Ever since I can remember myself, above the closet in my room lay a wooden suitcase with an ivory handle, bound with leather belts. I was very curious about this suitcase, since I imagined it contained secret treasures, like a pirate’s treasure chest. I obviously asked my family members about the contents of the suitcase, but I never received clear answers—which only piqued my curiosity even more. Even when I was left alone in the house, I couldn’t nudge the suitcase from its place, and couldn’t even lift the top to peek inside. When I grew up, I was finally granted permission to open it. Mom lowered the suitcase from the closet and opened the locks with a tiny key. Eager and thrilled by the thought that I was about to witness something magical, I moved the locks and opened the top. I was deeply disappointed. There was nothing but newspaper clippings inside—writings that were once officially published by authors who later defected from the USSR to the West, rendering their stories banned. The names of these authors weren’t mentioned afterwards, their books were removed from the shops and libraries, their names erased even from the list of credits in movies whose screenplays they had written. As Bulgakov, author of “The Master and Margarita,” once wrote: “no documents—no person.” Among the authors of “the suitcase,” I found Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Aksyonov, Viktor Nekrasov, Sinyavsky, Voinovich. In the same suitcase, in a separate folder, I found the story “The Extra,” by Anatoly Kuznetsov, carefully cut out of the Russian literary magazine “New World.” I read it while sitting on the floor beside the open suitcase, and the story has remained with me to this very day. It’s an example of great literature, full of the eternal tragedy of Russian life, a story that stands tall beside “The Overcoat” by Gogol and “”Poor Folk” by Dostoyevsky.
Anatoly Kuznetsov passed away at the age of forty-nine. For most of his life, he was a Soviet writer, and only in the last ten years of his life, after fleeing to the U.K., he had become a dissident writer. Prior to defecting, Kuznetsov had published books that were printed in millions of copies without any particular censorship issues. But that was before he brought his new manuscript to the publishing house—the documentary novel “Babi Yar,” about the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis in occupied Kiev. It constituted the first attempt in Russian literature of literary writing that was based on testimonies alone. Kuznetsov relied on the entries in his personal journal, which he wrote at the young age of fourteen, when he was a firsthand witness of the tragedy of Babi Yar. No one had dared write about the Holocaust in that fashion in the USSR before him. From the very beginning, the truth had been the greatest threat to the Communist regime. The trials and tribulations he endured against the censorship—the novel was first published in the USSR in a very distorted version and later was completely withdrawn from circulation—had led him to believe he would never be able to publish his writings there again, giving rise to his decision to defect to the West. “The Extra” is another wonderful opportunity to remember a great Russian writer, who has sadly been forgotten in recent years.
Translated by: Michele A. Berdy
Ilya Ilych was injured. It happened in the evening, in the third act. Dressed in braided crimson livery, white stockings and shoes with buckles, Ilya Ilych was to go out on stage to hand the ballerinas goblets made out of gold-painted papier-mâché. That was all he had to do.
He placidly stood with his tray by curtain No. 2, waiting for the flute in the orchestra — his cue. This was his place backstage; he always stood here.
The role of the prince was being danced by a talented principal dancer, Valentin Borzykh. As he was finishing his trademark leaps, he got a bit heady and distracted by the applause, and on his last leap he mistakenly flew through curtain No. 2, right into Ilya Ilych.
The prince — in a snow-white waistcoat and white tights, wearing a blonde wig and with a heavily powdered and rouged face — was ethereal and effeminate, but he smacked into Ilya Ilych like a cast iron canon ball.
The old man was knocked off his feet. The cups flew up into the air like a gold fountain and then fell like peas onto the stage. The audience laughed.
“Stands there, the bastard,” the prince cursed, using a few stronger words since he was bruised, too. But right after he gave a blindingly bright stage smile and went out in gentle ballet steps to take his bows.
Meanwhile, the stage manager came down on Ilya Ilych. Then the performance manager ran over shouting: “How many times have you been told: Unauthorized personnel must not block the wings! What’s your name?” He wrote it down.
