Category Archives: History


(Guy Lodge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/18; Photo:  West Side Story: never had bodies in motion been used to shape and dictate a film’s own rhythm quite like this. Photograph: United Artists/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock.)

With Steven Spielberg’s remake almost out, the 1961 original still feels thrillingly contemporary, a tough act to follow

It’s the opening credits that do it right away. Following three eerie whistles over a black screen, West Side Story explodes into a full screen of poster-paint colour – shifting from orange to red to magenta to royal blue – as Leonard Bernstein’s four-minute overture brassily clatters into action. Over the colour, a stark design flourish: seemingly random brigades of parallel vertical black lines, only coalescing at the overture’s end into the tip of Manhattan, viewed from the air, cuing a vertiginous bird’s-eye montage of New York City in motion. That chipper yet chillingly disembodied whistle returns; by the time we finally see a human face, six coolly riveting minutes has passed.


This whole title sequence – from the graphics to the aerial photography – was visualised by Saul Bass, the distinctive graphic designer then favoured by such aggressive stylists as Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. It still seems, perhaps even more than anything that follows in West Side Story, sleekly and breath-catchingly modern: a coup of expensive minimalism at the outset of a splashy Hollywood production. That was no accident: in 1961, United Artists set out for the film to be something bracing and new in the movie musical, an industry staple that was looking increasingly out of step with a youth culture turning toward rock’n’roll.

The previous two years had been rough ones for the genre. In 1958, South Pacific may have topped the annual box office while Gigi swept the Oscars, but since then, the only Hollywood song-and-dance films to prove even mild hits had been minor comedies, Disney cartoons or Elvis Presley vehicles. Hopes were high for West Side Story to put the gloss back on to the prestige musical – the 1957 Broadway musical had been a hit with critics and audiences alike – but the studio knew the usual style of overstuffed Technicolor spectacle wouldn’t cut it. The film had to be as propulsively dance-oriented as the stage show, yet expansive and kinetic as cinema. It had to honour the classically romantic roots of its source – this was a riff on Romeo and Juliet, after all – while Saying Something Significant about modern youth and urban society. It had to be family-friendly yet appealing to tearaway teens; it had to court Oscar voters and high-culture critics alike.

It was, in effect, strategised and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life, down to the unusual compromise made on the directorial front. Genius choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose work had been so integral to the stage show’s success, was hired to direct the musical sequences, despite having zero film experience. Industry journeyman Robert Wise was enlisted for the straight dramatic scenes, not despite his lack of musical experience but because of that: best known for stolid black-and-white dramas on stern subjects (he had recently been Oscar-nominated for the grim death-row biopic I Want to Live!), he was intended to bring some grownup gravitas to the exercise. Not that the producers were above naked populism when casting the leads: whether or not there’s any truth to the enduring rumour that Elvis Presley was approached to be the film’s Tony, teen-idol potential took precedence over musical ability: 23-year-olds Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer didn’t sing a note in the film, but couldn’t have lip-synched more prettily.

All of which makes West Side Story sound like a desperately over-calculated, even cynical exercise. Yet as it plays out, from that Saul Bass aesthetic masterstroke onwards, the film remains a blinder: somehow checking off each of those aforementioned, contradictory boxes, it’s formally electric, musically alive and emotionally pummelling, even as its dubbed leads trade in borrowed feeling. West Side Story isn’t unflawed, in ways the show wasn’t either: its overwriting of Shakespeare to lend proceedings at least half a happy ending, with Maria alive and distraught, can’t quite touch the frenzied melodrama of Romeo and Juliet’s dual-death fiasco, and there’s no getting round the fact that its sweet, doe-eyed leads are given a lesson in musical magnetism every time their older counterparts Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are allowed to burn up the frame. (That West Side Story won 10 Oscars, including two for Moreno and Chakiris, while Wood and Beymer weren’t nominated was a harsh way to stress the point.)

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(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond, 9/3.)

