The Serfs

By Virgilio Piñera

Translated from Cuban Spanish by Linda S. Howe

Volumne 9, Issue 3 (Spring 2023)

The author and context. Virgilio Piñera published the text of his play Los Siervos [The Serfs], a caustic attack on Stalinism and totalitarianism, in the Havana journal Ciclón in November 1955. He embraced the bleak irony of Adamov, Beckett, Ionesco, and other contemporary playwrights as well as Greek tragedies, Aristophanes, and the zany humor of Old Comedy. His allegories of corruption and power in totalitarian societies pay homage to international literary traditions.

The Serfs targets not only Soviet communism, but any hierarchical use and abuse of power and false utopia. Piñera’s themes of exploitation, marginality, the enslavement of the masses, and shady puppet leaders harken back to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920-1921). In the 1921 essay “I am Afraid”, Zamyatin writes, “True literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent trustworthy officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.” Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) owe much to We. All these cautionary tales expose how repressive regimes transform utopian ideals into dystopian realities. Piñera’s play portrays these realities and the intellectual’s struggle in the context of communism.

Disillusionment with corrupt absolute power also echoes the Polish authors Witold Gombrowicz and Czeslaw Milosz. During intermittent exiles in Argentina from 1946-1958, Piñera met Gombrowicz and collaborated with him on literary projects (see Anderson, Everything in Its Place. Bucknell U Press, 2006: 47-48), including the Spanish translation of Gombrowicz’s first novel Ferdydurke (1937; trans. Editorial Argos, 1947), a wild and still shocking diatribe on the puerility that collaborates with Nazis, Stalinists and the Polish communist regime. Piñera and Gombrowicz became lifelong friends, and in the 1950s, when Piñera worked for Ciclón, Gombrowicz introduced him to Miłosz. Piñera read Miłosz, and Milosz published Piñera. Piñera was probably familiar with the French editions of Miłosz’s The Captive Mind (1953; 1954; see Zilinskaite, Witold Gombrowicz and Virgilio Piñera, the Argentine Experience. PhD diss., UC San Diego, 2014 & Arenas, Antes que anochezca. (Before Night Falls; 1992).

After the 1959 Cuban revolution, like so many Cuban intellectuals, Piñera supported Fidel Castro’s political agenda and participated in the vibrant cultural scene. At the same time, well-known Cuban literary historian and critic Jose Antonio Portuondo and, later, Jesus Diaz, young editor of The Bearded Crocodile, criticized absurd theater as antirevolutionary (Palls, “The Theater of the Absurd in Cuba after 1959,” LALR, 7 [Fall-Winter, 1975]). Uruguayan critic Ugo Ulive agrees that the absurd is not a good fit with socialist society:

I can see a theater of the absurd in an absurd society, where one wants to show the absurdity of many things, but in a socialist society the logical and rational procedure must be pointed out. The theater of the absurd would be seen as out of place here. I don’t mean an author should be forbidden to write about the absurd but he would be writing out of tune with his time. (Odyssey Review, 2, no. 4 [1962: 260.)

By 1961, in his famous speech during UNEAC (National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba) meetings in Havana, Castro declared, “Within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing,” echoing Lenin’s slogan “Who is not with us is against us.” The sovietization of Cuba had already begun, and Castro proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist, showing his support for the Cuban communist party (PPC). Piñera commented during those meetings that he and others were afraid.

In 1960, he acted on that fear and excluded The Serfs from his Complete Works (1960-1961). At the same time, coincident with Jean-Paul Sartre’s benedictory visit to Cuba, he published a fictional interview between himself and the French philosopher in which he calls the play an “infantile” gaffe (Lunes de Revolución, March 1960) that will become a “disremembered slip-up”. The piece oozes self-deprecation and figurative self-flagellation.

Sartre and his partner, French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, had been quick to pledge solidarity with the Cuban revolution and to praise its leaders, Fidel Castro and the Argentine guerrilla Ernesto Che Guevara, as heroes. They were among the founders of the review Les Temps Modernes, which called for intellectuals to assist and prompt social changes and expounded on causes around the world. In a 1947 essay “Qu’est–ce que la litterature?” (“What is Literature?”), Sartre argues for the restoration of politically committed literature to its collective social function. Every writer’s responsibility and obligation were commitment and sacrifice.

After intensive interviews with Fidel Castro and touring the island with Che, Fidel, and other bearded guerillas in 1960, Sartre and de Beauvoir sanctioned Cuba’s revolutionary experiment. However, Sartre also met with the intelligentsia bad-boy Piñera and attended a performance of his successful absurdist play Electra Garrigó at the Teatro Promoteo. Sartre loved the play, written before the revolution but intentionally reperformed before powerful luminaries as emblematic of the nation’s transformation (Andujar, “Revolutionizing Greek Tragedy in Cuba: Virgilio Piñera’s Electra Garrigó,” In: Bosher, K and Macintosh, F and McConnell, J and Rankine, P, (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Greek Drama in the Americas. (361-379) Oxford University Press: 2015, 361-79). Sartre made plans to mount it in Paris, and in spite of his apprehensions about Los Siervos, Piñera was ecstatic about working with him (Anderson, 97-98). 

Sartre’s month-long visit brought together like minds and the marriage of revolutionary thought and action. Many left-wing and liberal intellectuals in Europe and the Americas saw the Cuban revolution as a daring and thrilling adventure; it influenced writers and artists on a global scale. Among Alberto Korda’s many iconic official photographs was one taken in Che’s office at the Ministry of Industry on Carlos III Avenue in Havana. Che, dressed in his military uniform with cap and boots, holds an old lighter to Sartre’s Cuban cigar, producing a bright flash. Here, the enlightened revolutionary energizes the philosophy and ideology of Europe’s postwar intelligentsia. Eventually, Sartre and de Beauvoir’s honeymoon with Cuba fizzled out. On a subsequent visit to Cuba, they discovered the hardening of party rhetoric. Still, Sartre’s admiration for Che did not wane; after Che died in Bolivia in 1967, Sartre expressed his unqualified admiration in the international press: “I believe [Che Guevara] was not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.” In 1971, when the forced confession and incarceration of writer and poet Alberto Padilla sparked international outrage and scandal, Sartre joined Latin American writers in denouncing the Cuban government.

Piñero’s paranoia had been prescient. According to the renowned Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, in 1963, when Che discovered Piñera’s Complete Works at the Cuban embassy in Algiers, he threw it across the room saying, “Who the fuck reads this faggot here?” (“¿Quién coño lee aquí a ese maricón?”) (Goytisolo, En los reinos de taifa [Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1986]: 174–75). Che’s reaction to Piñera’s theater and gay identity was not mere personal opinion but entrenched mandate, approved by Sartre’s high praise for Che. Piñera panicked; he understood that The Serfs would be judged according to its degree of commitment to the Cuban government’s discourse. In other words, it would be a permanent stain on his official dossier. Any theater critic or director would be hard pressed to claim that The Serfs meant something else by its critique of Stalinism. Although rumors and conjectures about stagings of one or another iteration of Piñera’s play conflict, it was excluded more than once from editions of his complete works, purportedly not staged until 1999, and not published again after Ciclón (1955) until 2002. No one can confirm what actually transpired, but by trying to erase The Serfs, Piñera busted himself. He drew attention to his mockery of official communist discourse in what was rapidly becoming a pro-Stalinist outpost.

The play. The Serfs indicts repression and restrictions on free will. The apparatchiks deliver convoluted speeches with empty phrases and conspire incessantly. In this baleful world, to be earnest is naive, laughable, and politically precarious. The leaders build up Nikita, the charismatic party rebel, as a paragon of revolutionary ideals, all the while scornfully plotting his doom. Nikita is prone to bureaucratic and ideological battles but able to dodge the discursive traps set to take him out. He foresees his end and vows to die for his independence and free thinking as a “declared serf” rather than an “undeclared serf”, who is unconscious of the exploitative system. The leaders are overcome with hatred, and even though they fear his disappearance will destroy their political system, they feel he must die for exposing the system’s master/slave hierarchy. As predicted, more serfs are pronouncing themselves “declared” and poised to take their fallen hero’s place. The eternal return of Piñera’s disobedient serf, whose sacrifice produces thousands more, upholds a defiance that transcends time. In contrast, a declared serf who beheads his undeclared/undercover counterpart to expose him as declared will become an undercover lord who exploits his undeclared serfs, perpetuating another cycle. Piñera’s appropriation of Nietzsche’s skepticism undermines romantic revolutionary ideals of progress. The wheels of apparent order grind exceedingly small.

