The Mannequins’ Ball
Whether or to which extent The Mannequins’ Ball constitutes a classic Avant-Garde play, is a question yet to be settled by Theatre historians. As far as literary classification is concerned, it is a chameleonic work: chameleonic because, while remaining nominally Avant-Garde, it also maintains – perhaps as a result of a Formalist influence – an almost neo-classical compositional rigor. Or, to put it differently, it is a work whose dramatic logic compensates for, and is underscored by, the very absurdist character of its premise. What are we given here? To sum up the skeletal scheme: Man intrudes upon Mannequins’ Ball; Man loses head; Mannequin appropriates head and replaces him at Human Ball; he (or it) causes a scandal, takes part in a duel, but in the last moment jumps out the window, having returned the head to its rightful owner and having left him to face the rival’s pistol. The plot, fitting nicely into the three acts scheme, rushes forward according to its inexorable logic; dances along swiftly through its successive mock reversals, but always, we feel, along the same horizontal: always there and back. These to-ings and fro-ings are like ritual pas in a dance that, in some sense, has out-danced itself the moment it had started. Indeed, once the man’s head had been sliced – or, to be exact, scissored off his neck, and once we have had been given time to ascertain that no permanent physiological harm has been sustained – we may readily give in to the ensuing transpositions, pairings and doublings as to a kind of conceptual exercise. And we would be likely to give in, as well, to its trance-like monotony (not necessarily a contradiction, as the play manages to prove), to the predictability of seeing the mistress and the wife, the socialists and the communists assume the same dummy-like posture – if not for this very rigorous symmetry that, after a certain number of hypnotic repetitions, takes on a sinister organicity of its own. Multiplied to a certain degree, polished to shine, the artifice begins to reveal the hollowness of the subject at its core. Jasieński’s rationale, the “method in his madness” becomes clearer: he has bet on one single device, but one so saturated with grotesque, so well spun and of such a well-sustained pitch, that even if we think it overly contrived, we are too busy squeezing the last drop of irony out of it. It is in this sense – rather than in a more narrow sphere of political satire, that the play may be said to be truly “subversive”: not only the characters – human and non-human alike – but we, as readers or viewers, are implicated and caught in the same death-dance. “Automatization” has turned contagious, and it is we who (that?) have gotten the virus.
And this is why, obviously, the play has met with such resistance: it is simply too effective aesthetically for any kind of ethical or political emphasis to be made. This is why, too, it is essentially the same mannequin-like bureaucracy as the one Jasieński portrays (only not in its capitalistic but in Stalinist incarnation) that, in the last twist of irony, will have the last laugh as he will be arrested, sentenced, and shot on the same day. Clearly, had Jasieński limited his play to a level of caricature, propaganda, or a polemic, it would be a different story: such one-dimensional works rarely boomerang. Similarly, had it been simply a dystopia in a Herbert Wells’ fashion involving the motif of revolt of the machines; or had it been even a veiled allegory, chances are, it could still pass muster. But the trouble is that Jasieński’s treatment of man-machine relationship is too close to the Kafkaesque-Schulzian universals. Surely, the immediate target of satire is, in his case, the world of western bourgeoisie – predatory, cynical, and inhuman; surely, here it happens to be localized in Paris, the Paris that had already been put under siege in his 1928 novel I burn Paris. But it only “happens to be” that. For, just as I burn Paris was conceived as a response to Paul Morand’s Je brûle Moscou, and was therefore, however antithetical to it, a product of the same polemical pattern, so by the same token, Paris could in principal substituted for Moscow, capitalists for communists, with no great harm for the main gesture. Bureaucratic puppetry it is revealed to possess an international citizenship: even seemingly antagonistic affiliations turn out to be transposable.
The same transposability, or – to use the term Prof. Gerould uses in the preface to his English translation – “interchangeability” – is what defines the man-mannequin relationship (incidentally, the alliterative play that the English translation permits brings out yet another, verbal level of identification, not present in the Russian text’s “chelovek-maneken” juxtaposition). Again, it goes to Jasieński’s artistic merit that he manages to avoid those clichés of a post-Romantic dystopian literature that offer a one-sided treatment of the man-machine theme. In a tradition that goes back to the Golem legends, automation is made to absorb the human stereotypes of “Otherness”, of “The Monstrous”, and of “The Abject”. Then, in Shelly’s Frankenstein, these features are compounded by the distinctly human sentiments, which make for a tragic identification with “the creature” and its partial elevation to the level of a human. At its extreme, the trend will lead to a reverse situation where it will now be man himself who(that?) appears inferior and undignified next to his (its?) noble creation. Thus, whether involving personification or, vice versa, reification, the trend here is essentially unilateral; the man and the machine are joined in a state of inequality. Jasieński , by contrast, equalizes them: he establishes an original level of continuity between man and machine: a mannequin is not as much as derived from man (even though nominally it is created by him), or is made to absurdly precede or replace him (although we may use the terms “take his place” or “take over” as conventions of plot) as it joins man in an absurd game where both become mere figureheads. Indeed, so does, in a sense, plot itself as it continually undermines the developments that it all but suggests. For instance, we notice a sort of simmering tension in the first act, as the mannequins dance in secret Walpurgis Night fashion while venting to each other their grievances against their masters. However, no collusion, plotting, a takeover or a revolution occurs: ironically, it is the workers’, that is, the humans’ strike and not the mannequins’ that allows the Ball to take place. As for the mannequins, it turns out they are merely interested in keeping the status quo: female mannequin 2 fears that the strike is already over, and the male mannequin 2 suggests that they simply “enjoy the moment”. In a typical verbal twist, it/he acknowledges that they are “tied to these premises” but says that, had they killed a human to escape, they would be “nailed to the floor forever”. Thus, the conventionalized form of dialogue parallels the emptiness of the human salon talk, with common themes of craving for entertainment and preoccupation with appearance, fashion and gossip. Of course, given the skeletal dramatic irony, all smaller ironic twists begin to double up and turn on itself, too. Thus, mannequin 6’s observations of humans lead him to conclude that “they are all only worthless copies made in our image”. But then again, his point on dandies is actually not badly taken: “these freaks force their apprentices to slave away at night and use cotton padding for what they lack, vainly attempting to make their figures look like ours”. The subtle parody of Aristotelian theory of imitation implicit in these remarks collides with the more explicit parody of social critique, and the final paradox is that in this collision the connotations nearly cancel each other out. Through a double reversal, the mannequins turn out to be both right and wrong: they emerge both as culpable and innocent of the human vices. At the end, they serve as instruments of subversion by enacting what the Russian Formalists call “estrangement” and especially what Bakhtin will later call “carnivalization”.
