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Vladimir Mayakovsky, a versatile artist, is best known for his poetry, which ranges from the epic to the satiric and from the grandiose to the mundane. His poem Chelovek (1916; man) explores cosmic themes in the form of a parody. Parodying the stages in the life of an Orthodox saint, Mayakovsky moves from his own nativity to his resurrection and finally to his reappearance on earth. Mayakovsky, the martyr-saint, does battle with divine forces, undergoes the terrors of “the bullet and the razor,” ascends into a lifeless heaven, and returns a lonely man alienated from the universe. In 150,000,000 (1920; English translation, 1949), Mayakovsky pits the giant Ivan, a symbol for 150 million cold, hungry, desperate Russians, against the grotesque capitalist warrior Woodrow Wilson, who sinks to the bottom of the sea. In Pro eto (1923; About That, 1965), Mayakovsky transforms a story of rejected love into an agon on his own martyrdom and his resurrection into a futuristic world. Finally, in his magnum opus, Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1924; English translation, 1939), he mixes comic and epic styles to re-create the glories of the Russian Revolution. The use of cosmic imagery, the parody of Christian themes, the creation of futuristic worlds, and the techniques of propaganda seen in these poems are also found in Mayakovsky’s dramas.
Mayakovsky also wrote screenplays, most of which were unsuccessful. In Ne dlya deneg rodivshiisya (1918; not born for money), he adapted Jack London’s novel Martin Eden (1909), rewriting the ending to have Eden feign suicide, renounce the bourgeois world, and become a worker; Mayakovsky himself dismissed this script and many of his earlier ones as too bourgeois. He felt more comfortable, however, with his later film scenarios. His most innovative work, Serdtse kino (1926; heart of cinema), recounts the love story of a painter and film star who leads one life on film and then steps off the screen to lead another. Mayakovsky’s experimentation with montage, accelerated motion, and angled views carried over into his dramas, which are cinematic in style.
Mayakovsky not only wrote manifestos and started literary journals but also designed posters, composed advertising jingles, and produced children’s literature, much on the level of sheer propaganda.
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Vladimir Mayakovsky has been deemed the poet laureate of the Russian Revolution. As a member of the Futurist movement, he broke with the heroic literature of the past and the sentimentality of bourgeois realism to fight for a democratic art that would allow the free word of the creative personality to be “written on the walls, fences, and streets of our cities.” He wanted literature to cry out to the people, abandon traditional imagery, praise the urban landscape, and hail the coming of the utopian commune. To accomplish this artistic revolution, Mayakovsky created a literature that eschewed the notions of absolute value and eternal beauty and struck out at the heart of the masses—a literature in which poetic devices were valued more for their effectiveness as propaganda than for their aesthetic qualities. As a poet, art critic, literary editor, and film auteur, Mayakovsky battled against the Symbolists, who wanted to reduce art to mysticism, and the Formalists, who emphasized artistic technique over message.
As a dramatist, Mayakovsky formed an association with director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and together they revolutionized modern theater. In plays ranging from cosmic parody in Mystery-bouffe to topical satire in The Bathhouse, Mayakovsky assisted Meyerhold in creating a utopian art “which would not only pose problems of today but would project decades into the future.” Mayakovsky also tried to move theater away from dreary, slice-of-life realism. In his prologue to Mystery-bouffe, he set forth his dramatic credo. Realizing that the stage was “only one third of the hall,” Mayakovsky brought the action of the drama into the audience, breaking the bonds of “keyhole” realism. Instead of creating believable characters hidden behind the proscenium arch and seen against the background of decorative scenery, he created grotesque figures—slapstick clowns bouncing across constructivist, three-dimensional sets composed of ropes, grids, and platforms—in other words, a theater of spectacle.
Mayakovsky turned the stage into a soapbox and spared no one from the barbs of his satire. He not only portrayed capitalists as brutal and vicious exploiters but also attacked his enemies within the Soviet regime. In his dramas, odious, boot-licking artists, gaudy philistines, and pompous bureaucrats are magnified into grotesque caricatures.
Even though his constant criticism of the artistic establishment did not endear him to many of his contemporaries, he was accorded a state funeral with 150,000 participants. In 1938, Joseph Stalin proclaimed Mayakovsky one of the most important socialist poets, and at the tenth anniversary of his death, Bagdadi (Mayakovsky’s birthplace) was renamed Mayakovsky, and Sadova-triumfalnaya Square was converted into Mayakovsky Square. (Much later, in 1958, a memorial statue of Mayakovsky was erected in this square.) Increasingly, however, Mayakovsky fell out of favor, and production of his plays was suppressed until the mid-1950’s, when the liberalization that followed Stalin’s death brought the rehabilitation of many writers. Mayakovsky enjoyed a significant revival in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, and his plays have become a standard part of the repertoire in many Eastern Bloc countries.