Piñera’s absurd doublespeak exposes the contradictory morality of authoritarian regimes. It reminds us that subversive individuals do not often survive decadent systems; Nikita’s acts of sacrifice expose the deliberately absurd rhetoric of abuse and the exhausting, laborious measures to destroy him. Party officials revel in their ability to deny what they mean, to use double entendres and contradictory claims to maintain the masses in a perpetual state of passivity and ignorance. Piñera layers linguistic ambiguity on cynical official rhetoric to mock official acts and score sardonic points. The meshing of Cuban and Soviet revolutionary politics blurs the role and meaning of the antihero and begs the question: Which revolution and which revolutionary leaders and thinkers are being skewered?

Note that throughout history, writers and artists have used ambiguity as a precarious cover for criticism of official ideological and political writings in highly charged and perplexing social and cultural milieux. In early sixties communist Poland, for example, productions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet often portrayed Claudius as a vicious communist, which made the point but preserved deniability. Piñera could not deny his direct criticism of the burgeoning communism of 1960s Cuba in The Serfs.

In 1996, Cuban cultural officials changed the fate of The Serfs when they rejected the young director Raúl Martín’s proposal to stage the play. Martín, who had gained fame for staging other popular absurd Piñera plays, tucked the script away in a drawer for a few years as Cuba continued to change, and irreverent theater became more and more popular. He then edited his version of The Serfs and asked for authorized approval again in 1999. Not only was the script revised, but the cultural officials who had rejected the original proposal had left the country or been assigned to other positions. Their replacements said yes. 

Piñera’s original 1955 text makes several references to communism, and the characters have Russian names. According to the stage directions, portraits of Lenin and Stalin hang on the walls. Martín substituted “neutral” names for the Russian ones and expunged verbal references to communism and Russian revolutionary iconography from the production. In the program, Martín claims that the play is about a futuristic society but emphasizes the party’s abuse of power and its leaders’ corruption. Does the erasure of explicit Stalinist content discount Piñera’s thesis? An officially ostracized play, scrubbed clean of communist terms and visual references, entertains new generations who most likely already knew what was changed and why. The result is an extrinsic satire on censorship that confirms Piñera’s vicious cycle of corrupt power, censorship, and rebellion.

The translation. Popular speech, subtle references to Cuban culture and politics, and official political doublespeak are a challenge—popular language is fluid; cultural references can be deep, multilayered, and complex; and political doublespeak is intentionally opaque. As an avid reader of, and participant in, Cuban culture, especially theater, I’ve been translating works into English for the past 25 years. My translation of the absurdist language, wordplay, and humorous ticks in The Serfs began as a project for Cuban director Raul Martín of the Teatro de la Luna, who had staged the play in 1999. Piñera injects humor into a dystopia lexicon that mimics Orwell’s Newsspeak and doublethink and officially sanctioned forms of speech in totalitarian systems. The characters plot to oppress individual citizens and crush rebels within their OneState system using psychological, political, and cultural instruments.

Before I translated The Serfs, I studied Piñera’s works and continued studying Cuban theater. Throughout this period, I attended several staged versions of Piñera’s plays and regularly met and discussed them with Raul Martín. We often read aloud sections of the original Spanish text and my translation. I concentrated on subtle phasing, double-entendres, and the tongue twisting humor. We also read aloud poems from Piñera’scollection La isla en peso: Obra poética (The Whole Island: Poetic Works, 1998) as a study of the nuances and rebellious spirit that permeate all his works.

Virgilio Piñera (1912-1976) is a well-known Cuban author and translator. A significant figure in the absurdist literary movement of the 1940s and 1950s, his notable works include the plays Electra Garrigó (1942), La boda (The Wedding; 1944), and Dos viejos pánicos (Two Old Panics; 1968); the short story collection Cuentos fríos (Cold Tales; 1956); the novel La carne de René (Rene’s Flesh; 1952); and his poetrycollection La isla en peso: obra poética (The Whole Island: Poetic Works; 1998). In the early years of the revolution, he published numerous articles in major Latin American literary journals; theater directors staged his plays, and Cuban presses published his collected works. Later, his personal, often bitter battles with other intellectuals and cultural officials, his flamboyant and witty personality, and his controversial openly gay lifestyle made for a thorny life. In spite of his mounting problems, Piñera continued his literary output until his death in 1976.

Linda S. Howe is an Associate Professor of Spanish at Wake Forest University, teaches Latin American and Caribbean studies and writes about Cuban culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her books include Transgression and Conformity: Cuban Writers and Artists after the Revolution (U of Wisconsin Press, 2004) and Cuban Artists’ Books and Prints / Libros y grabados de artistas cubanos (La Verne Press, 2009). She has published translations of plays, poetry, short stories, and art criticism by Nancy Morejón, Gastón Baquero, Cristina García, Miguel Barnet, Zaida del Río, and Abilio Estévez (Ediciones Vigía, Matanzas, Cuba).

The Serfs

By Virgilio Piñera

Translated from Cuban Spanish by Linda S. Howe


ORLOFF. . . . . . . . . . . . . Prime Minister

FIODOR . . . . . . . . . . . . . Party Secretary

KIRIANIN . . . . . . . . . . . Military General

NIKITA . . . .. . . . . . . . . . Party Philosopher and serf

STEPACHENKO . . . . . .Spy

ADAMOV . . . . . . . . . . . Undercover lord

KOLIA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Worker


First Scene

Design: An office. Oil painting of Lenin in the background above a work table. Stage left, oil painting of Stalin. Stage right, large map of the world. Stage center, Orloff, Fiodor, and Kirianin are sitting in four red leather armchairs; beside one is a lighted floor lamp.

Act One

Orloff, Fiodor, Kirianin.

Orloff: Here, just between us, let’s admit it, comrades—Nikita is a master. Declaring himself a serf at this stage of the game! Dialectically, such a thing is not possible, and yet. . .

Fiodor: It might be a plot.

Kirianin: Impossible, comrade. Fear makes you paranoid. The land and the people are wholly communized. (Pause.) Apparently our comrade forgets the absolute triumph of the world revolution. On every level.

Orloff: Comrade Kirianin, let’s not waste time talking about what communism has accomplished in a century. We have to discuss what measures to take with our comrade Nikita.

Kirianin: Nikita! Nikita! There’s only one small step from Nikita to Nikitism. And, then . . . the debacle!

Fiodor: Right, that’s the step Nikita shouldn’t make. We’ll stop him dead in his tracks.

Kirianin: That’s easy to say, but. . . to do? (Pause.) Comrade Orloff, I propose the disappearance of our comrade Nikita.

Orloff: No disappearances for now. Martyrs are dangerous. Nikita must continue to exist                             unnoticed.

Kirianin: All this about Nikita surprises me. He’s the official Party philosopher. There are his books: forty published volumes pounding away about human equality and all that, and now, overnight, he declares himself a serf. (Pause.) No doubt about it, something’s not right with Nikita.

Orloff: When a man becomes an activist, he can’t help but act. If Nikita fought to move up the ladder, now he’s fighting to fall off it.

Kirianin: That’s what we have to prevent him from doing. If the Party has achieved its highest goal, if from now on there’s no higher place, no higher place to go, I see no reason to descend. (Pause.) If Nikita wants to descend, let him descend the staircase in his house . . .

Orloff: This moment is too serious for jokes. (Pause.) Don’t forget that Nikita issued a manifesto praising subservience, declaring himself a serf, and asking to enter the service of a lord.

Kirianin: Lords no longer exist in Russia or anywhere on the planet.

Fiodor: That’s what I’d like to know: serf to what master?

Orloff: None of this is important. The main point is that Nikita has declared himself a serf. (Pause.) And published that declaration in Pravda. What nerve!

Fiodor: How did the masses react?

Orloff: Well, to tell the truth, they haven’t reacted at all. When you’ve reached the highest point in the best of all possible worlds, it’s difficult to react. (Pause.) They have read the manifesto without actually reading it.

Kirianin: Well, then, I see no reason for this conference. I’ve put off the hunt. (He gets up.) I believe there’s still time. . .

Orloff: (Making him sit down again.) Such light heartedness concerns me, Comrade Kirianin. If it’s true that the masses, drunk with happiness, read without reading, it’s no less certain that Nikita can motivate them to actually read what they are reading.

Fiodor: Amazing! That’s how the Party began and that may be how it ends. (Pause.) Without a doubt, this is a serious moment.

Kirianin: We could re-educate Nikita.

Orloff: When has it ever been possible to re-educate a communist!

Kirianin: Nikita is a communist. Nikita has declared himself a serf. Nikita re-educates himself; therefore, a communist can re-educate himself.

