Mayakovsky’s Revolutionary Theatre

By way of explanation: This is mostly a review of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s play “Mystery-Bouffe,” which I wrote for my class on the art and literature of the Russian Revolution this past semester. I have only read the play, not seen it unfortunately – performances in English of Futurist drama are rather hard to come by, unfortunately. For this essay to make sense, a description of the plot is in order. The play begins with a global deluge, after which 7 pairs of the “Clean” (rulers including David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, an Indian Raja, and the Negus of Ethiopia) and 7 pairs of the “Unclean” (assorted workers, peasants, soldiers etc) build an Ark and set off for Mt Ararat as in the Noah legend. First the Clean support the Negus as the ruler, after he eats all the food he is overthrown in the bourgeois revolution, which just means all the Clean begin to consume the food. Thereafter the Unclean throw the Clean overboard in a repeat of the October Revolution, only to discover the food has been entirely consumed. They are approached by a man walking across the water to the Ark, who tells them they can reach the workers’ paradise if they just ascend a ladder. To reach the paradise, they travel through hell and heaven, overthrowing the rulers of both, and finally the realm of “Chaos.” When they reach the Paradise, the play has a happy ending which was somewhat unconvincing now and, I imagine, in the war-torn Soviet Russia of 1921.

Vladimir Mayakovsky was a dedicated revolutionary as well as poet and playwright, and some of his most interesting work presents the revolutionary cause in an appealing poetic form. His 1921 play “Mystery-Bouffe,” is one of the more intriguing works in this vein. Combining the form of a Church mystery play with content of a solidly Marxist ideology and a dash of Futurist absurdity, “Mystery-Bouffe” can be seen as both a surreal comedy and a serious albeit flawed attempt to fill the need for spectacle in the wake of the disappearance of the Orthodox Church from revolutionary Russia.

The form Mayakovsky used for his comedy is that of the mystery play. Mystery plays were popular entertainment in much of medieval Europe, which would present miraculous stories from the Bible. In English and most other European languages, they represent the earliest known form of drama. Mayakovsky’s appropriation of the genre is announced in the play’s name. The story uses different Biblical sources at the same time it satirizes them. For instance, the Clean and the Unclean travel on an ark to Mt. Ararat, just as Noah does in the Book of Genesis. The journey of the Unclean to Heaven follows a similar journey in the most famous of the English mystery plays, “Everyman.” At the end of Act II, the Unclean see a man they identify as “Christ” walking across the water. This Christ, however, preaches a new, worldly gospel:

My Paradise is for everyone

                        except the poor in spirit…

Come unto me

all you who have calmly stabbed the enemy,

and then walked away from his corpse

with a song on your lips! (88-89)

Such is Mayakovsky’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, and the playwright, ever the paragon of humility, himself took the role of Jesus. His use of the mystery play genre is important in several different ways. Obviously, he is able to take many jabs at the Church and Christianity in general, at the same time the Orthodox Church was being widely persecuted and chased out of Russian life. For instance, the Unclean mock the devils in hell for thinking that they have it hard, when Earth is a hell for workers. In this way, Mayakovsky endeavors to accomplish what Trotsky in Problems of Life set out as a key problem of the revolution: “The need for an outer manifestation of emotion is strong and legitimate. If the spectacular has in the past been associated with the Church, there us no reason why it cannot be separated from her” (67). Furthermore, just as the mystery plays represented the earliest forms of drama in Christian society, Mayakovsky’s use of the genre underscores his intention for his play and others like it to be the starting point of Communist drama.

Mayakovsky’s past in the Futurist movement also provides some raw material for “Mystery-Bouffe.” This is particularly evident in the final two acts. In Act VI, the Things offer themselves to be used: “To you, whose back broke beneath our weight/we surrender today” (133). Here the things are conscious free agents, just as in Mayakovsky’s first and definitively Futurist play, “Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy.” Act V sees the Unclean ascend from Heaven after the defeat of Jehovah to the “Land of Chaos,” filled with bits and pieces of people, machinery and other things piled on top of each other. Some in the Futurist movement idealized the primordial chaos, and this unique pre-linguistic, pre-logical state formed the basis of nonsense language experiments in, for instance, the opera “Victory Over the Sun.” The two works have something else in common: just as “Victory” shows in the defeat of the Sun the defeat of the old, rational way of thinking, the Unclean defeat both Beelzebub and Jehovah on their way to Paradise. Though it is shown in a farcical manner, the victory over Heaven and Hell, along with symbolizing the defeat of the Church, can be seen as the victory of the Revolution over an entire previous way of thinking. Along with these two realms, however, Chaos itself is defeated and used by the Unclean to reach the Earthly Paradise – showing, perhaps, Mayakovsky’s statement as a Communist that Futurism itself has been overcome by the Revolution.

