by Elisabetta Girelli, University of St Andrews
Content warning: description and images of suicide
This is a blog-like version of the paper I was due to present at BAFTSS last April. The paper was itself derived from a chapter in my forthcoming Palgrave Pivot on silent film performance. The music for the film clips has been composed and performed by Steven Gellatly.
So let me introduce my topic with the aid of some images. The one with the Russian words (Image 1) is a poster for the film I’m going to discuss, a Soviet production from 1918: it shows the main protagonist, the Hooligan, played by the poet, playwright, and film personality Vladimir Mayakovsky – who is also in the photo portrait (Image 2) taken some years later. Mayakovsky not only has the lead role in this film, he also co-directed it with Yevgeny Slavinsky and, importantly, he wrote the whole script – which is an imaginative adaptation of a short story by the Italian author Edmondo De Amicis. I’m stressing Mayakovsky’s strong authorial presence in this film because it’s relevant to what I will argue.
The third photo (Image 3- content warning) is sadly not taken from a film, it is Mayakovsky after he killed himself in 1930 – I will also show another, more distressing image of his death, again because I see a significant link between the photographic and biographical knowledge of his suicide and his performance and role in the film. So I have a small trigger warning for that photo (it will be labelled Image 7). And I want to add that I am of course showing these photos in the most respectful way possible towards the memory of Vladimir Mayakovsky.
So before starting with a very brief clip, here’s a concise synopsis of The Young Lady and the Hooligan:
The Hooligan is hopelessly in love with the Young Lady, who is also his teacher in the mixed-age class he attends, and who is played by the actress Alexandra Rebikova. The teacher is repelled by the Hooligan, and refuses to even listen to him. The Hooligan’s unrequited love for this woman is the basis of the plot, which sees him change from a rogue to a noble figure: he will defend the teacher’s honour against a gang of bullies, and for this the bullies will savagely stab him to death. The film ends with his death scene, and with a last-minute appearance by the teacher at his bedside.
In the very typical 25 seconds I’m going to show you, the Hooligan fails, as usual, to establish a connection with the Young Lady.
So what has happened here? We’ve seen the Hooligan vainly searching his love object for a response, even crawling on his knees to beg for her attention; but it’s all pointless. She looks at him with disgust and runs away. Left alone, he appears bewildered, moving almost at random; one moment slowly spinning on himself, the next leaning against a tree trunk as if seeking support. He suggests a state of acute distress. No other people are present. Mayakovsky is seemingly engaged in an exchange with a woman, but he is in fact acting in a vacuum and to a vacuum.
Indeed, in The Young Lady and the Hooligan, the meaning of Mayakovsky’s protagonist is given by his unfulfilled need for the teacher, a structuring lack which he expresses through a strong sense of isolation and passion. However, this subjective expression, conveying such essential information, does not reach its ostensible target, the teacher. Whenever Rebikova is on screen with him, with the exception of the film’s last seventy seconds, she denies Mayakovsky a dialogue; and when she is absent, his torment is displayed in a wholly solitary context. A marked continuity thus links Mayakovsky’s key performative moments: they are all devoid of a meaningful interlocutor. On screen, the Hooligan’s revelation of his inner drama bounces back at him; off-screen, of course, it is communicated to the audience. Mayakovsky’s performance, and its function in the film text, can be fruitfully analysed through a reconsideration of the notion of soliloquy, traditionally associated with speech and physical solitude.
In a play’s structure, the soliloquy fulfils three important functions. First, it allows a character to think aloud, self-debating his or her predicament, inner conflicts, and options, thus aiding plot development. Secondly, it reveals these reflections to the audience, providing crucial and privileged knowledge about the character. Thirdly, the soliloquy is used to forge a closer emotional relationship between character and audience.
