The Master and the Tyrant

by Richard Brookhiser

My introduction to Russian novels in high school was wonderful but limited: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev. I did not catch up with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov until a few years ago. What a find! Three plots run in tandem: the Devil visits Moscow in the 1930s; Pontius Pilate orders Jesus to be crucified; and a playwright, the Master, who has written a play about Pilate, is saved from despair by his lover, Margarita, who makes a deal with the Devil to do it.

Bard College did a stage version as part of its summer program, and I caught the end of its run. The script was by János Szász, a Hungarian director, and Gideon Lester, who teaches at Bard. There were lots of bells and whistles, but Ronald Guttman was a suave Devil and Arliss Howard an earnest, suffering Master.

The theology is not quite Christian. The Devil strews damnation in his path, to all who ask for it, but he appears to be an independent force in the universe (at one point he dickers with God over the lovers’ souls).

No question about the politics. The Devil is bemused to find a society of professed atheists, and delighted to show them that they are mistaken. It is a warning to any fatihless era: the Bard production updated Moscow to Putin’s pseudo-capitalism, without much dissonance. Lost a bit in the updating though was the off-stage presence of Stalin. When Bulgakov was attacked by Party hacks for one of his plays, Stalin gave a speech defending his work as a vindication of Bolshevism, though adding that the author himself had not intended his own effect. Is it better to live in a tyranny where the despot has no taste — or where he has some (à la Stalin and Hitler)? 

Bard boasted that this was the first dramatization of the The Master and Margarita in America in twenty years; it would be a hell of thing if there weren’t more.


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