Ilya Ilych wasn’t unauthorized personnel. He was waiting for his cue. The manager should not have talked down to him like that — he was 25 years his junior. The principal Valentin Borzykh should not have leapt into the tight space behind curtain No. 2. He always left the stage through curtain No. 5, but that night he just couldn’t jump far enough.
But Ilya Ilych had no time to think about these petty matters. He deftly crawled on all fours among the ballerinas’ starched tutus, and while the stage manager was bickering with the performance manager, nimbly picked them all up and then hid, which caused a new burst of laugher in the hall.
The performance manager held his head in his hands. Today of all days they’d gotten word from the theater director to make sure nothing went wrong, since an important foreign guest was going to be in the audience.
But just then there was a squeak from the orchestra — finally, the cue of the flute. The music rose to forte, all the footmen went forth with their trays, and the performance manager had no choice but to push Ilya Ilych back on stage.
The role of footmen was played not just by in-house performers but by students earning some money on the side. One of the out-of-house dancers scuttled along the row that by rights belonged to Ilya Ilych and offered the ballerinas his goblets, so that when Ilya Ilych got there, no one needed his.
Here he made his second and fatal error. He couldn’t go back with a full tray. That would have been unnatural and, from the footman’s point of view, absurd. So he crossed the entire stage on the diagonal, and when the corps de ballet raised their gold-painted papier-mâché cups like ancient gods to drink to the health of the prince and princess, the sweating and unfortunate Ilya Ilych was underfoot among the rows of dancers, offering goblets to performers who didn’t need them.
Finally it occurred to him that he ought to retreat. Upset, carrying a full tray, he went off stage, where he saw that a full-scale scandal was brewing.
The ballet master himself — that god in human form — was crucifying the head of the extras. All the other department heads stood around and fed the ballet master things to say. The head of the extras department was nodding his head guiltily. “Yes, certainly… a decree this very day… at the full staff meeting… we’ll discuss it…” He glared at Ilya Ilych, who realized what was happening and instantly disappeared like a puff of smoke.
In the wings, ballet looked very different than it did in the audience. It was difficult, nerve-racking, chaotic work done by people working in many different departments.
Prop masters, costumers and extras anxiously scurried around dusty canvases and set decorations piled into heaps in dimly lit rooms. Ballerinas, nervous and quarrelsome, stamped their feet in trays of resin. The panicked performance manager would dash in with the words, “Cue the queen! Where the hell is the queen?” Gaffers phlegmatically dragged cables that everyone tripped over. Solo dancers, “friends of the prince,” gossiped by the back door and shared the latest jokes. A prima ballerina hysterically fought with a costumer over a torn seam. Mechanics anxiously flipped switches on the control boards. Engines hummed and pulleys squeaked. Dancers came off stage pouring sweat, blotted their exhausted faces with toilet paper and wiped themselves down with towels. The only people who seemed bored were the unsociable fire wardens.
It was like in a magic trick: everyone’s efforts were concentrated in the spotlight on stage where the amazing miracle of art took place. On the other side of the footlights the five-tiered hall pulsed and sighed like a single thousand-faced, furry beast that came to see this particular miracle. It fretted in empathy while watching the well-rehearsed moves and was ecstatic during the prima ballerina’s cascade of fouettes, and it had absolutely no need to see the sweat that flew off her like a fan while she did them.
After successfully making his way through the tangle of props and cables, Ilya Ilych carried his tray and hapless goblets to the property room. All of his entrances and turns in the spotlight were over, at least for this evening.
Meanwhile, the orchestra blared out the tragic theme, the spotlight was extinguished, and the evil wizard grabbed the princess. One entire act of the battle between good and evil was ahead, but no extras performed in it.
After handing in his props, Ilya Ilych went into the stuffy and cramped little bathroom with its dingy, age-stained toilet. He threw the bolt to lock the door, lifted up his shirt and felt his ribs. He probed them carefully for a long time. He thought that something had broken when he got hit. But he was relieved to find that his ribs were whole.
