Brendan Black’s play “Trotsky and Friends” utterly distorts the ideas and methods of one of the most important figures of the Russian revolution.
The play, set at Café Central in Vienna, Austria during January 1913, looks at a day in the life of Leon Trotsky, a leading figure of the revolution who at that point had been exiled by the Tsarist regime. He sits at a table drinking coffee and vodka while trying to finish a manuscript on the struggle for socialism in Europe.
Throughout the day Trotsky is visited, and distracted, by various contemporary thinkers. He is joined by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, two psychologists with conflicting theories around psychological treatment and human consciousness. Also making an appearance are Alma Mahler, the musical composer, and Hitler, at this stage “a penniless artist”.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, whose assassination in Sarajevo acted as a catalyst for World War One, and his wife Duchess Sophie also visit the café, although choose to sit at a different table.
Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik who jointly led the Russian revolution with Trotsky is another figure who visits the café as does Joseph Stalin, the personification of the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution. Tito, who went on to become the dictatorial leader of Yugoslavia, is another who stops by to drink, gossip and discuss political life. The group are tended to throughout the day by a young waiter named Ludwig.
Black said the idea came from a BBC article reporting that Trotsky, Stalin, Freud and Jung were all living in Vienna at the same time. He then came across a Reddit thread suggesting that someone should write a play about it, which planted the seed.
There’s something to be said about the idea coming from Reddit. The world of online forums has a tendency to wilfully distort people and their ideas and to perpetuate low brow, sexist, racist and homophobic humour. This play is no exception. It relies heavily on boring, anti-revolutionary stereotypes.
Black said that he wanted people to be able to understand the ideas without needing to be a “socialist scholar or have a PhD of psychology”. Rather than explaining the ideas however, Black completely distorts them. Marxist theory is easily understood by ordinary people, as the ideas are drawn from the lived experiences of workers and the poor. Unfortunately, what could have been a humorous look at some of the most important political debates of the century was turned into a reactionary farce.
There are only two female characters in the play. Sophie, Arch Duke Ferdinand’s wife, is stereotypically cast as a nag, while Alma Mahler is stereotypically cast as a lonely slut.
The play deals superficially with the fact that Mahler is seen mainly as her dead husband’s (Gustav) wife and that she is the topic of salacious gossip. However, she is also shamed for having an active sex life and mocked for jumping from one man to the next (the play ends with her taking the awkward waiter Ludwig to bed because she is cold and lonely and can’t find Carl Jung).
Black is certainly not the first person to reduce Alma Mahler to her sex life alone, but perpetuating this sexist discourse only served to give viewers an insight into his attitudes towards women.
The play also suggests that Lenin and Trotsky were sexist themselves. One of Lenin’s first lines is to ask Trotsky why he is writing about socialism when he could instead be writing about the various sizes and shapes of women’s bodies that abound in Europe. This unfunny line is particularly strange as Trotsky and Lenin saw the women of Europe as crucial to the socialist movement and the transformation of society.
While they may have had some sexist attitudes, as everyone who lives in class society is prone to this, they both wrote on and dealt with issues of sexism. Trotsky dealt extensively with the question of women’s liberation. In an article titled “To build socialism means to emancipate women and protect mothers”, he states that “it is impossible to move to socialism without freeing… the woman worker from the bondage of family and household”.
Far from giving any real insight into Trotsky and Lenin’s views, Black instead preferred to have them making crass jokes and sexually harassing Alma Mahler. The play is bad, but the issues with it go far beyond sexism.
It also pushes the idea that Trotsky and Lenin were alcoholics. As they order their umpteenth bottle of vodka, they suggest that the revolution will be fuelled by alcohol. However, the tendency towards alcoholism was actively fought against during the revolution.
In Trotsky’s autobiography “My life” he talks of those who were “trying to consume the revolution in the flames of alcohol” and of a comrade who saw the necessity to fight against this dangerous tendency. This comrade guarded wine stores and let the wine flow down the open street sewers rather than let it be consumed. He actually “fought for a sober October” and “beat off the alcoholic attack of the counter-revolution”.
The most pressing ideological issue with the play however is the way it undermines the life and methods of Trotsky. The underpinning message is that Trotsky did not know or understand the working class and that he lived a privileged, bourgeois lifestyle. In fact, Trotsky led the 1905 revolution as the president of the Petrograd soviet and attributed his political development to this experience.
Further to this, he wrote the Transitional Program, one of the most important revolutionary texts, crucial to the worker’s movement. It combines programmatic demands with perspectives for both capitalism and the labour movement. It was written in 1938 in preparation for World War Two, but the driving principles are just as relevant and important for the working class today as they were then. Very few other pieces of writing have so clearly laid out the tasks for the working class and the revolutionary movement.
Black also suggests that Trotsky wanted the revolution to be never ending and soaked in blood. There is a throwaway line about the Permanent Revolution that suggests that Trotsky desired that the working class be engaged in a constant and unceasing revolution.
What Trotsky actually meant when he discussed Permanent Revolution was that, particularly in an underdeveloped country such as Russia in 1917, it would not be enough to simply overthrow the old dictatorial regime and facilitate a capitalist stage of development. To truly satisfy the needs of the working class and the peasantry another revolution, one that would start implementing democratic socialism, would need to be waged. This theory was proved correct without a doubt during the months of 1917.
It is almost as if Black had heard the term Permanent Revolution but never actually read anything about it. This is one of many examples that undermine his claim that he is trying to simplify these ideas so that they can be consumed by ordinary people. How can you simplify a concept you know nothing about?
During the course of discussions in the café, Trotsky asks Ludwig if he would fight in the revolution and says: “You will be fighting… like a soldier with a rifle in your hands”. While Trotsky did lead the October insurrection, he never glorified violence. Trotsky in fact went to great lengths to minimise the potential for violence during the revolution and waited until the revolutionary cause had majority support from the working class before taking power.
The responsibility for the blood spilt during the consequent civil war lies squarely in the hands of the minority capitalist class who refused to submit to the will of the majority.
Brendan Black’s play completely misrepresents the lives and the ideas of Trotsky and Lenin. While minor historical inaccuracies for the sake of art and comedy can serve a purpose, this could have been done while still accurately portraying the ideas of the various figures.
Black has done much more than use artistic licence. It is clear on this 100-year anniversary of the 1917 Russian revolution that he has attempted to undermine the event’s importance, and to diminish the roles played by Lenin and Trotsky. It is nothing but a poorly done, crass caricature of the important debates that were raging a century ago.
While the script was a reactionary farce, the actors did the best they could with it and added a humour and depth to the characters that was not in the script. On that basis – 2 out of 5 red stars.
Brendan Black’s Trotsky and Friends played at La Mama theatre during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Tickets were $15/$30.
Reviewed by Meredith Jacka