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Vladimir Mayakovsky (muh-yih-KAWF-skee) was primarily a poet, but he also wrote several plays, some prose works, and numerous propaganda pieces. His first play, Vladimir Mayakovsky: Tragediya (pr. 1913; Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy, 1968), displayed the characteristics that would become associated with him throughout his career: audacity, bombastic exuberance, a predilection for hyperbole, an undercurrent of pessimism, and, above all, an uncontrollable egotism (underscored by the title). In Misteriya-buff (pr., pb. 1918, 1921; Mystery-bouffe, 1933), subtitled “A Heroic, Epic and Satiric Presentation of Our Epoch,” which Helen Muchnic has termed “a cartoon version of Marxist history,” Mayakovsky presents the events of World War I as a class struggle between the Clean (the bourgeoisie) and the Unclean (the proletariat). His best two plays, written in the last years of his life, contain sharp satirical attacks on Soviet society. Klop (pr., pb. 1929; The Bedbug, 1931) depicts a proletarian in the 1920’s who forsakes his class by showing bourgeois tendencies. He perishes in the fire during his tumultuous wedding. Resurrected after fifty years, he finds himself forsaken in turn by the future Soviet society. Mayakovsky’s warnings about the possibly pernicious direction of the development of Soviet society fell on deaf ears, as did his attacks on Soviet bureaucracy in his last major work, Banya (pr., pb. 1930; The Bathhouse, 1963). Both plays were complete failures when they were performed in the last year of the author’s life. Among the best plays in Soviet literature, they met with greater approval three decades later.
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Perhaps Vladimir Mayakovsky’s greatest achievement as a poet was his incarnation of the revolutionary spirit in Russian literature. He was indeed the primary poet of the Russian Revolution: Right or wrong, he was able to instill the revolutionary spirit into his poetry and to pass it over to his readers. His hold on their fancy and admiration is still alive today. As a member of the Futurist movement, which he helped to organize in Russia, he brought new life into poetry by providing a viable alternative to Symbolism, which had been the dominant force in Russian poetry in the preceding two decades. Mayakovsky effected many innovations by following trends in other national literatures, thus bringing Russian poetry closer to the mainstream of world literature. He could not speak or read any foreign language, but he was always keenly interested in other literatures. His inimitable free verse set a standard for decades. He made the language of the street acceptable to the newly developing taste of both readers and critics, thus appealing to a wide audience despite his excesses. He has had many followers among poets, but none of them has been able to approximate his greatness.
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What circumstances would make a Russian born in 1893 like Vladimir Mayakovsky enthusiastic about the Bolshevik revolution?
What does it mean that the Russian Futurists “celebrated the machine”?
Contrast Mayakovsky’s Reading Gaol and that of Oscar Wilde.
Was a social revolution as important to Mayakovsky as a personal one?
Is love in Mayakovsky’s works regularly one-sided?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376
Aizlewood, Robin. Two Essays on Maiakovskii’s Verse. London: University College London Press, 2000. Two short studies of selected poetic works by Mayakovsky.
Brown, Edward J. Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Discussion of Mayakovsky in his times and in relationship to artists, poets, critics, and revolutionaries including Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Shows how Mayakovsky’s work was shaped by events of his life and discusses his relationship to the Soviet state and Communist Party.
Cavanaugh, Clare. “Whitman, Mayakovsky, and the Body Politic.” In Rereading Russian Poetry, edited by Stephanie Sandler. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Discusses the influence of the American poet Walt Whitman on Mayakovsky and the ways in which Mayakovsky sought to overcome this influence or to displace Whitman as a poet of the people and of self-celebration. This fresh, postmodern perspective emphasizes the body and sexuality in the work of Mayakovsky, in terms both literal and symbolic.
Payne, Robert. Introduction to Mayakovsky: Plays. Reprint. Translated by Guy Daniels. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1995. The introduction to this translation of the major plays of Mayakovsky provides some critical analysis and a description of his life. Bibliography.
Russell, Robert. “Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug and The Bathhouse.” In Russian Drama of the Revolutionary Period. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1988. This chapter discusses the plays The Bedbug and The Bathhouse as satiric pictures of Soviet life but also explores the way they illustrate Mayakovsky’s characteristic obsession with the future, especially in terms of utopian images. Sees the plays as an important contribution to world drama.
Stapanian, Juliette R. Mayakovsky’s Cubo-Futurist Vision. Houston: Rice University, 1986. Examines Mayakovsky from the perspective of the artistic movements of cubism and futurism. Places Mayakovsky not simply within the social and political revolutionary movements of his day but also within the aesthetics of literary and artistic modernism.
Woroszylski, Wiktor. The Life of Mayakovsky. New York: Orion Press, 1970. Life of Mayakovsky as told through a variety of records, testimonies, and recollections, which are then arranged in accordance with the author’s understanding of their place in Mayakovsky’s life. Recollections include that of Boris Pasternak, Ilya Ehrenberg, Lily Brik, and Ivan Bunin. Includes copious illustrations and passages from Mayakovsky’s poetry.
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