A Double Game with Stalin


a play by by John Hodge, directed by Nicholas Hytner
National Theatre, London, October 25, 2011–June 2012


by John Hodge
London: Faber and Faber, 110 pp., £9.99 (paper)
RIA Novosti/TopFoto/The Image Works
Mikhail Bulgakov

Collaborators starts with the writer Mikhail Bulgakov (played by Alex Jennings) waking from a nightmare in which he is being chased around his small apartment by Stalin (Simon Russell Beale). Tripped and lying on the floor, Bulgakov is about to be killed by the scary dictator, looming over him with a heavy typewriter and threatening to bring it crashing down onto his head, when he is awoken from this slapstick scene by his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary), who asks routinely, as if her husband dreams this every night, “Did he catch you?” “No. No, he didn’t,” Bulgakov replies. “I was too quick for him. Grabbed the typewriter, jammed his fingers in and typed ‘You bastard’ all across his knuckles.”

John Hodge’s play is a dark and grotesque comedy about the cat-and-mouse relationship between Stalin and the satirist Bulgakov, author of The White Guard, Stalin’s favorite novel, who nonetheless remained a persecuted figure in the proletarian culture of the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Known for his screenplays of The Beach and Trainspotting, Hodge came to the idea of Collaborators when he was working on the script for a film version of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin
1 and found a reference in that book to Batumi, Bulgakov’s play about Stalin’s early years commissioned by the Moscow Art Theater to celebrate the dictator’s sixtieth birthday in December 1939. With artistic license and some fantasy, Collaborators tells the complicated story of the writing of that play.

More than many Soviet writers, Bulgakov had good reason to both fear and love Stalin. Born in Kiev in 1891, he belonged by blood and temperament to the prerevolutionary intelligentsia. His father was a lecturer at the Kiev Theological Academy, his mother was a teacher; and both his uncles on his mother’s side were doctors, a profession he would join on his graduation from Kiev University in 1916. By the time he turned his hand to writing in the early 1920s, Bulgakov’s world had been abolished by the Soviet regime.2 But he remained defiant. His white starched collar, bow tie (worn by Jennings), and monocle were a provocation to his critics, who denounced his work as “counterrevolutionary.”

Bulgakov came to fame with The White Guard (1925), a sympathetic portrait of a White intelligentsia family, the Turbins, living through the civil war in Kiev, which he adapted as a play, The Days of the Turbins, for the Moscow Art Theater. In the mid-1920s, when Soviet literary policy was lax enough to encourage satirists, Bulgakov wrote Heart of a Dog (not published in the Soviet Union until 1987), an allegory on the experimental nature of the Revolution in which a doctor transplants the organs of a dead man into a dog, with comic and catastrophic consequences. After several readings of the manuscript to friends in 1925,…

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