Fiodor: This is precisely the sticking point. Theoretically, a communist can’t be de-communized. I say theoretically when thinking about capitalism’s old days. In those days, a half-hearted communized communist could cross over to the capitalist camp. But, comrades, today! Today, hundreds of millions on this planet Earth are all communists. If there’s no capitalism, if there’s only communism, to which camp is Nikita crossing over?

Orloff: It’s very clear: to the subservient camp. (Pause.) Nikita wants to start over.

Kirianin: He’s an old revolutionary who’s bored by inaction.

Fiodor: He’s an old romantic! (He slams his fist on the arm of his chair.) He’s a blithering fool! He’s a blithering fool!

Orloff: Calm down, calm down! We can’t solve anything by screaming and gesturing. (Pause.) Here’s the problem: find a solution to Nikita’s case.

Kirianin: What is your solution?

Orloff: At the moment, I don’t have one.

Fiodor: I propose a discreet disappearance.

Orloff: No disappearances. As long as Nikita is visible to everyone, no one will see him, but if he becomes invisible, everyone will be dying to see him.

Kirianin: But if Nikita were to die a “natural death”. . .

Orloff: When the people find out about Nikita’s natural death, they’ll begin to actually read the manifesto while reading it. Next thing you know, they’ll erect a tomb for him alongside the tomb of the great Anti-Serf.

Kirianin: Ugh! That would be serious: enslaved masses marching in silence past Nikita’s tomb, the Tomb of the Great Slave.

Orloff: You laugh, but that’s the gist of the situation. (Pause.) No, no disappearances whatsoever.

Fiodor: So, we’ll let time run its course. Time takes care of everything. We’ve come to rule the world over time.

Orloff: But Nikita will also have time.

Kirianin: Nikita is a time bomb.

Orloff: You’re so right: a time bomb. (Pause; he stands up.) The Party has never been in a situation like this. We’re powerless.

Kirianin: Let’s mobilize ourselves! (Walks, taking goose steps.)

Fiodor: Let’s mobilize ourselves! (Walks, taking goose steps.)

Orloff: (Collapsing into his armchair.) Let’s immobilize ourselves! (Pause.) We should assure, at all cost, that Nikita continues to move imperceptibly among the masses.

Fiodor: How do we accomplish that? Comrade Orloff, you don’t approve of a “natural death,” and you’re against any public proceeding . . .

Orloff: No, that’s out of the question. It would be a catastrophe.

Fiodor: Okay, no public proceeding, no secret proceeding, no public or private execution. And meanwhile, Nikita threatening . . .

Kirianin: Comrade Orloff says that Nikita’s subservience poses no danger as long as he lives unperceived among the masses. (To Orloff) Did I get that right?

Orloff: Yes, and what else?

Kirianin: Okay: we should start by becoming invisible ourselves.

Orloff: That’s not a bad idea. (Thinking.) Although there’s a glitch: Nikita knows that we know. . .

Kirianin: Let’s pretend we don’t know. We’ll play along. That way we gain more time.

Fiodor: Nikita will also play along and gain time. (Pause.) I’m all for swift action.

Orloff: If only there were still a few thousand capitalists in the world . . .

Kirianin: (Stupefied.) Capitalists?

Orloff: You heard me: capitalists! If there were still some capitalist stronghold, Nikita’s subservience would be wiped out.

Fiodor: I don’t understand.

Orloff: Very simple—we’d say this: Nikita is a traitor; Nikita has gone over to the camp of the capitalist dogs. In no time at all, no one would care about Nikita.

Kirianin: Those were the days! The Golden Era! Back then, you could shout, Down with capitalism! But today, there’s not even one enemy out there.

Orloff: Nikita is an enemy.

Kirianin: An enemy we can’t attack. We can’t shout protests against him, write against him, or riddle his body with bullets.

Orloff: That’s the problem. Our clichéd slogans and worn-out techniques are useless against an enemy like Nikita. (Pause.) It’s a question of starting over.

Fiodor: We’ll play his game.

Kirianin: We’ll totally embrace Nikitism.

Orloff: The joke’s on us: Nikita has a game plan, and we have nothing. We’re communists and nothing more; he’s a communist and also a Nikitist.

Fiodor: What do we know about Nikitism? Absolutely nothing.

Kirianin: Okay, we know that Nikita has declared himself a serf.

Orloff: And what does that mean? (Pause.) Comrade, I’ll bet you’ll have a hard time finding a communist manual that deals with Nikitism. How do we deal with this?

Kirianin: We’re losing time with intellectual minutiae. Less talk and more action.

Fiodor: Ha, ha! More action.(Pause.) Who’s going to sell that plan? Nikita!

Orloff: That’s the sad truth! Nikita’s holding all the cards.

Fiodor: We haven’t moved forward an inch. In a few minutes, Nikita will be in this office, and we still don’t have a clear plan of action.

Kirianin: Let’s pretend we’re not the least bit interested in subservience. (Pause.) At least not declared subservience because as far as the other kind goes . . . Ha, ha, ha!

Orloff: What are you insinuating, comrade?

Kirianin: I’m speaking clearly: we’re undercover nobles, but nobles after all.

Fiodor: We can’t deny it.

Orloff: But of course we’ll deny it as long as we can’t crush Nikita.

Kirianin: We’ll question him undercover.

Fiodor: Even so, it will be an interrogation, and Nikita will know that we’re interrogating him.

Kirianin: Under what pretext are we bringing him in?

Orloff: To discuss simple formal procedures. For example, that discourse about the happiness of the greatest number is an excellent pretext.

Kirianin: Oh, then he can tell us that since the happiness of the greatest number is a done deal, his desire to be the first unhappy one on the road to the unhappiness of the greatest number . . . (Pause.) No, let’s not wake the beast.

Orloff: Rest assured. Nikita is an old fox. I doubt very much he’ll show his cards during this interview.

Kirianin: What a euphemism!

Orloff: Okay, this interrogation. (Pause.) Should we call him in?

Kirianin: Let’s roll up our sleeves!

Fiodor: Lots of discretion. We’ll act as if we’re Nikita’s equals. Let’s not reveal our nobility.

Orloff: Clearly, we have to tread carefully with him. (Pause.) Now, let’s chat with Nikita. (Rings the bell.) Treading carefully. (He slowly turns toward the table and picks up some papers.) Treading carefully. . .


First Act: same decor

Scene Two

Orloff, Fiodor, and Kirianin. Nikita enters.

Nikita: Greetings, comrades!

Orloff, Fiodor, Kirianin: (In unison) Greetings!

Nikita: Anything new, comrades? Yesterday, I arrived from the Caucasus, and I haven’t had time to read the venerable Pravda.

Orloff: (Moving to Nikita’s side.) Nothing new, comrade. Everything is going perfectly. (Pause.) Have a seat? (Orloff sits down.)

Nikita: Thanks, I prefer to stand for a while. I’ve been sitting for two hours in my office.

Orloff: (Leafing through papers.) We’ve called you in to discuss some formal issues . . .

Nikita: About what?

Orloff: About the happiness of the greatest number.

Nikita: Let’s see.

Orloff: (Reading.) “Having happily achieved the happiness of the greatest number, there is no need to achieve any greater happiness than the happiness achieved by the greatest number.” (Pause.) Do you find any formal problem in this paragraph?

Nikita: The form is perfect, unobjectionable.

Orloff: And what about the crux of the matter?

Nikita: Having reached the happiness of the greatest number—a bottom-line issue that no longer requires discussion, knowing that we’ve achieved the happiness of the greatest number—all that remains for us is to deliberate pure matters of form with regard to achieving the happiness of the greatest number.

Fiodor: (To Kirianin) The old fox won’t fall in our trap. (To Nikita) Bravo, Nikita! Dialectically irrefutable! (Pause.) It occurs to me: given that the Party has overcome all arguments regarding the crux of the matter, the moment has come to exhaustively improve on all matters of form . . .

Nikita: I’ll take care of it, Comrade Fiodor.

Fiodor: Well, okay, it’s important, from this time on, that Comrade Nikita dedicates himself to drafting the hundreds of thousands of matters of form resulting from hundreds of thousands of questions regarding their complexity.

Nikita: In other words, the Party, having surpassed the active phase, has now come to the contemplative phase.

Orloff: The Party repeats the creator’s miracle. It’s the only Party to achieve a similar tour de force. (He sprawls out in the armchair and rubs his hands together.) And so, Nikita, after recreating the world in our image and likeness, we’ve dedicated ourselves to contemplating it.