It is to this, the ideological content of the play that we now turn. While “Mystery-Bouffe” is shaped by the tropes of Christianity and Futurism, it is very firmly a Marxist work. This is clear from the beginning. The first two characters to appear onstage are Lloyd George and Clemenceau, both leaders of countries that played a major roles in trying to end the Soviet Republic with their own armies and by sponsoring native “White” reaction. Along with these two, the play is filled with jibes against the capitalist class, intellectuals, as well as the Bolsheviks’ opponents within Marxism, such as Karl Kautsky and the Mensheviks. A hapless Menshevik tags along with the Unclean and at each stage tries to compromise between them and their counterrevolutionary foes, complaining that “You try to be nice/and it turns out nasty” when both sides beat him up for his trouble (112). This is of course representative of Bolshevik views of the Menshevik Party, which refused to take part in the revolutionary government after October.

Not only this: the key events in “Mystery-Bouffe” are in fact the story of the Russian Revolution. We see this most prominently in Act II. Having appointed the Negus, a backward autocrat like the Tsar, to rule over them, the Clean are surprised when he begins consuming all the food on the ark. To solve this they rally the Unclean to overthrow the Negus, establishing a republic – which only means, however, that all the Clean now eat the remaining food. “One man get’s the ring of the doughnut/the other man gets the core/That’s what the democratic republic is for,” says Clemenceau (80). This represents the play’s February Revolution, but as in the event itself the proletariat are quickly disillusioned, and end by throwing the Clean overboard, telling them “You’ll never forget the Seventh of November” – the Gregorian date of the October Revolution (81). As in each of these revolutions, food is shown to be a deciding factor. World War I sparked massive food rationing which was deeply unpopular and a factor in the Tsar’s downfall, but the bourgeois Provisional Government showed itself equally incapable of solving the hunger problem. Thus, the Bolshevik slogan “Peace, Bread and Land” was decisive in winning over the peasantry to the cause of proletarian revolution.

The play shows itself to be equally if not more concerned with the problems of the developing revolution. The second version of “Mystery-Bouffe,” which is the one we have, was written in 1921, the year that marked the final defeat of the Whites and the beginning of reconstruction under the Bolsheviks. They were left with an already backward nation whose industry and transportation systems had been effectively shattered by 7 years of war with few interruptions. In this atmosphere, the question of how to overcome Russia’s backwardness was the decisive one. When the Unclean seize Jehovah’s thunderbolts as they leave Heaven to use them in electrification, it is hard to imagine Mayakovsky had in mind anything other than Lenin’s famous revolutionary equation: “Soviets plus electrification equals socialism.” In Act V, the soldier and the miner have a discussion that approximates the divisions between the Bolsheviks on trade-union policy at the end of the War Communism period. Theorizing that workers did not need to be defended from their own state, Trotsky argued for the absorption of trade unions into the Soviet state to improve efficiency and productivity in the wake of the Civil War. Similarly, the miner argues, “Appointed officials are what we need” (117). The entire Act V itself might be seen as corresponding broadly to the immediate post-Civil War period in which the play was revised. After a revolution and a series of grueling conflicts against all manner of enemies, the Russian proletariat was faced with not only reconstructing the country but also constructing socialism, in line with the Marxist promise of a happier, want-less, classless society.

In light of this, the final act seems to be the weakest. Mayakovsky is forced more than in the other acts to depart from the course of history and rely on his own artistic musings, which as previously noted share much with his pre-revolutionary period. While the play ends on an upbeat note with the Unclean having reached the earthly paradise, singing a new “Internationale,” in reality the Russian workers and peasants faced a country in turmoil from backwardness and war. Neither Mayakovsky nor any of his Bolshevik comrades were to see the earthly paradise, and thus the finale sounds more than a little unconvincing.

Of “Mystery-Bouffe,” Trotsky writes in Literature and Revolution that it has “splendid lines side by side with fatal failures filled with verbal tightrope walking” (135). Perhaps he is being a little unfair, especially having seen that Mayakovsky did sincerely try to create the basis for a new revolutionary drama. Trotsky himself as previously stated was very aware of the need for that drama, which had previously driven Russians toward the Orthodox Church. “Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man,” writes Marx, “as long as he does not revolve around himself.” The story of “Mystery-Bouffe” follows this dictum almost exactly. Religion is mocked, overthrown, removed from everyday life, and replaced by the revolutionary drama, which in this play tells the Russian workers their own story of revolution – encouraging them to finally revolve around themselves. While his attempt is no doubt flawed, Mayakovsky’s play still represents perhaps the purest attempt to lay the basis for a revolutionary drama that had the potential to displace religion from its traditional role.

References

Marx, Karl, “Introduction to a Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm

Mayakovsky, Vladimir, “Mystery-Bouffe,” in Mayakovsky: Plays, trans. Guy Daniels. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1995, 39-140.

Trotsky, Leon. Literature and Revolution, trans. Rose Strunsky, ed. William Keach. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005.

Trotsky, Leon. Problems of Life, trans. Z. Vengerova. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1924.

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