- Play title: Plasticine
- Author: Vassily Sigarev
- First performed: 2002
- Page count: 87
Plasticine is a work by Siberian born playwright, screenwriter, and director, Vassily Sigarev. The setting for the play is an unnamed, provincial, Russian city and the historical period is just after the fall of communism. The central character is a teenage boy named Maksim. He lives with his grandmother because his mother has “flown away” (Vassily 76) and he has just one friend, a school buddy named Lyokha. Young Maksim must face a series of challenging episodes beginning with the death of a friend from childhood to an ambush set up by a girl that leads to male rape. An audience is presented with a bleak view of provincial, Russian life in the Ural region that is dominated by alcohol abuse, violence, poverty, and hopelessness. Maksim’s only psychological escape is when he models little plasticine figures in his bedroom at night. The play is part of Russian New Drama which evolved in the 1990’s. Important themes in the work include misogyny, sex, violence, creativity, adolescence, and death.
Ways to access the text: reading.
The playscript is available for free via services such as Perlego and Scribd (free trial). Even though the play had success in Russia and the UK, it is still a relatively unknown work and therefore not widely available for free.
Please note that Plasticine is not a particularly reader-friendly work since it contains 33 separate scenes which, even though arranged in chronological order, have a disorientating effect due to the constant, quick changes of scene and mood.
Why read Plasticine?
Russia after the fall of communism.
The play offers a rare, theatrical representation of life in Russia just after 1991. The social environment that Sigarev depicts is reflective of the economic crisis of that era brought about by the unsteady transition of Russia to a market based economy. The grim, old, Soviet-era apartment buildings are crumbling, and the fabric of society is also in danger of disintegrating due to poverty, alcohol abuse, and wanton violence. Maksim is barely a teenager, yet he must make his way in a city of constant threats and treacherous characters. This world is alien to most western audiences and therefore a compelling theatrical experience.
In the play, one encounters a raw, unflinching realism which is only fleetingly counterbalanced by ephemeral moments of poetic beauty. Maksim is an artistic boy who moulds plasticine in his room at night as a way of processing the harshness of his daily experiences. Among other things, he moulds a quite literal representation of manhood in the form of a giant penis; he moulds masculinity as a fist; and he moulds little girl and boy figures too. Each shape speaks on behalf of an almost mute teenager whom life batters daily with insults and rejections. While Sigarev’s play is narrated in often foul language, the play still expresses a rare, hope-tinged beauty as experienced by Maksim in sporadic dream-like moments.
Post reading discussion/interpretation.
“The Plasticine Boy Speaks”
In a Russian language interview, Vassily Sigarev explained to Yury Dud that the originally proposed title of Plasticine was “Fall from Innocence Two …[or] The Body.” This unused title more comprehensively reflects that the work is a tale of adolescent struggle and the associated loss of childhood innocence. Sigarev’s protagonist, Maksim, is much like the biblical Eve in the Garden of Eden because the loss of innocence simultaneously marks the awakening of body consciousness. The playwright wrote Plasticine when aged just 23 so his own teenage experiences were fresh in his mind and the result is a play genuinely reflective of a teenager’s perspective on Russian society at that time.
Sigarev originally trained as a “chemistry and biology teacher” (vdud), but soon turned his back on the prospect of teaching to become a writer instead. In regard to education in Russia and education in general, Sigarev said that “they debase people everywhere – individuality means nothing there – you’re cattle – they turn you into cattle” (Vdud). He has stated that “degradation is the foundation of public life in Russia … [and that] People degraded each other in the 90’s” (vdud). In Plasticine, Maksim is a victim of an uncompromising educational system and the society into which the boy is cast, is even more merciless. The central theme of the play is degradation in so far as the work is about the annihilation of character and the slow metamorphosis of Maksim into someone less idealistic and cruel. For Maksim, victory is impossible, success is unlikely, and survival requires total submission to a crushing conformity. The only escape is death. However, the play is never nihilistic due to Maksim’s unwavering attempts to abide by his own moral compass, and he is aided by his love of art which becomes a vital means of self-expression that sustains him. Nevertheless, in the end, Sigarev’s protagonist is destroyed by his own society. This essay will address some of the academic responses to Plasticine in order to highlight how the work has been read and interpreted to date.
