and Exemplify Revolutionary Theater Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Vladimir Mayakovsky created a theater of spectacle in The Bedbug and The Bathhouse, which laid down the principles for revolutionary theater but were banned by Soviet authorities.

Summary of Event

Vladimir Mayakovsky had won accolades from Vladimir Ilich Lenin and had become the foremost poet of the Russian Revolution, but after the revolution, aspects of Western capitalism had been introduced into the Soviet Union under the New Economic Policy New Economic Policy (NEP). This plan fell into disfavor, and Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, Stalin, Joseph began to introduce his plan for industrializing the Soviet Union. As postrevolutionary society began to set up rigid guidelines for all forms of culture, Mayakovsky came under attack from the Soviet authorities charged with overseeing the artistic community, who advocated Socialist Realism Socialist Realism as the proper form for theater. Socialist Realism promoted theatrical works that reflected realistic situations and emphasized psychologically rounded characters. Mayakovsky was opposed to this movement, and he joined forces with antirealist director Vsevolod Yemilyevich Meyerhold to produce two theatrical spectacles: Klop (1929; The Bedbug, 1931) and Banya (1930; The Bathhouse, 1963). On December 28, 1928, Mayakovsky read The Bedbug in the Meyerhold Theater. Meyerhold felt that the play would not only hold a special place in Soviet theater but would also become part of the repertoire of world theater. [kw]Bedbug and The Bathhouse Exemplify Revolutionary Theater, The (1929-1930) [kw]Bathhouse Exemplify Revolutionary Theater, The Bedbug and The (1929-1930) [kw]Revolutionary Theater, The Bedbug and The Bathhouse Exemplify (1929-1930) [kw]Theater, The Bedbug and The Bathhouse Exemplify Revolutionary (1929-1930) Bedbug, The (Mayakovsky) Bathhouse, The (Mayakovsky) Theater;revolutionary Revolutionary theater [g]Russia;1929-1930: The Bedbug and The Bathhouse Exemplify Revolutionary Theater[07170] [c]Theater;1929-1930: The Bedbug and The Bathhouse Exemplify Revolutionary Theater[07170] Mayakovsky, Vladimir Meyerhold, Vsevolod Yemilyevich Rodchenko, Aleksandr Mikhailovich Shostakovich, Dmitri

The Bedbug, which opened at the Meyerhold Theater on February 13, 1929, satirized those Communist backsliders who had reverted to the crude and vulgar lifestyle of the bourgeois. Prisypkin, a worker with calluses 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 Elsevira Renaissance, a grotesque sex symbol 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 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 then discovered in the futuristic world of 1979. The power structure in this highly organized, completely sanitized society resurrects Prisypkin, only to find that he infects their society with such bad habits as drinking vodka, engaging in modern dances, and falling in love. Finally, he is captured and put in a zoo. In desperation, Prisypkin urges the audience to join him, but his plea is dismissed as an attack of lunacy.

Mayakovsky’s use of grotesque characters to satirize socialist evils set up the theater of lampooning and burlesque as a model for democratic theater. In Oleg Bayan, the effete, self-indulgent poet who teaches Prisypkin how to wiggle his behind correctly and scratch his back discreetly, Mayakovsky caricatures reactionary poets. The tawdry decor of the Renaissance beauty salon created a dismal picture of life under the NEP. No less dismal was Mayakovsky’s futuristic world. It is a sterile, automated world with mechanical voting arms, mass meetings, and elaborate cleansing paraphernalia. Even worse, it is an emotionless world where love is defined as a pathological condition. Mayakovsky even had to assure the authorities that his play was not a satire on the socialist future.

The production of The Bedbug was a true theater spectacle. In Meyerhold’s production, actors marched through the audience hawking bras and ran in all directions when the police came. Three artists who called themselves Kukrynisky designed the first half. Using clothes from Soviet shops, they designed a pop art decor with various kinds of kitsch items. The actor playing Prisypkin walked in broad strides, swaying his pot belly and bulging rear. Prisypkin came across as a thick-lipped, slit-eyed, pigeon-toed grunter and screecher. The wedding scene consisted of grotesque pantomimes and slapstick antics in which characters beat each other with fish. The futuristic scenes were designed by artist Aleksandr Mikhailovich Rodchenko, who used large utilitarian objects, modern glasslike structures (including a glass bell-like prison for Prisypkin), and posterlike costumes in rose and light blue to add to the futuristic tone. Scientists were dressed in sterile white garb, and their scenes were bathed in a white glow. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote an original score for the production. For the wedding scene, he took a foxtrot theme and built it into a cacophonous fantasia. Bells, flashing lights, and motion-picture screens all added to the overall effect of the production. Mayakovsky had created a futuristic spectacle for the masses. Mayakovsky’s critics, however, attacked the play for creating posterlike caricatures without psychological depth. They found that his attack on bourgeois socialists allowed him to pick an easy target and to avoid criticizing more menacing enemies of socialism.

