Volume 15 (2012)

Griboedov in Bed: Meyerhold's «Woe to Wit» and the Staging of Sexual Mores in the NEP Era

Jennifer Louise Wilson


Following the success of his modern adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The In­spector General (1925), Vsevolod Meyerhold turned his attention to Alex­ander Griboedov’s play in verse, Woe from Wit (Gore ot uma; 1823). Like The Inspector General, Griboedov’s play satirized the vain and materi­alistic culture of the early nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy. Woe from Wit tells the story of Chatsky, a young man who, after spending three years wandering throughout Western Europe, returns home to Mos­cow with the intention of proposing marriage to his childhood love, Sofya. Chatsky’s newly acquired liberal, Western views, however, make him the object of ridicule in Muscovite high society, which in turn threatens to ruin his chances of winning back Sofya. For his adaptation of the famous Griboedov play, Meyerhold took a number of liberties with the original script. Almost half of the scenes in Woe to Wit (Gore umu) are entirely new additions penned by Meyerhold.[1] On his decision to largely rewrite the original script, Meyerhold insisted that a “play is simply the excuse for the revelation of its theme on the level at which that revelation may appear vital today.”[2] In that vein, he recast the story in a contemporary setting, replacing Griboedov’s nineteenth-century aristocracy with “NEP-men,” the new Soviet aristocracy. The biggest change, however, is Meyerhold’s re­configuration of the “obscene” sexual mores of Muscovite society.

The original Woe from Wit is itself highly sexual. The opening scene is of Liza, Sofya’s maid, guarding her mistress’s bedroom door while she and her suitor, Molchalin, are alone together inside (supposedly playing music, although it is hinted at later in the play that they have been intimate with one another).[3] Meyerhold’s adaptation is no less risqué. In his version, the characters casually carry around lubricant, there is an extremely homo­erotic billiards game between a father and his future son-in-law, and Sofya, the ultra-feminine heroine of Griboedov’s play, dresses in men’s clothing and enjoys the company of female burlesque dancers. What these last two examples point to, however, is the difference in Meyerhold’s sex­ual “types.” In Meyerhold’s version of the play, Chatsky returns to find a Moscow where gender norms have been destabilized and the people regularly engage in non-normative sexual behaviors. To better understand why and how Meyerhold recalibrated the presentation of sexual norms in Woe to Wit, it is important to note that Woe from Wit was not Meyerhold’s first choice for the 1927–28 theatrical season. Meyerhold had intended to produce Sergei Tretiakov’s eugenics play I Want a Baby!, which explored the sexual mores of 1920s Soviet society. Meyerhold had actually bought the rights to produce I Want a Baby! in September of 1926, but when the censors, shocked by the frank discussion of sex and gender roles, shut down rehearsals,[4] Meyerhold then turned to the much safer Griboedov script. Or did he? I contend that what we see in this adaptation is Meyer­hold’s inscription of the questions raised in I Want a Baby! onto the Gribo­edov play. As such, this paper examines the influence of I Want a Baby! on Meyerhold’s decision to adapt Griboedov’s classic script as a staging of the specific sexual anxieties that emerged during the NEP era.

NEP was a huge source of anxiety for the more orthodox members of the Communist Party. Growing concerns over the economic and political consequences of NEP coincided with concerns over what effects the new policies might have on other facets of Soviet life—like sex. As Eric Naiman points out in Sex in Public: The Incarnation of Early Soviet Ideology, “there was a tendency in the Soviet press to attribute all forms of sexual ‘perversion’ to NEP.”[5] The party continued to associate carnal pleasure and all forms of sexual alterity with the bourgeoisie. As such, NEP-men were frequently characterized as pleasure-seeking libertines, often with homosexual tendencies. In keeping with the times, Meyerhold’s Chatsky returns to find a Moscow where people regularly engage in sexual prac­tices stereotypical of NEP men and women.