Three broad headings under which one may productively analyse Plasticine are adolescence, stage props, and violence. Of these, stage props is the only heading that requires a cursory explanation but it simply refers to how Maksim’s use of plasticine informs an audience. Susanna Weygandt explains that “The plastic material in Plasticine expresses the emotions that Maksim’s words cannot” (125). Weygandt explores the significance of moulding clay as a means of expression in a play where the protagonist is neither an adult nor particularly verbally expressive. Regarding adolescence, Jenny Kaminer explores how creative imagination is central to an understanding of Maksim. She makes the observation that “Adolescent heroes have dotted the fictional landscape of Russian literature since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991” (190), and she explores why adolescence as a transitional stage is so important. Thirdly, in regard to violence, Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky propose that “the play is a metaphor for cynical violence as a universal language of social communication, or rather for everyday social terror, for the post-Soviet civil war where everybody fights each other” (246). Plasticine has not received adequate academic attention despite its prominence within the “In-Yer-Face” school of drama of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. For this reason, the essay will also briefly address some gaps in the literature, for example the themes of teenage sexuality and misogyny in Plasticine.
Plasticine opens on an eerily silent scene. A young boy moulds plasticine “into a strange shape” (Vassily 8) and then casts this unspecified shape by using lead sourced from old, car batteries. The fumes from the work make his eyes water at first, but then he sobs with true emotion. The scene ends with the cracking of the bowl used to make the cast. This introductory scene highlights how a simple stage prop, namely plasticine, will be essential to an understanding of the lead character, Maksim.
Susanna Weygandt addresses the role of stage props in her essay entitled, “The Structure of Plasticity: Resistance and Accommodation in Russian New Drama.” Weygandt makes the following argument which decidedly removes the spotlight from Plasticine’s central character.
“In most conventional plays, and in most Soviet plays, the hero is propelled through the play by the deeds that he or she performs; but in the New Drama, on the other hand, there is no deed that can define the protagonist – as a hero, a plot-bearing entity, or nearly as anything at all” (118).
If one accepts such an interpretation then Maksim becomes a passive entity through which a message is delivered, rather than an active, autonomous agent of change. Such a proposal is jarring as it depletes Maksim’s significance and turns him into a shadow character. However, Weygandt’s essay is nuanced in its assertions and highly informative regarding how an audience may view the role of the stage props in Plasticine. For instance, the challenges of Maksim’s childhood are largely determined by his social environment, lending credence to Weygandt’s assertion that “In the postdramatic plays of New Drama, without the protagonist to drive them forward, the plays revert to the action propelled by the lived-in sites and objects” (119). In Plasticine, the site is a provincial city tainted by alcohol fuelled violence and as for the object, it is simply plasticine, the common play material of children.
Maksim moulds plasticine into various shapes: an extra-large, limp penis; the figures of a girl and a boy; and a knuckle duster. Maksim’s grandmother tells the school that he “does lovely plasticine models” (Vassily 36), so one may deduce that he is quite prolific. Plasticine modelling replaces the boy’s infrequent words and thus one must look to the models for insights into his character. Weygandt makes the following point about how one may interpret stage props.
