Vladimir Mayakovsky stretched the limits of theater. He was a witty satirist and a clever creator of performance art. Today, Western audiences might find his plays dated and preachy. Many of them are filled with topical allusions and puns that are not easily translatable. Also, his dramas depend heavily on complicated theatrical devices and performance routines that work better on the stage than on the page. Yet there is an element in his work that transcends topicality and ideological biases. Anyone who has dealt with the shabby art of social climbing or felt stranded in the myriad complexities of massive modern bureaucracies can appreciate the pointed satire of Mayakovsky’s plays.
Early in his career, Mayakovsky wrote three articles calling for the rejection of realistic theater in favor of a theater that would combine the elements of dance and rhythmic speech to “give expression to powerful emotions.” Such an expression is found in Mayakovsky’s first drama, Vladimir Mayakovsky. In the summer of 1913, on cigarette boxes and scraps of paper, Mayakovsky feverishly scribbled verses, which later developed into a drama with the working title “The Railroad,” perhaps inspired by the suicide of one of Mayakovsky’s fellow boarders who threw himself under a train. Though this suicide motif is introduced into the drama, the play focuses on many personal reflections of the author.
In fact, Vladimir Mayakovsky is a monodrama in which there is only one character—Mayakovsky, the suffering poet. The other “characters” are all dreamlike reflections of various elements of his ego. The play, which has no clear plot, is a series of long interior monologues written in fractured verse. With a painted city in the background, Mayakovsky takes center stage, while various cardboard, masklike characters surround him with pleas, observations, and exhortations.
Although the play is not a tragedy per se, it has many elements of a traditional tragedy. First, the drama is structured like a classical tragedy with a prologue, an epilogue, various choral speeches, and long monologues describing offstage violence. More important, the play follows the ritual structure of tragedy. Mayakovsky, the scapegoat hero, offers his “soul on a platter to be dined on by future years” and bares his neck to the “wheel of a locomotive.” Surrounded by a chorus of maimed characters suffering from an emotional blight, Oedipus-like Mayakovsky with his “foot swollen” addresses his supplicants as “my children” and, arrayed in his toga, sacrifices their tears “to the dark god of storms.” Finally, the drama exposes the fatalistic philosophy of tragedy as the protagonist refers to the people as “bells on the dunce cap of God” and, in an ironic twist, announces that “somewhere in Brazil, most probably there is one really happy man.”
This early drama picks up some of the themes and techniques that Mayakovsky developed in his later plays. First, in typical Futuristic style, the play calls for the destruction of past cultures. Second, Mayakovsky presents a future-oriented visionary who invents slicing machines while his friend develops traps for bedbugs. Third, the play abounds in images of urban technology. By stroking cats, one character produces electricity to make the streetcars rush and the lights glow. Finally, the play addresses a revolution, in which people are chopped up on plates from “fancy salons,” and a postrevolutionary period, in which a poet-prince declines the laurel wreath and takes up the woes of his people. In later plays, Mayakovsky explored the triumphs of revolution and the dangers of postrevolutionary backsliding.
In Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mayakovsky showed his flair for theatricality. In the play’s production, actors carrying cardboard masks popped out to say their lines, while Mayakovsky, dressed in a yellow tunic, intoned his lines from a rostrum. According to one critic, the play contained shouts, howls, and the simulation of a trance. Also, the set consisted of a futuristic view of an urban landscape that had no connection with the play’s content. Mayakovsky was on his way to building a theater of spectacle.
Produced, directed, and acted by Mayakovsky, Vladimir Mayakovsky opened in 1913 to mixed reactions. Mayakovsky outshouted catcalls; reviewers found the performance mediocre, and one fellow Futurist found the show flat. Yet one audience member issued a reaction that could sum up the effect of all of Mayakovsky’s dramas: “I had come to make fun of a clown and when the clown suddenly started talking about me the laugh froze on my lips.”
During the Revolution, Mayakovsky created propaganda posters and “living newspapers” and, according to one of his comrades, dreamed of “a revolutionary mass theatre of the future where thousands of people as well as hundreds of cars and airplanes would fill a gigantic arena creating for millions the vision of say, the heroic epic of the October Revolution.” Mystery-bouffe is a scaled-down attempt to re-create exactly such an event. The world has sprung a leak, causing a worldwide flood. Rushing to the North Pole are the two classes: the Clean, represented by various world rulers ranging from the Negus of Abyssinia to the English prime minister, Lloyd George, and the Unclean, represented by the workers of the world. When the Pole floods, the Unclean build an ark for both groups. Yet, plagued by food shortages, the wily capitalists try to trick the workers into subservience by creating a monarchy. When this ploy fails, the capitalists establish a “republic,” but the workers, realizing that they will be ruled by “A czar with a hundred mouths,” throw most of the Clean overboard. Inspired by the Man of the Future, who promises them that they will inherit the earth, the Unclean overthrow Hell and Heaven—Hell is not as horrible as the atrocities of imperialist wars, and Heaven is filled with ineffective visionaries. Having stolen the thunderbolt of the Lord of Hosts, they return to an earth plagued by Chaos, whom the workers destroy in order to open the way for the earthly paradise.
In Mystery-bouffe, Mayakovsky continues to explore the cosmic vision he set forth in Vladimir Mayakovsky. This time, instead of creating mock tragedy, he parodies the structure of the medieval mystery cycle, which includes the Flood (worldwide revolution), the storming of Hell (the refuge of the bourgeois), the conquest of Heaven (the haven of idle speculators), the final victory over Chaos (stagnation), and the coming of the New City (the earthly...
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