Actress Tatiana Drubich as Anna Karenina

Actress Tatiana Drubich as Anna Karenina

Sergei Soloviev/Solivs, 2008

These unconventional heroines stand out from the crowd, inspiring millions of readers with their sexuality, ingenuity and determination.


1. Liza of ‘Poor Liza’

‘Poor Liza’ made a revolution in classic Russian literature when it saw the light of day in the early 1790s.

Oil painting reproduction of 'Poor Lisa' by Orest Kiprensky.

Nikolai Karamzin broke new ground when he elevated a young girl’s journey of “moral decay” into a heartbreaking love story. The writer exposed a powerful weapon in his arsenal – tragedy – and spiced up his ‘Poor Liza’ with a devastatingly sad ending. Karamzin’s title character has become synonymous with unrequited love, deep sorrow and social injustice.

A wealthy nobleman falls in love with a 17-year-old peasant girl and seduces her. This marks the beginning of an end of their doomed misalliance. Tender and timid, Liza blindly trusts Erast, but the young lady-killer soon betrays her. He gambles away his estate and marries an old rich widow to rescue the situation. In contrast, Lisa, who is unable to survive the loss of her lover, walks into the pond and drowns herself. “… Remember your poor Liza, who loves you more than herself!”

2. Tatyana Larina of ‘Eugene Onegin’

Tatyana Larina of Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ is definitely one of the most captivating female characters in Russian literature. 


Illustration of Tatiana Larina by Elena Samokich-Soudkovskaïa.

Tatyana is an open-hearted provincial young girl full of high expectations and willing to sacrifice herself. She falls in love with the self-centered Onegin. As is often the case, it’s a one-way street. 

I write to you… when that is said

What more is left for me to say?

Now you are free (I know too well)

To heap contempt upon my head.

Onegin rejects her love, under the pretext that he doesn’t want to have a family. Life goes on and Tatyana marries another man. That’s when Eugene falls in love with her. It’s too late, though. Tatyana is no longer blindly in love with him and prefers to stay faithful to her husband and moral principles. By the end of the novel, she transforms from a naïve provincial dreamer into a full-fledged lady, the embodiment of grace, intelligence and aristocratic dignity. 

3. Lyubov Ranevskaya from ‘The Cherry Orchard’


‘The Cherry Orchard’s Ranevskaya is the head of the high-society family on the brink of bankruptcy.

Renata Litvinova as Lyubov Ranevskaya in 'The Cherry Orchard' staged at the Moscow Art Theater.

Flat broke, Lyubov Andreevna is ruined by her prodigality. She is about to lose her estate and, most importantly, her favorite cherry orchard. Ranevskaya’s head-in-the-sand policy with respect to her lose-lose situation is worrisome. She continues to splash out, although she literally can’t afford it. “Oh, my sins… I have always spent money like water…” Madame Ranevskaya is ready to share her last penny with those in need. And that’s what she really is, a big spender with a huge heart. She is the epitome of procrastination, levity and naivety. The (typically Russian) woman lives in her distant rosy past and hopes that things will somehow resolve themselves. And, even though Chekhov described ‘The Cherry Orchard’ as a comedy, alas, this time around they won’t.

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(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 8/11; Photo:  Spasskoye-Lutovinovo/Legion Media.)

Russians love to spend time in nature’s lap and escape from the stuffy city to their dachas and country homes. Writers, of course, are no exception. The fresh country air has inspired many literary masterpieces. These dachas are now museums.

1. Boris Pasternak’s dacha at Peredelkino, Moscow Region

Peredelkino, outside Moscow, is essentially a writers’ village, set up, it is said, at the initiative of Maxim Gorky, having told Stalin about his experience of out-of-town residences abroad. Many writers settled here in Soviet times: Korney Chukovsky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bulat Okudzhava and others.

But its most famous inhabitant was Boris Pasternak, who settled in this wooden house in 1939. Here he wrote poetry, translated literature and worked on his masterpiece, the novel Doctor Zhivago. In this same house, in 1958, the writer learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; in 1960 he died here after two years of harassment following the award (which he was forced to decline) and publication of the novel abroad.

