July 6 update: Includes full playback of
Theme from M*A*S*H
What a busy day it’s been! First thing, I wrote a new song (Bits of Paper) and began working out a suitable melody.
Then I spent much of the rest of the day splitting up the monstrous chronicle of my seven-hour play about the life and death of Joseph Stalin into a number of shorter plays, as suggested by my friend Joe Ogden, who first gave me the idea that they might be performed on consecutive nights as a sort of serial.
At present, the episodes list as follows:
- The Stalin Plays – Episode 1-Death of a Dictator
- The Stalin Plays – Episode 2-Childhood
- The Stalin Plays – Episode 3-The Trial of Josef Stalin
- The Stalin Plays – Episode 4-A Godless Seminarian
- The Stalin Plays – Episode 5-The Lenin Testament
- The Stalin Plays – Episode 6-The Stalin Constitution
- The Stalin Plays – Episode 7-Barbarossa
- The Stalin Plays – Episode 8-Cold War Warriors
- The Stalin Plays – Episode 9-Victims of the Revolution
Since all episodes are of different lengths – The Stalin Constitution is the shortest and Barbarossa is the longest – it should be possible to combine two of the shorter episodes on a single night, spreading the entire serial over five or six nights.
I now have to rewrite the entire sequence, making them ready, perhaps for the anniversary of Stalin’s death on March 5, 2014. I need to find a suitable venue available for a week, and also begin casting.
When I produced the first section of what became this piece as part of a celebration of the October Revolution at the Priestley (now the New Playhouse), Stalin was played by Howard Frost. I suggested to him that since Stalin was a Georgian who learnt Russian as a second language, he should be played with a provincial accent. Howard made him a Brummie, which worked brilliantly.
The sequence I wrote for the Red October Priestley show survives in the (almost) completed final play:
May, 1934: Stalin telephones Pasternak.
(FX: Telephone rings)
(Answers phone and speaks cautiously)
Citizen Pasternak, Comrade Stalin wishes to speak with you.
I am calling to tell you that Osip Mandelstam‘s case has been reviewed, and that everything will be all right.
But I am puzzled, Pasternak. Why have you been so silent? Why have you not approached the writers’ organisations about him, or even given me a call? Why haven’t you tried to do anything for him?
If I were a poet and a poet friend of mine were in trouble, I would do anything to help him.
Pasternak? What do you say for yourself, eh?
Comrade Stalin, the writers’ organisations haven’t bothered with cases like this since 1927 and if I had tried to do something, you probably would never have heard about it.
And, besides, Mandelstam is hardly a “friend”. He’s a colleague . . .
But he’s a genius, he’s a genius, isn’t he?
That’s not the point.
What is the point, then?
Comrade Stalin, perhaps we could meet to discuss matters like this.
About life and death.
He’s hung up.
I’ve lost contact with Howard, but if anyone has his contact details, please let me know.
An alternative strategy would be to offer the sequence as a drama-doc on TV, and I also had that in mind as a possibility as I divided the piece up. Whether any TV station would dare to present something which challenges all the received wisdom about the Great Satan of Socialism I rather doubt.
I was inspired throughout the ten years or so of composition by two great originals. First, Brecht’s epic theatre, a format I’d experimented with in my Human Shields play, Into the War Zone. And then the example of Shakespeare’s Richard III was always with me.
One scene was almost a direct copy from the Bard:
From Richard III, Act IV, Scene III
My gracious sovereign, now in Devonshire,
As I by friends am well advertised,
Sir Edward Courtney, and the haughty prelate
Bishop of Exeter, his brother there,
With many more confederates, are in arms.
Enter another Messenger
My liege, in Kent the Guildfords are in arms;
And every hour more competitors
Flock to their aid, and still their power increaseth.
Enter another Messenger
My lord, the army of the Duke of Buckingham–
Out on you, owls! nothing but songs of death?
He striketh him
Take that, until thou bring me better news.
The news I have to tell your majesty
Is, that by sudden floods and fall of waters,
Buckingham’s army is dispersed and scatter’d;
And he himself wander’d away alone,
No man knows whither.
KING RICHARD III
I cry thee mercy:
There is my purse to cure that blow of thine.
From The Stalin Plays – Barbarossa
June 22, 1941, 12 noon: German advances
Tovarish Stalin! Tovarish Stalin! The Germans have captured Riga. Their Panzer divisions are driving towards Moscow!
(Freeze. Fade slowly to black.)
(FX: Artillery fire, sound of tank tracks, Deutschland über alles rises to a climax.)
(Lights up. Stalin at his desk, perusing a map. An Air Force General enters and salutes. Stalin looks up.)
Your report, Tovarish?
AIR FORCE GENERAL:
Regret to report, Tovarish Stalin, fifteen hundred Soviet bomber aircraft were destroyed on the ground on the first day of fighting, and a further six hundred on the second day.
How many German aircraft inflicted these losses on the Red Air Force?
