine.

In such a setting, long-standing loyalties and modes of life are tested. Mikhail Bulgakov, a native Kievan, shows in his play the impact of these confusing shifts in power on a family very like his own: loyalist, intellectual, bourgeois. Biographer Ellendea Proffer calls the play a “love song to his youth and family.” The security of a humane and civilized home and a caring family is set against the incoherence and precariousness of violent civil war. Tragedy is implicit, but Bulgakov mixes comedy and tragedy to create characters the audience can love. Action outside the cozy room generates the reactions inside, and the play shows the family’s gradual realization that the old life and values are gone. Their individual responses to the shift to a new life under the Bolsheviks make the epochal events play out in human terms, joy and wit juxtaposed to tragic loss. The White Guard, the novel on which the play is based, was, according to one Soviet artist, the first to “engrave the soul of Russia’s internal strife.” Its images of the city and its characters and plot proved evocative for readers of both the Left and the Right.

Days of the Turbins is in four acts, the first three set in Kiev on the day of the German retreat, the fourth acting as a kind of epilogue two months later. Act 1 is in the Talberg apartment; act 2, scene 1 in the Hetman’s office and scene 2 with Petlyura’s army. Act 3, the climax, is set among loyal cadets in the high school, and act 4 is back in the Turbin apartment after both these armies have failed against the Bolsheviks and while the Reds approach.

Act 1 acquaints the audience with the characters and the ominous situation in the city. The sound of gunfire is loud, the lights go out, disorder is apparent. The only woman in the play, Yelena, is a part of the comfort and security of the room with the cream-colored curtains. Here the White officers gather to rest, warm themselves, eat and drink, listen to music and sing, trade jokes—in short, maintain the pattern of civilized private life. Their group is stationed at the high school, as part of the Hetman’s defense against the Rada’s Petlyura, whose socialist appeal to workers and peasants in Kiev accounts for desertions from Skoropadsky’s defense, as Myshlaevsky reports. An innocent country cousin from Zhitomir appears for a visit in the midst of these anxieties; he is disarming and offers comic relief, but his naïve, exaggerated lyric remarks assert the value of peace and the literate life. He is a would-be poet.

Talberg, when he comes home, informs Yelena that the Germans are leaving immediately, deserting the Hetman, and that he himself is leaving with them for Berlin—without her. Completely self-centered, he warns his wife to keep control of their apartment; her family feeling for her brothers is in sharp contrast to his egocentric calculation.

Alexei is a counterpoint to the self-serving Talberg. Alexei sees at once the danger of the White position; their house, symbol of the Russia that existed before the Revolution, is, he says, like a ship that rats such as Talberg are leaving. Alexei’s commitment to the White army, his inability not to honor his responsibilities, his intelligence and compassion are all implicit in this encounter with Talberg in the first scene of the play. In the next scene, when they all drink enough to say what is on their minds, Alexei analyzes and foresees the irrelevance of Petlyura, the inadequacy of the White command and forces, and the probable triumph of the Bolsheviks.

The ebullient Shervinsky appears in scene 2. Hearing that Yelena’s husband has left, he begins to court her in earnest. Reality for this singer is private life; he asks Yelena to divorce Talberg and marry him. That she lets him kiss her at the end of act 1 is her recognition that the old values, along with her husband, are gone.

Act 2 shows the disintegration at the administrative center that has been reflected in the Turbins’ and Talbergs’ family life. The Hetman’s office reveals decay in discipline, the flight of officers from the Hetman, and finally the flight of the Hetman himself. Shervinksy dresses in civilian clothes and shakes the hand of the servant in a democratic way; the servant mans the telephone with the message of the scene, “Toss everything and get the hell out.” Scene 2 then shows the brutal nature of the momentarily successful Petlyura army, making clear that the Turbins are not safe, no matter which of these two armies is in control.

Act 3, in the high school, sets the code of the Turbins against the realities just depicted in act 2. The ironies multiply at this point. A school has become the military bastion against the invaders; the cadets, little more than schoolboys, are the men of the front line, and the nobility of their commander, Alexei, is seen to be meaningless in view of the decay of the order he is defending. Alexei has no choice but to order his division to disband and flee. The youngsters rebel, but he convinces them of the reality of their situation: 200 boys left to fight Petlyura’s 200,000 men. In shock, they want to join another White army on the Don River. Alexei, his disillusion complete, forbids it. He tells them, “. . . it’s the end of the White movement in the Ukraine. It’s the end of it in Rostov-on-the-Don, everywhere. The people are not with us. They are against us. That means it’s over.” However, Alexei himself stays, and while protecting the retreat of the last cadets, he is caught by a shell and falls. “Sub-officer Turbin, throw heroism to the devil,” he says to himself as he dies. Nikolka, who has stayed to help him, makes an athletic escape, though he, too, is wounded.