Nikita: And like the creator, we’ll sleep with one eye open . . . and a rifle on our shoulder. At the slightest hint of rebellion, pin, pan, bang!

Orloff: In the best of worlds, the possibility of rebellion is minimal.

Kirianin: (Staring at Nikita.) Rebel? Who would take up arms against happiness?

Orloff: I’m having difficulty following your thought, Nikita. You speak of rebellion. The Party has done things so well that there’s no need to keep either eye open; we can sleep soundly. (Pause.) It strikes me as awfully strange that Comrade Nikita, communist through and through, proposes the possibility of armed rebellion.

Nikita: It strikes me as awfully strange that Comrade Orloff interprets my words so literally and takes himself back in time to the heroics of the barricades. I’ve been summoned here, if I’m not mistaken, to chat about matters of pure form. One that occurred to me as a matter of pure form, was the formal matter of one open eye while sleeping as a precaution . . . Because, there’s no greater sweetness, and I quote Dante—than to recall a happy time when miserable. Equally, there’s no greater sweetness than to recall our times of wretchedness in joy . . . And this, of course, inspires intensive development of matters of pure form.

Orloff: I want to make sure Comrade Nikita understands that when one speaks of intensive development of matters of the purest form, it’s only within the perspective of the present happiness and not the Party’s troubled past.

Kirianin: The Party’s past is dead and buried.

Nikita: I don’t disagree, but since we’re speaking here of the intensive development of pure formal matters, I want to add my two cents worth. Well, I propose that Comrade Kirianin’s brilliant phrase— “the Party’s past is dead and buried”—be changed to “The Party of the past is dead and buried.”

Orloff: Would you be willing to sign this proposition?

Nikita: Comrade Orloff knows all too well that publications in our world republic are anonymous; still, I agree to sign at the end of my formal proposition on one condition.

Orloff, Kirianin, Fiodor: (In chorus.) What?

Nikita: That it clearly states that I signed the proposition to cooperate, with the greatest efficiency, in the intensive development of matters of pure form, and, as such, my signature is a pure and innocent matter of form.

Orloff, Kirianin, Fiodor: (In chorus.) Traitor!

Nikita: (Unflappable.) Agreed. I’m a traitor but . . . a formal one. Even if I wanted to be a traitor, I couldn’t be a real one. There’s no other state to which I could reveal state secrets, and anyway, the secrets would deal strictly with matters of pure form.

Orloff: (Gloomy.) Let’s put aside matters of pure form and get to the point . . .

Nikita: (Interrupting him.) You mean, the formal point . . .

Orloff: (He goes up to Nikita puts his finger on his forehead.) That point, filthy point, infectious point, preposterous point—is you, Nikita. (Pause.) You’ve declared yourself a serf!

Nikita: (In a gesture of profound reverence, kisses Orloff’s hand, and falls to his knees.) Serf, I am. (Moves across the floor on his knees and kisses the feet of Kirianin and Fiodor.)

Orloff: Stand up, Nikita, your pantomime disgusts us.

Nikita: (Makes an effort to get up, but falls back down to his knees.) I can’t, lord, I can’t stand up. I can only bow before you. (Continues on his knees with his face on the floor.)

Kirianin: (To Orloff) Some good we did. Now we’ll have to put an end to this charade.

Fiodor: (Takes out his pistol.) I’m going to kill this mangy dog.

Orloff: (Grabs the pistol.) You’re crazy! That would be just the spark! Tomorrow, we’d have thousands of kneeling serfs in Red Square. Let’s zero in on the pestilence.

Kirianin: Exactly: we’ll zero in on the pestilence. We’ll quarantine the stinking victim.

Orloff: (To Nikita) Listen, Nikita—

Nikita: (Grabs hold of Orloff’s boot and places his head under it.) I’m listening, my master.

Orloff: I suppose you’ve declared yourself a serf as a purely formal matter. (Anxiously looks at Kirianin and Fiodor.)

Nikita: (Getting up.) Nothing to do with formal matters, lord. I only know that I’m a serf, a very humble servant of any master.

Kirianin: Aren’t you content with collective happiness?

Nikita: Your eminent lord, I don’t care for collective happiness. I prefer the personal happiness of humbly serving such great lords.

Orloff: You know very well a communist can only be a communist and nothing else. (Grabs Nikita by the shoulders and sits him down in the armchair.) A communist never kneels before anyone. That’s why we abolished God.

Nikita: (He slides out of the armchair and falls again to his knees.) I can’t, lord, I can’t do anything but get down on my knees. (Pause.) Besides, lord, I’m not a communist. I’m a servilist. (Again, he bows his head to the floor.)

Orloff: (To Kirianin.) He’s got serf in his system.

Kirianin: Let’s torture him!

Fiodor: Nikita would plead for it on his knees. There’s nothing better for a serf than to be tortured by his lord.

Kirianin: Damn! There’s no way to beat this guy at his game!

Orloff: You mean this serf. His subservience dominates us.

Kirianin: A wonderful idea just occurred to me. Let’s force him to be a lord.

Orloff: Magnificent idea! It’s the only appropriate torture. (Pause.) Let’s get to work!

Fiodor: I’m not sure I understand.

Orloff: You’ll fall to your knees, while I, pistol in hand, demand that Nikita give you a kick in the butt. (Pause.) This will be a practice session. From tomorrow on, we’ll turn our butts up to receive his kicks communistically until he is completely detoxified. (Pause.) Fall to your knees.

Kirianin and Orloff fall to their knees.

Orloff: (To Nikita.) Comrade Nikita.

Nikita doesn’t move.

Orloff: Serf, Nikita.

Nikita: (Standing up.) What do you want, my lord?

Orloff: (Pointing the pistol at him.) I order you to be lord of these two serfs. Give them a goodly number of scornful kicks to the butt.

Nikita: (Standing up.) Oh master, what joy! Now I have supporters. (He kneels alongside Kirianin and Fiodor.) Now we’re three serfs. Let’s ask this magnificent master to give us a goodly number of kicks in the butt.

Orloff: (Violent.) Nikita, stand up!

Nikita (Crying.) Oh lord, I can’t do anything but kneel.

Orloff: (He points the pistol at him again.) I’m going to kill you like a dog! Get up!

Nikita gets up.

Orloff: (He places the barrel of the gun against Nikita’s forehead.) Insult them?

Nikita (Babbling.) Lord . . .

Orloff: You’re the lord, understand? Get on with it!

Nikita: (With great effort.) Nasty serfs . . . (Pause.) Oh, I can’t, lord, no, I can’t! I’m a nasty serf, too.

Orloff: I said get on with it.

Nikita: Filthy serfs . . . (Pause.) I can’t, my lord. I can’t play the role of your lordship. I would rather die.

Orloff: (Gives him a big push.) Go on! Give your serfs some kicks. (To Fiodor and Kirianin) Show Nikita your butts!

Fiodor and Kirianin offer their butts.

Nikita: I couldn’t possibly kick a lord in the butt, and these serfs are lords in disguise. It would be a crime against the society of butts. The tsar executed thousands of serfs for lesser crimes.

Orloff: These serfs are the saints of our religion. They died so there would be no more serfs on Earth.

Nikita: And I’m going to die so that serfs do exist on this Earth! It’s my destiny. I’m completely convinced that I’ll find a master, even if he sends me to the gallows. He’s out there somewhere—I already see him, hear him, can almost touch him. He’s my executioner, but I adore him because my butt can’t be a serf without a kick. (Pause.) Master, go ahead and kill me, but I won’t kick those butts. It would be a betrayal of the butt society.

Orloff: (Changing his tone.) Fiodor, Kirianin, what are you doing with your butts in the air? We’re here with comrade Nikita to discuss matters of pure form, and frankly, I don’t see our butts as a purely formal matter.

Fiodor and Kirianin stand up.

Orloff: (Putting away the pistol.) Comrade Nikita, so, the phrase “happiness of the greatest number, having been happily achieved and guaranteeing that no other happiness, other than the happiness achieved by the greatest number, exists” isn’t guilty of any formal vice?

Nikita: The form is perfect, irrefutable.

Orloff: Magnificent! So, we’ll go on to the next sentences.

Nikita: Let’s go, comrade, to the next sentence.

Orloff: “If religion is the opium of the people, and there’s no religion, then there’s no opium, thanks to the happiness reached by the greatest number . . .”


Second Act

Décor: A small room in Nikita’s house. In the center, a big high-back chair covered in tapestry with a smaller pine chair in front of it. There are two doors, one stage right and one in the back. The doorbell rings, and Nikita enters though the back door, walks between the two chairs, glances at them, and goes to open the door to the right.

