A forty-year friendship with a famous imaginary Russian
Most people in Europe and North America will know the tune. It is one of the most familiar yuletide melodies, though few will know its origins lie in a score by Sergei Prokofiev for Aleksandr Faintsimmer’s film of an old Russian folk tale. You may recognise the Troika section because it gallops across the airwaves every December.
It is that tune that provided an introduction for me to meet someone who has been known by millions despite never having existed.
This is the story of the wonderful allegory that is the life, death and legend of the perfect hero: Lieutenant Kije.
Conception of a fable
The first appearance of Kije is to be found in the Russian lexicographer Vladimir Dahl’s Stories of the time of Paul I in 1870; he reported it as told by his father, Jochan Christian von Dahl (1764-1821). In this original version, a clerk incorrectly transcribed an order promoting several ensigns to lieutenants and hence the non-existent Kije was created.
Due to exaggerated exploits mischievously fashioned by Kije’s ‘comrades’ he quickly rises through the ranks to captain, and when he is promoted to colonel the emperor commands that Kije should appear before him. The military bureaucrats discover the original mistake, but rather than confess to the travesty they decide to tell the emperor that Kije has died.
The tale was expanded and developed by the writer, literary critic, translator and scholar Yuri Tynyanov (1894-1943) who published it as a novella in 1928. It was made into a film directed by Aleksandr Faintsimmer in 1934 and it is for that work that Prokofiev composed the music from which the Troika (three-horse sleigh) is so often lifted to conjure the sound of joyous midwinter.
It was the music that led to my first meeting with Kije when I was in my late teens. Researching its origins at the Record Library of the Harris Museum in Preston resulted in a set of notes that would spawn five theatrical productions spanning some thirty years.
You can lead Kije to a stage but you cannot make him bow
My initial staging of a work inspired by the Kije story took place in December 1984 as the culmination of the first drama course I ever taught. The Name with No Man was completely improvised by the dozen or so students of Fulwood Drama Workshop after being supplied with the story as stimulus. No record of that performance was made and I have only very vague recollections of it.
Three years later a full, and more conventional, script was drafted for a two-act production by the Newman College Limelights Theatre Company on the old proscenium stage at Lark Hill in Preston. Whilst not completely faithful to the original story or to Tynyanov’s novella, it adhered to the central spine of the tale, and developed strands to allow the play to feature typical farcical elements, as well as facilitate speaking performances by a cast of twenty-three. The troika scene from this production, performed to Prokofiev’s music, remains one of my favourite visual comedy creations.
The comedy wandered into the absurd as the non-existent, and hence uncast, Kije was arrested and escorted to Siberia and then back to St Petersburg where he was then impersonated by three different officers. They were ordered to settle their differences by a triangular duel (triul?) on the frozen river Neva. The winner of that contest would then duel with the invisible Kije. It was a fight that Kije could not win – or lose.
BORIS Yes Basil?
BASIL Can I have a word? About the prisoner.
BORIS The prisoner.
BASIL The lieutenant. How did you know when we’d caught him?
BORIS Defeat. Saw it in his face. I’ve been in the army long enough to know broken man when I see one. He’ll not give us any more trouble.
BASIL He’s . . .he’s not really there, is he Corp?
BORIS Is he not?
BORIS The captain said take him to Siberia. He was acting on the orders of the colonel who was acting on the orders the Tsar himself. If the Tsar banishes a man to Siberia, he expects to be able to follow his footprints all the way.
BASIL Well that’s something else. He never made a single print.
BORIS What size are your boots?
BORIS What size are my boots?
BORIS What size are the Lieutenant’s boots?
BORIS Nine. It is logical, is it not, that if three men with identical boots leave two trails, those trails could belong to any two of the three men?
BASIL Well. . .
BORIS How can you be sure he was the one not leaving prints?
BASIL That’s not the point . . . .
BORIS You say he’s not there, I say he is. I’m a corporal, you’re not. Therefore he is. Authority lad, authority. That’s what authority means.
BORIS I’m right and you’re wrong.
BASIL Yes Corp.
The script also built on the generally accepted premise that the Tsar Paul I was insane. His inclination to associate with a wily St Petersburg prostitute, and seek assassination as means of obtaining infamy, provided more avenues for his humiliation.
NATASHA Let’s face it, you’re not very good at this ruling business are you?
PAUL Well, well, well if you’re not very good at something it’s better to do it badly than well. You should only do something well if you’re good at it. If you’re not very good at something, you should, on the whole, do it badly.
NATASHA Yes, my emperor, and you do.
PAUL Yes, you’re right. Do you think I’m good at being bad?
NATASHA No, not really.
PAUL I mean, do you think they might call me Paul the Terrible?
PAUL Paul the bad?