He really didn’t want to go up to the fifth floor extras’ dressing room right away. He knew that at this moment the theater’s hair dressers were waiting to take the wigs from the extras. Once a wig was stolen, and ever since the hair dressers’ department was ordered to hand out the wigs by a list and take them back right after the performance. After a life in the theater, Ilya Ilych found this procedure to be humiliating, and so he did everything he could to avoid it.
Besides, the head of the extras’ department was certainly furious and waiting for him up there, and it would be wise to give him a chance to cool off. So Ilya Ilych, to give him some time, headed off to the canteen.
The actors’ canteen was in the dark, windowless basement. For some reason everything off stage — all the utility rooms, hallways, and walk-ways — were poorly lit, and everyone was used to it. That’s the way it had been in this theater from time immemorial: for the audience — bronze, light and luster; backstage – hell on earth.
The intermission had begun and the canteen was crowded. A long line stood in front of the counter: ballerinas in bristling tutus, ladies of the court in crinolines, pages, orchestra musicians, and at the very end of the line, the dowager queen — that nasty gossip Maria Polikarpovna Shpak. She was in the same extras’ department as Ilya Ilych. But she was paid a bonus because she was considered to be a soloist extra who usually played the role of regal royal personages. She was the only extra who attended all the main rehearsals, and her name was even printed in the advertisements, although her work consisted of sitting on the throne and nodding her head — which is to say that her role wasn’t any more complex than that of a footman or a Moor waving a fan.
Ilya Ilych stood in line behind the queen, and he stood for a long time because the makeup lady for the prima ballerina, or the administrator, or the secretary walked up and passed money over the heads of everyone else in line. The experienced waitress at the counter knew whose money she should take out of turn and who could wait.
Ilya Ilych, who was very thirsty and still hadn’t gotten over his insulting treatment, suddenly seemed to wake up and become painfully aware of this latest injustice. He slowly but surely began to seethe as he watched but didn’t say a word. But when the principal Valentin Borzykh danced up, swinging his hips, and handed over a ruble right under the nose of the queen, Ilya Ilych began to shake and said loudly, “Don’t serve line-jumpers!”
“I’ve got to go back on stage in a minute,” the dancer explained.
“So do others, like Maria Polikarpovna here, for example,” Ilya Ilych said. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You’re a young man, and here you are waving your sleeves in a woman’s face.”
The principal Borzykh was astonished. He was really astonished — so astonished that he didn’t even say a word. He just looked at Ilya Ilych in amazement, from top to bottom, as if some kind of fly crawling on his sleeve had suddenly quoted Hegel.
“Maybe you can knock people off their feet backstage,” Ilya Ilych said, close to hysterics, “but all people are equal. There’s a line here and it’s just outrageous, and…”
But the line didn’t say a word, and the waitress took the ruble from the principal, ignoring Ilya Ilych’s desperately proffered hand. The dancer took grape juice and a sandwich. Without waiting for his change, he walked away and instantly forgot about Ilya Ilych.
No one in line said a word. From their silence Ilya Ilych realized that his act had not found support, but instead had been condemned. If no one ever complained, maybe it was the natural order of things? And if someone said something, it was as if he’d touched upon something he shouldn’t have. It was as awkward as if he’d hung his underclothes over a chair in public.
He took his mug of beer and, miserable, squeezed himself in in the darkest corner. Pasha Platonov, the oboe player in the orchestra and just as old and unlucky as Ilya Ilych sat at a wobbly table, finishing up with black coffee.
Ilya Ilych was no longer dying of thirst. He didn’t want the beer. He wanted to die — right then and there. He couldn’t care less about life. He was tired of it.
“In the third act Valtorna made such a mistake,” Platonov said, repugnantly spitting out the coffee grounds that got into his mouth. “The boss just about fell over. Hear it?”
“No,” Ilya Ilych said.
“No kidding? I thought you could have heard it on the street. Chertkov is a real slacker. The boss will kick him out, I’ll bet anything… Forget about it — don’t get upset. What got into you to talk to a pipsqueak like him? Let him do what he wants! They’re the principal dancers. They exist in the higher spheres of art where all of art depends on their left foot, so — stand in line? You can just imagine how likely that is.”
