Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 18, 2019

Mayakovsky and Stalin

Filed under: Russia,theater — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1910

Playwright Murray Mednick as “Old Nana” in Coyote V: Listening to Old Nana at Padua Playwrights Workshop (circa 1980) (Photo by Margaret Von Biesen)

Although I stopped going to the theater in New York about 20 years ago, I made a point of seeing Murray Mednick’s “Mayakovsky and Stalin” several weeks ago at the Cherry Lane Theater just days before its closing. I was obviously interested in the subject matter but even more so to see something by Murray who grew up in Woodridge, my home town. For reasons I don’t fully understand, some people who graduated from my high school just four or five years ahead of me went on to distinguished writing careers.

Starting out as the ghost writer for V. C. Andrews following her death in 1986, Andrew Neiderman now writes novels in his own name and is now the 73rd best selling American novelist of all time. After graduating Fallsburg Central High School, my friend and fellow 60s radical Michael Elias went out to Hollywood and became a screenwriter for some of the greatest comedies of the 1970s, including “The Frisco Kid” and “The Jerk”. As for Murray, he founded Padua Playwrights Productions, a Los Angeles-based theater company, in 1978. Among the participants in Padua’s yearly festivals were Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard, and John Steppling. The name Steppling might be familiar to CounterPunch readers, where his articles appear from time to time. He was also a contributor to Swans Magazine, where dozens of my articles can also be found.

After reviewing Murray’s play, I’ll offer my own thoughts on the Stalin/Mayakovsky connections.

Absent the conventional backdrops of a play such as furniture meant to lend a naturalist touch, “Mayakovsky and Stalin” comes across at first as a staged reading. Indicating that it is a play are the period costumes the cast wears, especially the Stalin’s white military tunic.

Essentially, there are two separate dramas that unfold in the course of this two-act play, with two separate ensembles having no interaction with each other. The entire cast first appears sitting on backless chairs at the rear of the stage. When it is their time to speak, characters from one ensemble come to the front of the stage, while the lights dim on the seated members of the other ensemble who wait their turn.

One ensemble features Stalin, his second wife Nadya, and Kirov, a close friend of Stalin who ran the CP offices in Leningrad. Kirov was killed by a gunman in the Smolny Institute in 1934, an event used as a pretext to begin the repression that culminated in the Moscow Trials. Victor Serge wrote a great novel titled “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” that was based on these events. As a character in Murray’s play, Kirov mostly functions as a Soviet toady, seeing the country’s future as infinitely bounteous, just as long as Stalin as was in the driver’s seat. Nadya is Kirov’s polar opposite. Growing increasingly disillusioned with the USSR, as reflected in her stormy confrontations with both her husband and his Panglossian comrade, she finally kills herself with a Mauser pistol in 1932.

Suicide with a Mauser pistol is what connects Stalin to the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Like Nadya Stalin, he killed himself with such a weapon in 1930. Although his suicide note did not reflect any disenchantment with Stalin’s rule, by this time he had become weary of criticisms from Stalinist officials who no longer saw any value in the kind of experimental poems Mayakovsky wrote. They were preparing the way for a “proletarian art” that lacked the poet’s complexity and wit. 150,000 people attended his funeral, the largest in Soviet history next to Lenin and Stalin’s.

As part of the Mayakovsky ensemble, the cast includes Osip and Lilya Brik, a husband-and-wife completely devoted to the poet. It also includes Lilya Brik’s older sister Elsa, who like her sister, was madly in love with him. As for Osip Brik, a wealthy Jew who providing funding for Russian futurist poets, he accepted his wife’s affair with Mayakovsky. He and the two sisters, however, were always arguing about how to evaluate his career, especially in a period when it was being devalued by the state.

