Interview with Steve Trafford
A new play about the Russian Futurist poet and Bolshevik,
Vladimir Mayakovsky, recently toured Britain. CounterBLASTS interviewed the
playwright, Steve Trafford.
: The obvious question to start with is what made you write a play about
Well to be brutally honest I was wandering around Leeds library one day and I
pulled a book of the shelf called "I love" which was an interview with Lili
Brik, the woman he lived with in a ménage a trios with her husband Osip Brik. I
started reading it and I thought this is an extraordinary story. I knew about
Mayakovsky but not in great depth, but this got me reading his poetry further,
and the more I read of his work and the more I read about him, and his personal
situation: I thought this is the stuff of terrific drama.
And it is a very
human story in the middle of what is a very epic story about the revolution,
about change, about art in society. It is about what happened to Mayakovsky as
an artist but also at its heart there is a very, very passionate and emotional
and moving story about three people trying to live out ideas about
non-possessive love and all of that, in the midst of the world around them
falling apart, and them trying to help stick it back together.
: So you came to it more from the personal angle of Mayakovsky as an artist with
a troubled personal life rather than from the angle of the politics or his
particular take on Futurist poetry?
Well I came at it from the politics as well because that is my own background as
a writer; I was one of the founding members of Red Ladder, the community touring
political theatre company. And I lived through the seventies where all the
questions about feminism, about different kinds of relationships and love, and
how we should relate to one another across the social divide; all those things
were stuff that I had lived through. And to come to Mayakovsky and realise that
then, there, in that age, they were actually dealing with similar stuff, but in
a very different epoch, that really turned me on.
: One of the things I find interesting about where Mayakovsky stands as a
futurist poet is that he is inspired by a complete break from the past and this
fits in with the change of the revolution; but very similar ideas were being
expressed by people like Marinetti in Italy or Wyndham Lewis in England, who
were not of the left at all.
Yes that's right. Certainly Marinetti's bunch were very sexist, altogether weird
and wacky. I think it is a sort of ferment. There are similarities with that and
the punk era in the UK. There is some stuff that is very angry, but with some
very creative energies bursting out of that situation. The world was perceived
by all of those people as being in chaos. And as you say Mayakovsky's own
personal journey was from the left into punk poetry; but then further and
further and deeper and deeper into the contradictions of being at the heart of a
revolution; and the questions of the party and the questions of what your role
is as an individual voice; as an artist but also as someone trying to contribute
to a huge social change.
: You say you come from a socialist background, one of the things that occurs to
me reading Mayakovsky is that he started off as a Bolshevik before he became a
poet. But his art seems more successful before he became an unofficial poet of
the revolution, when he was writing about more personal things; obviously a
"cloud in trousers" springs to mind. His art is better, and when he starts
making art serve the revolution he loses it a bit. Is that judgement that you
Well I think it is the process he went through certainly. He wrote wonderful,
lyrical love poetry; beautiful poetry, but also in a very individualistic style,
a Futurist style that he was creating. But he was close to the movement of
Constructivism in art; to the notion of useful art; to art that should echo the
roar of the street; the din of intense production; those sorts of ideas; and
should contribute. Not be some indulgence in a bedroom looking at the wallpaper.
Those ideas were immensely powerful for him, but at the same time he was drawn
in. He said himself "I feel like a machinist with his sleeve caught in the cogs,
and it is inevitable and there is no heaven". The process by which he was drawn
in was a genuine desire to contribute. Not just writing eulogies to Lenin, which
were heartfelt, but also which served to reinforce the state, and he ended up
writing posters for the shop GUM, and all sorts of slogans about health and
safety. He would have defended them absolutely as constructive art. What the
fuck are the rest of you doing? This is not the time for any of you to be
: At the same time he was very critical of the proletkult?
Yeah, absolutely, because that was the other end of the extreme. Because while
he is there, trying to contribute constructively through his artistic vision
there are people who want to get back to the memoirs of plumbers; and Balalaika
musicals and all that folksy art that he felt was deadly reactionary. It was
going to go no-where; it was part of the past that was standing in the way of
the future. He wanted to smash that as much as he wanted to smash institutional
bourgeoisie art; and all the great museum culture that also stood in the way of
the future. So he was struggling on two fronts and he was caught between the
two; and the proletkult certainly had their knives out for him
: So how would you say that these issues affected you as an artist now? You
have said about the seventies when there was a much bigger tradition of
political theatre in this country, which is sadly gone.
