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'A Cloud in Trousers'

Andy Newman reviews Steve Trafford's new play

In October 1917 when the red sailors marched from the Smoly Institute to the Winter Palace they did not chant slogans from the Bolshevik Central Committee, but the punk poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Yesh ananasy, ryabchiki zhui
Dyeh tvoi posledni prikhodit, burzhui!

("Eat pineapples, chew on quail
Your last day is coming, bourgeois!")

In a world where a Kaiser's crown could roll like a bauble in the gutter, and any cook could govern, there was an explosion in art. Not just an explosion in the salon culture of the critics and artistic patrons, but on the streets and in popular theatres. Shunned by the literati, Wyndham Lewis and the English Vorticist poets and painters took their performance art to the musical halls of the working class. In the German revolution of 1918, bizarrely dressed Dadaists threw themselves into the tumult; producing nonsense slogans and leaflets written in gibberish that were enthusiastically received by workers and soldiers intoxicated with the joy of change. In the decade of war and revolution the iconoclasm of avant garde art briefly merged with a mass political and social movement to smash the old order.

Steve Trafford's new play, "A Cloud in Trousers" concerns the great genius of the futurist, Mayakovsky, interweaving his passionate and complex personal life with the fate of his art that became corseted by the degenerating revolution. The central dramatic relationship in the play is the ménage a trios of Mayakovsky, and Osip and Lili Brik.

Trafford does extremely well to avoid the possible clichés of this situation. This experimental way of living is neither idealised nor caricatured. Even among otherwise liberal folk today the conventional aspiration to monogamy is strong; many of us struggle with an existing reality that doesn't match this ideal, and the resulting excitement, grief, passion and jealousy is private; indeed it is usually impossible to discuss it with anyone at all. In this play the characters confront and discuss this openly, and it is moving and it is engaging. It invites comparison with Pinter's "Betrayal" where a similar relationship is portrayed in the conventional context of deception and corrosive guilt. The brilliant performance of Elizabeth Mansfield as Lili Brik certainly gives credibility and emotional intensity to this love triangle. By the end of the play I loved her myself.

Politically the play is also very complex. It is not history: Mayakovsky is presented as less politically engaged than he actually was, and also the play represents Osip Brik as a more influential influence on him as publisher than was the case. In reality Mayakovsky was already a published poet and politically committed when he met the Briks in 1915. However, this convention cleverly allows Trafford to externalise Mayakovsky's own contradictions by putting into Osip's mouth some of Mayakovsky's own
political opinions, and in particular Mayakovsky's belief that art should serve in a useful way. This allows the on-stage Mayakovsky, engagingly played by John Sackville, to be a non-conformist, individualistic rebel; while Osip is a party man. In reality, Mayakovsky himself was both.

It is very satisfying that the debate between the fictional Osip and fictional Mayakovsky is expressed very much in the language of the real Mayakovsky.  This allows the genius of the poet to suffuse the play, and lifts you by the beauty and expressionism of the language into a world of different possibilities. What is more important the play avoids the trap of simplistically locating the tragedy of Mayakovsky with the rise of Stalin.

Instead, the much more nuanced tension between conscience of the politically committed individual artist and the discipline of the party is explored. Of course, the social context of the invasion of Soviet Russia by imperialist armies and the resulting civil war; the hardship; the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy and resulting struggle with the rich peasants are the background against which this drama is played. This is introduced into the play by the character of Annushka, the servant who struggles with gaining supplies for the household, and also reports of her lfe with her husband and her son's experiences in the red army.

Nevertheless the revolution was not just the genius of Lenin and the organisation of the Bolsheviks, it also comprised several millions of acts of individual rebellion. Once this tempest was awakened it was an unpredictable, elemental force. The avant garde artists were dancing to keep the rebellion at boiling point while the party wanted discipline, order and production. For example, in 1921, Mayakovsky produced the epic propaganda-art poem 150,000,000, an allegory of the decisive battle between 150,000,000 Soviet workers and the evil forces of capitalism. Lenin wrote a memo to Art Commissar, Lunacharsky, criticizing its publication, saying that the poem was "stupid, monstrously stupid, and pretentious" and suggesting that the Futurists be whipped. The artists dealing in controversial ideas and stirring up passions were closely watched by the secret police, the Cheka, even in Lenin's lifetime.

I am not suggesting that this is right wing play, or one opposing the idea of revolution: it is quite the opposite. It is a passionate celebration of the revolution and the creative maelstrom that it unleashed. However, it is a thought provoking examination of the relationship between individual genius and collective responsibility, to which there are no easy answers. Nor were there easy answers for the lovers, and the play shows the increasing pressure that the outside world had upon them. In 1930 Mayakovsky shot himself.

I saw the play in the Somerset market town of Frome, and it is a tribute to the professionalism and talent of the cast that they seemed undisturbed by the fact that there were only 20 people in the audience. This was a great shame, but it has to be said that everyone who was there was enthralled, which was absolutely clear both from reactions during the performance, and also the conversations during the interval and after final curtain.


January 2005


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