Today’s guest blogger is Alisa Lin, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who worked with us to publish a translation of Krzhizhanovsky’s That Third Guy.
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky is a name that stands out to most English-language ears. Seemingly long and convoluted, thrice studded with that uncommon “z,” it is memorable for its unusualness, with its odd spelling betraying the Russianization of an originally Polish name. For a few decades at the end of the 20th century, though, the name was a forgotten one. The writer who bore it was not remembered, and his life’s work of stories, plays, and essays largely remained unpublished.
And yet, Krzhizhanovsky’s writings, most of which weren’t published in their own day out of bad luck or misalignment with Soviet priorities, can be powerfully captivating to today’s English-language reader. I’ve seen this repeatedly in my Russian literature students who respond to his texts with wonder and enthusiasm. His tale of the room that expands infinitely, the one about the frog from the River Styx, the story of the tiny reflections of ourselves that live on in others’ pupils—these and many more offer richly imaginative worlds in which philosophically driven whimsy butts up against starvation, poverty, and death. Krzhizhanovsky, who was born in 1887 and died of alcoholism in 1950, drew such harshness from his own experiences.
Thus far, Krzhizhanovsky has been known in English only for his fiction (in award-winning translations by Joanne Turnbull for New York Review Books). But professionally he was a man of the theater, serving the eminent Moscow Kamerny Theater as a lecturer and consultant for over two decades. His many essays in theatrical theory and dramatic criticism convey the core of his creative worldview. Selections from these essays, along with Krzhizhanovsky’s unstaged comedic play That Third Guy (1937) will be published this week by University of Wisconsin Press in my translation.
The first actors to explore Krzhizhanovsky’s theater texts in English were a spirited group of students I co-taught at Princeton in 2015 together with director Tim Vasen and Slavic professor Caryl Emerson (who contributed a foreword and critical essay to this volume). With projections, film, finger puppets, dance, music, creative lighting, and an abundance of metaphor (including the Eiffel Tower reimagined as a coquettish pair of work boots), they designed and embodied the highly visual world of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories as informed by his theater essays.
That Third Guy, which I gave the class in draft translation, felt different to them at first. The play has a long literary heritage: the plot responds to Pushkin’s mythic poem about Cleopatra and the style parodies the Cleopatra plays of Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw. The play’s comedy draws on the low-brow culture of farce and sensational detective-adventure tales. Yet the dark side of Stalinism, from Krzhizhanovsky’s own reality, looms in the background. As the students experimented with staging scenes from the play, this mixture of styles and tones found their place, and the play’s layers of metatheatricality, reminding of Pirandello or Stoppard, emerged.
As the students observed, That Third Guy offers much to the reader—and spectator—of today. It champions the “little guy” trapped by a bureaucracy whose allegiances invert with little notice. It’s about power and the gendering of forms of power. It considers the meaning of fame and legacy, and the frustrations of their arbitrariness. Heroism and the dramatic canon are turned on their heads as the play marginalizes Cleopatra and Antony to foreground the Third, a thoroughly ordinary, unnamed poet. Theatrically, the play engages in Krzhizhanovsky’s modernist, phenomenological conception of what the theater does best: inventing something fresh, full of potential, self-aware of its own devices, and utterly unlike the everyday.
is an assistant professor in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University.