“Jiří Veltruský of the Prague School identified the contribution of props to performance in his 1940 essay “Man and Object in the Theatre.” Veltruský found that props can “act” because props, once placed onstage, carry with them a force “which provokes in us the expectation of a certain action” (1955:103).”(Weygandt 117)
One may cynically test this theory in regard to Plasticine. Particular attention needs to be paid to the timelines involved. For instance, Maksim fashions a knuckle duster in advance of his attempted revenge on the men who raped both him and Lyokha. Thus, the prop indeed sets up an expectation of future, vengeful action. On the other hand, Maksim moulds a girl out of clay before he unexpectedly receives an invite from Lyokha for a double date with Natasha and her mystery, female friend. In this case, the plasticine figure seems to materialize magically into life when Lyokha promises Maksim a date with a real girl. As for the oversized, plasticine penis, Maksim makes his plan known to Lyokha before moulding the appendage and later has reason to implement his revenge on Ludmila, the Russian teacher, when she once again insists on entering the boy’s toilets. In summation, the moulded figures either foreshadow an action, or alternatively, they imaginatively come to life. The latter is problematic as it affords the character great imaginative powers and therefore, covert agency.
It seems paradoxical to state that an inanimate object acts independently of the actor on stage (ref Veltruský) because surely the main character is always the sole communicator and agent of change. Additionally, how can one credibly look to Maksim’s environment as a primary, agential power? In truth, the central character, his environment, and the stage props that surround him simultaneously communicate information and influence action. Even though Weygandt credits the central character with an imagination that finds expression in the surrounding objects, she still maintains that heroes of Russian New Drama are essentially “hollow” (118). For instance, she writes the following about props and environment.
“With smaller, handheld objects the imagination of the actor is read by the way the objects on the stage appear. Agency exists in the environment and the dispossessed body of the actor becomes an active receiver of it. The actor receives and even becomes the shape that he takes hold of …” (123).
This represents a solid argument when applied to Maksim’s use of the knuckle duster and the fake penis. These objects represent a teenage boy’s idealized view of masculinity. The knuckle duster substitutes for weak, young hands thus creating an imaginative, macho ideal that the boy cannot credibly realise. The oversized penis is likewise a boy’s threat of being a man. Maksim exposes the plasticine penis in the toilets so for verisimilitude, it is limp. However, the exaggerated size of the flaccid penis crucially communicates the potential of an even bigger, erect, sexual organ. Ludmila and Lyokha turn pale when they see the boy’s disproportionately sized appendage. Maksim did not purchase these props from a shop, but hand crafted them, so they are imbued with his imagination. The moulded objects are clear symbols of power yet they are false projections of a power which Maksim cannot rightfully wield due to his youth and weakness.
Undoubtedly, there is hidden agency in Maksim’s environment which also influences him. For instance, he only moulds and casts a knuckle duster after two adult men rape him and his friend. There is a societal narrative of violence and Maksim’s ill-fated response to the attack he suffered is an attempt to join this toxic narrative. Therefore, he is not an empowered agent of change but only a misguided, reactive child. The fake penis prank is likewise determined by Maksim’s humiliation by an adult, female teacher who expected him to turn around in the boy’s toilets thereby exposing his prepubescent penis. His response is preordained since he must appropriately counter Ludmila’s expectations. A protagonist’s reactions which are wholly predictable have no true mark of individuality. Maksim is restricted to the playbook of reactions deemed appropriate by his environment and unfortunately, these are violence and counter-humiliation.
Yet, to view Maksim as a puppet of society’s ills renders the character uninteresting to most audiences. One cannot readily empathise with or invest in such a portrayal. Weygandt expresses her own opinion on such characterizations as follows – “I term Russian New Drama heroes “hollow” subjects because they fail as literary figures to express information about themselves – through their speech or through their gestures. The empty hero emerges out of the disintegration of the Soviet Union” (118). One may agree with this on a dramaturgical level, but the question remains if Maksim may convincingly be labelled a ‘hollow’ subject? Is he just an after-effect of the failure of communism? Also of note is that Maksim is restricted by the limited agency typically available to children especially those who comes from broken homes. His demeanour is that of a typical teenager – sullen and uncommunicative. To brand a child character as hollow is to overestimate his potential for agency in the first place. Even if one concedes that Russian society of the early 90’s exerted a disproportionate force over this character, he still retains enough originality to deserve attention. Therefore, one needs to look at deeds that could be classified as heroic when enacted by a child.