First Scene

Nikita: Stepachenko.

Stepachenko: (Wearing a hat and with a notebook under his arm.) Does Nikita Smirnov live here?

Nikita: I’m Nikita Smirnov. Come in, comrade. (Stepachenko enters, and Nikita closes the door..) Whom do I have the honor of receiving in my home?

Stepachenko: (He opens his notebook.) My name is Sergio Stepachenko. (Pause.) It says here in Pravda that comrade Nikita declares himself a serf.

Nikita: That’s right, I’ve declared myself a serf.

Stepachenko: The manifesto also says that comrade Nikita is looking for a master.

Nikita: That’s right, I’m looking for a master. (Pause.) Perhaps it would be better to sit down. Please excuse my humble abode, but it’s well suited to my new condition. Take a seat.

Stepachenko looks at the two chairs. Without hesitation, he sits in the big armchair with his hat still on.

Nikita: (Aside.) Good start. Looks as if he knows his rights. (Pause.) Have you come to propose some kind of a deal?

Stepachenko: (Settling back in the chair.) I believe, and I say this without any personal vanity, that I’m the only comrade who actually read your manifesto while reading it. (Pause.) You know why? I was about to declare myself a master when it fell into my hands. I said to myself, Well, if someone is looking for a master, who better thanI?

Nikita: Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. (Pause.) I’m demanding.

Stepachenko: I’m also demanding. It won’t be easy being a serf to this lord.

Nikita: I say the same: it won’t be easy being a lord to this serf.

Stepachenko: Perfect. (Pause.) Can you tell me your demands?

Nikita: In the first place, I won’t accept being a serf to a White Russian who’s been dyed red. Is that what you are?

Stepachenko: (Slamming his fist and breaking into laughter.) Fantastic! That’s also my first condition: I won’t accept being a master to a White Russian who’s been dyed red. Is that what you are?

Nikita: Looks like neither of us is guilty of being dyed red, and that’s a good start. It would be a betrayal of our revolutionary creed if we were to associate ourselves with the likes of a White Russian dyed red. They would write us off as reactionaries and, in my mind, with good reason. (Pause.) The second condition is that you should give me kicks in the butt.

Stepachenko: (Slamming his fist on the chair and roaring with laughter.) For the love of Lenin’s beard! You’re reading my mind. If you want me to be your master, you have to let me kick your butt.

Nikita: Let’s get to the third and last one. If I reveal that you’re a declared master, it will be purely a matter of form. If you are really a master, your response is inbred. 

Stepachenko: I’m listening.

Nikita: You must turn me over to the executioner if I rebel.

Stepachenko: (Serious.) Mangy dog! Of course I’ll turn you over to the executioner if you rebel. (Pause.) But why would you? Haven’t you yourself chosen subservience?

Nikita: Yes, but I could grow tired of kicks in the butt. Besides, a declared serf could be a dangerous thing. We have to prevent this.

Stepachenko: One swallow does not a make a summer, and one serf does not make a rebellion. On the other hand, it makes sense to denounce you as a declared serf if it serves my interests with regard to the State.

Nikita: Yes, they would cut off only my head because even when you declare yourself a lord, lords always end up coming to some understanding.

Stepachenko: The worst thing that could happen to me is I go undercover again. But that wouldn’t be reason enough to stop being a lord. (Pause.) If you had a lord’s brain, you’d understand this.

Nikita: There comes a time when the lord might think his serf has a brain.

Stepachenko: When is that?

Nikita: When there’s a serf rebellion. At that moment, the master realizes the serf has a brain, but since there can’t be two heads in a lord’s household, the lord calls for the executioner to cut off the serf’s.

Stepachenko: Listen, Nikita, that’s all fine and good, but if we come to an agreement, I prefer less dialectics and more subservience.

Nikita: You have to understand that if I use lots of arguments to defend my cause, it’s because a good serf should assure himself that he’s picked a perfectly cruel master.

Stepachenko: As far as that goes, rest assured. I guarantee that my commands and my kicks are brutal.

Nikita: I don’t remember where I read that a great lord gave his serf such an incredible kick that he sent him flying a couple of meters. There’s potent proof of human contempt. (Pause.) But let me ask you something out of curiosity.

Stepachenko: You’re asking many things and saying many others, Nikita. That’s not a good thing in a serf.

Nikita: You’re not yet my lord, and I’m not yet your serf. I haven’t yet fallen before your feet. I have to be sure that you’re worthy to be lord of this serf.

Stepachenko: (Nervous.) Are we going to reach an agreement or not? It would be a pity if we don’t. You’re a serf personified.

Nikita: You’re too impatient. You’re champing at the bit for authority. Why don’t you admit you’re dying to kick me? Of course, a kick in the butt. But, tell me, what motivated you to declare yourself a master?

Stepachenko: I want to kick you, to send you to hell. Besides, I want to run the show.

Nikita: Rule over just one?

Stepachenko: At the moment. Later, many more.

Nikita: Even so, you’re risking too much. You can cut off a serf’s head, but lots of serfs will end up cutting off yours. Historians call this the rebellion of the serfs.

Stepachenko: Now, we’re in the declaration-of-the-serfs phase.

Nikita: After the declaration comes the rebellion.

Stepachenko: Just a moment ago, you were saying the third condition for entering my service was that if you rebel, I hand you over to the executioner.

Nikita: A sine qua non.

Stepachenko: Ok, turn the tables and have the master ask to have his head cut off at the least hint of submission to his serf.

Nikita: If I say that the serf asks for death at the first hint of rebellion, I do it to make clear the profound subservience of the serf, but never forget that the serf who rebels is no longer a serf. His act of rebellion automatically transforms him into a rebel.

Stepachenko: A contradiction surfaces: in our contract, you establish a categorical clause: “my head will be cut off at the least hint of rebellion.” (Pause.) Nevertheless, you contradict yourself when you affirm that your act of rebellion automatically transforms you into a rebel.

Nikita: An apparent contradiction easily remedied. In theory, the serf-in-waiting says one thing, but, in practice, the fiery serf says another.

Stepachenko: In that case, I won’t be able to cut off your head. On the contrary, a fiery serf will try to cut off mine.

Nikita: Listen; I can’t rush the course of history. The serf-in-waiting is submissive to his master, servile with his master, and he asks, at this moment, that at the first hint of rebellion, the executioner cut off the fiery serf’s head. No one should jeopardize the serf’s great subservience.

Stepachenko: So . . .

Nikita: But if someone jeopardizes the serf’s good subservience, if something turns a serf-in-waiting into a fiery one, that clause won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. (Pause.) Do you remember those extinct Catholic priests? Some of them swore and later abjured.

Stepachenko: (Laughing.) Anyway, you could die in the gallows.

Nikita: That won’t render me irrelevant. A mighty flame follows a tiny spark, and you will burn at the stake when the time comes.

Stepachenko: Don’t rush the course of history. . . Let’s enjoy the new situation. (Pause.) What do you say I give you the first kick in the butt?

Nikita: Before you do, let me shine your boots. Subservience has its procedures. (Takes out a flannel cloth.)

Stepachenko: I want to know when I can begin my role as master. You’re not the one to give orders. Am I or am I not your master?

Nikita: (Bowing) You’re the boss, my lord. Your wish is my command.

Stepachenko: Bring me a glass of wine.

Nikita: (He gets up, trembles.) There’s no wine in the house, lord.

Stepachenko: What! You dirty dog. You drank all the wine. (He kicks him in the butt).

Nikita: Oh, gods of the red pantheon! What luck! My butt thanks you.

Stepachenko: What are you muttering, you despicable worm? Shine my boots.

Nikita: (Shines Stepachenko’s boots.) Oh, sacrificed serfs of our vast Russia, make my master cruel, tough, tyrannical, and the great kicker of butts!

Stepachenko: (Angry.) Are you still muttering? (Pause.) Where’s my whip? Isn’t there a whip in this house?

Nikita: (Standing up.) No, Stepachenko. The red lord will not pronounce that infamous word, that sad memory of White Russia. The new lord should keep up with the times.

Stepachenko: Then what do you propose? But soon! I’m dying to flog you. As each moment passes, I feel more like a lord.

Nikita: And I more like a serf. (He’s pensive.) Ah, I know! The whip will be called Pravda.

Stepachenko: Pravda?

Nikita: Pravda is a red word. It turns butts red.

Stepachenko: Right this minute, I’m going out to buy a Pravda with seven thongs. (Pause.) And you already know, you mangy dog, that I want wine tonight. And you’ll watch over me while I sleep.

Nikita: (Bowing again.) Your wish is my command, lord. (Pause.) Can I tell you something of great importance?

