Unpublished Nikolai Erdman for MERSH


This piece on Nikolai Erdman never appeared in Modern Encyclopedia for Russian and Soviet History. My editor commissioned it from me and I happily wrote it. But just before I was about to send it to him, he wrote me again to say he’d made a terrible blunder – he had mistakenly commissioned two articles on Erdman. The other author was a grad student writing one of her first, if not her very first, professional article. He hated to tell her he couldn’t publish her even though my commission had come first, and he asked if I would mind withdrawing my piece in her favor. It might be an exaggeration to say I didn’t mind, because I minded. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to cross the pass of a young scholar taking her first steps in publishing. So I said, No problem, let her piece run. I will say this, however, I never wrote for MERSH again. The caricature above is from around 1922/23 and was done by Nikolai’s brother Boris. The manuscript below is from the first page of two extant versions of Nikolai’s last, unfinished, play The Hypnotist. It’s a good example of Erdman’s calligraphic handwriting. The play was abandoned around 1940 or 1941. I’m guessing that the manuscript was done a little before that, but that’s just conjecture. 

An unpublished text written for Modern Encyclopedia for Russian and Soviet History
By John Freedman

ERDMAN, NIKOLAI ROBERTOVICH (1900-1970). Playwright and screenwriter, a seminal figure in the comic tradition in Russian and Soviet theater and cinema. 

Erdman was the second of two sons born in Moscow to a Russian mother and a father of Germanic lineage from the Latvian city of Mitava. His father Robert Karlovich Erdman (1860-1950), a factory bookkeeper, spoke Russian fluently but with a thick German accent, likely attuning his son’s ear to the nuances of language. Erdman began writing poetry at age thirteen and through his brother Boris Erdman (1899-1960), who would become a distinguished stage designer, entered the literary and theatrical world in 1918. See also Erdman, Boris Robertovich, SMERSH, Vol. 8. Following service in the Red Army in 1919-1920, Erdman joined the Imagist group of poets, fronted by Sergei Aleksandrovich Yesenin (1895-1925), publishing poetry in their publications and taking part in their public appearances. In 1922 he debuted as the author of topical comic sketches, parodies, satires and librettos, writing scripts for over two dozen shows at various Moscow clubs and small theaters. Most noteworthy were his comic interludes for Dmitry Lensky’s nineteenth-century backstage vaudeville Lev Gurych Sinichkin (1924) at the Vakhtangov Theater and the scenes he contributed to the committee-written Moscow from a Point of View (Moskva s tochki zreniia) which inaugurated the Satire Theater in 1924. 

These witty works caught the eye of Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold (1874-1940), who commissioned a full-length work from Erdman. This play, The Warrant (Mandat), premiered at the Meyerhold Theater on 20 April 1925 and was a turning point for Soviet drama. The Warrant was acknowledged as the first play of the new era to deal with recognizably contemporary characters and problems and Erdman was hailed as a spiritual descendant of the great satirists Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852) and Aleksandr Vasilievich Sukhovo-Kobylin (1817-1903). His characterizations and settings owed a debt to the comedies of Aleksandr Nikolaevich Ostrovsky (1823-1886). Others found intriguing, though less obvious, echoes of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) in the lyricism of Erdman’s characters. 

The Warrant, also known as The Mandate in English, explores a constellation of people cut adrift after the Revolution: the Guliachkins, an impoverished merchant family; and the aristocratic Smetaniches. The former seek to shore up their finances by establishing a liaison-by-marriage, while the latter see a marriage match with commoners as the means to placating the communist authorities. Centered on Pavel Guliachkin, who backs his claim of being a communist commissar by writing out a nonsensical warrant that he, in fact, lives where he lives, the story is structured around mistaken identities, witting and unwitting impostors, three weddings arranged among three people in the course of two days, some harmless political subterfuge and much slapstick humor. Erdman’s innovative, poetic use of language was characterized by intricate sound play, repetition, rhyme, and puns in which multiple punch lines rolled off one another like strings of firecrackers. In the Russian tradition of so-called serious comedy or laughter through tears, The Warrant revealed Erdman’s preoccupation with themes of consequence: the individual’s tragic vulnerability in a social context; the corrupting nature of power; the delusive nature of mass culture; the hidden dangers of language itself, which provide ample opportunities for frauds to subvert the meanings of words. 