In The Bathhouse, Mayakovsky and Meyerhold fought back and again created a futuristic spectacle. From the start, the play created controversy. First, Mayakovsky was unable to get the script approved by censors without making changes. When he finally got approval, he was attacked in the press before the play opened. Vladimir Ermilov, Ermilov, Vladimir an important member of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, criticized Mayakovsky for his exaggerated art. Ermilov’s criticism was reprinted in Pravda on March 9, 1930. When the play opened on March 16, Mayakovsky attacked Ermilov in one of the banners in the theater. Ermilov demanded that the banner be removed, and Mayakovsky complied.

The Bathhouse is a vicious attack on Soviet bureaucracy. Pobedonosikov, a paper-shuffling, cliché-mouthing, indifferent bureaucrat surrounded by bootlickers 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 while trying to get 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. She paints a picture of a glorious Communist future and promises to take all qualified Communists there. Only Pobedonosikov and his cohorts are left behind, because they are “not needed for communism.”

In The Bathhouse, Mayakovsky again attacks the theater of his day. In a Pirandelloesque third act, Pobedonosikov becomes a character watching a play about himself. He complains that he has been presented in a bad light and that the caricature of him is unnatural and not lifelike. He and his cohorts demand a drama of “poeticized reality.” In this clever piece of metatheater, Mayakovsky attacked the realistic school of the Moscow Art Theater as well as the Russian ballet theater, which tried to poeticize life. He also reduced the objects of his satire to grotesque types, broke with fourth-wall realism, and tried to jar his audience into action. Again, he wanted to create a theater of spectacle so that he could “transform the boards of the stage into a rostrum.”

The Bathhouse, however, was Mayakovsky’s theatrical downfall. It not only flopped, closing after three performances, but 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. Shortly after the failure of The Bathhouse, on April 14, 1930, Mayakovsky shot himself. In his suicide note, he expressed regret at having given in to the critic Ermilov.

Significance

Mayakovsky’s plays were banned in the Soviet Union, and their impact was not immediately felt, but Mayakovsky set the tone for revolutionary theater not only in Russia but also throughout the West. Mayakovsky broke with 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 eschewed notions of absolute value and eternal beauty and created a theater for the masses—a theater that produced poetic and scenic devices that were based on their ability to propagandize. Mayakovsky, along with Meyerhold, wanted to create utopian art that “would not only pose the problems of today but would project decades into the future.” Mayakovsky also tried to move theater away from dreary slice-of-life realism. Realizing that the stage was “only one-third of the auditorium,” Mayakovsky brought the action of drama into the audience. Instead of creating believable characters hidden behind a proscenium arch and seen against a background of decorative scenery, he created grotesque figures—slapstick clowns bouncing across constructivist sets composed of ropes, grids, and platforms. Mayakovsky turned the stage into a soapbox and used satire to effect political change.

As Stalinist repression started to ease off, the time was right for the return of Mayakovsky to the Soviet theater. In December, 1953, Victor Pluchek, a disciple of Meyerhold, successfully produced The Bathhouse at the Moscow Theater of Satire. Pluchek followed this production with The Bedbug and other Mayakovsky plays, and he toured Mayakovsky’s plays from Leningrad to the Urals. By 1958, the Theater of Satire had performed The Bathhouse two hundred times and The Bedbug five hundred times. In 1957, the Theater of Satire took first prize at the All Union Festival of Drama for its productions of Mayakovsky’s plays. Soon, Mayakovsky’s works were being produced throughout the Soviet Union and its satellite countries.

In the 1960’s, Mayakovsky’s brand of theatricalism returned to the Soviet theater. Dissident playwright Andrei Remezov’s Yest-li zhizn na Marse? (1961; Is there life on Mars?) begins with spectators who come to witness life on Mars. The Martian society is an anti-utopian world reminiscent of the futuristic automatons in The Bedbug. Robotlike characters live in a nightmarish world where one government minister has to look up the word “principle” because he does not know its meaning. Remezov’s play falls directly in line with Mayakovsky’s brand of fantastic satire.