Read more: ‘Didn’t read Pasternak, but condemn him’: What’s behind the Soviet phrase

2. Anton Chekhov’s dachas in Moscow Region and Crimea

During his relatively short life, Chekhov managed to live in several cities. As for dachas, he had at least three of them.

Melikhovo estate in the Moscow Region

Chekhov lived at Melikhovo near Moscow for just seven years, yet there he penned more than 40 works, including the short story Ward No. 6 and the plays The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. In addition, as a practicing physician, the writer opened an outpatient clinic on his estate and treated the local peasants for free. Read more about Melikhovo here.

The White Dacha in Yalta, Crimea

In 1898, Chekhov bought a house in Crimea near Yalta. By this time, he was suffering from tuberculosis and needed the healing air. At the “White Dacha” (as Chekhov called it), he wrote the plays Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, as well as the “most Crimean” story in all of Russian literature, Lady with Lapdog.

Chekhov's house in Gurzuf

There in Crimea, in the resort town of Gurzuf, he had another, secret dacha, which he bought in 1899 to hide from the crowds of fans who came looking for him.

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(Joseph Cermatori’s article appeared in The New York Times, 6/11; via Pam Green; Illustration: Rotating the perspective to depict massive, magnificent interiors, the Bibiena family transformed stage design in the 17th and 18th centuries.Credit…Morgan Library & Museum.)  

The Bibienas, the focus of an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, dominated Baroque theatrical design.

Many of us have not seen the inside of a theater in well over a year. But as performance spaces around the country are on the verge of reopening, the Morgan Library & Museum is offering a quietly astonishing reminder of what we’ve been missing.

Open through Sept. 12 at the Morgan, “Architecture, Theater and Fantasy” is a small but exquisite show of drawings by the Bibiena family, which transformed theatrical design in the 17th and 18th centuries. Organized around a promised gift to the museum of 25 Bibiena works by Jules Fisher, the Tony Award-winning Broadway lighting designer, the exhibit is the first in the United States of the family’s drawings in over 30 years.

From Lisbon to St. Petersburg, Russia, the Bibienas dominated every major court theater in Baroque Europe. Their innovations in perspective opened new dramatic possibilities, and their lavish projects cost vast sums, with single spectacles running budgets of up to $10 million in today’s dollars. Writing to Alexander Pope of an opera performed outdoors in Vienna to consecrate the Austrian crown prince’s birth in 1716, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described a massive stage constructed over a canal. Gilded flotillas sailed beneath it — a spectacle, she wrote, “so large that it is hard to carry the eye to the end of it.”

That production’s designer, Ferdinando Galli Bibiena (1657-1743), had arrived in Vienna in 1711 as the official scenographer for the Hapsburg court of Charles VII. His father, the Tuscan painter Giovanni Maria Galli (1618-65), came from a village in Arezzo called Bibbiena, and adapted its name as his own. Young Ferdinando started out in Bologna as a master of quadratura, or illusionistic ceiling painting. But his theatrical talents took his career in other directions in the 1680s.

Until that time, European scenery primarily utilized single-point perspective. This optical technique, perfected in 15th-century Italian visual art, arranged scenic images around a central vanishing point, creating the semblance of an infinitely receding space. (A Bibiena drawing already in the Morgan’s collection makes the regress dizzyingly, almost terrifyingly, steep.)

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(Lan’s article appeared in the Guardian 5/26; Photo: Then, as now, theatre was in every sense political’ …David Lan. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian.)

The theatre director and writer looks back at the spirit of protest that fuelled daring dramas staged in South Africa 50 years ago

I grew up in South Africa during the bleak, violent, seemingly never-ending iron age of apartheid. In 1971, when I was studying acting at Cape Town University, the National Party government built a monolithic 1,500-seat theatre complex in a commanding position near the centre of the city. The Afrikaner Nationalists had an easy rule of thumb by which to distinguish between the value of white people and black people – we have culture and they don’t. The purpose of the monolith, with its elaborate stairways, fancy colonnades and picture windows, was to declare and celebrate this belief. White musicians, actors and dancers were to perform to exclusively white audiences.