Stepachenko: I’m listening, but it better be of great importance.

Nikita: I’m being watched. They must already know I have my master. For my part, I’m willing to be sacrificed. I won’t renounce my condition as a serf even in the face of death!

Stepachenko: I know very well that you’re being watched. You’ll end up in the gallows, but while you’re alive, I’ll give you some good kicks in the butt. (He kicks him twice.)

Nikita: So, my master, if it’s all right with you, tomorrow I’ll begin serving you in your house. (Intense.) Only death can separate us. (Pause.) Would it be asking too much to have you welcome me with the Pravda in hand?

Stepachenko: Done. I’ll treat you with a deluge of red lashings.

Nikita: Those lashings will be the first heralds of the serfs’ rebellion.

Stepachenko: You dog, how dare you speak to me in such language?

Nikita: My brothers’ hands will cut off your grandchildren’s heads.

Stepachenko: Have you lost your mind? (Pause.) I don’t have my Pravda here, or I’d give you some serious lashings.

Nikita: You can give me a kick in the butt. It’s a magnificent aperitif for your foot and my butt. The degree of difference between the kick and the lash is nothing.

Stepachenko: When we powerful lords number in the thousands, you and your serf brothers will shut your mouths and open your butts. (He kicks him.)

Nikita: Your oracle can’t fail. This will be the rebellion of butts.


Second Act

Décor: A well-furnished bedroom in Stepachenko’s house. White bear skin in the middle. Tapestries on the walls. Chair beside the bed. Stepachenko is lying on the bed, snoring.

Second Scene

Stepachenko, Nikita, Adamov.

Stepachenko: (Wakes up, startled.) Nikita! Nikita!

Nikita: (Black pants, white cassock with red buttons.) Did you call, lord?

Stepachenko: (Putting his hands together.) Nikita, you know? I dreamed you were cutting off my head. (Pause.) It was very funny.

Nikita: After all, lord, it’s not that important. One head, more or less. . .

Stepachenko: Of course the head of a miserable serf like you is of little consequence. Besides, what good is a serf’s head anyway? As long as he has a butt.

Nikita: It’s been proven that dreams don’t mean a thing.

Stepachenko: You won’t say the same thing when your see your head on the chopping block. (Pause.) What time is it?

Nikita: After twelve.

Stepachenko: Damn it! I have to go out. (Pause.) Has anyone arrived?

Nikita: Yes, lord. There’s a lord waiting in the living room.

Stepachenko: A lord? Are you sure? Am I not the only lord?

Nikita: Apparently that’s the not the case because he told me he was willing to pay a good price for my head.

Stepachenko: Do I hear right? He said “for your head”? (Pause.) And why would he want your head?

Nikita: I have no idea. Next thing, he kicked me in the butt.

Stepachenko: (Shocked.) He kicked you in the butt?

Nikita: And told me there was no doubt about my butt.

Stepachenko: What do you think he meant by that?

Nikita: That I had a serf’s butt.

Stepachenko: I won’t sell you for all the gold in the world. Your head belongs to me. Tell him to look for his own head and butt. (Pause.) Tell him to go away.

Nikita exits and re-enters.

Nikita: Oh lord! I told him that my lordship was unable to receive him, and he gave me a terrible kick in the butt.

Stepachenko: (Jumps out of bed and kicks Nikita.) Tell him to go away.

Nikita exits and re-enters.

Nikita: He’s given me another kick, lord. He says he’s as much a lord as you.

Stepachenko: We’ll see about that. (Pause.) Tell him to come in. (He lies back down.)

Nikita exits.

Adamov: (Enters and greets Stepachenko with extreme courtesy.) Do I have the great honor of meeting the great lord Sergio Stepachenko?

Stepachenko: (Dry and curt.) What is your name? What brings you to my house?

Adamov: My name is Basilio Adamov. I live in the Urals. I have many souls under my rule. These souls have read Nikita’s manifesto and consequently declared their servitude. I want Nikita’s head.

Stepachenko: I won’t sell it for all the gold in the world. (Pause.) On the other hand, may I suggest something very interesting to you . . .?

Adamov: (Impatient.) Bah!

Stepachenko: Cut off all those heads.

Adamov: Eight hundred hands work for me, and I kick four hundred butts. The least I can do for them is spare their heads. It’s a way to preserve productivity. (Pause.) On the other hand, you have only one serf. I can pay very well for his head.

Stepachenko: Don’t ask me for such a thing. I can’t do without a serf.

Adamov: Take on a provisional serf. It’s the same thing and the same butt. I need Nikita because I have to punish him as an example.

Stepachenko: I can’t. Ask the authorities for assistance.

Adamov: The government will cut off my serfs’ heads. This advice isn’t useful.

Stepachenko: Have your serfs rebelled?

Adamov: They haven’t rebelled, but they’ve declared their servitude.

Stepachenko: What do they mean to do on a practical level?

Adamov: They told me: since the lord kicks us in the butt, we don’t want theoretical equality.

Stepachenko: They’re right about that.

Adamov: One of these sons of bitches had the nerve to tell me equality should mean equality for all; if the lord can kick my butt, I can kick the lord’s butt.

Stepachenko: Just between us, Adamov, that’s true camaraderie. Of course, true camaraderie is not possible since it’s very satisfying to kick butts and not so pleasant to have one’s butt kicked.

Adamov: In the days of the tsars, things were more clearly defined. Everyone knew his role with each part clearly spelled out.

Stepachenko: At least, a serf could call himself a serf. It was his only right.

Adamov: And a lord called himself a lord. We can’t call ourselves lords, either.

Stepachenko: It’s of little consequence now that we’re the oppressors.

Adamov: Agreed. You can still be a lord even though you have to be under cover. That doesn’t bother anyone. But it bothers a serf if the lord pretends the serf is a comrade with all his rights when in reality he’s a serf with no rights.

Stepachenko: Equality with conditions is a bitter pill to swallow.

Adamov: Somehow or another, they were swallowing it, but that swine Nikita has ruined it. Give me his head.

Stepachenko: It’s not in my power to give you Nikita’s head.

Adamov: Aren’t you your own boss and solely responsible for your actions?

Stepachenko: If I were to give you Nikita’s head that would mean I’m a declared lord, and then the Party would want my head on a platter. Don’t forget, we can’t be anything but undercover lords. (Pause.) Ask the Party for advice.

Adamov: The Party’s recent policy is that we should exploit underhandedly . . . Why would you want the Party to allow four hundred comrades to declare their subservience?

Stepachenko: Of course I would not. The Party can’t betray its ideals.

Adamov: Aha! On the surface, because in reality . . .

Stepachenko: And how, Adamov! One has to keep up appearances.

Adamov: Agreed. A wolf in sheep’s clothing and all . . .  to hide the real truth, we have to create a ruse of pure form.

Stepachenko: But you can see that our real comrades insist on exposing our ruse by giving up their heads.

Adamov: The joke’s on us. (Pause.) That’s why I’m telling you: a head cut off at just the right moment instills terror.

Stepachenko: Not only can I not turn over Nikita’s head to you without seriously jeopardizing my own, I also believe that it’s counterproductive to decapitate him in the presence of four hundred serfs.

Adamov: Why?

Stepachenko: The declared serfs, until now submissive, will become ferocious lions.

Adamov: Damn, damn! (Pause.) Tell me, this Nikita, isn’t he the regime’s philosopher?

Stepachenko: The regime’s official philosopher, and at this late stage, with all its contradictions resolved, ahem! The philosopher’s role is a role of pure form. Even so, Nikita, in a master stroke, made it weighty.

Adamov: Well, a philosopher is always and before all else a serf.

Stepachenko: Yes, a philosopher has to be dissatisfied. A sine qua non of philosophy.

Adamov: I’d say, hoping this won’t throw a wrench into the profundity of the matter, that Nikita is a revolutionary.

Stepachenko: Through and through! He’s not going to be satisfied with his declared servitude. He’ll go beyond that.

Adamov: One thing I don’t understand, my dear Stepachenko. How did you come to be Nikita’s master?

Stepachenko: (Smiling sarcastically.) All philosophers should be watched very closely.

Adamov: I understand.

Stepachenko: Listen, my dear Adamov, do you really want to see Nikita’s head roll?

Adamov: I would give my entire fortune.

Stepachenko: Well, then, heed my advice. (Pause.) I’ll call him in and tell him everything that you’ve proposed.

Adamov: Are you going to tell him that I want his head? Don’t forget that for a philosopher, the head is the most valuable part.