Sigarev based much of Maksim’s story on first-hand experiences from his hometown. For instance, in the interview with Yury Dud, Sigarev said that he had cast a pair of brass knuckles for himself aged just 13 years old. He was already getting into serious fights and needed to protect himself. Additionally, Sigarev’s teenage brother was jailed after murdering the man who raped his disabled, male friend. Such emotive background information discredits an interpretation of Maksim as a hollow subject. Weygandt also addresses this problem, if only obliquely, when writing of Plasticine that “The plastic objects act as protheses for the speaking, feeling, vulnerable, inner “I,” providing a screen on which the adolescent projects his anxieties” (125). The use of the term “hollow subject” is unhelpful outside of a dramaturgical discussion since an audience craves to understand a character’s inner personality. Either one may label the protagonist as reactive and empty, or alternatively, he is simply inhibited in his expressiveness and unable to act adequately but is nonetheless a full character – but he cannot be both ‘hollow’ and ‘full’ simultaneously.
Weygandt convincingly bolsters her argument by referring to “plastika … a form of theatrical storytelling that wholly supports a narrative despite the central hollow hero” (119). She goes on to elaborate that “Plastika is a language of the body used in the place of words to narrate. Like physical theatre, plastika relies on the physical motion of the performers’ bodies to convey a story” (119). Accompanying this distinctive physical performance, “the silent subject in plastika is supplemented by empowered objects that speak without voice” (119). Therefore, along with an emphasis on the role of plasticine models in Sigarev’s play, one may also analyse Maksim’s physical performance.
Even without the benefit of seeing a live performance of Plasticine, the playscript informs one of physical ailments such as headaches and blood noses that Maksim suffers and his resulting physical gestures. For instance, “It is night again. Once more it is dark and Maksim is lying in bed. He is holding his head as before and whimpering with his teeth clenched” (Vassily 41). The boy acts out his pain as a visceral experience while simultaneously expressing his fear in words – “Don’t . . . don’t . . . it hurts . . . it hurts, Jesus, it hurts. Don’t . . . don’t . . . I can’t take any more” (30). On these occasions, Maksim also experiences a series of disturbing visions and sensations, for example, visitations by the ghost of his old friend Spira (41) who committed suicide, and the claustrophobic sensation that his bedroom is transforming into a coffin (49). Each time that Maksim endures these nightmarish episodes, he resorts to moulding plasticine as a therapeutic escape. The boy achieves a sufficient level of emotional regulation through his rudimentary artistic endeavours. At the same time, an audience witnesses his trauma via his stylized bodily performance which includes the visible moulding of plasticine. As Weygandt explains, “In plastika and in the writing of the New Russian Drama, the props double as agents of the narrative” (119). One significant prop is the little, human-boy figure that Maksim shapes after his own rape. The plasticine figure takes on the role of an ominous symbol when “a drop of blood falls from his [Maksim’s] nose and lands on the figure’s forehead” (Vassily 71). Since Maksim is soon killed, we may infer that the plasticine man is indeed an agent of the narrative since it foretells the boy’s death.
Weygandt’s overarching argument is that “In New Drama, the agency required to perform an epic deed is not present” (129). One need not agree with such a proposal, especially in the case of Maksim. He is restricted by his youth and family circumstances, and after all, what epic deeds can any child perform? The logic of this observation does not mean he is consequently rendered ‘hollow.’ One small but vitally important proof of Maksim’s inner character and resistance to the degradation around him is how he treats his elderly grandmother. She defends Maksim against the Russian teacher’s slanders by saying, – “Oh he’s not a de, er, linquent. He’s a good boy. Brings me bed pans and all such when I’m bedridden and takes them away again” (Vassily 36). Life batters Maksim and still, he remains caring and humane at home. An acknowledgement of this primary truth must precede an appreciation of the vital role of stage props in the play. Weygandt concedes that her argument is ambitious, as follows.