Afrikaans theatre was bursting with contradictions. The finest Afrikaans playwright was William Shakespeare. From the 1950s to the 70s, Afrikaans-language productions of the European modernists – Pirandello, Maeterlinck, Strindberg and especially Chekhov – toured to church halls all over the country. Uncle Vanya was a quintessential Afrikaans cultural experience.

Then, as now once again in the UK, the making of theatre was in every sense political. Every aspect was resonant and meaningful – how it was staged, where, by whom, for whom and, if it was subsidised, with what intention and to whose advantage. In the case of these tours to ultra-conservative farming towns of high-water mark creations of the liberal imagination, the state endorsed them and paid for them.

Of the productions scheduled for the new theatre’s opening, a play by the South African Bartho Smit, was banned by the official censor before it even went into rehearsal. The highlight was to be Koning Lear. The theatre’s artistic director, from a distinguished Afrikaans family, had been excited by productions he’d recently seen in Europe. He invited the German Dieter Reible to direct.

Lear was played by Cobus Rossouw, the beloved leading Afrikaans actor of his generation. My memory was that Edgar was played by a black actor. However, checking the cast list, I find the part was played by a white actor – in fact one who had only recently graduated from my own drama school. He certainly intended to convey that Edgar was a black South African. This, together with the bold, expressionist style of the production, was the cause of an ensuing scandal. Did he actually play the part in blackface? It’s unlikely but not impossible. Was he dressed in some version of royal Zulu or Xhosa apparel? No doubt someone will write in and let me know.

When Lear divided his kingdom among his daughters, it was made clear that each was being allocated an apartheid-style “black homeland”, one in the eye for the government’s divide-and-rule politics. In the last scene, with Lear lying dead on the war-torn stage, “black” Edgar climbed with dignity to the top of a revolving staircase – or was it Table Mountain or a giant anthill? The oppressive state had been violently destroyed and he was at long last entering into his kingdom.

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(Alastair Lockhart’s article appeared on Express, 5/25.)

The video released of arrested Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich is a “hostage video,” a Belarusian exile has said.


The video released of arrested Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich is a “hostage video,” a Belarusian exile has said. Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, told BBC Breakfast that the video also showed clear signs of torture. Mr Protasevich was due to meet Ms Kaliada when his Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was “hijacked” and diverted to Minsk by Belarusian authorities where he was arrested on his arrival.

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(David Storey’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/23; Photo: David Storey at home in Belsize Park, London, 1961, with his paintings in the background. Photograph: Courtesy of the Storey family. In 1963 David Storey was an acclaimed novelist – but away from the spotlight he was battling anxiety and writer’s block. In this extract, he describes how he found a new life as a playwright.)

David Storey was an extraordinary literary figure: an acclaimed playwright and a Booker prize-winning novelist who was also an outstanding artist. Yet he began his adult life as a professional rugby player in the austere and gritty world of northern rugby league. The third son of a coal miner, he was born in Wakefield in 1933 and grew up on one of England’s first housing estates. Having signed, aged 18, to play for Leeds rugby league club, his talent as an artist then took him to the Slade. Early success as a novelist came with This Sporting Life, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Richard Harris. There followed a string of literary successes capped by Saville, the 1976 Booker winner. Storey also spent a heady period writing plays for the Royal Court in its radical heyday, where he forged close friendships with Lindsay Anderson, Ralph Richardson and Jocelyn Herbert. Despite his achievements, he struggled with anxiety and depression all his life. He died in 2017. In this extract from his memoir, A Stinging Delight, he recalls those years at the heart of British theatre, which came about almost by accident.

