Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2456
Like most playwrights living during a pivotal historical epoch, Mikhail Bulgakov used his artistic talents to write satires and what can only be called historical plays. His major themes recur throughout his work: a condemnation of hypocrisy and dishonesty, a depiction of individuals caught in social and political turbulence, and a portrayal of the cruelty and arbitrariness of authority. Despite the intrinsic seriousness of these issues, Bulgakov’s treatment of them invariably includes humor. This humor, stemming from several sources, is quite varied. Dominant sometimes is dialogue rife with wit, or comically mechanical caricatures, or the extreme absurdity of situation. Yet always present is the tension between the seriousness and the comedy, the tension of the ongoingness of human existence.
With the exception of plays such as A Cabal of Hypocrites, in which a central character is featured, Bulgakov focuses on groups of characters and the changing relationships within the group as it is subjected to external change. Examples of this kind of focus would include the family and friends in Days of the Turbins, who must confront a political situation that changes almost hourly, and the group of soldiers and refugees in Flight, who must adapt not only to a changing political climate but also to constant changes in locale. These characters are distinguished by their adaptability, their resiliency; not really heroic (there is no King Lear among them), they are prepared to compromise, for their struggle is not to maintain their individual essence in a world with which they are at odds, but merely to get by, to survive, in a world that is so mutable that comprehension of it seems to be out of the question. In this sense, Bulgakov is a modern playwright indeed.
Days of the Turbins
It is no fluke that Bulgakov is known best as a playwright for his first major play, Days of the Turbins; it is his best play. Here, he has created individualized characters with whom the audience sympathizes, characters who are not merely mouthpieces for political statements or present merely for the opportunity to comment on particular situations. Though the novel on which the play is based is sweeping in scope and episodic in structure, the play itself is tightly structured, the first three acts depicting two days’ action and the final act providing a kind of epilogue.
The significant plot events occur during act 2 and act 3. Here, the demise of the German-supported regime of the Ukranian nationalist Hetman is depicted from three distinct perspectives: from the general headquarters at the Hetman’s palace (act 2, scene 1); from the headquarters of opposing cavalry commander Bolbotun, whose forces are closing in on Kiev (act 2, scene 2); and from the more personal perspective of Alexei Turbin’s command post, as the young colonel must react to the fact that the battle is lost before it has begun (act 3, scene 1). The pervading chaos in the first of these scenes at the Hetman’s palace is typically Bulgakovian. The personable Shervinsky arrives at his post to perform his role as duty officer, only to learn that the officer he is replacing has already deserted his post. Then, rapidly, the Germans announce their withdrawal, the Hetman and his commanding officers flee in disguise, Shervinsky exchanges his uniform for civilian dress, and capping the chaos, he abandons the headquarters to the comic peasant Fyodor. When the scene shifts to the opposing camp, the audience glimpses the barbarity and cruelty in store for the citizens of Kiev when the city is taken by Bolbotun. In act 3, scene 1, Alexei Turbin, who knows that his two hundred untrained troops are the final defense against this brutality and that he has already been deserted by the Germans and the Ukrainian generals, decides to disband his troops in order to save their lives. The scene is filled with mutinies, random shots in the dark, and confusion, and it ends with Alexei’s death, as the transition of power is completed.
If these scenes offer events that are both historically significant and structurally central to the action, they are finally less important in the context of the play than those scenes that come before and after them, for in Bulgakov’s drama, it is usually the characters’ reaction to the events, rather than the events themselves, that merits full attention. Framing the military scenes are scenes in the Turbin apartment, which serves as a bulwark against the chaos of the Civil War. In the first act, the apartment is a gathering place for friends and family, and, if it has a chaotic atmosphere of its own, it is a chaos of gaiety—drinking, singing, eating, and illicit flirtation. As a succession of characters enters the apartment to escape the cold outside, it becomes clear that the apartment provides more than warmth and shelter. It provides an escape from the pending destruction outside and a preservation of the old society, with the only female character, the charming Elena, at its hub. Lariosik, a cousin visiting in search of a safe harbor, sums up the shared feeling, “the cream-colored curtain . . . behind them you can rest your soul . . . you forget about all the horrors of the Civil War.”
