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Griboedov in Bed: Meyerhold's Woe to Wit and the Staging of Sexual Mores in the NEP Era

From: Pushkin Review
Volume 15, 2012
pp. 143-160 | 10.1353/pnr.2012.0003

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Following the success of his modern adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General (1925), Vsevolod Meyerhold turned his attention to Alexander Griboedov's play in verse, Woe from Wit (Gore ot uma; 1823). Like The Inspector General, Griboedov's play satirized the vain and materialistic culture of the early nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy. Woe from Wit tells the story of Chatsky, a young man who, after spending three years wandering throughout Western Europe, returns home to Moscow with the intention of proposing marriage to his childhood love, Sofya. Chatsky's newly acquired liberal, Western views, however, make him the object of ridicule in Muscovite high society, which in turn threatens to ruin his chances of winning back Sofya. For his adaptation of the famous Griboedov play, Meyerhold took a number of liberties with the original script. Almost half of the scenes in Woe to Wit (Gore umu) are entirely new additions penned by Meyerhold. On his decision to largely rewrite the original script, Meyerhold insisted that a "play is simply the excuse for the revelation of its theme on the level at which that revelation may appear vital today." In that vein, he recast the story in a contemporary setting, replacing Griboedov's nineteenth-century aristocracy with "NEP-men," the new Soviet aristocracy. The biggest change, however, is Meyerhold's reconfiguration of the "obscene" sexual mores of Muscovite society.

The original Woe from Wit is itself highly sexual. The opening scene is of Liza, Sofya's maid, guarding her mistress's bedroom door while she and her suitor, Molchalin, are alone together inside (supposedly playing music, although it is hinted at later in the play that they have been intimate with one another). Meyerhold's adaptation is no less risqué. In his version, the characters casually carry around lubricant, there is an extremely homoerotic billiards game between a father and his future son-in-law, and Sofya, the ultra-feminine heroine of Griboedov's play, dresses in men's clothing and enjoys the company of female burlesque dancers. What these last two examples point to, however, is the difference in Meyerhold's sexual "types." In Meyerhold's version of the play, Chatsky returns to find a Moscow where gender norms have been destabilized and the people regularly engage in non-normative sexual behaviors. To better understand why and how Meyerhold recalibrated the presentation of sexual norms in Woe to Wit, it is important to note that Woe from Wit was not Meyerhold's first choice for the 1927–28 theatrical season. Meyerhold had intended to produce Sergei Tretiakov's eugenics play I Want a Baby!, which explored the sexual mores of 1920s Soviet society. Meyerhold had actually bought the rights to produce I Want a Baby! in September of 1926, but when the censors, shocked by the frank discussion of sex and gender roles, shut down rehearsals, Meyerhold then turned to the much safer Griboedov script. Or did he? I contend that what we see in this adaptation is Meyerhold's inscription of the questions raised in I Want a Baby! onto the Griboedov play. As such, this paper examines the influence of I Want a Baby! on Meyerhold's decision to adapt Griboedov's classic script as a staging of the specific sexual anxieties that emerged during the NEP era.

NEP was a huge source of anxiety for the more orthodox members of the Communist Party. Growing concerns over the economic and political consequences of NEP coincided with concerns over what effects the new policies might have on other facets of Soviet life—like sex. As Eric Naiman points out in Sex in Public: The Incarnation of Early Soviet Ideology, "there was a tendency in the Soviet press to attribute all forms of sexual 'perversion' to NEP." The party continued to associate carnal pleasure and all forms of sexual alterity with the bourgeoisie. As such, NEP-men were frequently characterized as pleasure-seeking libertines, often with homosexual tendencies. In keeping with the times, Meyerhold's Chatsky returns to find a Moscow where people regularly engage in sexual practices stereotypical of NEP men and women.

One of the perceived effects of NEP was the disintegration of traditional romance, and...

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