Stepachenko: I won’t pronounce that word. Instead, I’ll tell Nikita that you want to take him to your serfs, so they learn to present their butts with dignity to their lord. In short, Nikita will raise your serfs’ consciousness of their butts.

Adamov: I don’t understand a thing about this. (Pause.) Nikita will never make this trip.

Stepachenko: Nikita will accept wholeheartedly. Nikita will sign a document in front of us declaring the purpose of his trip. From that moment, Nikita will be doomed.

Adamov: Do you mean he will be decapitated?

Stepachenko: Beheaded! (Pause. Yells.) Nikita! Nikita!

Nikita: (Enters and falls on his knees.) Here, lord.

Stepachenko: Listen, Nikita, the magnificent Basilio Adamov has come from the Ural Mountains to beg you. . .

Adamov: Yes, to beg you . . .

Stepachenko:  . . . to beg you to accompany him to a distant place.

Adamov: You’ll travel like a prince.

Nikita: I’ll travel like a serf.

Stepachenko: Ok, Nikita, here’s the object of the trip: the magnificent lord Basilio Adamov rules four hundred undeclared serfs. (Aside, to Adamov.) If he knew they were declared serfs and firmly declared  . . . (To Nikita.) Adamov is confident that if you demonstrate how you use your butt to show subservience, those four hundred comrades will declare their subservience. (Pause.) Do you accept?

Nikita: All for the triumph of those servile butts, I accept.

Stepachenko: (Places a piece of paper under Nikita’s nose.) Sign this declaration.

Nikita: (Signing.) Even though they should already be declared, there are four hundred butts . . . I, teacher of four hundred butts. (He turns and kisses Adamov’s hands.)

Adamov: Nikita, you’re an obedient serf. Ask for whatever you wish!

Nikita: (Looking at Stepachenko.) I don’t dare, lord, it’s too much happiness.

Stepachenko: Go ahead, Nikita! The lord, as an initial gesture, is granting you anything you desire. Go on! Ask for whatever you want.

Nikita: (Offering his butt to Adamov.) Lord, please give me the immense pleasure of one of your kicks on this filthy butt of mine.

Adamov kicks him in the butt.

Nikita: Butts, kicks, butts!


Act Three

The same décor as the Scene Two, Act Two.

Scene One

Nikita.Stepachenko. Kolia.

Stepachenko: (Entering.) Nikita, my shoes, my suit!

Nikita: (Enters with Stepachenko’s shoes and suit.) Here they are, lord.

Stepachenko: What did you think of Adamov?

Nikita: He’s cut out to be a master, lord. He gave me a superb kick.

Stepachenko: He’ll come for you at twelve.

Nikita: I’m prepared, lord.

Stepachenko: I’m going to take a walk. I’ll return at twelve. (Pause.) You like declaring the serfs, don’t you?

Nikita: I like declaring the serfs, lord.

Stepachenko: Do you really believe in all this serf business?

Nikita: I believe in what I see, lord, and all I see are millions of serfs.

Stepachenko: Who are they to be declaring anything, and who are you to be declaring subservience for them? The State has already trained them.

Nikita: Forgive me, lord, but it was the lord who ordered me to declare the subservience of the magnificent Lord Basilio Adamov’s serfs.

Stepachenko: Do you figure many people think like you?

Nikita: I believe what I believe, and what I believe is written. It might happen that many people accept my writings.

Stepachenko: It also might happen that they reject your writings.

Nikita: Very possible, lord.

Stepachenko: Also might happen that the State rejects your writings.

Nikita: The State also.

Stepachenko: In that case. . .

Nikita: Your dream will come true, lord. My head will roll.

Stepachenko: Do you believe there are exploiters and exploited?

Nikita: I believe there are undercover exploiters and exploited.

Stepachenko: And why do you insist on making public the undercover condition of both?

Nikita: It’s a manner of protesting.

Stepachenko: The servants and the philosophers always go around protesting.

Nikita: We want the State to grant us status.

Stepachenko: What status?

Nikita: That of serfs. We’re willing to serve like serfs as long as they acknowledge that we’re serfs. If it’s historic destiny that lords and serfs exist, at least we’ll know what we should be doing.

Stepachenko: But you’ve already seen that no undercover lord feels the need to declare himself.

Nikita: They’ll end up doing so.

Stepachenko: When?

Nikita: When the serfs define themselves, the lords won’t have any choice but to remove their masks.

Stepachenko: I don’t understand you.

Nikita: A declared serf implicitly declares his lord. The lord can’t deny his condition as lord. (Pause.) The oppressor above and the oppressed below. That way, everything works like a well-oiled machine . . .

Stepachenko: Don’t the serfs, well, rebel?

Nikita: The declared serf can move on to the second phase.

Stepachenko: Which is?

Nikita: The rebellious serf.

Stepachenko: There is another phase.

Nikita: (With sarcasm.) Which is, lord?

Stepachenko: The decapitated serf.

Nikita: There is a fourth phase, lord.

Stepachenko: Which is, Nikita?

Nikita: The decapitated lord.

Stepachenko: Do you mean to say that the serf will triumph?

Nikita: The serf can transform himself into lord and the lord into serf.

Stepachenko: That’s very funny.

Nikita: Yes, lord, it’s very funny. The eternal return.

Stepachenko: (He puts on his hat.) You get lost in big sentences, Nikita. Be careful that the big sentences don’t cause you to lose your poor head. (Exits.)

Nikita: (He pats his head.) You haven’t much time, head. (He pats his butt.) You haven’t much time, butt.

A whistle at the back door. Nikita opens it. Twenty-year-old Kolia enters.

Nikita: Hello, Kolia, what’s happening?

Kolia: (Afraid.) Stepachenko is a spy.

Nikita: Dear Kolia, you came to tell me that? I know that better than you.

Kolia: You have to save yourself.

Nikita: Kolia, you know the slogan: everyone plays his part. Just play yours.

Kolia: We’ll end up without a leader, comrade serf.

Nikita: I’ve thought of everything, comrade serf. I have a successor, and this successor has another successor  . . .

Kolia: I can kill that filthy spy Stepachenko. He’s standing on the corner.

Nikita: Limit yourself to your role. You’re not the executioner. (Pause.) Anything new?

Kolia: At the Taiga Iron and Steel Club, they have discreetly removed the copies of Pravda that contain your manifesto.

Nikita: Things are moving along. (Pause.) Listen: tomorrow I’ll be summarily judged and decapitated or something of that nature. You have to hit back hard and fast. (Reflecting.) We’re counting on the comrades of Taiga Iron and Steel along with those from the underground railway stations. . .

Kolia: The bakers are good people.

Nikita: They still haven’t firmly committed; many remain indecisive. (Pause.) So, we can count on Steel and Iron, the underground railway stations, and the shoemakers . . . (Pause.) Tomorrow, at two in the afternoon, at the hour I expect my case to be quickly determined, we have to make sure those twenty-five thousand serf comrades declare themselves.

Kolia: How will they let us know?

Nikita: They’ll call a sit-down strike until they receive the right to have their subservience declared.

Kolia: That might just save you from death.

Nikita: On the contrary, it’s going to bring it on sooner, but the real coup is that my judges will realize there are twenty-five thousand comrades who actually read while reading.

Kolia: They can also chop off twenty-five thousand heads.

Nikita: Even better. Double the heads, triple the heads—declare subservience faster than you can say chop, chop! There’s no better example than a bloody one. (Pause.) Now, go.

Kolia: You’re our savior, Nikita.

Nikita: No, Kolia, I’m not your savior; I’m your declarer. I won’t save myself, and I won’t save the serfs. I only declare subservience.

Kolia: But once we’re declared serfs, we can rebel and triumph.

Nikita: Then we’ll be lords, and another Nikita will take his turn as the declarer. There is no other truth. (Pause.) Go.

Kolia exits through the back door.

Stepachenko: (Entering.) Tell me, Nikita, what does a master do when he loses his serf?

Nikita: Takes another. There are large reserves.

Stepachenko: Declared or undercover?

Nikita: That depends on the serfs, lord.

Stepachenko: Or on the lords. I estimate that undercover subservience delivers a better margin of exploitation.

Nikita: I keep telling you, lord, everything definitely depends on those serfs. The serfs will choose subservience in spite of their lords.

Stepachenko: They’re coming for you at twelve. It looks as if I’m without a declared serf. (Pause.) I’ll be better off if I look for a new serf but an undercover one. (Pause.) Will you look for a new lord?

Nikita: A serf is not a serf without a lord.

Stepachenko: Perhaps the executioner will be your new lord? Remember my dream.

Nikita: Certainly, lord. I don’t believe in dreams but in destiny.