Basing his views partially on Mayakovsky, writer Andrei Sinyavsky called for the end of Socialist Realism and wanted a “phantasmagoric art” in which writers could “teach us to be truthful with the aid of the absurd and the fantastic.” Yuri Lyubimov took up the banner of Mayakovsky and Meyerhold. Serving as the director of the Taganka Theater from 1964 to 1984, he rebelled against the sterile realism of the Moscow Art Theater. Like Mayakovsky, he tried to create a theater of imagination and metaphor. His productions were epic and carnivalesque. He combined the sublime and the ridiculous and mixed social commentary with theatrical art. He even did a production based on Mayakovsky’s poetry.

Mayakovsky’s influence soon began to be felt in revolutionary theater outside the Soviet Union. Italian theater artist Dario Fo Fo, Dario was especially influenced by Mayakovsky. Fo’s leftist dramas combine mime, circus antics, and brutal satire in an attempt to arouse the working class. Fo’s L’operaio conosce trecento parole, il padrone mille: Per questo lui è il padrone (pr. 1969; The Worker Knows Three Hundred Words, the Boss Knows a Thousand: That’s Why He’s the Boss, 1983) is a mixture of the fantastic and the grotesque. The play features a self-important bureaucrat styled right out of The Bathhouse and has Mayakovsky’s girlfriend present a futuristic ballet incorporating Mayakovsky’s own techniques of mime and dance to convey a political message. Mayakovsky is seen, like Fo himself, as a man outside of the party, playing directly to the people.

In the 1960’s, the Mayakovsky/Meyerhold brand of theatricalism became prevalent in American avant-garde theater. Politically oriented theater groups such as the Living Theatre and the Performance Group used visible lighting, performed with house lights on, and featured acrobatics, clowning, and choral chants. They made extensive use of mime and extended the action of the drama into the audience. In dramas such as Frankenstein (1965), the Living Theatre presented futuristic spectacles on raised platforms. In Prometheus (1978), Julian Beck, the founder of the Living Theatre, like Fo, introduced Mayakovsky as a character. In Prometheus, a scene from a Mayakovsky play is enacted in gymnastic style before Mayakovsky commits suicide.

Many of the radical popular theaters that arose in the 1960’s, such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe, employed Mayakovsky’s methods. They appealed directly to working people, played in noise-filled rooms and open areas, used clowning and popular music, encouraged contact between actors and audience, and tried to raise political awareness through satire. Like Mayakovsky, these groups used satire not to amuse but to arouse anger. Their dramas, like his, did not offer comic resolutions; rather, they left open endings or produced fantastic resolutions. Although his impacts were somewhat delayed, Mayakovsky helped to set down the techniques that became the framework for revolutionary theater in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many of these techniques have now been incorporated into mainstream theater. Bedbug, The (Mayakovsky) Bathhouse, The (Mayakovsky) Theater;revolutionary Revolutionary theater

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Edward J. Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution. 1973. Reprint. New York: Paragon House, 1988. The first major critical biography of Mayakovsky in English. Shows a close connection between Mayakovsky’s life and his works. Provides close readings of Mayakovsky’s major and minor works and even addresses his didactic verse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leach, Robert. Makers of Modern Theatre: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2004. Examines the lives and work of four individuals who had significant influence on theater in the twentieth century. Chapter 2, which is devoted to Meyerhold’s work, includes discussion of Mayakovsky. Features illustrations, notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayakovsky, Vladimir. Mayakovsky: Plays. Translated by Guy Daniels. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1995. Collection includes The Bedbug and The Bathhouse as well as two other works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shklovskii, Viktor Borisovich. Mayakovsky and His Circle. Edited and translated by Lily Feiler. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. A tribute to Mayakovsky by a close associate and intimate friend. Covers not only the relationship between Shklovskii and Mayakovsky but also other figures in the Futurist movement in Russia. Promotes Shklovskii’s formalist bias, but is nevertheless a good firsthand account of Mayakovsky’s development as a poet as well as a history of the artistic revolutions in Russia from 1910 to 1930.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Terras, Victor. Vladimir Mayakovsky. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Excellent critical introduction to Mayakovsky provides a well-organized biographical sketch of Mayakovsky’s life followed by a close analysis of his major works. Defines critical terms, traces the history of artistic movements, and provides a clear critical assessment of Mayakovsky’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woroszylski, Wiktor. The Life of Mayakovsky. Translated by Boleslav Taborski. New York: Orion Press, 1970. Translation of a 1966 work by a Polish poet is an encyclopedic compendium of documentary sources on Mayakovsky’s life and work. A good reference work for primary source material, but does not present a clear perspective for readers who are unfamiliar with Mayakovsky’s work.

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