PR15 03 Wilson 01     One of the perceived effects of NEP was the disintegration of tradition­al romance, and consequently, the disappearance of the love plot in lit­erature. This is represented in Woe to Wit in that the final part of the play, in which Sofya learns that Molchalin has been cheating on her with her maid, Liza, is rendered largely inconsequential. Meyerhold writes that “Griboedov thought that the dénouement was in the fourth act. Nothing of the kind. There, a new drama is being resolved, the love intrigue in the play.”[6] In addition to cutting most of the dialogue from the final act, Mey­erhold suppresses the love plot by emphasizing Sofya’s aggressive dislike of her male suitors. In Woe to Wit, there are none of the attempts at civility that Griboedov’s Sofya affords Chatsky. In “Episode 11: The Shoot­ing Gallery,” a totally new scene written by Meyerhold, Sofya and Chatsky are alone together for the first time. Chatsky interrupts Sofya while she is in the middle of shooting practice to reiterate his feelings for her and to beg that their childhood romance be rekindled. While in the original play Sofya feigns civility and politely avoids answering his more direct ques­tions about her feelings, Meyerhold’s Sofya is completely uninterested in even speaking with Chatsky and threatens to shoot him in the chest if he does not leave her alone.

In this way, Meyerhold draws numerous parallels between Sofya and Milda, the heroine of I Want a Baby! Milda’s defining characteristic is her lack of romantic sentimentality. When offered flowers, she is repulsed and refers to them as the “plant’s sex organs.” Her choice to have a child is motivated purely by her desire to contribute a new member of the prole­tariat to Soviet society. Her affair with Yakov, the father’s child, is di­vorced from any romantic inclinations, and she chooses him based on her rudimentary understanding of eugenics (she assumes his risky behavior will compliment her general cautiousness and practicality). In his notes for the shooting gallery episode, Meyerhold wrote that it was meant to re­semble the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.[7] By placing the two charac­ters in such a famous romantic scenario, and replacing love with rancor, Meyerhold draws the viewer’s attention to the ways in which traditional romance had become obsolete and even offensive in Soviet society. While in the 1930s traditional romantic norms had been reinstated, in 1927, when Woe to Wit was in production, the post-Revolutionary ideas of free love, casual sex, and rejection of bourgeois values (including those regard­ing romantic attachment and family structure) were still in place. Thus, like Tretiakov’s Yakov, who, in the end, leaves Milda and has a child with a woman he loves, Meyerhold’s Chatsky likewise refuses to adjust to the impersonal imperatives of Soviet society in the 1920s. He insists on remaining within the tropes of romantic love.

Of course, in the original play, Sofya is similarly not in love with Chat­sky anymore, but in Griboedov’s version she demonstrates deep romantic interest in Molchalin. In the Meyerhold production, however, Sofya’s rela­tionship to Molchalin only rarely reads as romantic. Whereas the original play opens with Liza, Sofya’s maid, keeping guard as Sofya and Molchalin are alone in Sofya’s bedroom, Woe to Wit shows Liza, in the second scene, guarding an empty room. Meyerhold was adamant in his stage directions that it must be heavily marked that Liza is, in fact, alone in this scene. He explained, “Liza listens a little longer. ‘Yes, part. It’s morning—What?’ The last shot at the door must be as if she is saying the ‘What?’ to the au­dience. You have to show that there’s no one there.”[8] As the audience knows from the first scene, one of Meyerhold’s additions, Molchalin and Sofya are actually at a burlesque bar where the two spend more time ad­miring the dancers than one another. In her notes on the production, Alma Law describes the bar scene as such:

As the lights go up, the fugue is replaced by a bawdy French drinking song. We are in a dimly lit nighttime establishment of doubtful character. To the left, Sofya and Molchalin are seated at a tiny table. On a platform to the right, a Diseuse dances and sings to the accompaniment of a guitarist. A Hussar reclines near the platform trying to catch and kiss the Diseuse’s foot. Repetilov is also present drunkenly swaying to the music and indecently flirting with the “Barmaid.”[9]

Law’s description suggests that Meyerhold’s new opening scene accom­plishes several things. For one, it displaces the sexual “immorality,” tak­ing attention away from Sofya and Molchalin’s indecencies and focusing instead on the generalized sexual “depravity” of Moscow society. It also introduces Meyerhold’s new masculinized conception of Griboedov’s Sofya. In this scene, Sofya is the only female character that does not work at the bar; she is neither a dancer nor a barmaid. She is instead fixed squarely within the entirely male clientele, foreshadowing what will be a trend of masculine behavior (like in the shooting gallery) on her part.