Politically, the assembly in the Turbin apartment is for Russia, a Russia that probably no longer exists outside its walls, and opposed to all the powers contesting for control. Though the men are fighting for the Hetman, they cannot drink his toast, and the only toast on which they can agree is to the health of Elena. In Bulgakov’s plays, authority is nearly always presented negatively, at its best bungling and cowardly, at its worst arbitrary and brutal.
After the central political events, the characters return to the apartment, this time to hide, and the cream-colored curtains provide a different kind of refuge. With Alexei dead and young Nikolai wounded, the tone changes from gaiety to seriousness, and the men bicker over their courage and their responsibility. Yet it is significant that, though guns are heard and troops pass by, the war never actually intrudes on the apartment, which is neither stormed nor searched.
Act 4 takes place two months later. It is now Christmas, the tree is lighted, the drinking has resumed. With the Red Army poised outside Kiev, another change in power is about to occur, and the characters seem almost indifferent to it. Just as the military uniforms were exchanged for civilian clothes before, now gentleman’s suits are replaced with work clothes, as the men prepare, chameleonlike, to blend into their new environment. Several of the characters declare Bolshevik sympathies, and the “Internationale” is sung, just as the old czarist anthem had been sung previously. Shervinsky and Elena announce their engagement, and there is a strong sense of a new beginning.
Doubtless, it was this positive attitude toward the Communists that permitted the original production of the play in 1926, and no doubt it was the positive portrayal of White intellectuals that provoked the uproar from party hard-liners. It is characteristic of Bulgakov, however, that the play is uncommitted politically. The focus is on the survival of these characters and of their society and values despite the turmoil that surrounds them. The celebratory feeling of the final act is not a celebration of the advent of Communism but a celebration that “we endure.”
The Crimson Island
Based on a 1924 short story of the same title, The Crimson Island is at once more daring as theater and less successful as drama than Days of the Turbins. With unabashed references to Days of the Turbins and Zoya’s Apartment and frequent inside jokes, The Crimson Island is, above all, a play about the theater. The action involves the casting, dress rehearsal, and censor’s judgment of fictional Vasily Dymogatsky’s new play, which bears the title The Crimson Island. This play-within-a-play, which occupies the bulk of the work, depicts a series of revolutions on a fictitious island. When the island’s hereditary ruler is killed by a volcanic eruption, leadership is assumed by an upstart who solicits foreign support and who, in turn, is overthrown by a people’s revolution. Farcical throughout, Dymogatsky’s play is a parody of countless revolutionary plays that paraded across the boards in the early years of the Soviet regime. Clearly, Bulgakov is ridiculing the black-and-white characters and blatant dogmatism that mark these plays. At the same time, because the action allegorizes the Russian Revolution itself, it is quite possible that the historic events themselves and the historic figures who participated in them are objects of satire.
Complicating matters is the framework: the interaction of the playwright, the director Panfilovich, and the state censor Savva Lukich. Dymogatsky, though somewhat silly, displays an artistic integrity at odds with the cautious Panfilovich, who is much more interested in satisfying the whims of the censor than he is in creating an artistic achievement. Anticipating the displeasure of the absent Savva Lukich, Panfilovich frequently interrupts the action and cuts an entire scene. When Savva finally does arrive for the rehearsal’s conclusion, his banning of the play is predictable. His reasons for doing so, however, point to another satiric target. He finds fault not with a farcical rendition of the heroic Revolution, but with the play’s ending. The director rewrites the ending so that the English sailors, who in the original had fled in order to avoid a confrontation with the triumphant and unified “red” natives, return to the island and announce their solidarity with the revolution. The revised version ends with the entire cast joining in a chorus of revolutionary slogans. Savva at once accepts the play, and Dymogatsky is showered with congratulations.
