The hundredth anniversary of the Russian revolution has been marked by a wave of exhibitions and plays. Last Sunday I went along to a small production of Mayakovsky’s Bathhouse at the Calder bookshop-cum-theatre, famous as the location of Samuel Beckett’s publisher and now much involved in participatory theatre. Mayakovsky’s gifts as a poet were generally admired but his very close involvement with the revolutionary government, and a suspected descent into revolutionary propaganda, has somewhat deterred readers in recent years, compared with the large following of a number of his contemporaries (the celebrated quartet of Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova and Pasternak, already identified as a quartet by Akhmatova herself in a late poem). I had never read much of his work and was intrigued to see and read the play (to be found in the twelfth volume of the Moscow 1958 Collected Works, not borrowed in the London Library since 1979), this week.
Mayakovsky wrote Bathhouse in 1929; he died the next year, possibly at his own hand, possibly feeling exposed and compromised by his political involvement. But Bathhouse is not a despairing work but a vividly engaged and comic one that has some of the gaiety of the contemporary French music of Poulenc and Milhaud. The inventor Chudakov (meaning ‘eccentric’) has come up with a time machine but faces bureaucratic obstruction from the vain and pretentious Pobedonosikov (whose name means something like ‘the one with a nose for victory’) and his obsequious secretary Optimistenko. After the first two acts Pobedonosikov tries to have the play altered and there is a vivid aesthetic discussion with the director, in which the actors are required to adopt poses in an absurd revolutionary tableau. When the action resumes Chudakov succeeds in hosting the visit of the Phosphorescent Woman from 2030, who is offering trips to the communist future. All the sympathetic characters join the voyage; Pobedonosikov and Optimistenko find themselves thrown out of the spacecraft and wondering what they did wrong.
Luis Gayol’s production is high-spirited and lucid, with a colourful design that uses the very small space superbly. The text and cast are somewhat reduced; some minor characters disappear (including, rather sadly, Fraternity from the tableau’s trio of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality). The translation delivers clarity, perhaps at the expense of some of the density and wordplay of the original (which is rather challenging in places). The actors, mostly English, play the whole thing adroitly if a touch on the cool side, though the strangled fake Russian accent of Maria Estevez-Serrano’s Underton, Pobedonosikov’s long-suffering secretary, offers a welcome touch of hysteria.
Susan Buck Morss suggests that the Bolsheviks thought in terms of conquering time rather than space, and the idea of a time machine – sponsored by Einstein’s ‘futuristic brain’ – stands for the modernist wing of the Bolshevik project. Mayakovsky’s play suggests that the dead hand of bureaucracy is a threat to technology as well as art; Chudakov and his sidekick Velocipedkin are advised by Optimistenko that enthusiasm isn’t needed now they have scientific materialism. David Graeber has recently suggested that bureaucracy is as problematic for innovation within capitalist enterprises as elsewhere, something also of concern to some fashionable management specialists. But it is more than bureaucracy that is at stake. If 1930 now seems like the end of modernism, this is, I think, because the political landscape of the 1930s presented starker and narrower choices than the 1920s; the space of infinite possibilities was shrunk to a few dramatic alternatives between which one had to choose. In retrospect, Mayakovsky’s piece becomes an elegy for modernism.
For all its gaiety, the play touches on terror, and our laughter cannot be altogether comfortable. Optimistenko asks Chudakov and Velocipedkin ‘how can there be bureaucratism in the face of a purge ?’, and while the attack on bureaucracy may be closer in 1929 to Trotsky than to Stalin, in the context of terror the same epithets can occur, with lethal effect, on either side. Later, after switching sides, Optimistenko says the same thing in slightly softer language to the bureaucrat Pobedonosikov, who is now protesting against bureaucracy. Pobedonosikov is left at home to write his memoirs; after 1929 the Soviet Union would have to wait till Khrushchev to see an opposition so gently treated. Only a saint could play on this field and keep themselves clean.