Scene 2 is back in the family apartment, where news of the city’s fall, of the desertion of the high command, and finally of Alexei’s death is registered in domestic terms through Yelena. Shervinsky, Myshlaevsky, and Studzinsky discuss the debacle, delineating three different responses to the new order. Act 4 shows the family’s reactions two months later, when the Reds have decisively defeated Petlyura. Lariosik proposes to Yelena, and he suffers when it becomes clear that Shervinsky has won her instead. Shervinsky has started on his operatic career, while Nikolka has been permanently crippled by his wound. Myshlaevsky clearly has given up on the regime that betrayed him; he accepts the Soviets and is ready to get on with a new Russia, so replacing Alexei as the major figure for a Soviet audience. Studzinsky cannot make the transition. “Russia is finished,” he says, but he decides nevertheless to join the volunteer army on the Don to continue the fight.

Talberg makes an unexpected return, with plans to join the Whites on the Don. Myshlaevsky strikes him, with pleasure, to help him accept the divorce Yelena informs him is coming. The cozy family scene with Christmas tree and a projected marriage returns the play to comic equilibrium after the tragic events. Offstage, a band plays the “Internationale,” and Nikolka says, “This evening is a great prologue to a new historical play.” “For some—an epilogue”: Studzinsky has the last word.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

While Days of the Turbins is, unlike Mikhail Bulgakov’s later plays, realistic and rather conventional in structure, his originality in diction, symbolic detail in setting, and creative use of sound effects make the play achieve its effect. The mix of comedy and tragedy was distinctive to Bulgakov throughout his career.

The play struck Moscow audiences in 1926 as innovative. The language is contemporary, colloquial, and more authentic (sometimes vulgar) than was common on the stage at the time. The play’s comic effects often depend not on jokes but on diction. Lariosik’s naïve literariness and lyricism, for example, are inflated and amusing in the context of his sophisticated Turbin cousins, even while Bulgakov puts some of the play’s most telling observations in his mouth. Myshlaevsky’s blunt military diction contributes to his characterization as salt of the earth—and perhaps to his force (for the political acceptability of the play) when he accepts the Bolsheviks. Shervinsky’s exaggeration and joyous lying are part of his image as a man of the theater. Yelena’s speech draws on her life as a woman to express her own sense of the chaos overwhelming the family.

The setting is knit into the meaning of the play. The comfortable apartment is cozy with its cream-colored curtains, a clock that plays a minuet, warm water for bathing, books and music, and even a Christmas tree. All these luxuries are set against the cruelty and bleakness of the army offices of the Hetman and Petlyura. The apartment comes to stand for the sacredness of peace, humanity, and the private life. Ellendea Proffer points out the evocative power of the White Guard uniforms themselves, as symbols of the old order, about which original audiences were still nostalgic.

Sound effects contribute to this pattern of meaning as well. Though the clock in the apartment plays Boccherini, gunfire is heard in the near distance. That “the people” are supporting Petlyura is suggested by the sound of the concertina playing popular songs in those scenes. Similarly, Bulgakov employs music to suggest parallels and counterpoints in action and character. Nikolka’s gay singing to guitar accompaniment at the opening of the play is echoed, with a sad difference, near the end. The czarist national anthem in act 1 gives way to the “Internationale” in act 4. Such echoes and counterparts, emphasized not only by music but also by other devices, are richly worked out throughout the play.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 75

Sources for Further Study

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Early Plays of Mikhail Bulgakov. Translated by C. P. Proffer and Ellendea Proffer. Bloomington: Illinois University Press, 1972.

Haber, Edythe C. Mikhail Bulgakov: The Early Years. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Mime, Leslie. Bulgakov: The Novelist Playwright. Luxembourg: Harwood, 1996.

Natov, Nadine. Mikhail Bulgakov. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Proffer, Ellendea. Bulgakov: Life and Work. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1984.

Wright, A. Colin. Mikhail Bulgakov: Life and Interpretations. Buffalo, N.Y.: Toronto University Press, 1978.

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