“We’re all equal!” Ilya Ilych said indignantly.
“Equal — sure. But tell me how much you earn and how much he makes.”
“What difference does it make?”
“Here’s what difference it makes: you’ll go home tonight in a tram, and he’ll go in his own car. Because he does sixteen entrechats and the audience weeps. You don’t do that. You pass around goblets on your tray and that’s it. When did you suddenly get ambitious?”
“He knocked me off my feet,” Ilya Ilych said.
“Oh! All the worse for you,” Platonov said philosophically. “Don’t stand in the path of a principal.”
He thoroughly brushed down his black musician’s suit and headed back toward the orchestra pit. Ilya Ilych tasted the beer. It was shamelessly watered down. His heart was hard and bitter.
Three ballerinas sat down at his table and, paying no attention to the old man, chattered on about the trouble the prima ballerina Vasilieva caused the management when she found out that the role of Aurora was going to the young Grebnyova.
The young ballerinas were on the side of the young Grebnyova, justly reasoning that the prima ballerina had gotten old, and they were right one thousand percent, only it didn’t occur to them that they’d get old one day, too. Ilya Ilych was so old that he still remembered the prima ballerina Yegorkina, the public’s favorite. The young Vasilieva came from ballet school and got the role of Odette… No one even knows what happened to Yegorkina — maybe she’s teaching a choreography class at some railway workers’ club, or maybe she’s married and peacefully getting old. In ballet people leave the stage faster than anywhere else. Especially prima ballerinas and principal dancers: they wouldn’t take secondary roles and would certainly never dream of lowering themselves to play extras. So they leave right away — and forever.
For a moment he gave himself the spiteful pleasure of imagining how the principal dancer Borzykh would retire from the stage.
In the canteen was a loudspeaker transmitting what was on stage. The fourth act was beginning. Ilya Ilych was about to leave when he paused to listen to the short oboe solo — that was his friend Platonov having his moment. He played the oboe well, so that it was truly moving. But then Ilya Ilych stopped listening. He had known the entire score by heart for years.
As he went upstairs, he pressed against the wall and gave wide berth to the dancers and ballerinas flying down the stairs, smelling of makeup and powder. As they dashed to the stage, they were also talking about Vasilieva.
On a happy note, the hair dressers weren’t on the stairs, and Ilya Ilych, victorious, went up to the fifth floor without taking off his wig.
From time immemorial, the Opera and Ballet Theater had its own very set way of doing things, rules, history, and traditions — that is, it was a complex mechanism with many tiers — and not just architecturally.
Actually, it was an entire kingdom of sorts, with principal dancers and cleaners, armed security guards and a financial department, ushers, stagehands, hair dressers and so on. Each department was unique and different from the others, with its own way of doing things, departmental interests, and character. Very few people actually knew what everyone did.
The musicians never saw the performance properly. They always saw it from below, from the orchestra pit, and even then only the half of the orchestra sitting closer to the audience. The canteen waitress only heard the performance over the radio. The hairdressers saw the stage from the fly galleries. The music librarians met with the ticket takers only at general staff meetings. And a carpenter might have worked in the set department for 15 years and never met a single actor. There were distinctions among the actors, too.
The stars — the lead performers — had their own private dressing rooms. They were right by the entrance onto the stage, these holiest of holies that the likes of Ilya Ilych wouldn’t even have the right to glance in. Inside were vases for flowers and syphons of fizzy water.
The dressing rooms for the ordinary solo dancers were on the second floor. They got two syphons of fizzy water for the lot of them, and there was no need for flower vases.
The corps de ballet (or the choir, if an opera was playing) had the third floor, eight or more to a room, and they just had urns of hot water.
The fourth floor was for the backstage technical personnel whose work had an aristocratic, albeit only half-creative, aspect to it: the women in charge of makeup, costumes, and footwear.
And way up under the roof on the fifth floor was one big dressing room for extras: a long hall with a low ceiling and narrow slit windows that stank of sweaty shoes, Vaseline and powder. The modest shop of extras hummed with noise as they changed into their costumes, put makeup on, and drank tap water.