“The notion that a prop can narrate for the speaking subject is new. Most props typically have a single function as a symbol, such as the gun in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler or the shot seagull in Chekov’s The Seagull. But in the New Drama, the situation is quite the reverse. Instead of the subject reflecting herself upon the object, the object adjacent to her is telling the entire story. We only know the hero’s story and fate indirectly by studying the things that surround her” (124).
This insight grants one permission to view stage props differently and thus appreciate their true expressive potential. Weygandt’s ambitious argument is partially a response to one’s reflex to look only to the central character and thereby miss all the other voices on the stage like props, physical performance, and the setting of the events. A challenge to stubborn, preconceived notions of how a stage play’s message is actually communicated can best be seen as a productive exercise.
Adolescence is a second major theme in Plasticine. Maksim is jolted from his childlike innocence by frequent exposure to explicit sexual acts and physical violence. Jenny Kaminer addresses such issues in her essay entitled, “Imagining Adolescence in Selected Works of New Russian Drama.” For Kaminer, the cracked bowl of the opening scene holds great significance, She writes that “In Western art, a broken pitcher – usually in paintings featuring young girls – has often symbolized sexual violation, ‘becoming an icon for the loss of virginity’” (199). Kaminer unveils a link between the symbolism of the opening scene and Maksim’s tragic fate. As depicted in the play, Maksim dies soon after his sexual violation. The nature of the sexuality portrayed in Plasticine is obscene and Maksim excuses himself, unsurprisingly, from at least two proposals to engage in sexual acts by drunken, adult women. Nonetheless, he is relentlessly buffeted by the intense hormonal changes of adolescence which facilitate the change from a child’s to a man’s body. The way Maksim is introduced to the world of sex helps to degrade his expectations of human nature and foster misogyny.
Kaminer explains that “The events that occur throughout Plasticine reinforce the connection between sexuality and menace conjured up in the opening scene” (199). Sigarev’s play is populated by sexual predators of both sexes, but they are predominantly female. The menace materializes in physical threats; in taboo knowledge; and in lewd propositions. Maksim’s youthful imagination is fired by these encounters. An early example is the old woman at Spira’s wake who tells an indecent story of a teenage boy who rubbed his erection against her on the bus (Vassily 10). The second old woman then whispers some obscenity in Maksim’s ear, causing him to turn pale “and run off down the stairs” (11). The formerly naïve boy now understands the power of sexuality and subsequently uses it to make Ludmila turn pale by exposing a giant penis to her. However, this exercise in revenge does not protect him from the other grotesque females he will encounter. These include the two actresses in the movie, Caligula, who urinate on a dead man (25); the blushing bride who tries to seduce Maksim and then gets her husband to punch the boy under false pretences (28); and the drunken woman at the stadium who pushes Maksim’s face down onto her exposed, semen-soiled crotch (49). Sex is indeed menacing and vulgar and the women are volatile and usually highly inebriated. As Kaminer observes – “Sexuality is severed, most obviously, from any intimacy, but also from any individuality” (200). It is to be expected that Maksim would eventually adopt a misogynistic stance.
The dilemma for Maksim is that his childish ideal of women is still that of the maternal caregiver and homemaker. The new experiences with Medusa-like females catapult the boy into a world of explicit porn, promiscuity, and emotional booby-traps! Maksim is comfortable with his grandmother since her post-menopausal stage of life marks her as desexualised. On the other hand, the boy is greatly discomfited by normal shows of motherly affection by younger women like when a kindly woman offers him a biscuit at the town hall (Vassily 74). This woman later cares for him after he faints but he soon rejects her help, shouting – “You’re all getting to me, you bitches” (77). It is pertinent that she had just made reference to Maksim’s mother which probably sparked his fury. This rage against women is a consequence of the depraved female figures who constantly encroach on the boy’s physical and imaginative spaces. The link between such women and motherhood is best showcased by Spira’s mother who attends her child’s wake primarily for free liquor and who later enters the apartment of an unknown, bare-chested man with the goal of acquiring more alcohol (probably in exchange for sex). Maksim’s biological mother is most likely a drunkard too. Maksim’s imagination consequently struggles to process a single image of a woman who is both maternal and sexual in a healthy equilibrium. An expression of this comes when, through Maksim’s eyes, Spira’s drunken mother transforms into an angelic figure who “floats – all light, ethereal and otherworldly” (15). The same, or a similar, female figure appears again to Maksim just before his death and she is – “smiling and laughing noiselessly” (84). This feminine phantom is alternately monster and mother.