PR15 03 Wilson 02     Critics have, however, struggled to identify the essence of the original Sofya’s femininity. In an 1825 letter to Bestuzhev, for example, Pushkin complained that Sofya “is not sketched in clearly; on the one hand, she seems a tart, on the other, a Moscow miss.”[10] In “A Defense of Sof´ja,” Ger­ald Janacek describes her as innocent and turned on by the “charms” of “chaste adoration.”[11] Meyerhold completely undoes these aspects of Sofya’s personality, stripping her of all of her previously held, stereotypically fem­inine qualities, both emotional and physical. For example, in addition to spending time in places like burlesque clubs and shooting ranges, some of her costumes look like men’s clothing. Her hair always is pinned under a hat, hidden from view. Furthermore, Sofya’s masculine appearance would have been further highlighted by the contrast between her and Liza, who dresses in a flowy white dress and wears her hair in long braids.

Perhaps because of Meyerhold’s masculinization of Sofya, the most puzzling of his changes to the original play occurs in “Episode 4: The Dancing Lesson.” In Griboedov’s version, this scene simply involves a con­versation between Sofya and Liza about the former’s various suitors. In Meyerhold’s adaptation, that discussion is combined with a dance lesson. In Woe to Wit, Sofya decides to perform an eighteenth-century “divertisse­ment” at the ball, and she practices with Liza while talking about Chat­sky, Molchalin, and Skalozub, the colonel favored by her father, Famusov. The music, the basket she dances with, and the type of dance would all have been perceived as extremely feminine. In this respect, it is important to consider how this would have looked on stage. Sofya’s appearance, combined with her foray into masculine activities, turns this scene, in which she literally performs femininity, into a farce.[12]

PR15 03 Wilson 03     Like Meyerhold’s Sofya, Tretiakov’s Milda also first appears dressed in men’s clothing, and throughout the play she is mistaken for a man. At one point, however, she does “dress up” as a woman. When Yakov tells Milda that she does not arouse him (and thus he cannot fulfill his agree­ment to impregnate her), she puts on make-up and a revealing dress to seduce him. Nonetheless, even in her softer attire, she maintains her rough and unsentimental manner. As in the case of Meyerhold’s Sofya, Milda’s attempt to ascribe to gender norms reads as forced and awkward.

Meyerhold actually bought the rights to produce I Want a Baby! in September of 1926, and he expected to stage it in the 1927–28 theatrical season. Rehearsals began in February of 1927 and were well underway until the play was censored by Glavrepertkom (the Party commission in charge of approving theatrical repertoires). Eventually, Meyerhold was granted permission to restage it in 1928, but only if it were presented as a “discussion piece” that would allow the audience to interject in the middle of the performance to provide “correct” interpretations of what was hap­pening on stage. Meyerhold agreed, and the play went back into produc­tion, until, shortly afterwards, the play was finally censored indefinitely.

The reasons behind the censoring of I Want a Baby! are not completely clear. Christina Kiaer has argued that it was Tretiakov’s use of the new “science” of eugenics to challenge the gender binary that proved especially worrisome to the censors. For example, in “Nostalgia, Alienation, and the Future of Reproduction in Tretiakov’s I Want a Child!” Kiaer suggests that:

Tretiakov also challenges eugenics theoretically, through a Marx­ist critique of its potential alienation of the labor of the male (re)producer and through a critique of the traditional gender roles that were reinforced by the contemporary Soviet manifestation of eugenics.… The play scrambles assumptions about traditional gender roles, refusing the supposedly natural link between biology and lived gender.[13]

As Kiaer points out, the most anxiety-producing take on gender in the 1920s would have been that gender was a construct and unfixed, even bio­logically. Femininity and masculinity as guiding principles for proper sex­ual behavior were seriously in crisis in the late NEP era. As such, this period marked a transitional stage in Soviet rhetoric regarding appropri­ate behavior for women. While post-Revolutionary women were asked to reject traditional models of femininity (i.e., domesticity, maternity), in the late 1920s the Party slowly began to regress back to more traditional roles for women. Party commitment for women was increasingly measured by how many children they produced. As Eric Naiman points out in “Histor­ectomies: On the Metaphysics of Reproduction in a Utopian Age,” the post-NEP era was a time “when large families were rewarded, when abortions and divorce were made more difficult and when the Soviet Union was about making babies.”[14] Naiman adroitly takes notice of how this senti­ment marks a paradigm shift regarding the issue of femininity in Soviet society:

Symbols, however, like fertility, may be manipulated and con­trolled, and maternity’s match to utopian aspirations in the Soviet period produced some curious offspring.… The revolution, Boris Pilnyak tells us, was a time when “women’s muffs disappeared in Russia because women grew masculine.” And female pregnancy could still be depicted in terms intended to disgust.[15]

Meyerhold’s version of Woe to Wit presents Sofya coping with these mixed signals. She is a masculinized, post-Revolutionary Soviet woman who is suddenly expected to fit into the role of a Juliet.