When my third novel, Radcliffe, was published in 1963 (the same year that the film of This Sporting Life was released) it was decided by one commentator that it established me as “the leading novelist of my generation”. Its creation was likened to that of an English Dostoevsky and a rekindling of the grand tradition extinct since the death of DH Lawrence.

Yet the more successful I became, the more ill I felt. Despite marriage, fatherhood, the realisation of much of what I had aimed for, things, if anything, had only got worse. The previous year, I had embarked on a new novel: my magnum opus, the definitive postwar British novel for which This Sporting LifeFlight into Camden and Radcliffe had been the ranging shots. However, the morning overtures of terror continued. By the summer of 1965 I had convinced myself that I had taken on something I had neither the ability nor the time to achieve. All I had produced was silence – silence masking desperation and a depression that, in the first place, it had been the purpose of art to hide.

The following summer, when this was at its height, I received a letter from the artistic director of the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh, Gordon McDougall. Several years before, while working as an assistant at the Royal Court, he had taken down a manuscript from a shelf and, blowing off the dust, read with interest a play entitled To Die With the Philistines. If it were still unperformed, he would like to do it.

It had, by this time, been rejected by every repertory company in the UK, by all the subsidised theatres in London and by every West End producer to whom it had been submitted, as well as by the BBC. Relieved to be distracted, I rewrote the play, retitled it The Restoration of Arnold Middleton and sent it off to my correspondent.

[My wife] Barbara persuaded me to go and see the play and it went well: a crowded basement in an ancient part of the town. I enjoyed the audience’s laughter and though conceived with little knowledge of the theatre, much of it, I was surprised to discover, worked.

At this point, we no longer had a car. We had four children. Food began to be rationed. Stews succeeded stews: vegetables procurable from the gutters of the Inverness Street market, bones from the butcher, a move ahead of the dogs. We were once more on the breadline, the “leading novelist of his generation” leading his family nowhere.

A transfer of the Edinburgh production of Arnold Middleton to the Royal Court in London was suggested. An assistant at the Court, Robert Kidd, had been home on holiday in Scotland and had seen the last night of the Traverse run and, on returning to Sloane Square, had recommended the play to the Court’s artistic director, Bill Gaskill.

Apart from two preliminary meetings with Gaskill and Kidd, who was to direct, plus the auditions of the principal actor, Jack Shepherd, and actress, Eileen Atkins, I wasn’t involved. I first saw a performance at a dress rehearsal where, beforehand, the perspiring Eileen told me she couldn’t remember a line. Moments later I watched her walk on to the stage and, throughout the next two hours, scarcely miss a word.

If the play hadn’t been submitted to the theatre at the suggestion of Lindsay Anderson [director of This Sporting Life], seven years before, if Gordon McDougall hadn’t read it one rainy afternoon, if Bob Kidd hadn’t been home on holiday the previous autumn – if Karel Reisz [producer of This Sporting Life] hadn’t introduced me to Lindsay in the first place – it’s possible I would never have written for the theatre again.

It was the womb-like interior of the Royal Court place – red-plushed, warm, contained – that prompted my response. What it reminded me of was not any previous visit to a theatre (I’d been to fewer than a dozen) but of the paintings I’d done during the last two years at the Slade: my attempt to move away from the surface of the canvas into something visually more dramatic. Animated on the stage in the most sensational manner was a picture-framed interior, a box into which objects and figures could be inserted, no longer static, no longer abstract, indubitably real.

The response to the play was equally direct. Reviewed enthusiastically by Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times (“The best first play produced by the English Stage Company since Look Back in Anger”), its run was extended and the production was transferred to the Criterion theatre in the West End. At the end of the year it shared the Evening Standard award for the most promising playwright with another theatrical unknown, Tom Stoppard.

Despite its complexity, my new play – The Contractor – took only five days to write: the erecting, the arranging and the dismantling of a marquee around the narrative of a family wedding. It was followed by a play about family life. In Celebration only took three days to write: three educated sons returning home to celebrate their working-class parents’ 40th wedding anniversary – and to face the inevitable conflicts of familial life. Arnold Middleton, conceived in despair 10 years before in the back streets of King’s Cross, had unblocked a dam.

