Traces of the Bolshevik revolution in the theatre
Before the revolution, there were already many eminent theatre artists in Russia. They continued their artistic activities under communism, turning into involuntary proponents of an ideology which supported avant-garde experiments until 1934 when Socialist Realism was imposed as official artistic doctrine. The group included Vsevolod Meyerhold, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, Alexander Tairov and Nicolai Jevreinov.
On the third anniversary of the Bolshevik putsch when, after the lost war with Poland, it was obvious that communism would have to be built within the borders of Russia, at least for the time being, the city of Petrograd, i.e. former and present-day St. Petersburg, witnessed the premiere of an outdoor spectacle entitled The Storming of the Winter Palace on 7 November 1920. Involving as many as 15,000 Red Army soldiers as extras and only a dozen or so actors, the spectacle was supposed to recreate the most important episode of the Bolshevik coup d’état that took place three years before. It was created by Jevreinov, a dramatist and director of small-scale plays who was to become the pioneer of staging political life in a totalitarian regime. He used the architecture of the St. Petersburg palace as scenery and built two additional stages – white for the defenders of the tsarist regime and red for the revolutionaries. The spectacle finished with a collective performance of The Internationale.
On the same day, the RSFSR-1 Theatre in Moscow showed The Dawn by the Belgian symbolist Émile Verhaeren with constructivist stage design by Meyerhold. The theatre was marked like a military unit in line with the tendency to nationalise and militarise both theatres and the entire social life under wartime communism. The play portrayed the Bolshevik coup as the beginning of a new world and also concluded with a collectively sung Internationale. As early as 7 November 1918, i.e. on the first anniversary of the revolution, Meyerhold staged Mystery-Bouffe by Vladimir Mayakovsky in the Musical Drama Theatre in the same vein, to a constructivist set design by Kazimierz Malewicz.
Jevreinov fled from the Soviet Union to France via Poland in 1925, while Meyerhold was shot by the communists in a Moscow prison in 1940. Over time, other directors staging apolitical theatre plays had to conform to the dictate of communist propaganda as was the case of Alexander Tairov who staged The Optimistic Tragedy by Vsevolod Vishnevsky in Moscow’s Kamerny Theatre in 1933 with his wife Alice Koonen cast as a Bolshevik commissar preventing a rebellion of anarchists on a Baltic Fleet ship right after the October revolution.
In the Weimar Republic, the Bolshevik Revolution was glorified mainly by the director Erwin Piscator who had links with the Communist Party of Germany and admired Soviet theatre. On 11 November 1926, he staged The Robbers by Friedrich Schiller in Berlin’s Staatstheater. Its updated production put the 18th-century play in the context of the struggle between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in Russia. Spiegelberg was moved to the fore and made up to look like one of the then leaders of the Bolshevik Party Leon Trotsky. When he produced Storm over Gottland by Ehm Welk in Berlin’s Volksbühne on 23 March 1927, a play set in a medieval pirate state, he made the leader of the pirates look like Vladimir Lenin and included a red star on the horizon as a symbol of the Soviet republic in the epilogue.
The origin and events of the Russian revolution were shown by Piscator for the first time on 12 November 1927 in the play Rasputin, the Romanovs, the War and the People who Rose against them based on a documentary play by the writer Alexei Tolstoy and the historian Pavel Shchegolev which was staged in the Piscator-Bühne in Berlin. The play unfolded in subsequent sections of a hemisphere that symbolised the Earth. To give his propaganda art the appearance of objectivity, Piscator supplemented individual episodes with projections of documentary films, historical records and statistical data.
In Poland, the Russian revolution struck terror mainly among land owners living in the east, with rebellious peasants deprived of their property and sometimes murdered. On 29 November 1919, Stefan Żeromski’s play Whiter Than Snow Shall I Be was premiered in the ballrooms of the Grand Theatre to inaugurate the Reduta Studio Theatre in Warsaw. It was directed by Juliusz Osterwa who also played the role of Wincenty Rudomski. Żeromski’s play is set in a Polish manor house in eastern Poland after the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Stirred up by Bolshevist agitators, local peasants carry out a pogrom, killing Rudomska, an old land owner. Following his mother’s death, her son Wincenty opposes the aggressive mob even though he is a war invalid. The play was shown 225 times. It was to prove prophetic as it foreshadowed the war that Poland waged against the Bolsheviks in 1920 to defend its newly regained independence, a war Żeromski described later in his reportage A Parish in Wyszków. Importantly, no outstanding plays were written to portray the war or the political system set up in the Soviet Union first by Lenin and then, after his death, by Joseph Stalin.
However, on 11 June 1926, the Bogusławski Theatre in Warsaw premiered The Non-Divine Comedy by Zygmunt Krasiński produced by Leon Schiller. The play about a revolution written in the period of Romanticism was staged with an expressionist set design and contemporary costumes. The revolutionaries were clad in leather jackets of Bolshevik commissars, while defenders of the old order wore military uniforms. Schiller used the poetic introduction to the third part of the play as the basis for a scene in which a hungry crowd of proletarians storms the city gates, chanting ‘Give us bread, bread, bread’. In the epilogue, however, the leader of the revolution loses when confronted with Jesus. Two years later, Schiller was already close to the Communist Party of Poland, trying to marry Marxism with Christianity.
During the interwar period, Polish censorship authorities did not allow staging plays written in defence of the Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet regime. Such was the case of The Bedbug by Vladimir Mayakovsky whose 1937 premiere in Warsaw was banned. Nonetheless, after the imposition of Socialist Realism in 1934, a lot of plays in the Soviet Union were written to extol the communist takeover of power. Arguably the most famous among these was Nikolai Pogodin’s A Man with a Gun written in 1937. Its protagonist is the Russian peasant and soldier Ivan Shadrin who comes back to Petrograd from the Great War after the October Revolution. He meets Lenin and, having talked to him, joins the Bolsheviks. As it was the first play to show Lenin and Stalin as positive characters in Polish theatres, the communists only managed to stage it on 1 May 1952. The play performed in the Dramatic Theatre in Wrocław was directed by Jakub Rotbaum.
On 6 November of that same year, Kazimierz Dejmek marked the anniversary of the revolution by staging The Unforgettable 1919, a play by Vsevolod Vishnevsky written in 1949 and immediately awarded the State Stalin Prize. Again, Lenin and Stalin appear on stage. That time around, however, Stalin was brought to the fore, specifically in the epilogue where, on behalf of the Bolshevik Party, he fights side by side with infantry and navy soldiers to repel counterrevolutionary forces attacking Petrograd and delivers an impassioned speech.
After the fall of communism, there was no Polish play that would demythologise the Russian revolution. The only exception was Jerzy Jarocki, who studied directing in Moscow. Shortly before his death in 2012, he completed a script of a play he did not manage to produce in the National Theatre in Warsaw. The play was to show the two Russian revolutions of 1917 from the perspective of their witness, and sometime participant, the Polish writer and painter Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. In addition to fragments of Witkiewicz’s plays, it was also to include episodes from Lenin’s life and scenes from a pro-revolutionary play by Meyerhold.
Translated from Polish to English by Mikołaj Sekrecki
Proofread by Dr Ian Copestake