Magazine article Russian Life

Samuil Marshak: 1887-1964

Magazine article Russian Life

Samuil Marshak: 1887-1964

Article excerpt

Back in the perestroika era, all of Moscow clamored to see Henrietta Yanovskaya's marvelous Goodbye America, at the Young People's Theater. The production was supposedly based on "Mister Twister" by Samuil Marshak, but in fact the fairytale show had very little to do with the ideologically-surefooted tale that we all knew from childhood about

  Former minister,
  Businessman and banker,
  Owner of factories,
  Newspapers, and ships ...


... who came to Leningrad and refused to stay in a hotel because a black person was among the guests. After some time in the Soviet Union, he quickly came to see things differently.

Yanovskaya's play had less to do with Mister Twister than it did with the image of America in the minds of a generation that could not dream of one day seeing the United States. But Marshak's presence could be felt and, after an hour and a half of side-splitting comedy, one of the actors suddenly stepped to the edge of the stage and addressed the audience:


  Kids, don't believe it. I don't wish to shock,
  But you have been tricked by your Uncle Marshak.
  This silly tale couldn't happen here,
  Not in the Hotel Astoria or even the chic Angleterre.


Many years have passed, but from time to time I still ponder the question of the extent to which the marvelous poet and translator Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak deceived me and my fellow readers, that the facts of his life contradict the beauty of his art.

Marshak entered every Soviet citizen's world while they were still in early childhood. He came in the form of "Mister Twister," with lines that instantly stuck in your memory.

  If the daughter so wills it,
  No question! So be it.



  You're not in Chicago, my dear.

Or the charming "Tender Age in a Cage."

  Look at the little owlets
  Babies sitting side by side.
  When they are not sleeping,
  They are eating,
  When they are eating,
  They are not sleeping.


Or the lady who "checked her baggage--a couch, a suitcase, a valise, a painting, a basket, a cardboard box, and a little doggie ..."

And of course there was the unforgettable "Oh, forgetful scatterbrain, who resides on Basin Lane," who "instead of putting on his hat, which was his daily plan, walked outside with head adorned by a frying pan" and who "to purchase the beverage he most often drank, went straight to his local savings bank." Furthermore, "having reached the station platform, he walked inside a railway car, but as it wasn't part of any train, he wasn't going far." Every now and then he would look out the window and ask what station he had reached and was always surprised to hear that the station was Leningrad.

These lines were such an essential part of our childhood, that today they easily roll off our tongues. Marshak's works, much like Griboyedov's verse comedy [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (known in English translation as The Woes of Wit or Woe from Wit) that appeared over a century earlier, spawned countless sayings--his words become our words.

Years passed, and the theatrical Marshak entered our lives. I remember one of my very first visits to the theater and the excitement I felt as the chandeliers of the Maly Theater gradually dimmed before the curtain was raised on Marshak's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Smart Things). And I cannot begin to calculate how many dozens of times I read and reread [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Twelve Months), feeling pangs of empathy for the poor stepdaughter, sent out into the pre-New Year's forest to hunt for snowdrops, or how I laughed at the young queen mangling the words of the dictation, "The grass is greening, the sun is shining. …

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