"Slavs!" by Tony Kushner

A Full-Length Play by the Pulitzer Prize Winning Playwright

Tony Kushner
Playwright Tony Kushner's play "Slavs!" began as part of "Angels in America.". Jamie McCarthy

Playwright Tony Kushner is best known for his seven-hour play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Due to the length, most theaters produce Angels in America one part at a time - Millennium Approaches is Part 1 and Perestroika is Part 2. But the play could have been even longer. Slavs! began as a series of scenes set at the beginning of Part Two of Angels in America, but eventually evolved into its own play.

The format of Slavs! is one of disparate scenes loosely connected by one or two characters and it tackles different issues during different decades of the Russian regime change.

Political playwright Tony Kushner was sympathetic to the socialist movement, but disheartened with the results of the collectivist experiment in Russia and the new regime of free market capitalism that was beginning to take its place in the early 1990s. He believes that, “there’s still a necessity for the collective, as well as the individual.” Slavs! explores this necessity in each of its four acts.

Slavs! poses many questions for the audience. The greatest of which is “What is to be done?” Kushner says, “Questions are the province of the writer; answers are for the audience to tackle.” Kushner lays out the political and social issues of a changing Russia for his audience and leaves it up to the individual audience member to mull over the possible answers once the curtain goes down.

Plot Synopsis

Prologue. Two Babushkas are sweeping snow off the steps of the Kremlin. They are dressed in the traditional manner of old Russian grandmothers. The two old women proceed to engage in a healthy and highly intellectual discussion of Marxism and the corruption of the collectivist vision into a state of terror and inefficiency since the revolution at the turn of the century.

They break their discussion when two Politburo members enter and treat them as no more than country bumpkins. The two Babushkas play their grandmotherly role and give no hint of the depth of their knowledge and understanding to the high ranking members. Once the two men have entered the building and left them alone again, their discussion continues where it left off.

Act One. High-ranking members of the Politburo have gathered at the Kremlin to hear Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov speak. Prelapsarianov is the oldest member of the group and was there when the revolution began. He is railing against the coming change in regime to free market capitalism and begs the current Politburo members to remember why the revolution happened. The rest of the group sees him as senile and ineffective. They listen only out of respect for his age. Prelapsarianov gets so worked up over his speech and ideals that he gives himself a brain aneurism and dies.

Serge Esmereldovich Upgobkin takes up where Prelapsarianov left of and begins to expound on the vision he sees for the Russian people. He pushes for great leaps in ideology that will force the people to change and grow and hope. “For what is hope,” he says, “But desiring forwards?” Eventually his passionate speech consumes him and he begins leaping uncontrollably resulting in his own death.

Act Two. Act 2 takes place in a small dark security room in the chamber of the Pan-Soviet Archives for the Study of “Cerebro-Cephalognomical HistoricoBiological Materialism.” It is a guard’s room with a video feed into a chamber that houses the jarred brains of the greatest minds of past Russians -  from Lenin to the present day. The guard is a young, bored, and disillusioned girl named Katherina Serafima Gleb. Ippolite Ippopolitovich Popolitipov, a high ranking member of the Politburo from the previous act, comes in and tries to seduce her but she is only interested in the cigarettes he promised to bring her. Popolitipov tries every angle he can think of to get her to sleep with him, but she rebuffs him at every turn and eventually confesses that she is a lesbian. Finally, they move on to other topics, which include discussion of the jarred brains in the room next door and what the coming regime change will be like.

When Katherina’s lover, Bonfila Bezhukhovna Bonch-Bruevich, enters the room Katherina rushes to her and showers her with affection upsetting Popolitipov. Popolitipov leaves claiming that he is going to go shoot himself and Katherina encourages him. Katherina and Bonfila proceed to drink an entire bottle of vodka and discuss the old history and religion of the country. Eventually they decide to pray…for vodka.

Act Three. Ten years later Bonfila is in Siberia. Popolitipov transferred her there after witnessing the relationship between her and Katherina. She is researching the effects of toxic radiation on the population with a focus on the “yellow children” - children born of parents who lived through situations like Chernobyl. A girl, Vodya Domik, sits unspeaking and unresponsive through the entire act. Yegor Tremens Rodent, a high ranking Politburo from act one, enters tasked with making a report on Bonfila’s research to President Boris Yeltsin.

