I’ve written several texts about Nikolai Erdman for Red Bull Theater in New York. They have a reading series and they’ve done Erdman’s plays several times, each time asking me to write something for the program. Since I have seemingly written a million of these things over the years, I always do my best to find some new angle or anecdote to make my text stand on its own. This one was no different. I don’t remember when I wrote this particular text. It was several years ago, but how many exactly is lost to the ages.
Nikolai Erdman: A Brief Bio
By John Freedman
Nikolai Erdman was nothing if not a legend. Nadezhda Mandelshtam, the widow of the great Russian-Jewish poet Osip Mandelshtam, famously said that Erdman’s comedy “The Suicide,” reminded members of the Soviet intelligentsia why they did not kill themselves in the Stalin era. To fully understand this comment you must remember that “The Suicide” was banned in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s, and only first appeared on the world stage in 1969, 16 years after Stalin died. And yet it still defined the lives of several generations of Russian intellectuals.
The legend of Nikolai Erdman was 80 years in the making. And, as is fitting of a legend, fact and fiction in his life story compete stiffly with one another. He was said to have been a broken man who “wrote nothing” between the banning of “The Suicide” in 1932 and his death in 1970, but, in fact, he was one of the Soviet Union’s top screenwriters. One often sees the word “obscure” attached to his name by uninformed journalists, but there have been more than a thousand productions of his plays throughout the world since they took Europe by storm in the 1970s, and “The Suicide” became a nationwide hit in the United States in 1980.
Erdman was born in 1900, the second of two sons of a Russian mother and a father of Germanic lineage from Latvia. His father spoke Russian fluently but with a comical German accent, likely attuning his son’s ear to the nuances of language from early on. Erdman published his first poetry in 1918. He debuted in 1922 as the author of topical parodies, satires and librettos, writing scripts for dozens of shows at various Moscow clubs and theaters.
These witty sketches attracted the great director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who suggested Erdman write a full-length work. The resulting play, “The Warrant,” premiered at the Meyerhold Theater in 1925 and was a turning point for Soviet drama. Erdman was hailed as a spiritual descendant of such great comic playwrights as Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Ostrovsky. Some found less obvious echoes of Anton Chekhov in the lyricism of Erdman’s characters.
Erdman structured “The Warrant” 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. His innovative use of language included 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,” “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; and the hidden dangers of language itself, which provide ample opportunities for frauds to subvert the meanings of words.
Erdman developed all of this in his next play, “The Suicide,” although “The Suicide” was banned in 1932 before it was performed. He was arrested the following year with Vladimir Mass while on location for the film comedy “Jolly Fellows,” for which the duo had written the script. Erdman was exiled to Siberia until 1936, and not allowed to return to Moscow to live until after World War II. Upon 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 debuted in 1927, became his refuge. From 1938 until his death, he scripted over fifty feature, short, and animated films, many of which are acknowledged classics.