NIKOLAI ERDMAN'S
THE MANDATE

In a new version by Declan Donnellan

Monday, May 1, 7:30 pm

Lucille Lortel Theatre

121 Christopher St.

directed by Ethan McSweeny

featuring Jenny Bacon, Steven Boyer, Blair Brown, Christian Conn, Susannah Flood,  Carol Halstead, Chasten Harmon, Jeffrey Omura, Dave Quay, Derek Smith, Chris Thorn, Andrew Weems, Spiff Wiegand, Kim Wong

 

Set in Moscow during the early days of Stalin, Erdman's The Mandate is a hilarious and spirited attack on the sinister loss of individual identity in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. 


A family of ex-grocers tries to marry into a group of closet Tsarist romantics. The husband for the daughter, however, has to be a bona fide communist. As the petty bourgeoisie frantically rustle up a group of fake proletarian relatives we soon discover that, in Erdman's world, everything turns out to be outrageously less than it seems.

 

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ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT

 

Nikolai Erdman (1900-1970) wrote just two full plays, but both are considered classics of 20th-century comedy. He wrote both for the great, innovative Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold, although the politics of the early Soviet period meant their historic association would be cut short tragically. Erdman was exiled to Siberia in 1933 after Meyerhold’s attempt to stage his second play, The Suicide, was banned; and less than a decade later, in 1941, Meyerhold himself was executed as a “foreign spy.” Erdman never wrote another stage play.

Erdman’s first major play, The Mandate (1925), was a game-changer for Soviet theater. It was hailed as the first “Soviet” comedy, and Erdman was compared to every great Russian playwright or comic writer of the past - Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin, Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin, Alexander Ostrovsky and Anton Chekhov. The Mandate gave Meyerhold one of his biggest box office hits ever - it took less than one year to reach its 100th performance; unheard-of for a theater running numerous productions simultaneously in repertory. One scholar counted no less than 336 discrete bursts of laughter unleashed by audiences during the course of a single performance. Even at four hours performance time, that adds up to new surges of laughter every 45 seconds.

All was not fun and games, however. By 1927, the censor began cutting more and more phrases from the performance, and, after The Suicide was banned in 1932, Erdman was no longer the talk of the town, he was driven out of it. Still, the tenacious legend that he lived out his life a broken, forgotten man is seriously exaggerated. In fact, he turned his talents to screenwriting, penning some of Russia’s best and most popular features and animated films from the 1930s through the 1960s. Meanwhile, his plays returned to us in the 1970s and 1980s as classics.

ABOUT THE PLAY

 

The Mandate, written in 1925 and staged by Vsevolod Meyerhold in Moscow that same year, has always taken a backseat in criticisms and histories to Nikolai Erdman’s second play, The Suicide (banned 1932, first produced in Sweden in 1969). But there is always good reason to question received wisdom. Declan Donnellan, prior to staging The Mandate at the National Theatre in London in 2004, shared his thoughts with me on this topic. “I don’t know why everyone assumes The Suicide is the masterpiece,” he wrote in an email, “I always thought the masterpiece was The Mandate.”

This first major play by a writer who had still not reached the age of 25 was chock full of influences from the works, writers and genres that preceded it. You have an opening that beautifully parodies Alexander Ostrovsky’s brilliant portraits drawn from the Moscow merchant milieu. The ending reworks the impact of the famous stunned, mute finale of Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. You have farcical elements drawn from the circus (the Soviet circus was one of the most innovative, experimental performing arts in Russia after the Revolution). Political and social satire rain down on all sides, coloring, though never fully determining the shape of this strange and wonderful play. Even a tad of Chekhovian lyricism peeks out from behind the almost tender, gentle (though wickedly ironic) portrayal of the play’s hapless antihero, Pavel Gulyachkin. (I’m not making these claims loosely - the lyrical, Chekhovian strain in The Mandate was pointed out very early by two of the Soviet Union’s most astute theatrical observers, the great critic Pavel Markov and the first Commissar for People’s Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky.)

But, perhaps the strongest lineage in The Mandate’s DNA is that of the Russian tragicomedy, or its more caustic cousin the tragifarce. Russian criticism did not always employ the term tragicomedy (tragifarce joined us only in the 20th century), but it did evolve another term that has served us well for over 200 years - “laughter through tears.” Russians, unlike the British (and Americans, too) do not have an affinity with laughter for the sake of laughter. Pure, knock-’em-back comedy is a rare visitor there. Nor is it ever an intellectual or philosophical exercise as it might be on French or German territory. No, Russia feels the pain of humor (thus, of course, pointing a finger in the direction of the theater of the absurd that would come much later). This is the rich and varied territory that Erdman began to till with The Mandate, and went on to develop in The Suicide.

But if The Mandate were nothing more than a sum of its influences, it would be little more than a dramatic shopping bag. In fact, this complex, fascinating play about people getting the rug pulled out from under their feet (or tossed over their heads, as the case may be), is one of the most powerful and enigmatic plays of the 20th century. As we move deeper into the 21st century, we still seek answers to the questions it poses.

John Freedman, author of Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman

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