A child’s behaviour is typically reflective of adult influences and Maksim’s sexuality is warped by the examples surrounding him. This affects and defines the complex friendship between Maksim and Lyokha. It is exploitative, one-sided, and sometimes sexual. Maksim abandons his self-respect in a desperate attempt to maintain the friendship. Since Maksim has witnessed sex being used as currency in exchange for attention, he adopts this tactic and acquiesces to masturbating Lyokha in the cinema (25). Lyokha then betrays Maksim, possibly due to internalized homophobia, and the result is that Maksim is labelled a “queer” (39) and viciously beaten up by the other schoolboys. Later, Lyokha blames Maksim for the rape too, even though Lyokha was the one tricked by Natasha and Maksim was merely an accommodating hanger-on. There is never a girl of Maksim’s own age and inexperience with whom he can form a healthy, romantic bond. Instead, Maksim undergoes distressing experiences and then utilizes the artistic side of his imagination to redeem himself.
Kaminer focuses on the importance of adolescents’ imaginative expression. She analyses three plays from Russian New Drama which “feature adolescent characters who experience the process of maturation according to a notably similar pattern” (191). In contrast to Susanna Weygandt, Kaminer views the protagonists as actively endeavouring to constructively express their flourishing, inner identities. She outlines the process as follows:
“As delineated by Klavdiev, Sigarev, and Pulinovich, this process entails, first, the adolescent’s immersion in the realm of fantasy, followed by an attempt to inscribe that fantasy into his or her everyday life. This process culminates in the adolescent protagonist definitively assuming either the role of victim or victimizer” (191).
Maksim’s various fantasies of phantoms like Spira and “SHE” (Vassily 83) may be interpreted as imaginative daydreams although they appear in moments of angst, and not reverie. When the boy’s hands subsequently work the soft plasticine into various shapes then there is a cathartic effect. To explain this phenomenon, Kaminer refers to the famous Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotskii, who explained that teenage daydreaming is not whimsical, but complex and a means to a specific end.
“Vygotskii distinguished between ‘dreaminess’ – characterized by isolation, withdrawal, and an ‘impotence of the will’ – and ‘creative imagination,’ which seeks embodiment in reality. According to Vygotskii, it is this ‘creative imagination,’ striving for concrete representation outside the realm of fantasy – namely, in activities such as writing – that facilitates the process of maturation” (197).
For Maksim, it is not specifically writing but physical art that results from his creative imagination. In the scene where Maksim goes to the apartment rooftop, possibly contemplating suicide, he notes how the hordes of people mill around in the street below, but – “none of them look up into the air” (Vassily 77). He is disdainful of the revolting hollowness of everyday life and people’s evident lack of imagination. He purges himself of his anger by shouting, “Fuck the lot of you” (78) because he, unlike them, looks to the sky which is symbolic of imaginative freedom. Unfortunately, Maksim comes to realise just moments later that his grandmother has died. The intensity of his pain can only find expression in the crafting of a knuckle duster. Art metamorphoses into a tool of violence. There is no longer a catharsis or commendable sublimation of his internal turmoil, but rather, a materialization of unprocessed hatred. Kaminer reads the tragic end of Plasticine in the following manner.
“Maksim had wanted to overcome his victimization by enacting his ‘creative imagination,’ but his environment allowed him no role but that of unequivocal victim. Sigarev thus portrays the futility of fantasy, the impotence of the imagination to catalyse positive change in the life of an adolescent” (202).
