Maiakovskii’s Bathhouse

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Maiakovskii’s revolutionary star, which had burned so bright during the first decade of revolution, was setting by the end of the 1920s. Accustomed to attacking cultural inertia from the left, he found himself outflanked from that side by adherents of the proletarianization of culture, most a good deal younger than him. The final year of his life was difficult. Disappointed in love, alienated from Soviet reality, and denied a visa to travel abroad, he committed suicide in Moscow on April 14, 1930, an act he had mocked a few years before when the poet Sergei Esenin killed himself. Although Stalin eulogized him after his death as the greatest Soviet poet, Maiakovskii died fearing that his works would fade from Soviet literature.

Successes of his final years that resounded long after his death were the satirical plays, Bedbug (1928) andBathhouse (1930). Banned temporarily because they satirized Soviet officialdom, their mockery of bureaucratism and vulgarity rang true throughout Soviet times. Both plays use a time machine to make their point. Prisypkin, hero ofBedbug, is a Soviet vulgarian who finds himself in the future of 1979, teamed with a bedbug in a museum exhibit of extinct vermin. In Bathhouse the machine is used to speed up boring political speeches. The Phosphorescent Woman, a delegate from the year 2030, arrives. She is disappointed. The opportunity to travel through time is turned to Pobedonosikov, a Soviet party official, who believes that Michelangelo was Armenian. However, this Philistine is rejected by the future and he asks: “Do you mean by any chance that communism does not need the likes of me?”

Maiakovskii worked with the greatest artists of his day. His director was the avant-gardist Vsevolod Meyerhold; sets forBedbug were designed by Aleksandr Rodchenko; and music for the play was written by Dmitrii Shostakovich. Yet all these masters would soon find themselves hounded by the vigilantes of proletarian culture. In music, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians held sway, attacking the twin scourges of decadent jazz and modernist abstraction. Painting fell under the control of the Association of Artists of the Revolution. In literature, the Russian Association of Proletariat Writers (RAPP) exerted ideological dominion through control of editorial boards and critics. Its first victims were “fellow travelers” (so-labeled by Lev Trotsky in 1924) such as Evgenii Zamiatin and Boris Pilniak, who published his Mahogany in 1929. Mikhail Bulgakov, who would spend the 1930s writing his classic novel Master and Margarita (published only in 1966), found his hugely successful plays banned from stage. A novel that would enter the ranks of Russian classics decades later, but which could not be published in 1929, was Andrei Platoon’sFoundation Pit, which chronicles the digging of a never-completed pit for an unnamed socialist construction project.

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