Darkness. Light rises dimly to reveal three women, draped in anonymous clothes. Shadows crouching among leaning crooked buildings. ALL Listen if stars are lit it means there is someone who needs it. It means that someone wants them to be. VOICE 1 Listen VOICE 2 if a man is on fire VOICE 3 it’s because he has need of flame it’s because the city is rotten with tears VOICE 2 and the night is sick with murder ALL Listen Screen slowly rises, revealing MAYAKOVSKY, centre stage, in an oversized yellow shirt, a big black cravat and a top hat. VOICE 1 The tears of a slave are a black mirror The poet burns with his greedy love In the vermin streets in the starving eyes He meets himself like a blazing gift His furious blood is a red banner He shakes his soul from his drunken skin ALL Listen The poet dreams of fire And then the flames devour him The set is revealed as an artist’s studio, with vibrant images by Malevich, Mayakovsky, Goncharova, Rodchenko, etc. On a small stage there are performers dressed in Futurist costumes: absurd hats, blue eyebrows, frock coats, birds or tears painted on their cheeks.


MAYAKOVSKY (Reading from a sheet of paper.) Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to the time machine! Here we summon the future! We rip the joy from years to come! Tonight we present for your delectation, illumination and education … The Tragedy of Me! Vladimir Mayakovsky! A story of wrath and death, love and despair, revolution and betrayal – MAYAKOVSKY crumples the paper, amid laughter from the others. This is the future? Who wrote this shit? Where is the author? Peers into auditorium as spotlight hunts through the audience. Come, don’t be modest … He’s down there somewhere … THE AUTHOR scrambles on stage, out of breath, giving MAYAKOVSKY a filthy look. He wears an ill-fitting suit, just this side of clownish. His shoes might be too large. MAYAKOVSKY Just as I expected. Cockroaches survive everything, even the Revolution! You wrote it, you sing it. Performers laugh. MAYAKOVSKY throws the crumpled sheet at THE AUTHOR, who smooths it out and looks uncertainly out at the audience. AUTHOR (Sings) Ladies and gentlemen Come to the show A great poet Will dance before you Mayakovsky is the symbol of innovation! He gave us the poetry of socialist realism armed with Marxist-Leninist ideology to transform the culture of society! MAYAKOVSKY Enough with these lies! You make me want to be sick! AUTHOR You called me here! MAYAKOVSKY This play is about me. I’m more than this pathetic shadowman, this murderous ghost that creeps in my footsteps. I’m taking it back. AUTHOR Arrogant clown! MAYAKOVSKY attacks THE AUTHOR, who slapstick tumbles and retreats shaking his fist. The others hoot and clap. AUTHOR I’ll be back! MAYAKOVKSY Well, that got rid of him. MAYAKOVSKY turns to the orchestra and silences them. A new theme. MAYAKOVSKY Now for the real story. First, there is love. Spotlight on LILI. Then revolution.


MAYAKOVSKY I thought the world was bigger than a bucket I rhymed potatoes with feathers and lightning The new meanings blazed like life in a new colour I rhymed everything with everything In America I was a genius That was even better than being famous I stood on Brooklyn Bridge like a stupid artist I watched the shivering jobless drown Meyerhold admired my Mexican carpets He invented whole sciences to stage my words Laughter was our consolation and our weapon So we rhymed bureaucrat with numbskull In France I bought a car and a tin of soap I fell in love and chivvied my longing home What’s left behind when you stand on life’s furthest rim? A scrapbook adding up to nothing I scrubbed so hard but bedbugs kept on biting Critics and officials with their insect jaws There were not enough bath houses not enough soap My soul itched until it was red meat I saw the world was smaller than an orange I rhymed my body with love and found coffins The old meanings jumped up like death in a new suit And then everything rhymed with nothing Commissioned by Victorian Opera, to be staged in 2013, with score by Michael Smetanin.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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