It was smashed. I earn my living and put bread on the table by writing for
Television. We are in a very different set of contradictions. Mayakovsky says
"All art serves, either as we dream the world can be; or as the world is,
contributing to more dust settling on our hopes." You are caught in that trap
aren't you? What are you contributing? Attempting through your art to shift and
shunt the way in which the world is moving? And artists today I think feel
incredibly marginalised by commercial art. In his instance he was being drawn
into an authoritarian state that again wanted art that would serve. As he said,
"Stalin wants poetry he can brush his teeth with." Stalin didn't want
provocative, inspiring, disturbing poetry. And I think our culture is similar. I
think it is cynical and it is brutish and it is commercialised; and artists are
trapped in those dilemmas.
: I haven't yet seen the play. Is the play experimental in form; in the way you
are talking about; or is it a relatively conventional theatrical production that
is trying to engage with challenging ideas?
It is a bit of an expressionistic piece actually; the way that Damian Cruden,
who is the artistic director at York has directed it I think is wonderfully
magical. It is not a naturalistic piece, and the text is heightened in a poetic
way, because it is a play about words; as well as being a play about people. And
the set is minimalist, evocative of Malevich, and the design of the period; and
the lighting and the atmosphere is very particular. There is also an original
musical score by Christopher Madin that I think is terrific. It borrows from
that whole feel of the music of the period; of Shostakovich and some of the
Futurist musicians. So you have got a kind of real energy, and I think a vision
in it that really is expressionistic beyond the natural
: You have had a couple of performances, I think in York and Newcastle under
Lyme. How has the audience responded.
It has been terrific. We had some PhD students from Sheffield University who are
studying Russian Literature and culture. And they were knocked out, and that was
so inspiring, because they really felt it captured the spirit of the period; and
the contradictions of the time for an artist like Mayakovsky. And indeed for men
and women addressing the whole question of change; changing yourself internally
while the world is being changed externally; and having a part to play in both.
So all of those sorts of comments were coming back, which is exactly what you
wanted to hear. Yeah, it has been really warmly received and that is great.
: One of the reasons I asked is that in the past I have been to the theatre to
see Brecht, and you sit there watching the "Caucasian Chalk Circle" or something
like that; and you have an audience around you who seem to be entirely middle
managers wearing their suits for a night out. And you do wonder how this radical
art can reach the audience it was written for. Do you perceive that as a
It has always been a problem. If you go to workers' canteen you are accused of
preaching to the converted; put it on in theatres you are accused of playing to
the bourgeoisie and the literati and the middle classes. It is part of the
contradiction of how and where art serves its own purpose and intention. And you
have to accept that, of course, in theatres there are audiences that are not
attuned to and looking for radical challenging work. But at the same time they
will come and they are challenged. That is the task. That is why we are playing
in new writing venues, because it is new writing and new writing is stuff that
it is difficult to get on; because theatres cannot afford to put it on. So with
new writing you do tend to find audiences that are interested in theatre; and
are interested in ideas through theatre. That was my experience of the audiences
in York. They were mixed audiences; and there were a lot of young people coming
in which was great to see. And feeling that these are interesting questions,
these questions about sex and sexual relationships, because of course they are
the same questions now about feeling passionately jealous and possessive. But
here are a bunch people actually taking about it, and trying to organise it,
ideologically, culturally, psychologically, not just kind of murdering each
other because of the emotional passion that it evokes. So what can we say - the
revolution is not happening anyway is it?
: I also wonder if you feel this is a bit of a false polarisation. You don't
only find working class or radical people in factory canteens, even if there are
any factories in your area any more. Similarly perhaps the university educated,
theatre going audience are also likely to be trade unionists. They may be office
workers, or teachers or in the health service, or whatever? It is a changed
world isn't it, even from the seventies?
That is right. You never know who is out there, and you can't do a social
analysis of who has come along. All you can hope for is to build audiences
through coming back to venues and working with those venues creating an audience
for the kind of work that has got ideas in it; that is not just entertainment
and escapism. For me that is what we are attempting to do. How successful we
are, I don't know, how can you judge it? The world isn't going to turn just
because we put a play on, or write a poem.
: But also things have got to be judged in their own artistic terms, don't they?
And there is a question to what degree it affects the direction of art. You are
talking about new writing, but equally you say you earn your crust with less
challenging writing for the TV. So how do you see the situation now for people
who are trying to write creative and challenging work? How difficult is it to
find funding and get those productions in front of an audience?