It is interesting to observe what happens when the substitution finally occurs and when the Mannequin gets to impersonate the Leader. The substitution, of course, has gone unnoticed. Again, this is where Jasieński departs from similar dramatic treatments of the “take-over” schemes. In Lang’s Metropolis, for example, the robot impersonating Maria gets away with it only to a point: she deceives the crowd of workers but not Freder who cries out: “You are not Maria! She spoke not of violence but of peace!” The presence of a tell-tale sign here relies on (Freder’s) recognition of the behavioral, as well as ideological disparity between Maria and her robotic version: the latter is programmed to act solely with her head and hands, without the “mediation of the heart”. This kind of a “give-away” does not occur in Mannequin’s Ball: if he wanted to, our Mannequin could have easily gone on with the sham: nothing, not even the backfiring of the double bribe and double seduction schemes, not even the frantic protestations of the decapitated Leader, appear to sway anyone’s faith in it/him as the authentic figure of power. It takes the Mannequin himself to reveal the secret and to return the head back to its rightful owner, for recognition to occur: but the status quo is immediately re-affirmed as the duel, it is said, must still run its course. Thus, not only does the Leader’s head indeed prove to be, as Male Mannequin 6 puts it, one of those “shapeless empty pumpkins” that are used as “props for the ridiculous stove-pipe hats”; but – and this is crucial – the heart, too, proves unimportant in the long run. The world we are given is essentially a Gogolean world, where a face is indistinguishable from the mask and where the only point that the sudden shifts reveal is that of penultimate anonymity. The difference here is that, unlike Gogolean understated concentric shifts, we have Jasieński’s geometry with its sharp placard-like stylization.
Jasieński’s use of the grotesque centers on the visual and the linguistic levels. Among the first, the motif of decapitation, extremely disturbing at the beginning, is laughed off but then grows more sinister even as it takes on aspects of farce and slapstick. The scatological and pornographic elements also roughen the edges quite a bit, as the symmetrical striptease scenes performed for the Leader by Angelique and Solange, are described in the transparency of their pragmatic motivation. What’s important here is the total absence of eroticism and the banality of the mannequin-like body, its “thing-ness”. One could hardly, therefore, view these double nudity scenes as manifestations of the low bodily element Bakhtin sees in Menippean satire, something he traces back to Rabelais. The ideological subversion, which, as he suggests, the body seeks to accomplish, never takes place; instead, there is a quiet detonation that chokes on itself.
On the verbal level, Jasieński makes clear the ineffectual nature of speech patterns, both in mannequins and in humans. Phrases prove as interchangeable as bodies and heads as they, too, are cut off, from their meaning and from their subjects. Both a wife and a mistress are, according to Solange, an “expensive luxury”, and checks for expenses will be paid by husband and lover alike. Whether to convince the Leader to prevent a strike or to precipitate it is all the same to Solange as she is driven solely by her own ego: “The other way around? All right, let it be the other way around!” – she blurts when she gets the objectives mixed up. The Mannequin-Leader himself feels betrayed by his speech only at the very beginning, as he only manages the monosyllables; later on, as the monosyllables prove quite sufficient for his mechanical function , he settles into the part and begins to enjoy the game, giddy with the procedural levity the bureaucratic machine affords him. Furthermore, he reveals, according to Levasin, “qualities of a great politician” – yet another convoluted lie sense Levasin who has just handed the Leader his check is merely overjoyed, but also an oblique comment on the nature of leadership. Again, a double lie is as close as we get to the truth.
The ambiguity of the ending is the play’s final satirical touch. We are not told whether the Mannequin manages to get away and whether the Leader survives. Clearly, by this point, the importance of individual fate has proved to be yet another chimera. What is important is the replacement of meaning by gesture: the kinetic, slap-dash quality of the scene, its displaced and misplaced aggression make it a figural rounding of form, the last hollow flourish in the grandly pathetic man/ mannequin dance.