Erdman’s next play, The Suicide (Samoubiitsa), was one of the great accomplishments of Russian and Soviet comedy. It signified the end of one socio-political era–the relatively free period of the New Economic Policy, or NEP, 1921-1928–and the beginning of another–the consolidation of power by Stalin and other hard-line Communists that occurred approximately from 1928 to 1934. The first draft of The Suicide, a tragi-farce about the simple Semen Podsekalnikov, who is nearly pushed to suicide by a horde of unscrupulous people seeking to exploit his despair for their own purposes, was completed in 1928. For four years Meyerhold and Konstantin Alekseevich Stanislavsky (1863-1938) struggled against the Party faithful to produce the play at their theaters. This conflict attracted unprecedented public debate for a work that was neither published nor produced. Direct appeals to Stalin by Stanislavsky and Maksim Gorky (1868-1936) were to no avail; the play was banned a third and final time in 1932. Honing the stylistic and thematic concerns of The Warrant to near-perfection, Erdman through The Suicide metaphorically isolated the paradox of the writer in Soviet times and provided a paradigm for the age: one could be destroyed or one could destroy oneself. Indeed, dozens of Soviet writers over the next decade committed suicide, were exterminated, or simply ceased writing. 

Erdman was arrested in 1933 with his co-author Vladimir Zakharovich Mass (1896-1979) while working on the screenplay of Jolly Fellows (Veselye rebiata, 1934), the first Hollywood-style Soviet musical comedy. The official reason was a series of satirical fables the duo had written, although the scandal surrounding The Suicide was also an undoubted influence. Erdman was sentenced to free exile in Siberia until 1936. After his return he and the country had changed so drastically that he never wrote another full-length play. The world of cinema, in which he had debuted in 1927, became his refuge. From 1938 until his death, he scripted over fifty feature, short, and animated films, some of which, such as Volga-Volga (1938), The Actress (Aktrisa, 1943) and Fire, Water and Brass Trumpets (Ogon, voda i mednye truby, 1968) are acknowledged classics. In 1951 he was awarded the Stalin Prize (second class) for his script for Courageous People (Smelye liudi, 1950). In 1964 Yury Petrovich Liubimov (b. 1917) enlisted Erdman as an unofficial advisor at his new Taganka Theater. Erdman helped Liubimov dramatize Mikhail Lermontov’s novella A Hero of Our Time (Geroi nashego vremeni, 1964) for the theater’s second production. The world premiere of The Suicide took place 28 March 1969 in Goteborg, Sweden, after it was smuggled to the West through Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring in 1968. The discovery of this lost play engendered a worldwide boom in productions of The Suicide and The Warrant which ran unabated for over a decade. The Suicide was first produced in the Soviet Union at the Satire Theater in 1982 but was banned after six performances. It reopened in 1986, one of the signs that perestroika would bring unprecedented change to the Soviet Union. 

Works: The major writings in Russian and English are published in Aleksandr Svobodin, ed. and intr., Nikolai Erdman, P’esy, intermedii, pis’ma, dokumenty, vospominaniia sovremennikov (M., 1990), Vitalii Vul’f, intr. and commentary, Nikolai Erdman, Samoubiitsa, (Ekaterinburg, 2000), which includes the plays, interludes and the complete correspondence with the actress Angelina Stepanova during Erdman’s Siberian exile, John Freedman, trans. and ed., The Major Plays of Nikolai Erdman. The Warrant and The Suicide (Amsterdam, 1995), and A Meeting about Laughter. Sketches, Interludes and Theatrical Parodies by Nikolai Erdman with Vladimir Mass and Others (Amsterdam, 1995).

References: Comprehensive studies include John Freedman, “The Dramaturgy of Nikolaj Erdman, An Artistic and Cultural Analysis” (PhD. diss., Harvard University, 1990), and Silence’s Roar. The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman (Oakville, Ontario, 1992), Joseph Brandesky, “Nikolai Erdman’s ‘The Mandate’ and ‘The Suicide.’ Critical Analyses” (PhD. diss., University of Kansas, 1991), Anatolii Guterts, ed., complete issue of Teatralnaia zhizn (No. 5, 1991) devoted to Erdman’s life and work, Yurii Zaiats, “Ia prishol k tiagostnomu ubezhdeniiu, chto ne nuzhen,” in Aleksandr Sherel’, et al., eds, Meierkhold’ovskii sbornik, Vypusk pervyi (M., 1992), Vol. II, 111-126, Elena Strel’tsova, “Velikoe unizhenie” in Strel’tsova, ed., Paradoks o drame (M., 1993), 307-345, Andrea Gotzes, Der Beitrag Nikolaj Ërdmans zur russishchen Komödie (Mainz, 1994), and Stanislav Rassadin, “Samoubiitsa Erdman” in Rassadin, Samoubiitsy. Povest’ o tom, kak my zhili i chto chitali (M., 2002), 11-32.



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