Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2748
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 paradise). As well as parodying the mystery cycle, Mayakovsky, in true primitivist fashion, condenses the history of class warfare from autocracy to socialism into a few comic scenes. Thus, by going beyond the narrow confines of realism, Mayakovsky created a comedy with historical vision.
Just as he did in Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mayakovsky introduces a visionary. The Man of the Future, a secular messiah, hands down a new Sermon on the Mount, promising an earthly paradise full of technological wonders. Thus, in Mystery-bouffe, as in his other major dramas, Mayakovsky views the world of the present from the eyes of a future generation. He also praises the marvels of a mechanized world. Chaos, the enemy of humanity, devours machines and gobbles up railroads, whereas the workers, the real saviors of the new world, keep the locomotives running and the steamships whistling. Nowhere is Mayakovsky’s utopian vision more clearly defined than in his picture of the earthly paradise, a world of skyscrapers with trains, streetcars, and automobiles “wrapped in rainbows.”
In true propagandist style, Mayakovsky caricatures the enemies of Communism: the greedy capitalists, who are useless baggage in the world of the future; the compromising Mensheviks, who would sell out world revolution; the inactive intellectuals, who fawn over the passive ideals of Leo Tolstoy and Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and the Soviet merchants, who are throwbacks to the old order of bourgeois capitalism. Mayakovsky even instructed his actors to exaggerate the actions of the Clean and to play the Unclean workers in a heroic fashion.
Perhaps the greatest significance of Mystery-bouffe lies in the collaboration of Mayakovsky and Meyerhold. Together they transformed the stage from a two-dimensional, photographic representation of reality into a constructivist circus with ropes, platforms, cylinders, and a host of tumbling performers who brought the world of the stage into the audience. Nevertheless, Mystery-bouffe was a failure. The play was criticized for being abstract and unintelligible. Certainly, from the perspective of the late twentieth century, the drama is heavy-handed and dated, but Mayakovsky himself recognized this fact when he instructed future generations to alter the play’s content to fit their needs.
In the early 1920’s, Mayakovsky completed some agitprop skits (satiric playlets that combined topical events with jingles, cartoon-tableaux, and circus antics). Not until late in the decade did he complete another major play. When the revolutionary fervor died down, Mayakovsky turned his satire inward on the Soviet regime of the New Economic Policy. In The Bedbug, he satirizes those Soviet backsliders who had reverted to the crude and vulgar lifestyles of the bourgeois. Prisypkin, a worker with callouses on his hands and a union card in his pocket, is seduced into guzzling vodka, playing sentimental songs, dancing the foxtrot, and following other reactionary bourgeois pursuits. Changing his name to Pierre Skripkin and jilting his proletariat girlfriend, Zoya Berezkina, Prisypkin marries Elzevira Renaissance, a grotesque sex symbol (“Each breast weighs eighty pounds, I’ll bet!”) with affected French mannerisms. Their wedding at the Renaissance beauty salon is a mixture of maudlin sentimentality, conspicuous consumption, and all-out drunken debauchery, ending up in a brawl and a fire that reduces the beauty salon and everyone in it to ashes.
Prisypkin’s unscathed body, buried under the ice, is discovered in the futuristic world of 1979. The power structure in this highly organized, completely sanitized society resurrects Prisypkin only to find out that he infects their society with such bad habits as drinking vodka, engaging in modern dances, and falling in love. Finally, the people capture Prisypkin, along with the bedbug he has brought with him, and put him in the zoo, where he is displayed as Philistinius vulgaris. In desperation, Prisypkin urges the audience to join him, but his plea is dismissed as a fit of lunacy.
In The Bedbug, Mayakovsky again attacks the enemies of socialism by creating grotesque caricatures. In Oleg Bayan, the effete, self-indulgent poet who teaches Prisypkin how to wiggle his behind correctly and scratch his back discretely, Mayakovsky lampoons Vladimir Sidorov and other such reactionary poets of his time, who not only recognized their doubles onstage but also demanded an apology. The Renaissance beauty parlor revealing its tawdry decor of hair tonics, curling tongs, and perfumes; the hawking merchants peddling everything from lamp shades to sausage balloons; and the odious gang of parasites indulging in debauchery and creating havoc—all create a dismal picture of life under the Soviet regime of the New Economic Policy.
This dismal picture does not end with the present society, however, for in The Bedbug, even Mayakovsky’s utopian future comes across more like an Orwellian dystopia than an earthly paradise. It is a sterile, automated world with mechanical voting arms, mass meetings, and elaborate cleansing and purifying paraphernalia. Even worse, it is an emotionless world where love is defined as a pathological condition. According to one account, Mayakovsky had to testify that his play was not a satire on the socialist future, but a fantasy world that was purified but not purified enough to withstand the infectious habits of Prisypkin.
