This 10 October 2017 video from the Netherlands is the trailer of the play Majakovski/Oktober by theatre company De Warme Winkel.
On 23 November 2017, I went to see Majakovski/Oktober at the Leiden theatre.
Its subject is the life and work of Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930).
This video is called The voice and ethos of Mayakovsky.
When he started as a poet, he did not like symbolism, which was rather widespread then.
He was a radical innovator, inventing the ‘stepladder poem’, in which narrow lines run diagonally down a wider page. These innovations are similar to other avantgarde poets, like Flemish Paul van Ostaijen.
Before 1914, he joined the Futurist movement; which in Russia differed from their Italian colleagues.
In 1915, Mayakovsky fell in love with Lili Brik, a central person in the avantgarde art world. Later, she would feature on a famous Rodchenko poster.
In 1916, there was trouble in the relationship with Lili Brik. This led to Mayakovsky’s first, failed, suicide attempt. According to Brik, later there was a second failed attempt. Finally, in 1930 after more deceptions in his love life, Mayakovsky made his third attempt, this time successful.
What happened in 1917 in Russia caused him to overcome the sadness which had led to his first attempt to kill himself. In February, a massive workers’ strike drove away the repressive czarist regime. When the new provisional government continued the czar’s participation in the World War I bloodbath and told workers and peasants to wait for improvements till after victory in the war, the October revolution, with its ‘Peace, land, bread’ slogan expelled the provisional government.
Over 150,000 people came to Mayakovsky’s funeral, as this video shows.
In a 1930 obituary, Leon Trotsky wrote:
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.
This is a strange remark, as Mayakovsky had joined the revolutionary movement when he was only fourteen years old. More precisely, he joined the Bolshevik tendency among the revolutionaries; which Trotsky would only join ten years later, months before the October revolution. (Partisans of Stalin would reproach Trotsky with being a Johnny-come-lately. Though they were not really consequent. Look at prominent Stalin supporter Andrey Yanuaryevich Vyshinsky. In 1917 had been a pro-provisional government pro-World War I Menshevik. He had tried to have Lenin arrested, and joined the Bolsheviks three years after Trotsky did).
Trotsky had written about Mayakovsky more extensively earlier, with praise but also some sharp criticism.
A. V. Lunacharsky, ex-Soviet Minister of Culture, in a 1931 long obituary reacted critically to Trotsky’s obituary:
Trotsky says that Mayakovsky took his life because the revolution did not proceed according to Trotsky; now, had it gone according to Trotsky, it would have blossomed out in such dazzling fireworks that Mayakovsky would never have dreamed of grieving.
Now, from 1931 to the 2017 play.
This 6 November 2017 video shows what happens backstage at Majakovski/Oktober.
On the flyers of the play, the theatre company alludes to the Dutch social democrat PvdA party, which at recent elections lost most of their voters due to being infected with Blairism.
This 16 October 2017 video shows actresses Annelinde Bruijs en Mara van Vlijmen. They tell how they swapped their roles.
There are six actors in the play, four women and two men, apart from the Mayakovsky role. These six roles are not named. Who are they? Are they Mayakovsky’s lovers, Lili Brik and Veronika Polonskaya? And old colleagues of the poet from the Futurist movement? The dialogues give that impression.
The theme of the play is disrespectful treatment of someone who has died by survivors. Symbolized in the play by the six actors using Mayakovsky’s dead body as a plaything. Dik Boutkan, the actor of the Mayakovsky role, did well at being a dead body during most of the performance, except at the beginning and the end. He is not exceptionally tall, contrary to Mayakovsky. In general, the acting was good.
A review in Dutch daily De Volkskrant says that is a pity the play is more on the poet’s death and after than on his life and work. I have to agree at least somewhat with that.
There is a parallel with another famous artist who killed himself: Vincent van Gogh (though with Van Gogh it is less certain it was really suicide).
In a review of the recent film Loving Vincent, Joanne Laurier wrote:
In the course of the movie, [Doctor] Gachet’s daughter Marguerite asks Armand [Roulin] at one point: “You want to know so much about his death–but what do you know about his life?” This, unfortunately, is a question that can be posed to Loving Vincent as a project.
Ms Laurier cannot accuse Loving Vincent of neglecting Van Gogh’s work, as the paintings, recreated by oil painters, are at the heart of the film.
With Majakovski/Oktober, one may ask: is there enough in the play about his poems? Yes, many lines of them are quoted.
However, not more political lines, like pro-peace lines.
In 1917, Mayakovsky wrote one of various poems against World War I. This one:
Call To Account!
The drum of war thunders and thunders.
It calls: thrust iron into the living.
From every country
slave after slave
are thrown onto bayonet steel.
For the sake of what?
The earth shivers
Mankind is vapourised in a blood bath
can get hold of Albania.
Human gangs bound in malice,
blow after blow strikes the world
to pass without charge
through the Bosporus.
won’t have a rib intact.
And its soul will be pulled out.
And trampled down
only for someone,
to lay their hands on
crush the Earth — fissured and rough?
What is above the battles’ sky –
When will you stand to your full height,
giving them your life?
When will you hurl a question to their faces:
Why are we fighting?
Still a pertinent poem asking a pertinent question, now with the 2017 wars.
And why does the play neglect Mayakovsky’s theatre plays (obviously useful at first sight for a theatre company)? The films he made? And how about the background, the 1917 Russian revolution mentioned in the title, but not elaborated on?
Dutch daily Het Parool is also critical on the play: here.
The Theaterkrant wrote a positive review: here.
The Dutch daily NRC also wrote a more positive review than De Volkskrant or Het Parool or Trouw; here.
Including the line (translated):
Later in his life he, like [Dutch poet Herman] Gorter, made the switch to socialist poetry and became a mouthpiece for Stalin.
The NRC is incorrect in this. Mayakovsky became a socialist before he became a poet, and wanted to make socialist art right from the beginning. While Dutch Gorter became a poet first, and a socialist later. Both Gorter and Mayakovsky were not ‘mouthpieces for Stalin’. Probably, the reviewer bases that mistakenly on the final part of the play. Then, Dik Boutkan in his Mayakovsky role arises from the dead, and speaks about the situation now in 2017. He attacks the restoration of capitalism in Russia; and claims a strongman like ‘the great Stalin’ is needed to redress that. Giving the wrong impression that the second part of that final speech is a logical consequence of the first part.
Mayakovsky on Marx: here.