Rodent reveals that not only is the government going to do little to nothing to help the people affected by radiation poisoning, but they are also going to begin buying radioactive waste from the west in order to help the country out of debt. The government has no safe or definitive plan in mind to store or manage the waste in any capacity that would protect its citizens. Mrs. Shastlivyi Domik, Vodya’s mother, begs for compensation from the government and outlines how taking care of her daughter is impossible due to loss of public aid, childcare assistance, and extraordinary medical bills.

Rodent tries to calm Vodya’s mother with vague party propaganda but she is un-phased by his speech. Eventually he leaves unrepentant about the plight of either the mother or the child.

Epilogue. Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov and Serge Esmereldovich Upgobkin are playing cards in the afterlife. The setting of their afterlife is a “gloomy, derelict place like a city after an earthquake.” They can find no evidence of God, and can only think to play card game after card game for eternity. Occasionally they think about checking in on the world, but decide against this assuming it would only make them feel worse. Eventually Vodya Domik enters. She is now able to speak and discuss her life and the political history of the Soviet Union now that she is dead and free from cancer. She asks the old men to tell her a story to cheer her up. They tell the story of the beginning of the Russian Revolution, what is was supposed to be, and what it was supposed to mean for the people. The story ends with the big question, “What is to be done?”

Production Details

Setting: Moscow and Talmenka, Siberia, and the afterlife

Time: March 1985 and 1992

Cast Size: This play can accommodate 12 actors.

Female Characters: 7

Male Characters: 5

Characters that could be played by either males or females: 0

Roles

Tony Kushner names his characters in Slavs! in a similar fashion to the Morality Play genre. The Russian names of the Politburo members give clues to their character traits. For instance: Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov is a particularly old man.

Antedilluvian means “before the flood,” a reference to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Prelapsarian is a reference to the time before original sin. This could be a reference to the fact that Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov was around during the start of the revolution and continues to hold onto the beliefs of Marx’s original vision for the socialist revolution.

First Babushka is a snow sweep on duty clearing snow from the Kremlin. Her age is indeterminate but is referred to as a “grandmother.”

Second Babushka is another snow sweep on duty clearing snow from the Kremlin. Her age is also indeterminate and she too is referred to as “grandmother.”

Vassily Vorovilich Smukov is a member of the Politburo. He is a pessimistic man as the “Smu” in his name indicates. He is in his seventies.

Serge Esmereldovich Upgobkin is a member of the Politburo. He is an optimist who follows his heart and passion to his death. He is an old man in his eighties.

Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov is “the world’s oldest living Bolshevik.” He follows his head to the grave. He eventually suffers from a brain aneurysm.

Ippolite Ippolitovich Popolitipov is one of the most important members of the Politburo. He is an “appartchik.” He is a politician through and through. He is in his sixties and often referred to as “Poppy.”

Yegor Tremens Rodent is a nervous member of the Politburo. He is attached to Popolitipov and is of a lower rank than the other members. He is in his fifties.

Katherina Serafime Gleb is a bored security guard in charge of monitoring a room full of jarred brains. She is in her twenties and is mostly interested in cigarettes, vodka, and her lover Bonfila.

Bonfila Bezhukhova Bonch-Bruevich is a doctor specializing in pediatric oncology. She is in a rocky relationship with Katherina. She is researching radiation poisoning in children in Siberia. She is described as pleasant woman in her thirties.

Big Babushka is the miraculous deliverer of vodka to Katherina and Bonfila in their moment of need.

Vodya Domik is a cancer-ridden, eight-year-old girl.

Mrs. Shastlivyi Domik is Vodya’s angry mother. She wants to hold the government responsible for the poisoning. She demands compensation but is ultimately left with nothing but a daughter she is destined to mourn.

Content Issues

Language, talk of sex, political issues, radiation poison scandals

Resources

Slavs! is part of the collection in the book Political Stages: Plays the Shaped a Century by Emily Mann and David Roessel. Production rights for the play are held by Samuel French.

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Your Citation
Flynn, Rosalind. ""Slavs!" by Tony Kushner." ThoughtCo, Jul. 25, 2016, thoughtco.com/slavs-by-tony-kushner-4065584. Flynn, Rosalind. (2016, July 25). "Slavs!" by Tony Kushner. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/slavs-by-tony-kushner-4065584 Flynn, Rosalind. ""Slavs!" by Tony Kushner." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/slavs-by-tony-kushner-4065584 (accessed November 18, 2017).