Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) again. He is as ubiquitous in Moscow as Pushkin. This time we’re looking at another in the series of illustrations of characters from BB’s writings that showed up on city walls and archways as part of the Best City in the World Festival in 2014. This particular bas relief, etched out in a thin layer of cement, is of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, from BB’s play Ivan Vasilyevich. Like the others, it was created by Novatek Art. Unlike most of the others, this image is not in a readily visible position. In fact, it occupies a fairly forlorn spot behind a wayward post not far from some junk gathering behind a tiny, leftover wall, and squeezed on all sides by a rough paint job. If you’re looking for it, go to 36 Starokonyushenny Lane in the Arbat district and peek around the right corner of the building from the street.
Ivan Vasilyevich is simultaneously an obscure Bulgakov play and one of his most popular. How does that work? Easy. It was made into a film called Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession by the great Soviet comic film director Leonid Gaidai in 1973. The film – the top grossing Soviet film for that year (it was seen by over 60 million spectators) – became an instant classic and still maintains its cult popularity today.
The play itself – a comedy about two Soviet citizens being carried back into the 16th century by a time machine which also tosses Ivan the Terrible into the 20th century – has lived a much quieter life. It was written in the mid-1930s for the Satire Theater, but it didn’t see the light of day until it was published in a small collection of Bulgakov’s plays in 1965. Even then it was not until Gaidai got hold of it that anyone really paid it any attention. And, truth to be told, even following that wildly popular film, theaters did not clamor to stage it. In my nearly 30 years of theater-going in Russia I have never seen a production of it.
In fact, Ivan Vasilyevich began life as a play called Bliss. That early variant was written roughly between spring and fall of 1934 but the Satire Theater declined to stage it. Director Nikolai Gorchakov and actors at the theater encouraged Bulgakov to keep working on the play. He did just that and it is considered that he finished it on Sept. 30, 1935, giving a reading of the play in his home for the Gorchakov crew on Oct. 2. The play was proverbially received enthusiastically by the company, although that did not stop them or Bulgakov from believing that it needed to be reworked severely. That mutual agreement was reached on Oct. 29. Bulgakov went back to the drawing board, changing the comedy drastically – the new version was no longer a science-fiction tale of time travel, but now became an unreal tale of a man having a strange dream. This version was completed in April 1936. I haven’t found when the play went into rehearsals (it was probably before April), but a dress rehearsal was held on May 13 and was promptly banned after that.
Gaidai’s film of the play introduced a large number of changes and innovations. Not surprisingly, in it the characters travel back and forth between the 16th century and the 1970s, rather than the 1930s of Bulgakov’s original.
Gaidai (1923-1993) was one of the most beloved makers of comedies in the Soviet era. I think we would be safe in calling them screwball comedies. He made approximately 20 films between 1955 and 1992. Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the last in a fivesome of unsurpassed successes. The run began in 1965 with Operation Y, and Shurik’s Other Adventures, hitting stride with The Captive Girl of the Caucausus (1966, aka Kidnapping, Caucasian Style), The Diamond Hand (1968) and The Twelve Chairs (1971, not to be mistaken, of course, for Mel Brooks’ Hollywood version of this classic comic novel by Ilf and Petrov). Every one of these films is spoken of with the greatest love and reverence by virtually anyone who has grown up in the Soviet Union or Russia since the 1960s. The films are wacky, off the wall and fast-paced, and Ivan Vasilyevich is no different.
What is interesting about Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession is that Gaidai – despite the wave of success he was enjoying at the time – apparently had a difficult time casting it. He wrote the script with the great clown and actor Yury Nikulin in mind, but Nikulin – who had starred with such success in The Diamond Hand – curiously wanted nothing to do with the project. According to Russian Wikipedia, the reason for Nikulin’s reticence was that he didn’t expect this film featuring a satirical vision of Ivan the Terrible ever to pass the censor, and he had no desire to waste his time making a film no one would see. Frankly, that sounds a little simplistic to me, but I have no reason to buck Wikipedia’s received wisdom.
Another eight actors – most of them big stars – auditioned for the lead, which was a dual role of Ivan the Terrible and one of the hapless Soviet citizens being sent back into the past. They included Yevgeny Yevstigneev, Georgy Vitsin and Yevgeny Lebedev – all of them legends in their own right. However, the part eventually fell to Yury Yakovlev, who emerged in the 1970s as one of Soviet cinema’s finest lyrical/comic actors.
Of course, it is Gaidai’s film, and not Bulgakov’s original play, that made the Novatek artists want to memorialize the character of Ivan the Terrible in the series of Bulgakov-inspired bas reliefs that still dot the city of Moscow today. Bulgakov only returned to Russian readers in the 1960s when the unofficial ban on his works was lifted. As such, Gaidai’s film of the obscure Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the first successful film adaptation of the writer’s works. It helped cement the writer’s fast-growing reputation as the people’s favorite.