Burjesta Theatre Workshop – Russian Season – Aleksandr Blok’s ‘The Twelve’

the twelve image
Wednesday 15th March, 7pm @ The Casa, Hope St, Liverpool

Our final workshop looking at the work of Russian playwrights is something a little bit different. We’ll be looking at Alexandr Blok’s ‘epic poem’, ‘The Twelve’ written in 1918 following the momentous events of the Russian Revolution. It’s an evocative narrative concerning twelve revolutionary ‘red guards’ wandering through a snow-storm Petersburg’ night, watched over by a mongrel dog (the Bourgeoisie) and Jesus Christ and meeting various other characters along the way. The task we’ll be setting ourselves is to see if we can create drama from its enigmatic poetry.

All welcome


Here’s the poem in full if you wish to have a look at it –

Aleksandr Blok – TWELVE (January 1918)
translation by Maria Carlson

Black night.
White snow.
The wind, the wind!
Impossible to stay on your feet.
The wind, the wind!
Blowing across God’s world!
The wind swirls round
The clean, white snow.
Under the snow — there’s ice.
It’s slick, it’s hard,
Slip — oops! too bad!
From building to building
Stretches a cable.
On the cable’s a placard:
“All Power to the Constituent Assembly!”
An old woman keens and weeps beneath it,
She just can’t understand what it means,
Why such a huge scrap of cloth
For such a placard?
It would make so many footwraps for the boys,
And so many are without clothes, without
shoes . . .
The old woman, hen-like,
Managed somehow to scramble over the
“Oh, Holy Mother of God, our Protectress!
“Oh, the Bolsheviks are going to drive me
into my grave!”
The wind is biting!
The frost tenacious!
The bourgeois standing at the
Has tucked his nose into his collar.
And who’s this? with long hair
And muttering under his breath:
“Russia has perished!”
It must be a writer —
An orator. . .
And there’s a figure in a cassock –
Sidling behind the snowbank. . .
So, not too happy these days,
Eh, comrade priest?
You remember how once
You walked, belly-first,
And your cross-bedecked belly
Shone on the common people? . .
There’s a young lady wrapped in karakul,
Walking with another:
“And we cried and cried . . . “
She slipped on the ice
and — oof! — down she went!
Oh, my!
Give me your hand, pull me up!
The wind is gleeful
And mad and glad.
It twists coat hems,
Mows down passers-by,
Tears at, mangles, and tosses
The large placard:
“All Power to the Constituent Assembly” . . .
The wind carries the words:
. . . And we, too, held an assembly . . .
. . . Here, in this building . . .
. . . We debated —
We resolved:
For an hour, ten rubles; for the whole night –
twenty-five . . .
. . . And don’t take less from anyone . . .
. . . Let’s go to bed . . .
The evening’s late.
The street’s deserted.
Only a vagrant
Stoops, round-shouldered,
And the wind whistles . . .
Hey, poor sweetie!
Come on over –
Give us a kiss . . .
What’s ahead?
Move on!
Black, black sky.
Spite, grievous spite,
Boils in the breast . . .
Black spite, holy spite . . .
Comrade! Keep
Both eyes open!

The wind, it frolics, the snow flies high.
Twelve men with guns go marching by.
On their rifles dull black straps,
Around them fires, and fires, and fires . . .
A home-rolled cig, a flattened cap,
All that’s missing is prison stripes!
Freedom, freedom,
Yeah, yeah, without the cross!
It’s cold, comrade, cold!
“Van’ka and Kat’ka are in a dive . . .”
“Kerensky rubles tucked in her hose”!
“And Vaniushka’s pretty rich himself . . . “
“Once just our Van’ka, he’s now a soldier!”
“Well, Van’ka, bastard, bourgeois guy,
Why not give my kiss a try!”
Freedom, freedom,
Yeah, yeah, without the cross!
Kat’ka’s busy with Van’ka —
But what is she busy doing?
Around them fires, and fires, and fires . . .
Rifle straps on shoulders hang . . .
Hold to the revolutionary pace!
The tireless enemy never sleeps!
Comrade, hold on to your gun, be brave!
Let’s put a bullet into Holy Russia —
Into ancient, sturdy,
Fat-assed Russia!
Yeah, yeah, without the cross!