NATASHA Paul the not very good. Paul the mediocre. If I were you I’d develop my insanity.
PAUL Would you? Yes.
NATASHA Paul the Mad.
PAUL Paul the Lunatic. They’d assassinate me.
NATASHA That’s right. If you really want notoriety, you should make your goal assassination
NATASHA But do all sorts of mad things first. Like marrying a prostitute. But you wouldn’t do that would you?
PAUL Of course I would I’d do anything for you . . . er . .
NATASHA You don’t even know my name.
PAUL Of course I do, it’s just . . . .
NATASHA I know, I know, on the tip of your tongue.
PAUL Is it? Ah, I was only joking, Spittle, just a little tease. Dearest, dearest, Spittle.
NATASHA (HITS HIM WITH PILLOW) My name’s not Spittle.
PAUL Er . . er . . Spit? Saliva?
NATASHA Idiot! (BEATS HIM)
PAUL Hey! Stop it! Stop! You can’t do that!
NATASHA Can’t I? (BEATS HIM)
PAUL Do you know who I am?
NATASHA Yes. Which gives me a distinct advantage over you.
That show was a popular success and hence it was churned out a further three times at the College. In December 1996 it was billed as The Return of Kije and performed in a traverse layout (audience on two sides of a corridor style stage) which allowed roller blades to signify ice skates and gave an added special animation to parts of the action. Sadly, I have no images from that production.
The next manifestation in 2006 was a joint staff/student show in which I took the role of the insane Tsar.
The final staging was in the autumn of 2014 on the compact end stage in the new Newman Theatre. There was a brief temptation to call this version Kije Comes Again, but good taste prevailed. The majority of pictures in this post are from that show.
The story always went down well with cast and audiences. It is effective for several reasons. The public love a plot that undermines pomposity or bureaucracy and this story provides a satire on both. The Tsar is ridiculed because of his stupidity and the state is scorned by the absurdity of the creation and progress of the protagonist. Meanwhile, the tale also allows indulgence in the decoration associated with a time and place somewhat reminiscent of twentieth-century children’s picture story books.
The perennial problem with youth drama is that it invariably attracts more females than males. In my experience this generally averaged out at a ratio of three to one in favour of the women, though there was some improvement in more recent decades. The majority of English language plays are dominated by male roles. One of the reasons for scripting so many student shows was an attempt to address that imbalance and to do so wherever possible by implementing female characters that were more than adjuncts to the males. The Kije tale allowed for this. The final version had roles for eight males and fifteen females.
Gutsy and wise wives and girlfriends were created for the officers caught up in the confusion and there was a triad of unattached predatory female aristocrats, plus a voracious and combative bunch of Siberian female bandits.
The insane Tsar was given a slightly less insane, but still unbalanced, Tsarina and a much more rational Tsarevna (daughter). Generally speaking it was the female roles that exhibited the most sense while still achieving their share of laughs with their sly manoeuvring, biting sarcasm, and verbal wit.
MARIA What are you doing Paul?
PAUL Just practising.
MARIA Practising what?
PAUL Do you know what the hallmark of a great emperor is?
MARIA Assassination? Of whom?
PAUL Of the emperor. I work daily for it. All the greatest emperors have been assassinated and I’ll not be happy until it’s happened to me.
MARIA Yes, darling, but won’t it hurt?
PAUL Briefly. But bearable. The agonies of assassination are but the labour pains of immortality.
Now you see him; even though you don’t
On a personal note I have often pondered on my affection for this tale. I’m sure it is because it is founded on a perennial theme for me: the hypocrisy of appearance. So much of life seems to depend on perceived inaccuracies that we either seek to create, or from which we struggle to escape, or by which we are cajoled, coerced or even condemned. Truth, it seems, is too often simply too ordinary for us. Kije is an extraordinary kind of truth: the perpetuated lie.
The story exposes the power of myth. It is not the emperor’s new clothes but the new body that isn’t inside the uniform of his ideal soldier. Kije is a paragon of delusion. He is the perfect hero because he will instantly become whatever you wish him to be.
He can never die because he was not born, yet he will live, love, fight and expire as often as you like. Make of him what you will. He won’t complain.
I am proud to count Kije as one of my most loyal friends.
The script of Lieutenant Kije is not generally available but if you’d like to consider staging it again, contact me and I’ll negotiate with Kije’s agent.
As indicated above, the notion of the disguised permeates a great deal of my fiction, not only in terms of characters but also as purveyed by ideology, subterfuge or deliberate delusion. Two examples, separated by four centuries are Will at the Tower and Untitled:
More theatrical thoughts
My thoughts regarding the nature of theatre and tricks for creating compelling examples of it can be found in:
3 thoughts on “Kije and me”