However: these key functions may also be achieved through externally-targeted performative acts, whose ostensibly dialogic or non-isolated form may be a mere surface device. This has been argued in regards to the theatre, specifically by Ruby Cohn (1977) in her discussion of the plays of Samuel Beckett. Film scholars have at times invoked the soliloquy in relation to silent cinema, from Béla Balázs (1948) claiming that the cinematic close-up is the modern equivalent of the soliloquy, citing silent films as examples, to more recent scholars such as Roberta Pearson (2004) and Rebecca Swender (2006) who worked on the notion of ‘gestural soliloquy’ in silent film. Yet all these film scholars approach the topic as a matter of style in discrete cinematic moments, rather than as a structural mode of performance: this is the conventional view of the soliloquy, which sees factual or perceived solitude as indispensable for it.
Instead, I’m going to provide another example of Mayakovsky’s silent soliloquy in a scene crowded with people, and defined by the Hooligan having hallucinations: there are two such episodes in the film, and they were entirely added by Mayakovsky to the story. These hallucinatory moments are self-reflective riddles for the protagonist, and cause him angst-ridden pondering.
In the following clip, the Hooligan sees the woman he loves appearing in ghost-like form – no-one else sees her. Equally unseen is the Hooligan’s reaction, performed for the sole benefit of non-diegetic viewers. The solitariness of these shattering, revealing moments is therefore complete, turning the scene into a soliloquy; Mayakovsky’s interpretation greatly strengthens this aspect, acting out a troubled subjectivity for and to the camera. In fact, this happens even before his hallucination, as he is already communicating an inner disquiet to the audience. You’ll see how Mayakovsky completely turns his back to the room and the people in it, and directs his gaze at the camera: it is a piercing, preoccupied look, which those around him are unable to see.
So what do we have here? Deliberately performing to the audience, Mayakovsky looks simultaneously stunned and concentrated: his wide-eyed, bewildered expression is accompanied by a repeated stroking of his chin, as if he was following a line of thought. An emotional dilemma seems to have taken hold of him; he is questioning his vision, and he begins to realise his feelings for the teacher. In terms of narrative progress, this scene lays the foundations for the Hooligan’s love and isolation, therefore advancing the plot.
The soliloquy mode continues even in a crucial moment of actual confrontation: the Hooligan’s declaration of love. You’ll see how Mayakovsky performs his reaction to the teacher’s violent rejection as a self-contained assessment of the situation. The one intertitle is in French and says ‘Miss, I love you’:
So: here, through a mute speech, the Hooligan manifests his initial nervousness, followed by an acknowledgement of rejection, of his bafflement and emotive predicament. As in the previous scene in the tavern, he is in a crowded space from which he deliberately, physically turns away, to process an experience he has not shared with the group: his love message remains unknown to the other students, and the modality of its delivery points to his distance from the teacher too. Mediated by words written on paper, which the film reveals after a shot of Rebikova and not of Mayakovsky, the protagonist’s declaration is highlighted through its lack of direct address: not a single word is uttered by the Hooligan, minimising his outward interaction and pointing to his self-reflective position. The written message is a distancing device, and it advances the plot through disconnection, separating both protagonist and message from the teacher. The Hooligan’s subjective meaning, attached to his written words, remains unheeded by the woman he loves: she does not meet his declaration on shared semantic territory, and literally sends the message back to the sender. Mayakovsky’s performance is therefore an act of staged self-explanation, carried out in isolation while imparting information to the audience.
The next clip shows a few seconds from the Hooligan’s death scene – with the Young Lady. You’ll see how Mayakovsky’s face and neck are strained in a single tense motion, as he attempts to get closer to Rebikova. With dilated eyes, circled by dark shadows, he keeps a fixed gaze on her. Most strikingly, his mouth is open; he appears to be trying to speak, yet obviously cannot. He stays in this attitude for several seconds, with his lips widely parted, and manages to move forwards; then his strength fails him and he starts to fall back.
