Expansive Poetics – (Mayakovsky-The Bedbug)

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930)

Ann Charters: How much time do we have?

AG: We actually have have half an hour, but what I would like to do is get a piece of that (“The Bedbug”) then go to “..At The Top of My Voice” (which Richard Poe has prepared in Russian, and we have in English). Then, if we have time, I’d like to get three short poems of (Osip) Mandelstam which comment on Mayakovsky‘s themes..and then I’d like Peter (Orlovsky) to read (Sergei) Esenin’s “Confessions of A Bum” (because we talked about Esenin, but nobody has heard any of his poetry).
Ann Charters; Okay, okay. Here’s what we’re going to do then,
AG: So we have half an hour…
Ann Charters: We have half an hour.

AG: … to do that,
Ann Charters:..and we’re going to give..
AG: For time
Ann Charters:  ..just one minute…
AG: Till five (o’clock).
Ann Charters:  ..for the end of “The Bedbug”, because these other things are more important than… you can find “The Bedbug” for yourself. The situation in “The Bedbug”, very briefly said, (and I can’t tell the story quickly, but I’ll do my best), is that a man, a Soviet man, who is a former Party member, a former worker and a bum, an alcoholic bum (the hero of this play) dies at his own wedding, which is because of alcohol. Everybody gets totally, totally wasted at this wedding, in the Russian style, in vodka, and the whole place catches fire and it burns to the ground. And it’s, like, caved over, like the Soviets, you know.
And everything is exactly as it was, and, years later, (the) thirtieth century (sic) or something, they do an excavation, you know, like archaeology, and they find everything  all, you know, intact. And what they get excited about, in the future, with the perfect state, you know, (because the perfect state is not just love, the perfect state is now a place where hygeine prevails, and control). Science, in other words, after his trip to America becomes something to be played with and honored. And so he has “the thirtieth century” like an antiseptic place, where everybody goes around wearing the same white coats and you’re all slaves of this higher power of scientists.
So what interests the scientists in the relic is not the human relic or the cultural artifact, but, as scientists, they’re interested in the phenomena of a bedbug that has survived on the body of this man who was the bridegroom, the bum.
So they take the man, realizing that the host needs the thing to… the bedbug..

AG: The parasite needs the host.

Ann Charters: The parasite needs the host. They, therefore, take him.. leave him, you know, that’s worthless, (a) human being’s nothing,  just keep the scientific curiosity. But because they know the bug needs his host, they bring the whole thing and put it in a cage, alright?. And they let the man do whatever he wants (after all, he has to survive so the bedbug can keep alive). And they bring in tours of people to see this miracle, this scientific curiosity. And what happens, of course, is that the man is as degenerate as ever (he loves love-songs, he loves to play the phonograph, he loves to drink, he loves to play the guitar, he wants to screw, he’s absolutely a beast, you know). And the man is very foggy, you know, like he finally gets to understand that this is the thirtieth century, he is alive – it takes a little while.
And the last scene of the poem, when he finally realizes, when all the tourist bus is coming, and the director of the museum, here’s the famous thing. Here’s the director – “Comrades” – (He says to the visitors) – “Come closer, don’t be frightened, it’s quite tame. Come, come, don’t be alarmed. On the inside of the cage there are four filters to trap all the dirty words” – (because he likes to swear) – “Only a few words come out and they’re quite decent” – (notice censorship of the word is the first thing mentioned) – “The filters are cleaned every day by a apecial squad of attendants in gas masks. Look now, it’s going to have what they call “a smoke”‘ -(I mean, he smokes cigarettes) –

[Allen takes up the reading] – Voice from the crowd says, “Oh, how horrible!”..

Ann Charters (collaborating on the reading): “Don’t be frightened. Now it’s going to have a swig, as they say. Drink” – (and he orders the beast to drink)

AG: :”Prisypkin, drink!”  – (Ivan Prisypkin, the protagonist)-  and Prisypkin reaches for a bottle of vodka. (and)  A voice from the crowd says… –
[Allen, again] – “Oh, don’t, don’t, don’t torment the poor animal”  –

Ann Charters (continuing)}: “..and the director, “Comrades, there’s nothing to worry about, it’s tame. Look, I am now going to bring it out of the cage”. He goes to the cage, he puts on gloves, he checks his revolver, he opens the door, brings up Prisypkin into the platform, turns him around to face the guest-of-honor in the grandstand. “Now then, say a few words. show how well you can imitate the human language, voice and expression”. – (treats him like an ape)- “And the guy stands obediently, clears his throat..

AG (continuing) – ..raises his guitar, suddenly turns around, looks at the audience, “Citizens, brothers, my own people, darlings, how did you get here? So many of you.When were you unfrozen? why am I alone in a cage? Darlings. friends, come and join me, why am I suffering, Citizens?” Ann Charters: (then, the voice of the guests)- “Children, remove the children, muzzle it, muzzle it, how horrible, Professor, stop it, stop it.” – (AG:”Oh, don’t shoot it.”]  – Don’t shoot it, don’t shoot it”. – (And the Professor holds an electric fan and he runs on the stage and the attendants drag off the bum, the director ventilates the platform quickly with a fan, and the musicians are playing a march, the attendants cover the cage with a cloth, and the director says..) AG: – “My apologies, comrades, my apologies. The insect is tired. The noise and the bright lights give it hallucinations. Please be calm. It is nothing at all, it will recover tomorrow. Disperse quietly, citizens. Until tomorrow, music. Let’s have a march.” –

Ann Charters: (And the curtain comes down) – It should be put on, it should be put on

AG: Well, they wouldn’t put it on in Russia, though, that’s the thing. They closed the theatre on him?

Ann Charters:  They did at the time. It was not a critical success. I mean, how do you take such a thing? It’s a terrible criticism of the regime. And this is difficult. The point is of course that recognition. This was a (Vsevolod) Meyerhold production, it was… he was a forerunner of the modern theory, the open-stage concepts of Bertolt Brecht, for example, so it was not a conventional production at all. And the remarkable thing is that when the man who became the anti-hero, the bum who then becomes all of us in his suffering from the regime and his oppression by the tyranny above him, turns round and looks at the audience (and now the audience of course is a few people on the stage but it’s also the audience, people who come to see the play). And so when he addresses, he addresses the theatre to say, you knowm “Why, I didn’t know you were here, how..we’re all suffering together”. And there’s a sense of community in the theatre, which I gather was present at the time and comes out in the production. (A) truly marvelous, marvelous thing. So that was “The Bedbug”, written when he couldn’t get to Paris to marry his Tatiana

AG: I think there is some note that he wrote to the people in the Writer’s Union, or were directing the theatre that they should not have closed the door on him
Ann Charters: Oh yes
AG: Because they closed the doors without telling him
Ann Charters: Yes
AG: As part of a general shut-down on him.
Ann Charters: Yes
AG: When he was slowly being encircled.
Ann Charters: Yeah
AG: ..didn’t he have..

(Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately sixty-four-and-three-quarters minues in and concluding at approximately seventy-two-and-a-half minutes in)
http://cdm16621.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16621coll1/id/1016/rec/1 concluding at approximately twenty-two minutes in & next tape: http://cdm16621.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16621coll1/id/1024/rec/5

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