Actually, it didn’t always buzz with activity. “Madam Butterfly” was small in scale. It required just one extra playing a servant with an umbrella. In sad solitude, Ilya Ilych would make himself up to look Japanese. But at the opposite end, the monumental “Tsar’s Bride” needed a whole gang of ferocious guardsmen with muzzle loading guns and pole-axes, and then the extras’ dressing room was like a den of highwaymen.
No, no; Ilya Ilych earned his bread. In other performances he had to change costume many times. In “Carmen,” for example, he depicted passersby — at least ten different people — and then went into a panic with the other extras when Carmen ran away. In the second act he served in a tavern and respectfully listened to the boasting aria of the toreador and then ran straight upstairs to change into a smuggler’s costume. But he liked the last act best of all where he played a temperamental picador, or maybe it was a matador — he never quite grasped all the subtleties of the corrida. In any case, he had two arrows with red feathers, as did another extra, and they’d walk across the stage holding them aloft. Then as their boss screamed at them, they ran across the backstage area and carried them across the stage again. They did this several times to give the effect of masses on stage.
And so, successfully avoiding the hair dressers, Ilya Ilych went up to the extras’ dressing room and saw that he’d guessed right: the department head had gone. Wardrobe ladies carried away piles of doublets. The student dancers had mostly gone; only three of them sat in their underwear on benches and talked about football. The place had the leaden smell of a bath house.
Along the walls were rows of mirrors, green with age, and tables dotted with boxes of makeup, paper, rags, and apple cores. A very long time ago Ilya Ilych broke off from the general mess and claimed a drawer in a corner table. He used a little key to open it and took out his own personal boxes of paper wipes. It had been two months now that they hadn’t been given any wipes; the department head swore that they’d used up their budget. Ilya Ilych refused to use torn bits of newspaper to wipe his face. He thoroughly cleaned off his makeup as he thought about something else and without even glancing in the mirror. He knew his face by heart and never gave the conductor on the last night trams a scare with splotches of makeup left on his face.
His drawer was in perfect order, tidily lined with clean paper. On the left were paper wipes, a box of makeup, various bottles, brushes and greasepaint; in the middle was a slightly dried out piece of bread spread with a pâté made out of summer squash; and on the right was a book by the writer P.I. Melnikov (Pechersky) called “In the Mountains, Volume Two,” which he had been reading for six months in between turns onstage.
The reason he needed his own personal locked drawer was because the wipes and makeup weren’t distributed individually. The carefree flower children carried them away in their pockets, used them right and left, and by the end of the quarter began to beg and steal them from each other. Ilya Ilych couldn’t stand it.
Taking time to properly hang up his braided costume, he put on his everyday pants and jacket, saw his tired face and the bags under his eyes in the mirror and looked away. He started to pick up the sandwich, held it in his hand and then gently put it back.
“Kalinovsky playing the left wing — what a god he was,” said one of the flower children. Everyone else nodded thoughtfully.
“God doesn’t exist,” Ilya Ilych said in a strange kind of trance. Everyone stared at him in shock.
He locked his drawer and left without saying good-bye. He went down a floor to the hair dressers, who were standing by the window, smoking and talking about international events. The walls were hung with braids, curls, and beards of all colors, and mountains of scalps were piled up in baskets and on the tables.
“Here’s my wig. Could you please check me off?” Ilya Ilych said politely.
One of the hair dressers put a check mark on the list, accepted the wig, took careful aim and sent it right into a basket.
Ilya Ilych walked downstairs, shaking slightly. The ballet seemed to be over, since exhausted dancers were leaving the stage. Ilya Ilych was tired, too, more exhausted than he’d ever been in his whole life.
He got home later than usual. Carefully locking the door and making his way on tiptoe, he tried not to make a sound so he wouldn’t wake up his grandson and daughter.
In the kitchen he found, as usual, cold potatoes in a skillet, store-bought meat patties and raspberry gelatin. Damp stockings, children’s shirts and pants hung in a garland from a clothesline; a hole stood out vividly in the pants. Ilya Ilych had bought those pants just last week in the children’s store for three days’ salary. He touched the edge of the hole and sighed.