I will return to this scene. Now I want to say that the soliloquy performed here by Vladimir Mayakovsky has accrued an extra layer after his suicide in 1930; it is difficult to watch the Hooligan die and not do so through the lens of retrospective knowledge. At the age of thirty-six, Mayakovsky ended his life with a shot through the heart; he left behind a trail of self-reflective works, obsessively centred on his unrequited love and his loneliness. He also wrote other film scripts, all centred on an unhappy male protagonist committing or contemplating suicide because of unrequited love.
In Mayakovsky’s own, hugely complicated love life, it is Lili Brik (Images 4, 5, and 6) who looms above everyone else: his life-long passion and muse, she never fully reciprocated his love, although they lived together until his death, with Lili’s husband too – and they all had other lovers. It was a very queer domestic arrangement.
Mayakovsky killed himself while Lili was away from him, she was outside Russia. The result of his desperate and violent death has been captured in photos, taken shortly after his body was found: an especially disturbing detail, the fact that he lies with his mouth open (trigger warning: Image 7), strongly recalls his final scene as the Hooligan (Image 8).
Mayakovsky lived for about five minutes after shooting himself. According to his lover Nora Polonskaya who heard the gunshot and rushed to his room, ‘Mayakovsky looked at her and tried to lift his head, he seemed to want to say something, but, Nora recalled, “his eyes were already dead”. Then his head dropped’ (Bengt Jangfeldt 2007).
OK, let’s watch the last clip again.
So: Mayakovsky’s screen death uncannily echoes the factual and visual information we have about his real death, and this mutual re-visitation is amplified by his very strong authorial presence in the film. Considering his decisive interventions in the plot, his sole authorship of the script, his co-direction, and even the fact that he refused to wear make-up throughout (Viktor Shklovsky 1974) – it seems feasible to see a connection between film and biography. Mayakovsky does not just bring his un-retouched face to the role, with his own dark circles under the eyes; his presence also carries a thread of isolation and unrequited longing, the axis of his literary self-representation.
This is not at all to claim that the Hooligan should be read as a conscious or unconscious replica of Mayakovsky’s life experience. It is rather to observe that a biographical tint has washed over the film, adding a dramatic postscript to its available meanings. As a possible result of this addition, The Young Lady and the Hooligan may be seen as gaining an extra layer, a semantic re-visitation that strengthens its central soliloquy. The Hooligan, like Mayakovsky, feels unwanted; although he does not kill himself, he meets a self-sacrificial end because of a woman who does not love him. Like Mayakovsky, he presents himself as a suffering subject, brought to the agony of death through a solitary trajectory of longing.
And to counter the sadness, I’ll end this with a happy image of Lili and Mayakovsky together.
Baryshnya i Khuligan / The Young Lady and the Hooligan (Vladimir Mayakovsky and Yevgeny Slavinsky, 1918, USSR)
Balázs, Béla.  1970. Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, New York: Dover Publications, 62-63
Cohn, Ruby. 1997. ‘Outward Bound Soliloquies’, Journal of Modern Literature 6:1, 17-38
Jangfeldt, Bengt.  2014. Mayakovsky: a Biography, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press
Pearson, Roberta E. 2004. ‘The Histrionic and Verisimilar Codes in the Biograph Films’ in Robertson Wojcik, Pamela (ed.) Movie Acting: the Film Reader, New York: Routledge, 59-68
Shklovsky, Viktor.  1974. Mayakovsky and His Circle, London: Pluto Press
Swender, Rebecca. 2006. ‘The Problem of the Divo: New Models for Analyzing Silent-Film Performance’ in Journal of Film and Video 58:1, 7-20
Film music: www.stevengellatly.com/
Elisabetta Girelli is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. Her research and publications have focused especially on Queer Theory, Stardom, Representation, and Performance, with a strong interest in the application of theoretical frameworks to textual analysis. Silent film is one of her specialisms, and she is completing a monograph on Silent Film Performance, to be published by Palgrave.