Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature

Moscow in Flames
(V. Mayakovsky and the Circus)

A. Fevralsky

Written: 1940;
Source: The Soviet Circus: A Collection of Articles, 1967;
Translated: Fainna Glagoleva;
Compiled: Alexander Lipovsky;
Photographs: Y. Savalov and others;
HTML Markup: For in February, 2002.

Mayakovsky wrote Moscow in Flames especially for the circus, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1905 Revolution. The original title was 1905.

The first part of the presentation was based on the Manifesto of October 17, a general strike, preparations for an armed uprising, fighting on the barricades, a punitive expedition and the defeat of revolutionary Presnya. Mayakovsky said his intention was to present "a general idea of 1905" in which the audience would see how "the working class went through its dress rehearsal, and to bring events up-to-date."

These recollections of 1905 stressed their continuity and their relationship to current events.

When Mayakovsky began working on Moscow in Flames he made a thorough study of everything pertaining to the events of the first Russian Revolution and used these data in his presentation, including satirical poems and songs of the period and several comic skits based on political cartoons of the time.

Moscow in Flames was more of a review than even Mystery-Buff. Its twenty-odd episodes included a great number of characters, most of whom appeared only once. Thus it was, according to Mayakovsky, "a literary and historical arrangement." The sequence of scenes was determined by the chronology of actual events. Thus, as a whole, it was a panorama of the 1905 Revolution as seen from the vantage point of the Soviet epoch.

As in Mystery-Buff, the emotional impact of the play was largely determined by a masterly combination of comedy, buffoonery and drama.

Moscow in Flames was, of all Mayakovsky's work, most akin to Mystery-Bluff in its manner of presenting a mass popular spectacle, in its scope, exaggeration, its simple language intended for a large auditorium and sharpened to a fine point by the magnificent poetry which took it from the heights of true publicism to a level of somewhat crude, satiric humour. Though the "cosmic" scale of Mystery-Buff was absent in Moscow in Flames, the scene was now the country as a whole, now a great metropolis, and the words from "Order to the Army of Art" came to life anew:

The streets--our hands,
The square--out easel...

Mayakovsky's emergence as the author of a major work written especially for the circus was in no way accidental. It was the logical conclusion of everything he had done before as a dramatist. In Mystery-Buff, The Bedbug, and The Bath-House circus tricks and magic were included in plays to be presented in the theatre, as noted in the subtitles of the latter two: "A Magic Comedy" and "A Drama with a Circus and Fireworks," while several scenes from Mystery-Buff were rehearsed in the circus. The Championship of the World Class Struggle which appeared later and was written especially for the circus was a short production with only three circus acts--wrestling, clowning and a monologue. Moscow in Flames, the last of these, was truly a circus spectacular, including every kind of genre possible beneath the Big Top.

Mayakovsky enriched the circus with his political awareness and wit, with his magnificent poetry and sense of drama. However, Moscow in Flames was in no way an experiment in producing drama in the circus. Mayakovsky's script was based on the very specific nature of the circus, in many episodes the playwright and master of the written word stepped aside for the playwright producer of spectacles. It is in the various remarks and marginal notations of Moscow in Flames that we find a new aspect of Mayakovsky, the playwright. Though Mayakovsky always took part in staging his plays, never before had he risen to his full height as a producer. We find in the marginal notes uncommon imagination and wit in staging the action and situation comedy. Mayakovsky made extremely good use of the various circus genres and of the different means necessary to produce the desired effect. His working copy contains such precise and definite descriptions of the clowning, traditional circus tricks and acts, and of the accessories used, that the producer finds he has little to d0--everything has already been done for him by the author.

There is a red-headed clown and one who plays a musical instrument, there are other clowns, a trapeze act, aerialists, a stilt-walker, various parades, animal-trainers with hoops, horses, dogs and an aquatic pantomime, and all this is part and parcel of the theme, each act or trick serves to emphasise a given event or characterise a given personage. Thus, the redheaded clown jumping through a hoop personified Kerensky's career as a minister, etc. Mayakovsky said: "The circus today is beginning to drift away from naked tricks in an attempt to present the various acts in some social content. Thus, water fulfils a very special role of its own, washing away fences. The same is true of the horses."

Ah available space was to be used, the ring, the barrier, the specially built platforms and the entire area within the circus. Lighting played a great part in changing scenes, in spotlighting groups of performers. There were numbers that shone in the dark, rays of light, a map that lit up, and a shining hammer and sickle that rose from the water. A screen was used for producing shadows and showing excerpts from films.

The dialogue followed the traditional circus plan.

It was only in the Heralds' Introduction that the text was of a generalised nature. Otherwise, the dialogue followed the action. Both were like a series of posters, short and to the point. That is why it fitted in so well in a theatre in the round, that is why it did not detract from the circus acts but provided extra emphasis. The overall effect of the spoken parts was heightened by frequent changes in rhythm and inflexion. Thus, the Prologue recited by the heralds began with the solemn appeal:

Proud of the year 1917,
Don't forget about 1905!
A year of undying glory and fame,
When the dream of the land came alive. ..

and was followed by a scene that began with a clown's comic query :

What for such a dreadful amount of pants?

This scene was an image created with words and put into action. The same principle was used in several other scenes as, for instance, the bloody paw that appeared through the tsar's manifesto.

The circus arena gave Mayakovsky an opportunity to present spectacular scenes which could only be hinted at on a regular stage: a fire, barricade battles, a cavalry charge, horse-drawn carriages and trams, automobiles and tractors. Of special interest was the magnificent caricature of the dethroned dynasty in which equestrian and larger-than-life statues of former tsars came forth and broke ranks as a clown standing on a shattered crown recited:

Comrade circus, where's your grin?
Here's a sight to tickle us:
Look and see who's trotting in:
The dynasty of Nicholas!

Despite its great diversity of theatrical effects, Moscow in Flames was staged according to a single artistic principle. To this day it remains the only major literary work written especially for the circus.