Sergei Maksudov has failed as a novelist and made a farce of a suicide attempt, but only after a surprise break as a playwright on the Moscow stage does his turmoil truly begin. Thrown uncomprehending into theatre life, he soon sees his beloved play dragged into chaos by inflated egos, jealous critics, literary double-dealers, communist censors and insanely bad acting. A Dead Man's Memoir is a brilliant, absurdist tale of the exhilaration and black desperation wrought on one man by his turbulent love affair with the theatre. Based on Bulgakov's own experiences at the famous Moscow Art Theatre of the 1920s and 30s, it reaches its comic height in a merciless lampooning of Stanislavski's fashionable stage techniques.
Well, you can see why I bought and read this at once, can't you?
A Dead Man's Memoir reads like a compendium of everything that playwrights fear and dread, all becoming reality for the hapless Sergei Maksudov. The thrill of seeing your name on a poster, followed by the agony of eavesdropping on people making fun of your work. Rashly signing your name to a restrictive contract just because you're so thrilled someone wants to produce your script, and then realizing you've signed your soul away. Being forced to make huge changes to the script, in order to suit the director's oddball whims. The black comedy of this is reinforced by Maksudov's narrative voice: extremely self-conscious, self-pitying, introverted and neurotic. These seem to be common vices among playwrights, or at least fictitious playwrights. Think Barton Fink.
Bulgakov wrote A Dead Man's Memoir under the repressive Soviet regime (which made life difficult for him), but as the Introduction to my edition points out, there is almost no political content in the novel. The satire is, instead, mainly directed at "literary types" and the bizarre bureaucracy/behind-the-scenes intrigue that can develop at a large theater company. And a lot of this still feels very true today. There is a long passage about how the box-office manager deals with all of the assorted people who swarm the theater requesting tickets to sold-out shows; I'm sure that Berkeley Rep staffers dealt with something very similar when The Arabian Nights sold out last month!
Still, I'm unwilling to call A Dead Man's Memoir a "must-read" for everybody. Though Penguin does everything it can to conceal this fact from you, it is an unfinished novel, abandoned after about 160 pages. Furthermore, there are a lot of characters (all with lengthy Russian names, of course) to keep track of. Perhaps Bulgakov intended to bewilder the reader, to mirror Maksudov's bewilderment as he navigates the theater's dense bureaucracy; still, it can get confusing.
The final pages of this unfinished work, however, which make fun of Stanislavski's "sense memory" and "emotional truth" exercises, will be hilarious to anyone who's ever studied acting. And though I am not sure whether the general public will feel the same way, I squirmed in uncomfortable recognition through all the bleakly comic scenes of Maksudov's powerlessness and woe.
Stay tuned for "The Playwright's Nightmare, part 2": my thoughts on Rich and Famous, the John Guare play-about-a-playwright that I saw on Tues. at ACT.