Off our own dear boys have gone
In the Red Guard for to serve,
In the Red Guard for to serve,
To lay down their reckless heads.
Oh, you bitter, bitter grief,
Oh, you sweet existence!
I’ve an overcoat that’s torn,
And an Austrian rifle!
To the grief of all bourgeois
We’ll fan a worldwide conflagration,
A conflagration drenched in blood —
Give us Your blessing, O Lord!

Snow swirls round, the driver yells,
Van’ka flies along with Kat’ka –
Small electric lanterns glow
On the sled shafts as they go . . .
Oh, oh, away we go! . .
He’s wearing a soldier’s greatcoat,
His physiog is foolish,
He twirls, he twirls his black moustache,
Twisting, twisting,
Joking, joking . . .
Oh, yes, Van’ka — he’s broad-shouldered!
Oh, yes, Van’ka — he’s sweet-talking!
He embraces silly Kat’ka,
Talks her head off . . .
And she’s looking up at him,
Her pearly teeth are shining,
Oh, you Katya, my sweet Katya,
Fat-faced Katya . . .

Katya, on your neck’s a scar
From a knife-wound scarcely healed.
Katya, there beneath your breast,
There the scratch is still quite fresh!
Oh, yeah, dance and prance!
What great legs that girl has!
She wore lacy underwear,
Wear it now, yes, wear it now!
With officers she fornicated –
Fornicate, now, fornicate!
Oh, yeah, fornicate!
Feel the heart just skip a beat!
Remember, Katya, that officer —
He did not escape the knife . . .
Left your memory already?
Is your memory stale, you broad?
Well, then, freshen it,
Take it off to bed with you!
Kat’ka always wore gray gaiters,
Devoured chocolat “Mignon,”
Used to date the young cadets,
But now with soldiers off she’s gone?
Oh, yeah, let’s sin!
Sin is easy on the soul!

. . . Again they ride on at full gallop,
The driver flies and howls and roars . . .
“Halt! Halt! Andriukha, help me here!
Petrukha, run around the rear!” . .
Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, tat-tat-tat!
Snowy dust swirled toward the sky.
The driver and Van’ka make a break . . .
“One more time! Now cock your gun!” . .
Rat-a-tat-tat! “You’ll now find out,
. . . . . . . . . . . .
What it means to take another’s girl.”
“He got away, the scum! Just wait,
Tomorrow I’ll take care of you!”
But where is Kat’ka? “She’s dead, she’s dead!
She’s been shot right through the head!”
Glad now, Kat’ka? “What, not a peep . . .
Then lie there, carrion, on the snow!” . .
Hold to the revolutionary pace!
The tireless enemy never sleeps!

Again the twelve are on the march,
Their rifles on their shoulders hang.
Only the hapless murderer’s face
Is completely hidden away . . .
Faster, faster, and still faster
He hurries up the marching pace.
A scarf he’s wound around his neck —
He can’t get over what he did . . .
“Hey there, comrade, why not merry?”
“Hey, old friend, cat got your tongue?”
“Hey, Petrukha, feeling low now?
Sorry for that Kat’ka, eh?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, my dear comrades,
That I really loved that girl . . .
Many a dark and drunken evening
I spent making out with her . . .
“All because of the lively boldness
Of her fiery, hot eyes,
All because of the crimson birthmark
On her right shoulder, what a sight,
Stupidly I ‘ve wrecked her life now,
I destroyed her rashly — oh!”
“Good grief, you bastard, stop your whining,
Are you a girl then, Pet’ka, eh?”
“What a moment you have picked
To search your soul. Oh, spare us, please!”
“Shoulders back, come on, Petrukha!”
“Get a grip upon yourself!”
“This is really not the best time
For us to nursemaid you along!
We’ll soon have a heavier burden
On our shoulders, comrade pal!”
And Petrukha soon relaxes,
Slows his pace, unhurried now . . .
Tosses back his head, then cheers up,
His good humor’s back again . . .
Hey, hey!
It’s no sin to to have some fun!
Lock up the apartments all,
Looting there will be today!
Open up the cellars all —
Today the rabble will have fun!

