Richard French

May 20, 2017 Mikhail Bulgakov: The Courage to Speak His Mind Posted In: NOVEL

Two friends of mine and I once saw a production of Bulgakov’s play called in this translation “The Royal Comedians” at a theatre in Toronto. Bulgakov was a prose writer and theatre man who worked in Stalinist Russia. He had an up and down relationship the great dictator, who found him work from time to time and liked some of his writings. He reportedly saw one of his plays fifteen times, though not this one.

Here Bulgakov transforms the last years of the playwright Moliere so that it looks as if the French playwright lived under conditions that resemble an oppressive culture like the Soviet Union under Stalin. Bulgakov’s version of Moliere lives in a time of censorship, torture, and virulent, slanderous gossip. King Louis XIV lifted people up and brought them down. Government agents terrorized Moliere because church leaders disapproved of his play “Tartuffe” and believed gossip about his private life.

Both Moliere and Bulgakov had public roles in societies that didn’t recognize a right of free speech and both were strong-minded men who couldn’t be content in quiet corners. Such people can have a lot of impact and bring great benefits to ordinary folks..

Bulgakov is known in the west for his novel “The Master and Margerita” and perhaps the novella “My Life as a Dog”, in which Russian surgeons perform an operation on a dog so that he becomes a leader in the Soviet system. I learned from Wikipedia that Bulgakov’s list of prose fiction and theatre works is much longer than I thought. I don’t suppose that any period of his working life would be considered good times by our standards, but he kept on going.

Folks in our society, whether in public life or private, don’t face the obstacles that Bulgakov and countless others around the world have had to endure. Yet our culture imposes boundaries and limits. We are expected to conform to whatever trends happen to be in fashion and if we don’t agree with the direction of events and speak out, we risk being called intolerant and narrow-minded. I recently read a political column on the Internet, to which someone replied with an email that included this comment, “You can disagree with High Official XY, but you must keep your views to yourself.”

Aside from this sort of nonsense, it’s likely that voluntary self-censorship is a feature in many lives. Of course, civilized adults restrain themselves to live within the law and don’t usually cause offence for its own sake or indulge in boorish behavior. Still, I think many of us can keep quiet about what we know to be true if there is a more powerful voice than ours in the room.

What/’s more, original things can have trouble getting known or don’t reach the public or don’t get made. Our society has too many talented people to count, yet how much talent goes to waste?

If Mikhail Bulgakov came to our part of the world, he surely would not use a lot of words telling us how wonderful we are.  Instead, he would likely point out our shortcomings, as Solzhenitsyn did, in an imaginative, memorable, and maybe outrageous way. Never timid, he would take advantage of the right of free speech that’s a big part of our heritage. He wouldn’t lack the courage to speak his mind.

4 Comments

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