Woe to Wit also addresses the anxieties over masculinity that took place during NEP. In Meyerhold’s adaptation, we constantly see the “mas­culine bravado” associated with War Communism clashing with the effem­inacy supposedly inspired by the decadent underpinnings of NEP. In Gri­boedov’s version of the play, for example, Chatsky is a student, whereas in Woe to Wit he has served in the military, and his intellectual heroes are more masculine Romantics like Pushkin and Lermontov than Westernized intellectuals like Pyotr Chaadaev.

Consider, for instance, the ball scene, where Chatsky runs into an old friend from the army, Platon Mikhailovich, and his extremely domineering wife. She boasts to Chatsky that her husband “diligently performs his marital responsibilities.”[16] Platon Mikhailovich then explains to Chatsky that life is very different under his wife’s watchful eye than it was during the war. In his notes on this scene, Meyerhold uses language evocative of the then very influential discourses of eugenics and degeneration to de­scribe the relationship between Platon Mikhailovich and his wife:

[Platon Mikhailovich] has two bases: the first which protests and the other which gives in. The first basis is an energetic one, while the second gives up its positions to energy. He has moments as a strong person and moments as a person with weakened muscles.[17]

Platon Mikhailovich’s “energetic” base presumably correlates to his time in the army, and his second base, the one that easily gives in, to his return to Moscow society. The contrast between the virile man of War Commu­nist Russia and the weak degenerate men of the NEP period becomes a central theme in Meyerhold’s production. It appears again in Meyerhold’s characterization of Molchalin, who, unlike the strong, battle-fresh Chat­sky, is written as weak and aristocratic. Chatsky, as in the original play, remains impervious to the negative influences of Muscovite society; he is never “degraded” by his new surroundings. In Griboedov’s version, that means that Chatsky never becomes enraptured by material pleasures and vanity. In Meyerhold’s restaging, Chatsky’s refusal to conform translates into a refusal to sacrifice his masculinity.

Nevertheless, Yuri Tynianov argues in “Siuzhet Goria ot uma” that this very same issue, the crisis of Russian masculinity, provoked anxiety in Griboedov’s time as well. In fact, Tynianov reads Griboedov’s play as fundamentally affected by his growing concerns over the increased influ­ence of women in Russian society and politics, claiming that “Woe from Wit is a comedy about the stagnation of that time, the power of women, and decline of men.”[18] He argues that Sofya’s preference for Molchalin over Chatsky has to do with the fact that she knows, or at least believes, that she can exert more power over him. Tynianov also suggests that Sofya purposefully chooses the silent (as his name implies) Molchalin so as not to be contradicted or challenged ever. Indeed, the men of Woe from Wit are incessantly seeking to improve their social standing with the help of aristocratic women. At one point, Molchalin advises Chatsky to become ac­quainted with Tatiana Yurievna, a well-connected society lady in Moscow who can help him advance professionally. Also, when Chatsky sees how Platon Mikhailovich bends under the will of his wife, he infamously de­clares him a “boy-husband, a servant-husband, a lady’s page—the high ideal of all Moscow men.”[19] Even the last lines of the play consist of Famusov yelling out, “What will Marya Alekseevna think of this?”[20] pre­sumably referring to a society acquaintance. Tynianov argues that Gribo­edov, through his experience in the foreign service, had become concerned about the encroachment of women into political life. He insists that “au­tocracy has been for years the business of women. Even Alexander I considered himself to be under his mother’s authority. Griboedov knew, as a diplomat, what kind of influence women exerted in the Persian court.”[21]

However, it must be noted that in “Siuzhet Goria ot uma,” Tynianov frequently imposes the concerns of the time when he was writing, the 1920s, onto his reading of the play. In fact, Tynianov often misreads the signifiers of masculinity in Woe from Wit. For instance, he associates timidity and shyness with femininity, arguing that Sofya prefers Mol­chalin not simply for being silent, but for being shy. I would argue that he mistakenly attributes the latter quality to Molchalin in his interpretation of Sofya’s dream:

According to her poetic, but false portrait of him, Molchalin is smarmy and smart, but timid. He is a businessman and a bureau­crat. He is just starting off in his career, but a bright future lies ahead of him. This suffering businessman shows up in Sofya’s dream. There he appears poor and “tormented.”
     And it tortured him, just to sit with me
     …smarmy and smart
     …but timid … you know those, born into poverty?[22]

This timidity, which is synonymous with awkwardness, would be better attributed to Chatsky. Yes, Chatsky was not born poor like Molchalin, but it was not uncommon for men of higher social status to mimic the so-called awkward manners of the raznochintsy in order to demonstrate political allegiance with the often more radical men of lower social origins.

In Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism: A Study in the Semiotics of Behavior, Irina Paperno explains that radicals of plebian origin, like Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky, were known for their awkwardness and timidity, particularly in the company of women. Many of the raznochintsy, having come from non-aristocratic backgrounds, were considered to be lacking in the social skills expected of a gentleman. As Paperno details, they often reported feelings of social isolation: “Separation from their roots and hostility toward society contributed to a spirit of loneliness and reti­cence in approaching others, and to an overwhelming feeling of social infe­riority and embarrassed timidity.”[23] Thus poor but educated men felt at once alienated from their origins as well as from upper-class society.

As Anne Hruska claims in “Loneliness and Social Class in Tolstoy’s Trilogy Childhood, Boyhood, Youth”:

The idea of the raznochinets as isolated both from society and from love due to lack of ease in social settings, was very common in the literature of the early 19th-century. In his 1852 poem “Shyness” [“Zastenchivost´”] the poet Nekrasov describes the torments of a raznochinets in love with a society beauty. He feels woefully inade­quate in the company of the elegant men who surround her. Simi­larly, in Herzen’s 1847 novel Who is to Blame?, the doctor’s son is awkward to the point of the absurd. He almost faints when first introduced to his employer’s wife.[24]

Griboedov’s Chatsky is similarly awkward around women. In the play, when Chatsky meets Platon Mikhailovich’s wife, Natalya Dmitrievna, he begins to make advances, not knowing that she is married. His manners are odd and Natalya Dmitrievna laughs at his attempts to flirt with her. He then lashes out angrily when he learns that she has a husband, al­though he calms down once he realizes her husband is his old acquain­tance. This detail is missing from the Meyerhold version. In Woe to Wit, Natalya Dmitrievna speaks to Chatsky first, and their interaction is purely platonic. The trope of awkwardness is missing from the Meyerhold adaptation, because it was no longer relevant in the early twentieth cen­tury. Awkwardness did not necessarily accompany the ideal of Soviet as­ceticism the way it did the monasticism of the early Russian radical movement. One could therefore argue that Tynianov’s map of masculinity suffers from the fact that he imposes early twentieth-century conceptions of masculinity onto his analysis of Griboedov’s play.

In fact, during NEP, it was the emergence of the figure of the “hooligan” that preoccupied the Party’s concerns over male sexuality. In the Soviet press, “hooliganism” came to be an ambiguous term that gener­ally pertained to crimes committed by youths that involved violence or sexual impropriety. As Eric Naiman explains in Sex in Public, the sexual “depravities” associated with hooliganism were frequently attributed to NEP policies:

In the Party and Komsomol press, the sources of hooliganism and of its frequent companion, sexual depravity, were usually traced to two disparate mentalities attributed to corresponding periods of Soviet history: War Communism and NEP. In the former period, according to columnists looking backward, all behavioral niceties had been thrust aside. Hooligans were portrayed as having diffi­culty adjusting to the absence of war; their excess energy was be­ing channeled in the wrong directions.… Bourgeois ways of life, resuscitated along with the reintroduction of elements of a capital­ist economy, were tempting Soviet youth, dragging the former “heroes” of the Civil War into an abyss of uncontrolled money-grubbing, gambling and fornication.[25]

One of the most notorious examples of “hooliganism” was the Chu­barov Alley Rape scandal of 1926, in which twenty-four men raped a young woman in an alley next to a factory. Chubarov was especially em­barrassing for the Party because many of the perpetrators were factory workers, members of the proletariat. Chubarov presented the Party with a sort of identity crisis. As Dan Healey explains in Bolshevik Sexual Foren­sics, “Early party ideology implied that rape was somehow a relic of the past or a depravity reflecting bourgeois man’s proprietal view of women.”[26] Thus, the fact that the men involved were workers required a theoretical rethinking by the Party regarding the impulse to commit rape. Healey fur­ther writes that the Party theorized the Chubarov incident as a symptom of the transition from War Communism to NEP:

For Soviet officialdom, Chubarov Alley became a landmark. In party thinking—the Chubarov episode also represented a distur­bance of the tenets of the New Economic Policy. Demoralized worker-youth, confused by the ambiguous messages of this transi­tional period sought to recapture the heroic violence and mascu­line bravado of the civil war era, or were lured away from Com­munist values by the attraction of petty-bourgeois pleasures such as drinking, gambling, and indiscriminate sex.[27]

Tretiakov, as an advocate of the documentary art movement, incorpo­rated the recent news of Chubarov in his play, including a scene in I Want a Baby! where a young woman is raped behind a nearby factory. Meyer­hold also introduced the issue of sexual violence into Woe to Wit. In his version of the play, Liza is repeatedly the victim of sexual aggression, once at the hands of Famusov and again by Molchalin. Whereas in the Gribo­edov version these trysts were consensual (particular in the case of Molchalin), in Meyerhold’s script Liza is an unwilling participant, thus re­flecting the sexual anxieties of the time. In “Episode 10: At the Door,” Molchalin finds Liza alone and begins to proposition her. In his notes, Meyerhold writes down Molchalin’s lines and in parentheses explains that Liza is often the victim of these sorts of unwanted sexual advances:

Molchalin: I have pomade for your lips (he taps her lips) and “for other uses…” (he whispers in her ear) “…mignonette perfume” (he kisses her on one cheek), “and jasmine” (he kisses her on the other). (And Liza is so used to having everybody squeeze her that she doesn’t react at all to this.)[28]

PR15 03 Wilson 05Though it is written that she has no reaction, the photos from the produc­tion show Liza struggling with Molchalin and fighting to escape his grasp.

In an earlier scene, Liza finds herself similarly fending off the ad­vances of Famusov. In his notes, Meyerhold wrote:

Famusov enters. He walks around the room, hands behind his back, and then throws himself at Liza, grabs her, bending her to the right and then to the left. Liza breaks away. He throws him­self at Liza… Liza runs around the room and then hides behind the armchair. Famusov climbs on the armchair. “Oi, rascal” (a blow on the cheek), “scamp” (a blow on the other cheek)… (a blow on the back).[29]

This scene was meant to give off an almost menacing feeling to the audi­ence. Meyerhold directed the actor playing Famusov to laugh as loudly as possible while attacking Liza. He insisted that “your laughter has to be stronger than these words so that the words are just barely heard—a long unbroken, almost legato laughter with a huge reserve. The laughter is endless… so that there’s not so much Liza in this scene as laughter.”[30] Afterwards Famusov throws her onto the couch, but Sofya enters and interrupts them before anything more can happen. In Griboedov’s version, Liza protests Famusov’s advances, but it is light-hearted and her main concern is that Sofya will find them. There is nothing of the violence that takes place in Meyerhold’s rendition.

PR15 03 Wilson 04     By introducing the theme of sexual violence into Woe to Wit, Meyer­hold represented the deep concern Party leaders had over the social conse­quences of the rapid shift from the spartanism of the War Communism pe­riod to the relative liberalism of NEP. As Healey touches upon, there was a widespread fear that the excess pleasures of capitalism mixed with the excess energy stirred by war had created a male population lacking in sex­ual self-control. This lack of self-control was diagnosed by the Party as a unique form of decadence brought about by NEP. Very soon, as Sheila Fitzpatrick describes in The Cultural Front: Power and Culture in Revolu­tionary Russia,there began a widespread campaign against it: “In 1926–27 the party ran a propaganda campaign, aimed mainly at Komsomol members and students, against “decadence”—a pose of cynicism and polit­ical disillusionment modeled after the poet Sergei Esenin, bohemianism, and the alleged youth ideology of casual sex without responsibility.”[31]

Fitzpatrick goes on to explain that homosexuality was considered an integral part of “decadent” behavior, and that it was during this time that prominent gay figures in Russian culture like Sergei Esenin and Sergei Eisenstein found themselves under increased pressure to marry. In gen­eral, there was a call for stricter adherence to traditional gender and sex norms. As Healey explains: “After 1917, the anti-sodomy law, like the rest of the tsarist legal codes, was discarded. But dark clouds were forming over homosexual expression, whether symbolic or literal. Soviet legal and medical experts tried to find ‘cures’ for this degenerative disease of the terminally bourgeois.”[32] This trend marked a total abandonment of the revolution’s promises of tolerance for non-traditional sex relations. Fur­thermore, the fact that rape was grouped with consensual homosexual sex under the heading of “decadence” is only further evidence of the repug­nant turn the Party’s sexual policies were beginning to take.