One may add that the boy’s imagination is rendered impotent and, as Weygandt argues, the central character’s story is ultimately defined by elements outside of himself, such as environment. Despite that, Kaminer highlights the boy’s heroic struggle and the prospect that had things been slightly different, Maksim may have succeeded.
The violence in Plasticine is rarely just physical aggression. It is frequently accompanied by deliberate humiliation and sadism. Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky address these topics and others in their book, Performing Violence: Literary and Theatrical Experiments of New Russian Drama. They explain that “The teenager in Plasticine constantly and everywhere faces threats of violence. The play underscores that the habitus into which he tries to integrate does not leave him the choice of non-participation in this every-minute war” (246). The result is that Maksim must adopt the role of aggressor or victim, but bystander status is never an option. Keeping in mind that he is still a child in many respects, his fate is practically assured as a victim from the outset.
In a typical conflict situation where one adult faces another then resorting to violence may be decisive in securing victory. However, the odds are stacked against a child who additionally lacks the normal protections offered by a father and mother. Therefore, Maksim paradoxically courts victimhood whether he responds passively or aggressively to the violence inflicted upon him. One may outline Maksim’s gradual degeneration by citing instances where he at first reacts passively or at most threatens violence until he finally adopts violence as the solution. The interaction at his school prior to his expulsion is a prime example of Maksim’s growing potential for violence.
Maksim to Ludmila – “Shut your mouth, you bitch! (He grabs a vase from the table). Or I’ll knock your brains out” (Vassily 38).
Later, after Maksim has been raped by the men, he returns to their apartment in a quest for retribution. The knuckle duster – which was meant to bridge the gap between weakling teenager and adult man – gets stuck in Maksim’s pocket and he simply “lashes out with his bare hand” (81). The thug, Cadet, gravely injures the boy’s hand during a doorway struggle and when Maksim awakes after fainting, he is suddenly facing his death. The men conclude that they have injured Maksim to a degree that would cause him to go to the police so he must be murdered. It is the first time that Maksim engaged in violence and the situation suddenly spirals out of control, ironically because the men have injured a minor. Beumers and Lipovetsky explain that “The teenage hero becomes the ‘scapegoat’, and this structure is reminiscent of the basic principles of tragedy, but in no way does his death expiate the sins of society; on the contrary, it testifies to the incurable criminality of the social norm” (247). Maksim’s conscious decision to finally resort to outright violence brands him as a sacrificial lamb. He is killed, not for the common good, but instead for the maintenance of the common bad.
The rape scene highlights the depraved underbelly of Russian society and is the most affecting scene of the play. The set-up begins with Natasha’s cynical ploy. She exploits Lyokha’s blind lust and he predictably fails to question why a 20 year old woman would seek sex with a barely pubescent boy. Lyokha only asks Maksim to join as a last resort since he needs a second person and other friends were unavailable. By this point, Maksim has already witnessed the depraved, drunken behaviour of several women where sex was on offer so he also fails to detect the imminent trap. Natasha is neither drunk nor desperate but acts as a honeytrap. The boys are lured to a derelict building and when they enter the apartment, two adult men meet them, both of whom are tattooed and therefore likely ex-prisoners. The sadistic game played by Natasha and the two men is a hideous display of power. Natasha taunts Lyokha who now shakes with fear, saying “Scared? Shitting yourself, eh?” (Vassily 57). Lyokha is humiliated by the men who ask him if he is still a “virgin” (63) and Maksim is referred to as a “tease” (59). The transformation of Lyokha from a confident teenager full of sexual bravado to a whimpering child is a confirmation of the horror of the situation. The men propose a game of cards which prolongs the torture since the boys already know what to expect. When the two boys are eventually raped by the men, Natasha watches while she “laughs hysterically and beats the windowsill with the palm of her hand” (69). The scene is dystopian which underlines Sigarev’s previously quoted view that degradation defined interpersonal relations in Russia in the 90’s.
