Giving Life to the Man/Machine: Vladimir Friče on the New Theater

For Marx, the machine enslaved the worker, reducing him to an extension of its being. The worker was dehumanized; he became a “mere living appendage” of the machine. But by the 1920s in the Soviet Union, that negative view of the machine and man’s relation to it had undergone a great change. Post-revolutionary Russia welcomed man’s transformation into a machine. Richard Stites has written about the cult of the machine in the 1920s, as seen in Fordism, Taylorism, Aleksej Gastev’s poetry, and Mejerxol′d’s Biomechanics. I will examine how one Russian Marxist, the literary critic Vladimir Friče, was able to begin with Marx’s attitude toward the machine and come to celebrate man as machine. Friče found a model for this transformation in the mechanization of the theater toward puppet theater and cinematography.

The concept of the ideal actor as a puppet had come into vogue around the turn of the century among such writers as Maeterlinck and Edward Gordon Craig. Friče was only one of many who connected and conflated marionettes, machine mechanisms, and nascent cinematography in the theater. He disliked the trend because it robbed people of their vitality: “In as much as passive heroes appeared more often in plays, so too did the actor become more passive. He turned into a mannequin, a wordless doll. He played the same role as that of a character on the screen of a mechanical stage. The Moscow Art Theater with its repertoire of static dramas turned completely toward cinematography” (“Evolution of Theater and Drama (1881–1908),” 1910).

Friče saw the theater of the early 1900s as a capitalist enterprise in big trouble. He equated it to a factory where the director/boss exploited the actors/workers. The artist’s role in the “factory” does not sound completely negative in Friče’s terminology: wherever he could, he downplayed the individual’s role as a part of a larger system, be it society, class, or even nation. The problem lies in the fact that the actor is aligned with the disenfranchised worker who has no say in the operations of his capitalist, and therefore flawed, factory.

Friče thus had established two metaphors—one that was widely held, the other of his own making—concerning the state of theater and its actors: the actor as marionette, and the theater as a capitalist factory. He fused the two metaphors into a single vision, in which the machine-like workers must wrench the strings from their masters and, like Pinocchio, come to life and gain their independence. But unlike Pinocchio, the proletariat remained more machine than human. Friče wanted man to become a machine, the machine to come to life, and the man/machine to be a cog in the wheel of society at large.

World War I provoked the change in Friče’s attitude toward machines and technology. War helped him separate technology from its users and appreciate technology’s contributions to humanity. War cleansed humanity of its vices and defects. The transformation was obviously complete in Friče’s mind in his 1927 review of Erwin Piscator’s Berlin production of Ernst Toller’s Hoppla, wir leben!, which incorporated film into the play. Whereas film earlier had signified passivity, muteness, and lifelessness for Friče, it now represented the depth and grandiosity of mass spectacle, and it gave life: Lenin’s image and “spirit” lived on the screen even after his death. And at the same time as the mechanized Lenin is enlivened, the live audience is mechanized—always erupting in applause upon Lenin’s appearance.

Friče’s evolving views on the relationship between man and machine help us explain and bridge the gap between Marx’s negative views on mechanization and early Soviet Russia’s celebration of it.