The perceived prevalence of NEP-inspired homoeroticism is also pre­sented in Woe to Wit. In “Episode 7: the Billiard Room and Library,” Sof­ya’s father and another potential suitor, Colonel Skalozub, play billiards together and discuss the latter’s marital prospects. Skalozub, however, shows no interest in Sofya, and this scene becomes instead about the sex­ual tension between the two men themselves. Their game is full of gratu­itous and highly suggestive rubbing of the cue sticks. Their moves in the game are punctuated by raccouris, moments of accentuated movement. This is the second time these raccouris appear in the play. The first is in an earlier scene in which Famusov was attempting to have sex with the maid, Liza. The raccouris in the billiard scene thus connect it to the ear­lier scene, suggesting that something sexual is happening here too. In his notes on this scene, Meyerhold writes that “Skalozub must walk around and Famusov follow after him. Here you get a kind of allegory. Famusov is courting a fiancé who is slipping away.”[33] It is important to note that while Meyerhold may have been representing certain anxieties over homo­sexuality in Soviet society, he himself was not made anxious by any of them and enjoyed this scene immensely. He was fascinated by the bil­liards game as a way of staging sexual tension and intended the scene to last for an extended period of time. In his notes on this scene, he wrote:

[I]n the very beginning when they rack the balls, when they break and the balls scatter. That’s very effective, very picturesque. In general, playing billiards is very interesting, and I am astonished that it’s not used in the theater. I remember going specially to lis­ten to that clicking of the balls.[34]

Law points out that Meyerhold was obsessed with this scene and that soon the billiard game “took on a life of its own, the audience eagerly following each shot.”[35]

This last point brings us to what is perhaps Meyerhold’s greatest achievement in his attempt to weave together the ideas of Griboedov with the questions of Tretiakov. At every step, Meyerhold upholds the political and moral ambiguities that defined both I Want a Baby! and Woe from Wit. In neither play is the protagonist always meant to elicit the approval of the audience, just as the antagonists are not always intended to repel the audience.

Historically, Griboedov’s play has been interpreted in two ways. The interpretation favored by Soviet officials presented Chatsky as the play’s hero, a tragic figure who is ostracized for his aversion to the tsarist, ma­terialist way of life favored by the likes of Famusov. In the other interpre­tation, Chatsky is a fool, completely unable to connect with those around him emotionally; he awkwardly bumbles about on stage. Vladimir Putin, evidently preferring the first variant, infamously complained when a pro­duction of Woe fromWit at the Sovremennik Theater in St. Petersburg presented Chatsky as simpleton.[36]

Griboedov, however, strove for a compromise between these two poten­tial interpretations. In a letter to playwright and critic Pavel Katenin, Griboedov insisted that he hated caricature and that it did not exist any­where in the text of Woe from Wit.[37]Meyerhold similarly produced Woe to Wit in a more tempered vein. He explained:

I consider it our mission to show in the theater that people should­n’t be divided into negative and positive. The most positive person can have very negative characteristics and vice versa. You have to show that people are very complex. Therefore, even Famusov will sometimes be likeable, even amusing, and not someone around the stage with his mug smeared with a negative expression. Otherwise, Chatsky will be a revolutionary and Famusov a conservative.[38]

Likewise, Tretiakov stated clearly that he had hoped I Want a Baby! would serve merely as a way of sparking debate. He wanted to “put love on the operating table,” to dissect it, but not to offer a clear diagnosis. As such, in producing Woe to Wit, Meyerhold was careful to uphold all the as­pects of Chatsky’s personality (and politics) that made him an attractive character to the Soviet censors. However, he was equally careful to place the play’s “sexual deviants” on some of the production’s most seductive stage sets.


Princeton University



Wilson, Jennifer. "Griboedov in Bed: Meyerhold's Woe to Wit and the Staging of Sexual Mores in the NEP Era." Pushkin Review 15 (2012): 143-60.

