Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s reputation is likely to stand primarily on his short stories and novels, with his dramatic works, while significant in their own right, taking a secondary place. Although he was relatively free to write his plays, he was seriously limited in his ability to disseminate his works and stage his plays because of his ideological differences with the communist regime in the Soviet Union. The fact that two of his plays have never been staged in Russia (despite their receiving considerable approval abroad) may have contributed to the relative slighting of these works. An additional reason may be that most of his plays are somewhat dated, concerned as they are in one way or another with local matters. At the same time, three of his major plays are set outside of Russia and carry messages that concern all humankind. Zamyatin’s ability to rise above local themes and give his plays universal meanings makes his plays worth reading and staging today.
The Fires of St. Dominic
The Fires of St. Dominic, a costume drama set in Seville, Spain, during the Inquisition in the second half of the sixteenth century, depicts the cruel role of the inquisitor Munebraga. Zamyatin lashes out not only at a doctrine of infallibility, at the suppression of heresy by ruthless means, but also at the weaklings who do not protest their loss of liberty. This historical drama was most likely inspired by Fyodor Dostoevski’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” from Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912). Under this thin disguise, Zamyatin attacks the cruel behavior of the Bolsheviks and their leaders Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Joseph Stalin, who “were killing men to save mankind” in the first years of the revolution and later as well. Because of this attack on ideological conformity and the repressive mentality of the Bolsheviks, the play was never performed in Russia, although it has been staged by the Russian émigrés. Throughout his life, Zamyatin vigorously defended the right to heresy, there and elsewhere (for example, in the novel We). The Fires of St. Dominic transcends the borders of both Spain and Russia, while focusing on one of the most significant problems of societal behavior—the right to disagree.
Zamyatin had a better luck, and success, with his second play, The Flea, a comedy. The play is based on Nikolai Leskov’s story “Levsha” and bears the subtitle “The Story of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea.” It is basically a folk story about the craftsmen from Tula shoeing a flea. Zamyatin used the plot to demonstrate the natural intelligence and craftsmanship of common Russians, which would act as a force that would counteract the impact of intellectuals influenced by the ideas from abroad—a clear reference to the idea of communism. It is also one of the most optimistic works of Zamyatin, expressing his belief that Russian folk traditions will outlive the intrusion of foreign beliefs. A carnival atmosphere and a hefty dose of folk humor and popular speech added to the popularity of the play. Zamyatin wrote The Flea not as a simple folktale but as a sophisticated rendition of a folk motif. The combination of this folk motif and the avoidance of direct allusions to contemporary political matters made it possible for the play not only to be staged but also to stay on the repertoire for four seasons and to enjoy an enthusiastic reception by the public.
The Society of Honorary Bell Ringers
This play is based on Zamyatin’s The Islanders, which reflects his sojourn in England shortly before World War I. The characters are Englishmen, whom Zamyatin has mildly satirized in the novel. The new title, The Society of Honorary Bell Ringers, enhances the satire. Zamyatin pokes mild fun at the proverbial English obsession with punctuality and cleanliness, their reliance on things mechanic, and their somewhat loose morals concerning nudity. The play itself was first produced in 1925. It is the most innocuous of Zamyatin’s plays in that, though it deals with a real-life subject matter, it has little direct reference to Russia.
Written in 1927 in a mixture of prose and yrics, the tragedy Attila, Zamyatin’s last play to be published and rehearsed, contains one of his cherished beliefs that revolution is permanent and that there is no final revolution, as the communists believe. In this sense, the play may be seen as criticism of Stalin and his belief that the Bolshevik Revolution was the last revolution. In essence, Attila depicts the clash between West and East, between the stale, moribund Roman society and the vigorous, barbaric hordes of the Huns. Attila is presented as a dynamic leader who is betrayed by the Princess of Burgundy and slain. The play had several rehearsals, but when it was ready for the stage, it was unexpectedly banned; by this time Zamyatin had become persona non grata. Unpublished and unperformed in his lifetime, the play served Zamyatin as a basis for the novel Bich Bozhy (scourge of God), which he wrote in France in the last years of his life and left unfinished. The new title makes it even clearer that Zamyatin has rejected the idea of a final revolution. It also points at Attila as the scourge of God, punishing a corrupt and decayed society such as that of the Roman Empire in its twilight years.