The Bedbug by Vladimir Mayakovsky
a staged reading
December 18th and 19th at 7:30pm
The Bedbug is a biting romp through the Soviet Bourgeoisie complete with philistines, party fat cats, and profiteers. Visiting artist Elizabeth Ruelas, co-founder of New Renaissance Theatre Company, directs this reading as part of our acclaimed Season of Russia.
Written by Vladimir Mayakovsky
Translated by Guy Daniels
Directed by Elizabeth Ruelas
Produced by Elizabeth Wine
Stage Managed by Clara Barton Green
Dramaturg - Dr. Yakov Klots
Chris Alfonso • Mike Gardiner • London Griffith • Conor Andrew Hall • Tey Harper • Brian Kilday • Anna Lewein • Shea Madison • Mike Marcou • Ben Marcus • Leon Morgan • Franco Pedicine • Cheryl Pickett • Talia Saraceno • Xandra Schultz • Elizabeth Wine
SPECIAL THANKS to Derek Lockwood for his help with costumes, Claire Soper for allowing the use of Matthew Miller’s artwork, and Lou Kaly for designing the program and postcards.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO THE BEDBUG
The Russian Civil War drew to a close in 1921-22, as the Soviet state and its Red Army claimed a hard-fought victory over the anti-communist Whites, the peasant Greens, and various other contenders for power in the post-revolutionary period. Yet the economy was in tatters, food and fuel was in short supply, and unrest was brewing from within after four years of the radical communist economic policies known as War Communism, under which industry and all trade had been taken into the hands of the state. In 1921-22, Vladimir Lenin reintroduced limited free-market mechanisms in commodities and grain markets as well as private ownership of smaller enterprises, in what he described as a “strategic retreat” that was necessary to consolidate Bolshevik control over the country and to strengthen the failing economy. This was known as the New Economic Policy, or NEP, and it defined the economic and political realities of the early Soviet period.
The NEP era resulted in a rapid, although somewhat uneven economic recovery. Yet it also brought about the rise of a new class of entrepreneurs, merchants and speculators, the “NEPmen” and “NEPwomen,” who made fortunes in the new era of free-market opportunities and flaunted their new wealth in the Soviet redaction of the roaring twenties. These developments, in turn, led to a great deal of soul searching and anxiety for believers in the Soviet cause, such as Vladimir Mayakovsky and all other artists and writers who had cast their lot with the Bolsheviks. How were communist ideals and the goal of building a socialist society to be reconciled with the actual capitalist economic life of the country? What was the proper relationship between Bolshevik leaders and cultural figures and NEPmen and their sybaritic pleasures? Was NEP really a temporary measure, or was it tantamount to the demise of the revolution?
Precisely these anxieties are addressed in Mayakovsky’s “Bedbug,” that was written in 1928—the year that the Soviet economy surpassed the pre-war and pre-revolutionary peak of the Russian economy in 1913. This was also the year that Joseph Stalin, having consolidated his own power in the years following Lenin’s death in 1924, began to dismantle the NEP policies and to mobilize Soviet society in what was in fact a second revolution—the first Five-Year Plan that instituted a planned economy and reasserted state control over agriculture, industry and commerce by means of massive social violence.
However, this social transformation was yet to come at the time of the writing and first performances of Mayakovsky’s play, which considers the present of “Soviet capitalism” and looks forward to a utopian future that was still only a fantasy. The great Soviet poet and playwright does not present pat formulations (present—bad; future—good), in his play. Mayakovsky’s treatments of both present and future are equivocal. While it is not unsurprising that his presentation of Soviet society in the time of NEP would satirize absurd contradictions between communist and capitalist principles and tastes, his presentation of the ostensibly “ideal” future is equally complex, posing questions concerning the ethics of excluding certain practices and people from humanity’s future. It is this ambivalence concerning the trade-offs between problematic present and artificially problem-free future that renders “The Bedbug” a true masterpiece of early Soviet drama.
—DR. KEVIN M. F. PLATT,
Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Russian and East European Studies at University of Pennsylvania