Javone Prince in rehearsal for the NT's current version of The Suicide. Photo by Johan Persson
Nikolai Erdman died on 10 August 1970. At that time, his masterpiece, The Suicide, had only just been staged for the first time anywhere in the world, and not yet in his native Russia. What would go on to be considered one of the greatest comedies to come from Communist Russia had a tumultuous history, precisely because of the country of its birth.
Erdman was born in Moscow in November 1900, to parents of German descent. Through his brother, Boris, a well-respected stage designer, he came to move in literary circles at a young age, writing poetry that was influenced by the likes of Sergei Yesenin and Vladimir Mayakovsky. However, his growth as a writer was paralleled by that of the Soviet Union; after the October rising in 1917, he joined the Red Army, eventually returning to Moscow in 1923. The changes to education brought in by the new Communist government meant that he would never finish his schooling – this was the first in a lifetime of bitter blows dealt to him by the state.
By 1924, Erdman had developed a reputation as a poet and witty parodist. That year, he submitted his first full length play, The Mandate, to the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, with whom he would again collaborate on The Suicide, in 1928. By this point, the two were hugely sought-after, with three different theatres fighting for the rights to the play. Sadly, none of them would be granted state permission – in fact, the play would not be staged in Russia until 1982.
The Suicide satirises various strands of society – including, dangerously, the problems with political power. It fell foul of government censors, but was nearly granted permission by Stalin himself when the legendary Stanislavsky wrote to him. However, after a private viewing for party officials before opening night, permission was once again revoked. Then, when an actor drunkenly recited one of Erdman’s satirical stories to Stalin, the playwright’s fate was sealed; he was exiled to Siberia and The Suicide’s fate was sealed. Things were even worse for Meyerhold – he was eventually banned from working, tortured into saying he was a spy and then executed in 1940.
Erdman spent the rest of his life working in film and poetry. Oddly enough, his script for the film comedy Volga-Volga was awarded the Stalin Prize for Art in 1941, and, during World War II, Stalin himself allowed him to join the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Secret Police. This thawing of relations did not mean that The Suicide was staged, even after Stalin died; tragically, its popularity came only after his death.
Popularity did come, though, and The Suicide is now recognised as possibly the greatest play to come from Communist Russia. It has been performed on Broadway, in London and was the fourth-most produced piece in Russia after the fall of Communism. The latest version, by Suhayla El-Bushra, is now playing in the Lyttelton Theatre. The play is reimagined in modern-day London and turns Erdman’s cutting satire on our society, from social media to welfare cuts. It’s provocative, fast-paced and very funny. Just like Erdman intended.