I think it is a difficult situation; and more resources ought to be put in this
direction. And the institutions that are offering up that money are impenetrable
to a lot of people. And I think what is great about what is happening in York is
that they are opening the studio for new writing, and taking a whole range of
different sort of plays, some by writers like me, but also by young writers. So
there are niches being created, but they are small and they are few and far
between. In the seventies it was a different atmosphere. You just did it, and
you got in a van and you went out and you did it in a pub, or a club or in the
street, or wherever. And you got your audience, because you knew who your
audience were in some ways because of the location in which you took the play.
Putting on a play in a theatre, as you say, you don't know who your audience is,
but you can build those audiences. There aren't enough resources available,
particularly for young writers to make a break through, but the more work of the
kind we are trying to do is given a space, then the more that cultural tradition
can become part of the mainstream funding that at the moment is being dissipated
into directions that I don't think it ought to be.
: I think that is a good point, because you build a sort of specific weight or a
cultural direction by doing things that are challenging. People need to say I
don't care if it doesn't make any sense I am going to do it anyway. If nobody
does that then you create no new art, and go in no new directions.
That is right. Everything is filtered. You may as well put yourself in a museum.
And say this is the way it is and I'll just write anything that I will get paid
for. But there is, and has always been, the challenging edge of theatre and
other art forms, but they are always on the margin. They are always banging on
the door and not necessarily inside very easily.
: So how is this play funded then?
Whey hay! We are funded by the National Lottery! We formed ourselves into a
company. All that means is that I as a writer, and Elizabeth as an actress have
to create our own work, and so we have to go to the Arts Council and say: "We
have got a play. We have written it. We have made it. We want you, the lottery
fund, to put up money for us to do it." And you have to jump through a lot of
hoops for them, administratively. Can you handle the money, have you got the
tools, will theatres take you? But you have to do it yourself, and then the
lottery fund will give you money to tour a show around regional theatres. And we
had the good fortune to also show the play to Damian Cruden at York and he said
"This is a terrific play and I think we have got to do it". So we had a double
hit, a studio theatre set up to promote new writing took on the play, at the
same time we could tour it by going to the National Lottery. There is money
there at the National Lottery but you really have to go through all this
administrative palaver and malarkey to get to it. So artists have to turn
themselves into fucking administrators or accountants, and all this other stuff;
which of course excludes a lot of people, who don't feel happy and have no skill
in doing that.
: It is a sort of legacy of the Thatcher revolution isn't it? People are only
judged in their ability to do the books, and art is judged on how much it sells
for or how many people will pay to go and see it, not on how much they enjoyed
it or were provoked by it while they were there.
That is right. And you have to do all the accounting that they can pick over the
bones of, before they will give you a penny. So you have accountants and
administrators deciding what should be funded for regional theatres.
: Despite all those obstacles you come over as optimistic. You have beaten the
system and got some good work out there.
Yes, you get knocked back, and you go again. And you write another play and try
again. And you say to them, you are supposed to be funding new work, provocative
work, challenging work, not brass bands, not light entertainment. This is what
you are supposed to be doing, we want to do it, give us the money. It is the
same argument that took place in the seventies. All those theatre companies
didn't come out of the ether; they were fought for in that kind of way. By
banging down the door of the Arts Council and saying "Give us the Money, don't
waste it on so much on the other crap that is over bloated already. Like the RSC
or the Opera House."
: This actually does tie back to Mayakovsky doesn't it? Mayakovsky was saying
that art should be useful, and then the dramatic irony is that he was both
personally and artistically defeated by Stalin. Who was also saying art should
be useful. It should serve what I want not what you want.
That is exactly right. It should be utilitarian in the terms of the state. And
Mayakovsky did get himself trapped in that dilemma but actually saw that he was
trapped in that dilemma and stepped out. His suicide was basically a withdrawal
into himself. And the dreams that he still hung on to about what the future
could be. His poetry is wonderful, some of the things he said. Love is the heart
of everything; that drove all his belief; that ideas are never enough; that
Marxism, economic analysis. Yes of course, we understand the need for that, but
if you are not driven by love then you are driving no-where. And of course
people like Stalin were not driven by love, they were driven by all sorts of
other desires. But not, definitely not the kind of impassioned desire that
: I don't think we are going to find a better point to finish the interview than
that, do you Steve?
No. He was a wonderful man. He said this wonderful thing about how he would end
up in a lunatic asylum because he suffered from hallucinations that he could see
the day coming when the space ships of the commune would hurtle out to the moon
and the stars and teach them that "we" can be as tender a word as "me". That is
just wonderful stuff; that the collective is as beautiful as the individual. He
wrote great poetry, and he took the exit door rather than face the horror of
what was happening.