The point is that Savva has no artistic sense at all; he is interested only in approving propagandistic works. Dymogatsky’s reaction indicates Bulgakov’s dissatisfaction with the state system of censorship. Dymogatsky is confused, distraught; he keeps asking, “Who wrote The Crimson Island?” He has lost his soul, his identity, and wanders the stage, babbling to himself. With Dymogatsky’s response, one perhaps has Bulgakov’s main satiric object—censorship—but one also has interpretive difficulties, for if the audience is to sympathize with the playwright and his concern for artistic integrity, what is to be made of the ridiculous farce about which he is so upset? The problem is that, in aiming at so many targets at once, Bulgakov is unable to score a direct hit on any of them. Without a true satiric norm, with all the characters appearing ridiculous, it is hard for an audience to feel much concern or even to get its bearings.
Despite these thematic shortcomings, however, The Crimson Island is hilarious and no doubt offers good fare for the stage; it also provides a good insider’s look at the early Soviet theater and at the conditions under which authors, actors, and directors were forced to work during this troubled time. These virtues account for the play’s popularity, while the play’s political and satiric ambiguity account for its short stage life. Satirizing censorship and perhaps the Revolution was playing with dynamite, and the following year, 1929, seemed to fulfill a prophecy as all Bulgakov’s plays were banned from the stage.
Banned before it was ever performed, Flight nevertheless ranks among Bulgakov’s noteworthy dramatic achievements. It typifies Bulgakov’s work, both in the familiar subject matter (various elements of Whites in the final months of the Civil War) and in the compositional experimentation. Composed as a sequence of eight progressive dreams, Flight does not require a curtain; rather, in a very modern way, it employs lighting to produce fade-outs and fade-ins, an essentially cinematic technique. Additionally, the presence of lengthy stage directions and poetic epigraphs at the beginning of each dream suggests that the play is meant for readers as well as for theater audiences.
The plot depicts a group of characters on the run from an army and a way of life that are never shown. As territory after territory is abandoned to the Reds, the location shifts from a remote monastery to a railway station to Sevastopol, and as Whites become émigrés, the characters leave Russia for Constantinople and Paris. Never finding true sanctuary, the characters discover only increased poverty and misery, the fate reserved for losers. With a windfall gained in a card game and the lovers Serafima and Golubkov returning to Russia, Flight offers some hope at its conclusion. Yet with the most interesting character, the White general Charnota, remaining a kind of refugee, and with the pervading chaos and misery overriding the sparse comedy, the play remains one of Bulgakov’s darkest.
From the outset, Bulgakov’s attitude toward the events is clear. The opening dream, like the opening scene in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), is filled with mistaken identities, disguises, and the repeated (and unanswered) question, “What is going on?” The treachery and disorder of the White leaders preclude any popular support, and the cause is a doomed one. The humanity and honesty of Charnota and Golubkov produce only charges of insanity, and in a Constantinople memorable for its cockroach races and fights between Italian and English sailors, the Russians are referred to as “outcasts from Hell.” As in Days of the Turbins, the sympathetic characters endure relocation, betrayal, confusion, imprisonment, and degradation. As a result, Flight is much more a condemnation of the White forces than it is an endorsement of them. Doubtless, it was the positively drawn character of the White general Charnota that led to Stalin’s pronouncement that the play was “an anti-Soviet phenomenon” and to its banning.
Structurally, the dream sequences are clumsily handled. Though vaguely mystical and unquestionably nightmarish, there is nothing really dreamlike about them. Certainly, they resemble only remotely the more successful dreams in plays by August Strindberg, Eugene O’Neill, and even Tennessee Williams. One question that must be asked is “Whose dreams are these?” The point of view is far too fragmented and the depicted scenes far too realistic to lend credence to the dream sequence. Consequently, the conclusion, with Serafima wanting “to forget everything, as if it hadn’t happened” and Golubkov proclaiming that “it was all delirium,” seems hopelessly artificial. It is, however, difficult to tell if Flight exists in a final version, because the play never premiered.
Indeed, such problems bedevil virtually all Bulgakov’s plays, for, with the exception of Days of the Turbins, his plays had excessively brief stage lives and constantly underwent revision in order to get past the censors. In this regard, his central theme of people struggling against arbitrary authority and constant change reflects his own experience. Like most of his attractive characters, Bulgakov endured.
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