After agreeing to stage In Celebration at the Court, Bill Gaskill suggested inviting Lindsay to direct it. Since This Sporting Life, Lindsay’s working life and mine had drifted apart. The mentor and scribe, the aficionado and critic whom I had met nine years before, now had behind him a body of work that had achieved all he had promised, including his 1968 film, if….It facilitated casting: Alan Bates, James Bolam, Constance Chapman, Bill Owen, Fulton Mackay and, a relatively unknown actor, Brian Cox.

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(Larry Getlen’s article appeared in the New York Post, 5/21; via the Drudge Report;  Photo: the New York Post.)

Before she became America’s sweetheart, Lucille Ball’s path to stardom was filled with gangsters, nude photos and even turning tricks, according to a new book.

In the late 1950s, Darwin Porter, student body president at the University of Miami, arranged “Lucy & Desi” Day at the school, a celebration of the country’s most popular entertainers and favorite couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

But when he arrived to take them to the event, the snide and bickering couple he found resembled anything but America’s sweethearts.

“She shouted denunciations at him, at one point calling him [an ethnic slur]. She accused him of having sex with two prostitutes the night before,” writes Porter in his new book with Danforth Price, “Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz: They Weren’t Lucy & Ricky Ricardo,” (Blood Moon Productions, out now).

“He didn’t deny that, but claimed, ‘It doesn’t mean a thing, my fooling around with some hookers. Peccadilloes don’t count.”

The book, which is Volume 1 of the authors’ Ball/Arnaz bio, is 576 pages long and covers the years until the end of their marriage, documenting their careers, hardships, and many, many lovers in all their gossipy glory. Volume II is set for release later this year. Lucille Ball met Desi Arnaz in 1940 at RKO Pictures. While “I Love Lucy” showcased the fun-loving, madcap couple, behind the scenes, there were extramarital affairs and plenty of scandal.

Ball — born Aug. 6, 1911 in Jamestown, NY — yearned to perform from a young age. Taking acting lessons in New York City as a teen, she was overshadowed by fellow student Bette Davis, who she found “snobby and intimidating.” She also studied dance under Martha Graham for several days before Graham asked her to drop the class. “You’re hopeless as a dancer,” Graham told her. “You’re like a quarterback taking up ballet. Perhaps you could find work as a soda jerk.”

At 14, Ball wound up in a relationship with 23-year-old Johnny DaVita, who, the authors write, ran illegal booze in from Canada and functioned as the town gigolo. 

She later moved in with DaVita, who occasionally beat her, and shaped parts of her personality around his gangster ways.

“Living with DaVita catalyzed some personality changes in her,” the authors write. “She developed a foul mouth to match his own and those of his hoodlum friends.”

Later, while auditioning for roles in Times Square under the stage names Montana Ball and Diane Belmont before settling on her given name, she scrounged to survive, including partaking in nude modeling and turning the occasional trick. She often ate food left over by diners in local cafes, and brought a handbag with a plastic liner on dates so she could take home half-eaten steaks. 

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(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared on Russia Beyond, 5/15;  Photo: Press photo; Public domain.)

One of the most mysterious and funniest Russian writers, he had a turbulent, complicated life and troubles with censorship and the Soviet system. Which all reflected in his brilliant works, some of them were published only after his death.

1. The White Guard

Bulgakov’s first ever novel depicts the city of Kiev that used to be a part of the Russian Empire and now was caught in the maelstrom of the Civil War that happened in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1918, the city wasn’t yet seized by the Bolsheviks and many of the tsarist military men and noblemen arrived there. This is a story of the Turbin family captured by the turbulent political events. Their house is the last shelter of the past life, ruined by the war. They still have guests and drink tea, but the world has changed with people reacting to the new circumstances in different ways: some become traitors, others flee, while a select few prefer to die fighting. 

