The action of Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1926 play The White Guard takes place between November 1918 and Spring 1919. The revolution has fragmented Russia, and in Kiev, where the play is set, various factions are struggling for control.
The Turbins are an upper-middle class family, who in 1918 are supporting the Ukranian nationalists against the army of the opportunist Petlyura. Unfortunately for them, the nationalists, led by the Hetman, are a puppet government who have only maintained power through the help of the Germans. During the War it was important for Germany to keep Russia unstable; the Armistice of 1918 has made this less of a priority, and the German troops are being called home (presumably to try to deal with domestic problems).
Bulgakov’s play (excellently presented by the National Theatre) shows the world of the Turbins collapsing. Initially in denial (some of them refuse to believe that the Tsar is dead) they are brought round to face the fact that the new world will be very different; the play ends with them toasting the uncertain future.
Bulgakov originally wrote The White Guard as a novel, and it was picked up by the Moscow arts Theatre, who asked him to dramatise it. An indication of the kind of problems he encountered as a playwright in Soviet Russia is given in his theatrical novel, translated into English as Black Snow (though this draws more on his painful experiences slightly later, with his play about Moliere). The Arts theatre were nervous about the play, since it presents White characters sympathetically, but Stalin famously liked it, and insisted on its staying in the repertoire.
Politically, it is not really very unorthodox; the anti-revolutionary forces are shown destroying themselves, through opportunism and betrayal, and the proletarian army will come soon, to sweep the bourgeoisie into the dustbin of history. What was subversive about the play was the sheer likeability of the Turbins themselves. The one unsympathetic member of the family takes an early opportunity to escape to Berlin. The others confront events with courage and humour. Bulgakov makes each a fully rounded character (very much in the manner of Chekhov). The National Theatre production brings out the humour to the full, in a way that makes us sympathise with the family, even when they are absurd. Maybe especially when they are absurd.
The National’s production is of a ‘a version by Andrew Upton’. I think this means that Mr Upton doesn’t understand Russian, but has been employed to tart up a literal translation. Bulgakov’s manuscripts are complicated, and the play went through various versions, partly as a response to censorship, or because of fears of censorship. The programme does not make it clear which version(s) of Bulgakov’s scripts Upton worked from, but the play on stage did not come across as markedly different from the 1972 translation by Carl and Eleander Oleander – except for just a couple of episodes.
There is a scene in the headquarters of Petlyura’s army that graphically shows the viciousness of war. A deserter is brought in, threatened and mistreated, but he pleads his frostbitten feet as an excuse. At gunpoint he removes his boots and socks, to reveal horribly damaged feet. In the Oleander translation, he is then sent off, rather churlishly, to hospital. In the Upton version, one soldier orders the man to hospital, but another takes out his revolver and shoots the man point blank. Is there textual warrant for this, or is this Mr Upton making absolutely sure that we get the message that war is nasty?
Another scene is set in the vestibule of the Alexander Gymnasium. The latter word, of course, translates as High School. The National’s designer, however, has set it in the kind of room that we Brits call a gymnasium, with wall-bars and vaulting-horse. A mistranslation? An ironic comment? Or just the designer thinking the scene would look nicer in that setting?
Despite these marginal oddities, the production is highly recommended.