[1] In putting together the new script, Meyerhold made use of all three of Gribo­edov’s original manuscripts, especially the earliest and more Romantic version, “Museum Autograph.”

[2] Cited in Alma H. Law, “Meyerhold’s Woe to Wit,TDR/The Drama Review 18: 3 (1974): 89. A complete script of Woe to Wit does not exist. My source material is Alma Law’s reconstruction of the play, which comprises her article in TDR. Ac­cording to Law, Meyerhold’s quotations are based on “verbatim transcripts made during Meyerhold’s rehearsals from late November 1927 to March 1928, just a few days before the premiere on March 12” (93).

[3] In the final moments of the play, after discovering that Molchalin is having an affair with her maid, Liza, Sofya angrily yells that she will tell her father the truth about their relationship, even if it ruins them. She specifically mentions their nightly trysts: “Be glad that you were not so timid when we met in the still of the night.” Alexander Griboedov, Gore ot uma: P´esy, stikhotvoreniia, stat´i, putevye za­piski (Moscow: Eksmo Press, 2006). All translations done by myself unless other­wise noted.

[4] Christina Kiaer, “Nostalgia, Alienation, and the Future of Reproduction in Tretiakov’s I Want a Child!” in Everyday Life in Soviet Russia: Taking the Revolu­tion Inside, ed. Kiaer and Eric Naiman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 186.

[5] Eric Naiman, Sex in Public: The Incarnation of Early Soviet Ideology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 138.

[6] Law, “Meyerhold,” 106.

[7] Ibid., 101.

[8] Ibid., 94.

[9] Ibid., 93.

[10] Alexander Pushkin, Pushkin on Literature, trans. Tatiana Wolff (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 132.

[11] Gerald Janacek, “A Defense of Sof´ja,” The Slavic and East European Journal 21: 3 (1977): 320.

[12] Aside from the gender implications of the dancing scene, this episode also points to Meyerhold’s increased inclusion of music and dance in his stage productions. Law writes that “Meyerhold regarded Woe to Wit as marking an important stage in the development of a new form of musical drama that would be neither opera nor drama with musical accompaniment, but a synthesis of these elements closer to the traditions of the Oriental theater” (“Meyerhold,” 91). In fact, many of the scenes added by Meyerhold, including “The Shooting Range,” are large productions that tested the limits of the stage. Meyerhold was always pushing the boundaries of theater, in part because of his competition with the encroaching medium of film and his rivalry with Eisenstein.

[13] Kiaer, “Nostalgia,” 186.

[14] Eric Naiman, “Historectomies: On the Metaphysics of Reproduction in a Uto­pian Age,” in Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, ed. J. Costlow, S. Sand­ler, and J. Vowles (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 275.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Law, “Meyerhold,” 102.

[17] Ibid., 102.

[18] Yuri Tynianov, “Siuzhet Goria ot uma,” in “Gore ot uma” v russkoi kritike i literaturovedenii, ed. V. M. Markovich (St. Petersburg: Azbuka-Klassika, 2002), 328.

[19] Griboedov, Gore ot uma, 134.

[20] Ibid., 135.

[21] Tynianov, “Siuzhet,” 328.

[22] Ibid., 328.

[23] Irina Paperno, Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism: A Study in the Semiotics of Behavior (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 75–76.

[24] Anne Hruska, “Loneliness and Social Class in Tolstoy’s Trilogy Childhood, Boy­hood, Youth,” The Slavic and East European Journal 44: 1 (2000): 65–66.

[25] Naiman, Sex in Public, 260.

[26] Dan Healey, Bolshevik Sexual Forensics: Diagnosing Disorder in the Clinic and the Courtroom 1917–1939 (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009), 83.

[27] Ibid., 83.

[28] Law, “Meyerhold,” 94.

[29] Ibid., 94.

[30] Ibid., 94.

[31] Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Cultural Front: Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 68.

[32] Healey, Bolshevik Sexual Forensics, 142.

[33] Law, “Meyerhold,” 98.

[34] Ibid., 97.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Victor Sonkin, “Griboedov’s Woe from Wit,” The Saint Petersburg Times, 18 March 2008, http://www.sptimesrussia.com/.

[37] Alexander Griboedov to Pavel Aleksandrovich Katenin, January 1825, in “Gore ot uma”v russkoi kritike i literaturovedenii, 46.

[38] Law, “Meyerhold,” 97.