This is a semi biographical novel and Bulgakov’s family members became prototypes for his characters, while the house where the Turbins live is clearly similar to the real Bulgakov house in Kiev. 

The White Guard was published in 1925 and, in the same year Bulgakov, wrote a play based on the novel. The Days of the Turbins became one of the most frequently staged plays in Russian theaters and beyond. Even though the plot features anti-Bolshevik officers, Stalin himself liked the play and watched it several times in the theater. 

2. A Young Doctor’s Notebook

A young doctor arrives at a countryside village to commence his work. He’s still very inexperienced, but has to undertake incredibly complicated tasks: amputations, a tracheotomy and a labor that required turning a baby in the womb. This book became even more popular after it was adapted into a series starring Daniel Radcliff in 2013. 

This is actually a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, as Bulgakov worked as a doctor for many years. After graduating from the medical faculty of the Kiev University, he was a military doctor during World War I and after was sent to a small village in Smolensk Region. 

A Young Doctor’s Notebook cycle doesn’t include his popular ‘Morphine’ short story, however, it is frequently comprehended as a related work. A young doctor finds diaries of his mate, who became a morphinist. Another semi-biographical motif from the life of Bulgakov, who also suffered from morphine for a while. 

3. Heart of a Dog

At the dawn of the new Soviet state, a genius Moscow surgeon named Professor Preobrazhensky (the prototype was allegedly Bulgakov’s uncle) does a scientific experiment. He catches a stray dog and transplants a part of a human brain and testicles into it. As a result, the dog takes a human form… but becomes a drunkard and a rowdy, though it perfectly fits into the new Soviet society. Bulgakov was mocking the fact that not very well educated people from former “lower classes” suddenly became the ruling class.

The story was written in 1925, but the manuscript was confiscated by state security services. However, the book was circulated among the Soviet intelligentsia via self-publishing copies of samizdat in the 1960s and made a true splash. Heart of a Dog only appeared in official printing after perestroika in 1987.

This story is incredibly popular among Russians and especially thanks to its brilliant big screen adaptation, it became “viral”, as multiple quotes from it became aphorisms. (Such as “Ruin, therefore, is not caused by lavatories, but it’s something that starts in people’s heads”).

4. Theatrical Novel (a.k.a. A Dead Man’s Memoir) 

A Moscow writer and playwright takes a reader to take a glimpse under the curtains of Moscow theatrical and literary life of the 1930s. He goes into multiple institutions suggesting his works to be published or staged, however, the censorship doesn’t approve any of them. 

This is another semi-autobiographical work by Bulgakov. In the 1920s, he moved to Moscow and, after a while, started working as a playwright and theatrical director. Several of his plays were huge successes in Moscow theaters, but, at the same time, many of plays were banned by Soviet censorship. Bulgakov suffered from the official critics blaming him for being anti-Soviet. And frequently without being able to work, he had troubles with money. 

In Theatrical Novel he pokes fun at eccentric writers and directors and mocks multiple officials that are involved in the theatrical process. Bulgakov hyperbolizes the things he had to overcome; however, to play it safe, he wrote that all the events were made up and fictitious.

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The Bacchae


In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Euripides’ great tragedy, which was first performed in Athens in 405 BC when the Athenians were on the point of defeat and humiliation in a long war with Sparta. The action seen or described on stage was brutal: Pentheus, king of Thebes, is torn into pieces by his mother in a Bacchic frenzy and his grandparents condemned to crawl away as snakes. All this happened because Pentheus had denied the divinity of his cousin Dionysus, known to the audience as god of wine, theatre, fertility and religious ecstasy.

The image above is a detail of a Red-Figure Cup showing the death of Pentheus (exterior) and a Maenad (interior), painted c. 480 BC by the Douris painter. This object can be found at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.


Edith Hall
Professor of Classics at King’s College London

Emily Wilson
Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania


Rosie Wyles
Lecturer in Classical History and Literature at the University of Kent

Producer: Simon Tillotson