Born in1891 in Kiev, Mikhail Bulgakov is best known for his magical realist novel The Master and Margarita, published posthumously. It is the best example of his wildly surreal and satirical writing. The book was available underground as samizdat for many years in the Soviet Union, and it led to international appreciation of Bulgakov’s writing.
In 1916, he served in the White army alongside his brothers. After the Civil War and rise of the Bolsheviks, most of his family emigrated but Mikhail remained. He remained ambivalent towards the Soviet government: while mocking it in some of his works, he also wrote the play Batum glorifying Stalin's early revolutionary activity. Much of his work remained in his desk drawer. He published a number of works through the early and mid-twenties, but by 1927 his career began to suffer from criticism that he was too anti-Soviet.
The White Guard in its original form was a novel and first appeared as a serial in the Soviet literary journal Rossiya in 1926, but was never fully released. Instead it was turned into a play The Days of the Turbins, and became a big hit, enjoying a long run at the Moscow Arts Theatre before eventually being banned. Bulgakov then wrote to Stalin personally to be permitted to leave the country, but instead Stalin gave instructions for him to be given a job at the Moscow Arts Theatre, where he was still working when he completed The Master and Margarita, before he died in 1940. His widow partially published The White Guard in the literary journal Moskva in 1966, and the entire novel was only finally published in 1973.
The play is set in the Ukraine during 1918, and depicts the fate of the Turbin family as the Civil War rages around them - the Whites, the Reds and the remnants of the German army are fighting for the city of Kiev. Real historical figures such as Petlyura and Skoropadsky feature as the Turbins are caught up in the turbulence of the Revolution.
White Guard contains many autobiographical elements. The younger Turbin brother is modelled after Bulgakov's own. The house of the Turbins is an exact description of the one lived in by the Bulgakov family in Kiev.
The play gives us a portrait of an upper-class Ukrainian family wedded to an outdated system. During the final days of the First World War, the Ukrainian regime’s protectors, the Germans, are in retreat and the Bolsheviks are at the gates of Kiev.
It is in essence a Chekhovian situation and – handled with subtlety and historical acumen – the production could have teased out the tragedy as well as the comedy encapsulated in this family’s doomed situation. Instead it is played almost entirely for laughs and becomes more Whitehall farce than Cherry Orchard. One wonders what motivated the NT to resuscitate the play in this new adaptation by Andrew Upton who seems more fascinated by Stalin’s apparent love of the play and Soviet censorship of it, than with Bulgakov’s central concerns. Upton was also responsible for the NT’s version of Gorky’s Philistines.
The actors here perform well but are straitjacketed by the over-emphasis on the farcical and are left little space to develop multi-faceted characters. It is directed by NT Associate Howard Davies.