Third Act

Décor: same as Act One, Scene I

Scene Two

Orloff, Fiodor, Kirianin,Stepachenko. An official.

Orloff: (Reading a pamphlet.) “Comrades! In light of the fact that social equality is not as equal as it seems, in light of the fact that communism is made up of unequal parts of lords and serfs—the greatest number servile, the smallest number lordly—and in light of the fact that the servile ones and the lordly ones are obligated by the logic of the State not to reveal their true condition, in light of all that, we, the undercover serfs, declare ourselves servile serfs and swear to defend subservience to the death.” (Places a sheet of paper on the table.) What do you think of this pamphlet?

Kirianin: Looks like equality is about to croon a swan song.

Fiodor: The bad joke is that it’s not about matters of pure form. These serfs bring up a real problem.

Orloff: Good luck convincing them that contradiction is the crux of all acts. Equality assumes inequality. A communist is equal to another communist even though one is a lord and the other a serf.

Kirianin: (Ironic.) No one better than the lords themselves to understand the contradictions of the true nature of man. They have the lion’s power . . .

Fiodor: We’ll create a State made up of nothing but lords.

Orloff: Is that possible, dear Fiodor?

Fiodor: Very possible—we make lords out of the serfs.

Orloff: The lordly State presupposes a good amount of serfs, but converted into lords, those serfs will look for serfs. The new status will automatically be subverted.

Kirianin: Then we’ll create a State of serfs.

Orloff: Once the republic of serfs is established, in the true spirit of emulation, they’ll try to turn into lords. (Pause.) No, none of this benefits us in the least. The only truth is the one we have: a communist State with absolute social balance but also serfs and lords, understood as undeclared, with the purpose of redeeming any contradiction. This is real equality.

Fiodor: Our equality.

Kirianin: Our equality.

Orloff: Our equality. (Pause.) There’s no other. All who refuse to accept the inequality of our equality will be executed.

Kirianin: And the equality of our inequality . . . (Gets excited). Because the equal and equality, all of the equals and their equals, the equalization and equalizing embrace in equality and the unequal equality and the equal inequality have their purpose . . . Because . . .

Orloff: Very well put, Comrade Kirianin. A brilliant speech. (Pause). With such equal discourses, the egalitarian State is secure. (Pause.) Now, let’s call in our unequal serf. (Rings the bell.)

Enter Nikita and Stepachenko, accompanied by an official.

Orloff: (To Nikita.) Nikita Smirnov, you’re accused of rising up against the State. (Pause.) Why do you rise?

Nikita: To fall.

Orloff: Why do you want to fall?

Nikita: To rise up.

Orloff: Why do you want to rise up?

Nikita: To fall.

Orloff: You’re accused of having written a manifesto against State Security. (Pause.) Why did you write it?

Nikita: To express myself.

Orloff: Why do you express yourself?

Nikita: To fall.

Orloff: Why do you want to fall?

Nikita: To rise up.

Orloff: Why do you want to rise up?

Nikita: To fall.

Orloff: You’re accused of doubting the unequal equality of the classes. Why do you doubt?

Nikita: To classify myself.

Orloff: Why do you want to classify yourself?

Nikita: To fall.

Orloff: Why do you fall?

Nikita: To rise.

Orloff: Why do you rise?

Nikita: To fall.

Kirianin: (A Stepachenko.) State your deposition, comrade Stepachenko.

Stepachenko: When I read the manifesto . . .

Orloff: Did you read the manifesto, reading it?

Stepachenko: (Pale.) How else would I find out that this mangy dog was asking for a lord?

Orloff: You should have found out by reading the manifesto, without actually reading it, that the mangy dog asked for a lord in his manifesto.

Stepachenko: I confess that I actually read it, reading it.

Orloff: In order to detoxify yourself, you will reread that manifest without actually reading it. (Pause.) Continue.

Stepachenko: When I actually read, ahem, ahem, while reading Nikita Smirnov’s manifesto, I turned all kinds of livid. I’m an undercover lord who, of course, knows he’s an undercover lord without having to confess it, and I couldn’t allow a swine of an undercover serf to protest by declaring himself a declared serf. (Pause.) I decided to shorten his leash. I knocked on his door and offered myself as a declared lord for a declared serf. I gave him a few declared kicks in the butt . . .

Orloff:  . . . declared?

Stepachenko: I confess they were declared.

Orloff: If you declared them, you’d better decontaminate that hoof. Give Nikita an equal-to-equal kick.

Stepachenko: Isn’t it the same kick?

Orloff: No, it’s an undercover kick. Continue.

Stepachenko: (He turns toward Nikita and gives him a kick and squeezes his hand.) Greetings!

Orloff: Good, continue.

Stepachenko: I was no longer satisfied with kicking Nikita Smirnov’s declared butt. I wanted his head. That’s when undercover Lord Basilio Adamov came to my house to ask me for Nikita’s head. I didn’t give it to him, but Nikita signed a piece of paper (shows it) committing himself to teaching all the declared serfs under the powerful Lord Basilio Adamov to declare and present their butts.

Orloff: Those worthless declared serfs don’t know how to present their butts?

Stepachenko: Not yet.

Orloff: What joy! They can go undercover again. (Pause.) Continue.

Stepachenko: Delighted, Nikita accepted. Delighted, he signed, and delighted, he’ll lose his head.

Orloff: Nikita, do you admit that this is your signature?

Nikita: Yes, it’s mine.

Orloff: Why did you sign?

Nikita: To fall, delighted.

Orloff: Why fall, delighted?

Nikita: To rise up, delighted.

Orloff: Why rise up delighted?

Nikita: To fall, delighted.

Orloff: Nikita, declare yourself an undercover serf.

Nikita: I can’t. I’ve declared myself a declared serf.

Orloff: Would you rather lose your head?

Nikita: I’d rather lose my head, delighted. And what is more, lose my butt, delighted.

Orloff: (In a familiar tone.) You say that, for a serf, the butt is the most valuable thing?

Nikita: Yes, when he can show it off. An undercover butt is shameful. An undercover butt is like a beggar wearing an emperor’s clothes.

Orloff: That’s a philosophy in touch with the butt.

Fiodor: Our time bomb just exploded. (To Nikita.) Nikitism? What’s that?

Nikita: A political-philosophical system based on the existing relations between the declared lord’s kick and the declared serf’s butt.

Orloff: It’s difficult for me to comprehend such a philosophy. The philosophic system called Nikitism may be valid even though the lord, the serf, the kick, and the butt remain undercover.

Nikita: The system can only be called Nikitism if lord, serf, kick and butt have declared lordship and subservience.

Orloff: But . . . if lord, serf, kick, and butt persist in their undercover roles, can’t the system still be called Nikitism?

Nikita: In that case, it would be called communism.

Orloff: Listen, which system ends up prevailing?

Nikita: Communism.

Orloff: (Jubilant.) Wow! Then, you retract?

Nikita: No retractions. (Pause.) After a bloody struggle, the Nikitists or “declared ones” become communists or “undercover ones”.

Orloff: You, too?

Nikita: If they don’t cut off my head. (Pause.) The final outcome is undercover communism, always put in check by declared Nikitism.

Orloff: I suppose there will be a real end to all of this.

Nikita: There is never an end. It’s the eternal return.

Orloff: You’re old-fashioned. You don’t believe in progress.

Nikita: I believe in the progress of kicks and the progress of butts.

Orloff: In that case, we’ll cut off your head. (Pause.) Yours will be the only head.

Nikita: And the heads of the serfs under the powerful Lord Basilio Adamov?

Orloff: When they see yours in a waste basket, they’ll safely lock away their own in a big iron basket and surreptitiously offer up their butts.

Nikita: (Looks at his watch.) Two in the afternoon.

Orloff: A few more minutes and you won’t have a head.

Nikita: At this moment, twenty-five thousand comrades have declared their servitude. (Pause.) You can cut off their heads.

(The phone rings.)

Orloff: (Nervous, picks up the phone and hang ups.) Twenty-five thousand serfs! (To the official.) Take Nikita away. Bring me his head. Take Stepachenko away.

Official: Stepachenko’s head, too?

Orloff: No, have Stepachenko’s filthy kick decontaminated.

The official exits with Stepachenko and Nikita.

Orloff: (To Fiodor and Kirianin) The wheels of Nikitism are turning.

Fiodor, Kirianin: (In chorus.) But why do they have to turn? Let’s stop them right in their tracks.

Orloff: The wheels are turning. (Pause.) Let’s have lunch, after that, dinner . . .  then let’s have lunch and later dinner . . . It’s the eternal return.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s