Three Soviet Plays:
Vladimir Mayakovsky - The Bedbug (1928)
Isaac Babel - Marya (1935)
Yevgeny Schwartz - The Dragon (1943)
This collection features three plays from what editor Michael Glenny calls Russia’s “Golden Age of Theatre” - the twenty years following the revolution. The relationship of each writer to the revolution and the emergent Stalinist regime is different and interesting in each case. All three were dissidents, every bit as biting and controversial as Solzhenitzyn, but with a closer link to the ideas of the revolution. For us looking back at this period, with the bleak sense we have of it, it is surprising they got away with what they did.

The Bedbug (1928) was one of Mayakovsky’s last plays, written seven years before he killed himself. A veteran of the revolution, Mayakovsky was part of a circle of radical satirists who found themselves increasingly threatened by the consolidation of a bureaucratic dictatorship and, with that, state censorship in the arts. Victor Serge describes in his memoirs the mass despair that hit Russian artists between 1928 and 1936: every day a new writer would be reported missing, exiled, sequestered, or dead. Suicide among radical artists became common and it was this wave that took Mayakovsky in 1934.

The Bedbug is a dark satire set in the both the present (1929) and future (1978). The present shows a send up of a consumption-obsessed Party member who knows how to navigate his interests within the language of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. After a decadent wedding, everyone dies but his body is kept intact until it is brought back to life in the Brave New World of 1978. There, with the consolidation of the Communist order, his individual body is seen as property of the collective, and none of the spiritless populace can understand his longing for the sensuous world he left behind. The new world is as cold, rigidly structured and mathematical as a bureaucracy and its people have lost all semblance of individuality. At a high point in the text he cries out at them in a voice that likely echoes Mayakovsky’s own, “Citizens! Brothers! My own people! Darlings! How did you get here? So many of you!… Why am I alone in this cage? Darlings, friends, come and join me! Why am I suffering? Citizens!” The protagonist, in Brechtian style, breaks out of his role to address the actual audience of Soviet citizens in the theater itself. The line is high drama not only in this sense but in its grandiose leveling of political narrative by a sentimental appeal to humanism.

For such an obviously scathing critique of Stalinism, it seems incredible that The Bedbug was able to creep past the censors at all. It wasn’t allowed long in production, however, and received unsympathetic reviews. But this is part of the play’s significance. That it wasn’t censored is revealing of the relative weakness of the bureaucratic state, and critics’ reactions can be seen in the context of their own attempts to keep within the orthodoxy of their time. The Bedbug returned to stage in 1955, where it enjoyed a more enthusiastic, if short-lived, response. The passage of time seems to have made its message more enduring and, as Michael Glenny notes, makes more sense to people who have lived through the Stalinist period than those who were at its dawning.

Isaac Babel found himself in and out of trouble with the authorities from 1928 onwards. Two things kept him living as long he did: his relationship with Maxim Gorky, who supported him publicly, and, after Gorky’s death, a period of silence. After refusing to co-operate with socialist realism, he was arrested in 1939 and executed in 1941. Marya (1935) is a solemn, detached piece about the demise of the Russian intellectual middle-class after the revolution. Set in 1920, the play revolves around the middle-class Mukovnin family, who are now involved in the black market. Their daughter Marya, who we never meet, has run off to the front lines to fight the Whites. Her character, who we are introduced to through letters and discussions about her, is the only character who has a real zest for life; the others are marked by a lethargy that suggests an awareness that their way of life is petering out.

Determining the position of the narrative to the politics in the play is problematic. On the one hand there is a certain tragedy in the decline of the old world. On the other, there is a certain vivacity and youthfulness hinted at in the new order. The detached narrative position allows the politics of the era to breathe through the characters’ words; it de-emphasizes the narrator’s own position. The romance of the era is visible but not tainted with romanticism. Having said that, it is clear that an underlying tone of cynicism accompanies the detachment and this is where the narrative’s intentions really lie.

Yevgeny Schwartz’ The Dragon (1943) is a political pantomime that is likely more radical than its critics have allowed. A professional children’s writer, Schwartz’ plays take on broad political questions such as Nazism and totalitarianism in the genre of the fairy tale. The genre of political children’s writing is fascinating territory that has been largely overlooked, both from low expectations of children’s capacity to understand ideas, and concerns over political brainwashing of children (not to mention the conservatizing influence of the market). Many of Schwartz’ plays take on fascism and Nazism, and The Dragon was presented as such on its publication. Its performance was limited, however, by the Soviet authorities who saw, quite rightly, that its ridiculing of despotism was potentially subversive.

The play takes place in a small town that has been under the rule of a despotic dragon for several hundred years. This has gone on so long that the townspeople have become used to it, and have worked out an arrangement with the Dragon in which he receives one maiden a year and the best part of the goods they produce in exchange for keeping a relatively calm watch over them. When a stranger, Lancelot, appears in the town threatening to kill the Dragon, the townspeople are against the idea, lamenting that the Dragon is invincible and even if he was killed another dragon would take his place. After much commotion, the dragon is killed, Lancelot disappears and the former Mayor takes over as president of the now “Free City”, effectively doing the same job the dragon did. At the end, Lancelot returns and sets everything right.

The play was criticized for two reasons: its apparent political fatalism and its lack of faith in ordinary people to enact social change. However, a closer look at the subtleties of the piece reveals a less crude political radicalism. Michael Glenny writes that the play explores an idea Schwartz had developed elsewhere that people are always looking for a despot to rule them. But the play is very explicit in its assertion that the Dragon’s rule-by-fear has reduced the townspeople to shells of people: “dead spirits” in Schwartz’ words. When Lancelot returns in the end, disappointed that nobody has challenged the Mayor’s hijacking of power, he states, “The Dragon has to be killed within each and every one of them.” This suggests a deep analysis of the psychology of oppression that is quintessentially Marxist and not fatalist at all.

Furthermore, a case can be made that the play is an Animal Farm-style allegory of the Russian Revolution. The Dragon is the Tsar, Lancelot is Lenin, who dies (or does he?) from the crippling affects of his unflinching dedication to revolution (after he disappears the townspeople write the letter “L” around the town), and the Mayor would be Stalin. If so, the author is speculating that the failure of the Revolution was that the Russian people were not able to kill the Dragon within themselves. Of course, this makes Lancelot’s return from the dead somewhat inexplicable, except to say that fairy tales need happy endings.
- March 6 2003

Glenny, Michael (ed). Three Soviet Plays: “The Bedbug” by Vladimir Mayakovsky, translated by Max Hayward; “Marya” by Isaac Babel, translated by Michael Glenny and Harold Skukman; “The Dragon” by Yevgeny Schwartz, translated by Max Hayward and Harold Skukman. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966.


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