Ilya Ilych’s wife had died ten years ago from lung cancer. She had never smoked a day in her life. Ilya Ilych had been left to raise his 17-year-old daughter Lyuba.
In the evenings Ilya Ilych was in the theater, and during the day he barely saw his daughter, since she worked at a fabric factory. She had gone to dances in the park and at the Officers’ Club, meeting with cadets, looking for a husband, but she didn’t find one. She just got pregnant and had a son. Now they were three.
The lid to the skillet slipped off and crashed loudly to the floor. Why is it that every time you try so hard to be quiet in the kitchen, something always falls on the floor? As he picked up the lid, Ilya Ilych dropped his knife. In irritation he gave up and started to eat the potatoes without warming them up. His chin twitched, his fork lightly tapped against the skillet, and he didn’t taste or smell a thing as he just automatically chewed, swallowed and thought.
His wife had been admitted to the Oncology Institute, 16th ward, the first bed on the left. He would visit her bearing honey and oranges, and sit on a white metal chair. His wife fretted. “Don’t touch anything!” He laughed, but she insisted that cancer was contagious. Despite what the doctors said, for some reason everyone — absolutely all the patients in that huge building — believed that cancer was contagious.
He and his wife discussed the operation, metastasis, stages, and how long she had; they were business-like and serious. And then one day he came and they told him that his wife’s body was in the morgue. They were also business-like. They carefully explained how to claim the body, what had to be signed and done, and told him about hearses.
For a long time afterward he’d wake up in the mornings and tell himself: “You have to live for Lyuba’s sake.” That helped. He’d let himself have a mug of beer and gave the rest of his salary to his daughter. You can’t imagine how much money a young woman needs to be attractive today.
When Ilya Ilych was young, girls wore homespun dresses — and they were happy with them. Now they needed stockings that cost 4.50 rubles and snagged on everything they touched, shoes for 30 rubles that broke a heel in a week — oh, the tears and sorrow. They used to braid their hair and it was really pretty. Now they had hairdos, Londa dyes, tints, hairsprays, and permanents… How could a girl from a fabric factory find a husband without all of that?
He and his late wife had dreamed that Lyuba would become a prima ballerina. But it turned out that she, like her mother, didn’t have an ear for music, a sense of rhythm or really any other particular talent.
Great talent — that’s so rare! Statistically, the world is made up of just people, not principal dancers. It makes up the great mass of the corps de ballet. Extras.
When his wife was still considered an “ambulatory patient,” she would come out to Ilya Ilych in the hall where women knitted, played cards and talked about who had how long to live. One was playing cards and said, “Girls, I’ve got three weeks left — and then good-bye.” And in three weeks she really did die. “How about that,” Ilya Ilych thought, “playing an eight and saying so easily, ‘Girls, I’ve got three weeks left — and then good-bye’.”
He realized that he’d been sitting there for a long time, his head resting on his hand, over an empty skillet.
Should he boil water for tea — no, he was too tired, and besides, he didn’t want anything. He quietly shuffled into his room. His bed was ready, the covers turned down with a tight corner. You couldn’t accuse his daughter of being slovenly. She also made sure the apartment was clean and comfortable. They didn’t live in high style, but they didn’t live worse than anyone else. They had a Moskvich radio — old, but it still got good reception; a Rekord television that they bought on an installment plan; a copy of Shishkin’s painting “Rye Fields”; new chairs; embroidered little pillows everywhere; and tulle curtains on the windows.
By habit Ilya Ilych checked on his grandson, who was, of course, lying face down on top of his blanket, his arms and legs splayed like a parachute jumper in flight (he’d just seen a photo of that in the “Working Women” magazine).
After making sure that everything was in order, the old man undressed in the dark and lay down in his cold bed, but as soon as he closed his eyes he felt such a jolt of pain that he almost flew out of bed. He gasped from the pain in his ribs, the chipped papier-mâché goblets scattered all over, and the performance manager screaming, “What’s your name?”