Oh, you bitter-bitter grief!
Boredom most boring,
And a little time
I will pass, I will pass . . .
And your little head
I will scratch, I will scratch . . .
And some little seeds
I will shuck, I will shuck . . .
With my little knife
I will slash, I will slash! . .
Fly away, bourgeois, like a sparrow small!
I will drink your blood
For my sweetest love,
My black-browed beauty . . .
Grant rest, O Lord, to the soul of Thy
handmaiden . . .
What a bore!

One cannot hear the city’s din,
Silence reigns o’er Nevsky’s tower,
There are no more policemen now,
So frolic, friends, though there’s no wine!
The bourgeois stands here at the crossroads
With nose tucked into his coat collar.
A coarse-haired, mangy dog beside him
Cringes, its tail between its legs.
The bourgeois stands, like a hungry dog,
Wordless he stands, like a question mark.
And the old world stands, like a mongrel dog,
Right behind him, its tail between its legs.

The blizzard has increased its fury,
Such a blizzard, such a blizzard!
Impossible to see each other
Even four short steps away!
The snow has swirled into a funnel,
The snow has risen in a column . . .
“What a snowstorm, Savior help us!”
“Pet’ka! Hey, cut out that babbling!
Did the golden icon screen
Ever save you from a thing?
Completely unaware you are,
Think about it, work it out –
Both your hands are bloody, aren’t they,
On account of Kat’ka’s love?”
“Hold to the revolutionary pace!
The tirelesss enemy is near!”
Forward, forward, forward,
Working people!

. . . Without the holy name’s protection
The twelve go marching on.
Ready for anything,
Regretting nothing . . .
Their steel rifles now are aimed
At the foe invisible . . .
In the dead-end alleys where
Only the snowstorm swirls its dust . . .
And the feather-soft snowbanks
Grab you boot and won’t let go . . .
Their red flag strikes
The watchful eye.
One can hear
Their measured pace.
Soon will wake
The mortal foe . . .
And the blizzard dusts their eyes
Days and nights
Without reprieve . . .
Forward, forward,
Working people!

. . . Off they go with martial pace . . .
“Who is it there? You come on out!”
But it’s just the wind that’s playing
With the red flag up ahead . . .
Up ahead there’s a frozen snowbank,
“You, in the snowbank — come on out! . .”
Only the dog, beggared and hungry,
Hobbles along behind them still.
“Beat it, you mangy cur, or else
My bayonet will tickle you!
Vanish, old world – or else I’ll stick you
Like that mangy, lousy dog.”
. . . It shows its fangs — a hungry wolf –
Tail tucked in, it sticks close by –
The dog is cold – the dog’s a mongrel . . .
“Hey, give answer, who goes there?”
“Who now waves the bright red flag?”
“Oh just look, how dark it is!”
“Who is walking with quickened pace,
“Hiding behind the buildings there?”
“All the same, I’m going to get you,
“Come on now — give yourself up!”
“Listen, comrade, this won’t end well,
“Come on out, before we shoot!”
Rat-a-tat-tat! Only the echo
Bounces round the buildings there . . .
Only the blizzard, laughing, laughing,
Roaring with laughter in the snows . . .
Rat-a-tat-tat . . .
. . . And so they keep a martial pace,
Behind them follows the hungry dog,
Ahead of them — with bloody banner,
Unseen within the blizzard’s swirl,
Safe from any bullet’s harm,
With gentle step, above the storm,
In the scattered, pearl-like snow,
Crowned with a wreath of roses white,
Ahead of them — goes Jesus Christ.