Murray’s emphasis is not on Soviet society but on the thorny relations between Stalin and Nadya on one side and the complex relationship between the Briks, Elsa and the poet on the other. The Briks and Elsa lived together in a menage a trois until Mayakovsky’s untimely death at his own hand, when he was only 36. Without taking anything away from Murray’s play, their personal relationship figured more in its writing than Mayakovsky’s fall from favor in an increasingly bureaucratized USSR. Indeed, in the program handed out at the Cherry Lane Theater, there’s a note on the play by Guy Zimmerman, the artistic director of Padua, that describes Mayakovsky as a vainglorious figure who deserved the ridicule the Brik sisters direct at him throughout. There is little indication of his earlier charismatic engagement with the masses, a concession that Murray would very likely be unwilling to make to the Soviet experiment.

Like Sergei Eisenstein and Kazimir Malevich, Mayakovsky saw art as a revolutionary weapon. After 1917 and until the late 20s, the USSR allowed artists free rein, even during the NEP when police state measures first began to crop up. Despite the affinity between Bolshevik leaders and the artistic avant-garde, there were occasional clashes. In December 1918 Mayakovsky and Osip Brik met with Vyborg CP officials to set up a Futurist group affiliated to the party called Komfut. It was founded in January 1919, but dissolved by Anatoly Lunacharsky soon afterward.

Commemorating Mayakovsky a year later, Lunacharsky extolled his devotion to the revolution but frowned on a certain softness and sentimentality in his poems that demonstrated a failure to become fully proletarian in his outlook. He had a double psyche, one was cast iron and proletarian; the other was a flower and petty-bourgeois. Lunacharsky wrote:

This divided personality means that Mayakovsky is amazingly characteristic of our transitional times. It would have really been a miracle if he had not advanced battling on the way, if he had been able to kill this inner soft petty bourgeois, this sentimental lyric without any difficulty at all and immediately become a poet-tribune. Perhaps a true proletarian poet, coming from the ranks of the proletariat, a true social revolutionary of the Leninist type, a Lenin in poetry, will follow this road. But Mayakovsky was not such a poet. That is why the battles he fought, the obstacles he overcame, the struggle he waged to overcome himself were so significant.

Lunacharsky was a supporter of Leon Trotsky, who also weighed in on the poet’s suicide in a 1930 article:

It is not true that Mayakovsky was first of all a revolutionary and after that a poet, although he sincerely wished it were so. In fact Mayakovsky was first of all a poet, an artist, who rejected the old world without breaking with it. Only after the revolution did he seek to find support for himself in the revolution, and to a significant degree he succeeded in doing so; but he did not merge with it totally for he did not come to it during his years of inner formation, in his youth.

To view the question in its broadest dimensions, Mayakovsky was not only the “singer,” but also the victim, of the epoch of transformation, which while creating elements of the new culture with unparalleled force, still did so much more slowly and contradictorily than necessary for the harmonious development of an individual poet or a generation of poets devoted to the revolution. The absence of inner harmony flowed from this very source and expressed itself in the poet’s style, in the lack of sufficient verbal discipline and measured imagery. There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class, or an outright tasteless joking which the poet seems to erect as a barrier against being hurt by the external world.

Reading Trotsky’s words “There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class” only makes me feel much more sympathetic to the poet Mayakovsky. If this was the attitude of someone who would be murdered by Stalin just a decade later, imagine how lost and how depressed Mayakovsky must have become by the bureaucratic hardening of the Soviet state that was even influencing its most committed revolutionary leaders.

As for the suicide of Stalin’s wife, it is shrouded in mystery. She left no note and there’s very little historical accounts of her marriage to the dictator. It is worth considering what Isaac Deutscher wrote in his biography of Stalin that was considered practically Stalinist by James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism. In Deutscher’s view, Nadya killed herself in November 1932 after she spoke her mind about Communist Party purges and the famine and was met by a flood of vulgar abuse from Stalin.

If Deutscher was basing his analysis on reports from those close to her in 1932, there was even more of a connection between Mayakovsky and Stalin than Murray Mednick attempted to make in a play that deserves to be made available online or—better yet—staged again in New York or any other city that has an adventurous theater company willing to challenge an audience’s understanding of the 20th century’s tragic devolution.

 

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