Not expecting this nasty surprise, Ilya Ilych felt his ribs: when he pressed in one spot it was a bit sore, but it was nothing to worry about. He again closed his eyes and tried to get into a comfortable position, but as soon as he began to fall asleep, the dancer Borzykh crashed into him and then he just didn’t know where to go, where to stand, how to keep everyone happy: if he picked up the goblets, he was shouted at; if he didn’t touch them, he was shouted at even more, as if he put them there specially. He was guilty of everything, just everything.
He turned over to the other side, but there he found himself in a frighteningly long line which was barely moving because all kinds of princes in makeup kept passing one ruble after another over everyone’s heads. The line didn’t protest — but the people in back kept pressing up against one another. That was the only thing the line could do: press ahead, holding out money that the waitress didn’t want to notice…
This nightmare made Ilya Ilych break out in a sweat. He pulled himself together, got up and walked around the room, slipped his peacefully sleeping parachute jumper under the covers, and lay down again. But misfortune followed him: he was forbidden to have a personal drawer, which was seen as an act of opposition to the collective. Then he was investigated for stealing a wig. Platonov made an unthinkable mistake in the orchestra. Everything was awful. It was the end of the world.
When Ilya Ilych came to work, he found the theater in its usual place, whole and unharmed. But his dream wasn’t much off the mark.
On the bulletin board where the rehearsal schedule was pinned up along with announcements about political discussion groups, a sheet of paper was tacked up with one paragraph that had to do solely with Ilya Ilych. For last night’s negligence with regard to his responsibilities, he (his full name in capital letters) was issued a stern reprimand.
Ilya Ilych was dumbfounded. He read the paper twice.
“So that’s how it is,” said Maria Polikarpovna Shpak, who appeared beside him out of nowhere. “They do whatever they want, but a decent person gets a reprimand.”
“I myself am very amazed…” Ilya Ilych said, his voice quavering from the humiliation.
“What are you so surprised about, dearie — what? Nothing surprises me anymore in this life. You expect misfortune from one place and it comes and hits you like a sack of bricks from around the corner. But in your place I wouldn’t let it go, I’d show them.”
“Yes, I’ll go and explain,” Ilya Ilych said. “How could they do such a thing? They didn’t even investigate it… They don’t have the right!”
“Well, they do have the right,” said Maria Polikarpovna. “But it’s unpleasant. I sympathize.”
“I was standing at curtain No. 2,” said Ilya Ilych. “And the prince goes off stage through curtain No.5. And suddenly…”
“Yes, yes,” said Maria Polikarpovna. “You go and tell them that. Don’t raise your voice and stay calm. Fact is that it won’t make any difference, but you will feel moral satisfaction.”
The head of the extras department turned a tiny supply closet on the fifth floor by the entrance to the attic into an office. He was in there, sitting like a spider in his web, putting together the salary charts.
He had a funny name — Finch. The name fit him, since he was always flying about the theater, screeching, helping in one place interfering in another, bustling around and doing three things at once. Order in the extras department was achieved at the price of much frenzy with lots of shouting and swearing which, naturally, Finch immediately forgot. Perhaps only that kind of person could handle the anarchic horde of students and slackers, and God alone knew how he managed to get them onto the stage on time.
With his superiors in the theater administration, he was utterly submissive, able to intuit their every instruction, and spent his time kowtowing, boot-licking and tip-toing around them. But with his subordinates, Finch was a roaring lion.
“Why did you order me reprimanded without investigating?” Ilya Ilych asked, upset but containing himself. “I always stand at curtain No. 2. But instead of leaving by curtain No. 5, Borzykh…”
“What do I care?” Finch shrieked, immediately flying off the handle since he was dealing with a subordinate. “The performance manager demanded an explanation, and I gave it to him. There are a lot of you and just one me. If everyone comes and tells me his side of the story, am I supposed to believe him?”
“But you know me,” Ilya Ilych said, trying to persuade him. “I’ve worked in the theater for so many years without so much as … a blemish…”
Finch looked at him with interest, tipping his head.