AIR FORCE GENERAL:
Twelve, Tovarish Stalin.
Arrest the commander of the Bomber Group and arrange for him to be shot.
AIR FORCE GENERAL:
Regrettably, Tovarish Stalin, he has committed suicide.
Very well then, you are dismissed.
(He leaves. Enter another General.)
Regret to report, Tovarish Stalin, that Panzer groups from the Germans’ Army Group Centre have encircled 300,000 of our troops, taking them prisoner, together with 2,500 of our tanks, and 1,400 artillery pieces.
(General salutes and exits. Enter another general.)
Regret to report, Tovarish Stalin, 350 thousand Soviet troops have been encircled in Bialystock and taken prisoner after 4-5 days’ fighting.
(General salutes and exits.)
(Enter a young private, barely into his teens. A bloodstained bandage covers one eye, and his sleeve is tattered over another dressing on his left arm.)
I beg to report, Tovarish Stalin . . .
Take this soldier out and shoot him. I’ve heard enough bad news for one day.
All that Lenin created we have lost for ever.
But, Tovarish Stalin, my news, I hope, is not so bad.
Go on then, lad.
Tovarish Stalin, beg to report that we are holding the Hitlerites in the underground fortifications in Krasnogvardesk.
(Stalin looks up, and his whole manner changes. He take out a pipe and begins to fill it.)
Another direct Shakespearian inspiration was the pre-battle night at Bosworth, when phantoms from Richard’s past rise up to haunt him. Not only did I copy the format for the episode, Victims of the Revolution, but I took the victims’ chorus directly from Richard III:
Die in terror. Recall your guilt.
Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death:
Fainting, despair; despairing, yield up your breath!
And I’ve also brought Richard into the final scene, sharing with Stalin their similar fates:
Were we not both leaders of men, my brother? And as I was treacherously murdered on Bosworth field, so are you dying in ambiguous circumstances. We did the best for our people, but history does not serve us well. Already the vultures are gathering around your bed. Trust me, they will dance with joy when you are gone.
There are other cross-references. For instance, an extract from the M*A*S*H TV show is quoted in the section covering the Korean War:
“There are no innocent bystanders in hell.”
An extract from M*A*S*H, a US TV comedy about the Korean War
(The following clip is played out on a flickering TV screen.)
War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.
How do you figure, Hawkeye?
Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?
Sinners, I believe.
Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.
(GRAMS: Theme from M*A*S*H)
Return to TOP
Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
That game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card of some delay
So this is all I have to say . . .
(Cross fade into GRAMS: Paul Robeson singing the Soviet National Anthem)
In many ways, this has been not so much a creative exercise as a massive cut-and-paste job, finding actual references and dramatizing them. Virtually all the dialogue is as was reported at the time. Stalin’s bodyguards, Mikheil Starostin and Pyotr Lozgachev, were real people, though I have invented the dialogue between them. They really were killed with a bullet to the back of the head, by Beria’s Executioner, in the Ministry of State Security (MGB – Ministerstvo Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti), Major-General Vasili Blokhin.
Khrushchev did indeed say, after Stalin died, “The mice have killed the cat”, but the chant and dance that follows in the play is my own invention.
I began this work to examine the crimes of Stalin, though I was unconvinced by Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (distributed throughout the world, ironically, by the same US Information Service whose presentation of the Family of Man exhibition in London inspired my song of that name).
As a member of the Young Communist League I was criticized during Stalin’s lifetime for pointing out that he was only human, and could make mistakes. After the 20th Congress, I was criticized – by the very same people – for saying that, just as it was wrong to blame Hitler for all the crimes of the Third Reich (thus excusing all those who administered the infrastructure of the Nazi regime), all the crimes of the Stalin era could not have been his sole responsibility.
I don’t deny that crimes took place, only that they can be laid at the door of a single, scapegoated leader. Perhaps I could bring Hitler into Stalin’s final delirium to debate the point.
Bearing in mind Stalin’s responsibility for what happened, my original plan for the play had been to present the story as a courtroom drama, using the audience as the jury. But as I researched his actions over his long life, a real person began to emerge, warts and all, and his “crimes” were not necessarily those ascribed him by the Trotskyist press.
For more on this topic, see the chapter, “The theory and practice of Stalinism”, in my forthcoming ebook on Marxism-Leninism.
Meanwhile, in my prologue to the plays, I quote Brecht’s words about Galileo:
“One can scarcely wish only to praise or only to condemn Galileo.”
Despite the efforts of the Stalin Society to recruit me to their ranks, I think we can apply that dictum to Stalin.
After the Gorbachev/Yeltsin counter-revolution destroyed the USSR, I was praying in the church of Christ the King in Bloomsbury, and I asked my Lord how such a brave experiment could go so terribly wrong.
My attention was directed to the words of the Psalmist: “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.” (Psalm 127).
But I still agree with Aleksandr Blok’s declaration: “Christ is with the Red Guards.”
Hallelujah! “A luta continua, vitória é certa”