There is an informative connection between a dystopian scene and a carnival scene. Beumers and Lipovetsky propose that one consider Maksim’s “grotesquely huge phallus” (249) as a symbol of carnival – “But this carnival never promises ‘a new life’ – as in the semantics of traditional carnival, according to Bakhtin; on the contrary, it persistently and purposefully destroys and devastates everything alive” (250). Maksim unknowingly joins the carnival atmosphere by publicly brandishing the otherwise harmless prosthetic penis but eventually he descends into a hell full of devils where all normal, societal rules and restrictions evaporate during the ensuing violent, drunken melee.
“Plasticine, maybe more clearly than any other play of New Drama, captures the moment when the carnival disorder – in many respects characteristic for the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet system with its symbolical and social order – turns into the norm of existence, when liminality becomes permanent, when all mechanisms of the social protection of identity disappear completely” (Beumers and Lipovetsky 252).
If one considers the giant plasticine penis as symbolic of carnival then the corresponding prop would be a vagina dentata. Just before Maksim dies, he sees the phantom SHE who “sticks out her tongue at him and then lifts her skirt and strokes her legs. SHE runs her hand between her legs and over her breasts” (Vassily 84). The allure of the female genitalia is deadly in the context of the play. For instance, Spira commits suicide over a girl and Maksim has his own premonition of death when he imagines that his bedroom is transforming into a coffin immediately after the woman at the stadium “pushes his face in her torn knickers” (48). Like SHE, Natasha is another false woman and one who lures the boys to the most humiliating and emasculating experience of their lives. The boys expected to receive sexual favours but instead they become unwilling sexual favours for two adult men. Beumers and Lipovetsky conclude that “The erotic motifs and images in the play either transform into images of death and violence or are associated with it” (252). It is no surprise that the teenage boys who understandably struggle with testosterone surges and associated sexual fantasies, fall foul of their treacherous environment.
Each of the essays and book discussed presents distinctive and compelling arguments about how one may interpret Plasticine. The reward for entertaining multiple views of the same play is that the overlaps and divergences of opinion become apparent and thereby enlighten a reader to otherwise hidden meanings. Weygandt and Kaminer take contrasting approaches to the topic of the protagonist’s level of agency and his adolescent imagination, but the ill-fitting amalgamation of these approaches offers a reader a more in depth insight into Maksim. Beumers and Lipovetsky highlight fascinating links between sexuality and violence in the play as well as the relevance of the backdrop of Russia in the 90’s. As a consequence of delving into the various aforementioned academic works, this essay has made forays into describing teenage sexuality and misogyny as depicted in the play.
Whilst Plasticine confronts an audience with abrasive language and disturbing scenes, the humanity of the young protagonist shines through. Sigarev’s own childhood experiences are refracted through the character of Maksim which creates a central figure who is at once tragic and contradictorily hopeful. It is only the preponderance of negative experiences that overwhelms Maksim so one may not attribute the failure to any inherent weakness or failure of artistic endeavour on his behalf. It is true that the plasticine boy speaks volubly in this play but the shy, damaged teenager does too.
Beumers, Birgit and Mark Lipovetsky. Performing Violence: Literary and Theatrical Experiments of New Russian Drama. Intellect ltd., 2009.
Dud, Yury. “Сигарев – очень дерзкий режиссер – Sigarev – very daring director.” YouTube, uploaded by vdud, 4 February 2021, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9Qmzl17Cxg.
Jenny Kaminer. “Imagining Adolescence in Selected Works of New Russian Drama.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 113, no. 1, 2018, pp. 190–216. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5699/modelangrevi.113.1.0190. Accessed 20 October 2022.
Sigarev, Vassily. Plasticine. Translated by Sasha Dugdale. Nick Hern Books, 2002.
Weygandt, Susanna. “The Structure of Plasticity: Resistance and Accommodation in Russian New Drama.” TDR (1988-), vol. 60, no. 1, 2016, pp. 116–31. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43832630. Accessed 12 October 2022.