This play also illustrates Mayakovsky’s use of theatricality. In Meyerhold’s production, actors marched through the audience hawking bras, and the performer playing Prisypkin created a thick-lipped, slit-eyed, fat-bellied, pigeon-toed grunter. The set consisted of everything from the kitsch art of the period to the futuristic scenery of metal, plastics, and glass, accented by flashing lights, blaring microphones, and flickering film projectors. Mayakovsky’s theater of spectacle contained everything from temperance propaganda to clown acts. The production of The Bedbug attained moderate success although it played to mixed reviews. Though heavy-handed at times, The Bedbug is a clever satire in the tradition of Molière, and it is still Mayakovsky’s most popular play.
The Bathhouse, Mayakovsky’s last play produced in his lifetime, is his most vicious attack on his own contemporaries. This time, Mayakovsky targets the Soviet bureaucrat. Pobedonosikov, a paper-shuffling, cliché-mouthing, indifferent bureaucrat surrounded by boot-lickers and incompetents, is too busy to deal with the problems of ordinary people, so when Chudakov, an inventor, gets caught in red tape and bureaucratic shuffles in his effort to obtain a patent for his time machine, he sneaks the machine into Pobedonosikov’s apartment. The machine is accidentally triggered into action, producing the Phosphorescent Woman, a Communist prototype from the year 2030, who paints a picture of a glorious Communist future and promises to take all qualified Communists there. Only Pobedonosikov and his cohorts are left behind as Pobedonosikov discovers that he and his kind are “not needed for communism.”
Vladimir Lenin, father of the Bolshevik Revolution, wrote “Our worst internal enemy is the bureaucracy,” and Communist Party decrees in Mayakovsky’s time had already criticized the cumbersome Soviet bureaucracy. Mayakovsky’s attack, however, was deadly and personal. When asked why he titled the play The Bathhouse, he flippantly remarked, “Because it is the one thing the play doesn’t have.” Yet later he wrote, “The Bathhouse washes bureaucrats.” It does, indeed. Pobedonosikov lets needy people wait in endless lines outside his door while he shuffles papers and dictates wordy, nonsensical memorandums. Instead of conducting important business, he uses his contacts for personal advantage, spouts meaningless clichés in bureaucratese, and chastises his wife for not keeping up appearances. He is depicted as “scum” that must be washed out of the system.
Pobedonosikov, however, is only one part of a complex system. Accompanying him are a host of unconcerned clerks who spend their days screening him from the people, and boot-licking artists who try to paint heroic portraits of him. Everywhere in the play there are official bureaus with lengthy acronyms, but nothing ever gets done. People with genuine demands are informed that they should not be “pestering a big government agency” with their “petty problems.” Projects are left unfinished, plans unformulated, and people frustrated, while socialism becomes a “matter of bookkeeping.”
As in other Mayakovsky satires, the present is evaluated through the eyes of the future. The Phosphorescent Woman praises the true Communists who have struggled against a world of “parasites and enslavers.” She promises a new age of technological transformations in which labor will move “from the assembly line to the control panel—from the file to the comptometer.” Yet, before such utopian transformations can be accomplished, Pobedonosikov and his crew must be purged from the system.
In The Bathhouse, Mayakovsky again attacks the theater of his day. In a Pirandello-like third act, Pobedonosikov becomes a character watching the play about himself. Pobedonosikov complains to the director that he has been presented in a “bad light,” that the caricature of him is “unnatural” and “not life-like.” He and his cohorts demand a drama of “poeticized reality.” In this clever piece of metatheater, Mayakovsky attacks the realistic school of the Moscow Art Theatre as well as the Russian ballet theater, which tried to “poeticize” life. He reduces the objects of his satire to grotesque types, breaks with fourth-wall realism, and tries to jar his audience into action. Again he tries to create a theater of spectacle that will magnify, not mirror, reality so as to “transform the boards of the stage into a rostrum.”
Yet The Bathhouse was Mayakovsky’s theatrical downfall. It not only flopped, closing after three performances, but it also outraged Mayakovsky’s enemies, who accused him of writing abstract dramas for coterie audiences and of failing to create heroic workers who would overcome the bureaucracy. Even Mayakovsky himself was not satisfied with his comedy and was willing to accept criticism, yet he defended his plays as “dramatic material of real value.” Soon after the closing of The Bathhouse, Mayakovsky killed himself.
Moscow Is Burning
Shortly after his death, Moscow Is Burning, Mayakovsky’s last dramatic work, was produced on April 21, 1930. The drama, having been written to commemorate the Revolution of 1905, is a propaganda spectacle filled with slogans, fireworks, circus acts, and grand marches. In Moscow Is Burning, with its cast of five hundred, Mayakovsky went beyond theatrical satire and finally created a circus spectacle. This comedy has little literary merit and depends more on performance antics and improvisation than on genuine satire.
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