“I’m telling you the truth: there’s nothing I can do, I can’t help. The performance manager was there — go talk to him. What’s the big deal! A reprimand! I’ve got a hundred of them.”
Ilya Ilych considered what he said, then turned around without saying anything more and left. If he had been even the tiniest bit guilty, he would have swallowed the reprimand. But this was simply unfair. He went off in search of justice.
After wandering in the theater’s labyrinth, he finally found the performance manager in the music library. He was looking at the score of the evening performance of “Les Cloches de Corneville.”
The performance manager was a young man from the pool of unsuccessful singers. He spent a long and dreary time hanging about, first in the music school, then in the opera choir, but he had more success on the social activist side than the vocal side. As he ran around doing his activism, he was constantly in sight of the administration, having meetings with them, just walking into their offices. So after a while he got his diploma and was hired by the theater, despite his failed vocal career.
You can find this type of person in any of the arts. They rush about very officiously, conducting meetings, organizing groups and commissions, heading up something or other, and presenting themselves so persuasively and authoritatively that it doesn’t occur to anyone to recall their utter lack of artistic talent.
In this case, however, art was lucky. The job of the performance manager was purely administrative and did not require the ability to sing. When he was promoted out of the choir, he turned out to be in the right job. Here he could criticize, instruct, correct and demand from others what he couldn’t do himself to his heart’s content.
But as is the case with people who achieve their position exclusively due to a fierce inferiority complex and are therefore constantly unsure of their authority, he never admitted a mistake. He would sooner blow up the theater along with the entire planet than admit that he’d been wrong about something.
And that’s why he listened to Ilya Ilych’s disconnected explanation with the same attention he’d give a request for an apartment for someone’s mother-in-law.
“My dear comrade,” he said, “I realize that getting screamed at yesterday was unpleasant for you. You know what a performance is. It’s my job on the line, too, isn’t it? Let’s look at it objectively.
There was a gaffe in the performance. Was there a gaffe? Yes, there was! You — yes, you — crawled after those goblets, which made the audience laugh, and then there was something else… so no one is going to rescind the reprimand. It would be comical. Yes, I wrote up a report and don’t intend to take it back. And you’ll know not to do this again.”
“But it wasn’t my fault!”
“Well, that’s not entirely clear. Comrade, I’m sorry. Good-bye now.”
“Then I’m going to appeal,” Ilya Ilych said.
“As you wish.”
“To whom do I put an official complaint?”
“To the ballet master, the director, the minister of culture, the regional party committee, or Jesus Christ himself,” the performance manager said with good humor, and then went back to his score to show that he’d already dismissed it from his mind.
The ballet master was conducting a rehearsal in the large ballet hall. Dancers in black work leotards sat in clusters on the window sills while in the center of the hall the solo dancers, their faces shining with sweat, struggled with the pas de trois as the ballet master shouted in outrage, “Stop! What a bunch of drivel! Like kids romping in a field. And your arms — are they made of plastic? What position are your legs in?! What got into you, you cretins?”
That was his style of working when he was on a creative roll. He was a talented ballet master who put on good performances, so it was tacitly understood that since he was a great talent, he was forgiven everything. In any case, that’s what he thought, and that was what mattered.
He worked in broad strokes, extravagantly, emphasizing the most important things and not wasting his talent on the minor details. The most important parts of a ballet were the pas de deux and pas de trois. They were performed by the prima ballerinas and principal dancers with some dancers from the corps de ballet as the background. For the extras, he’d just poke his finger into Finch’s chest and say, “Put your dolts on the left and right, maybe five of them on each side.”
Finch instantly memorized how many “dolts” he needed and where to place them. The ballet master didn’t think about the extras after that. That was not right, of course. A true ballet master remembered about the extras. He didn’t know that. Or maybe he had known it, but forgot.
Ilya Ilych moved toward the window sill and began to wait patiently for the ballet master to finish tormenting the dancers and himself and call a break. But the ballet master had stamina. His cries of “cripples” and “half-wits” rained down until his complicated and innovative plan began to take shape. He would have pushed them even more, but the ribbon on the ballerina’s pointe shoe broke and everyone had to take a break after all.
While the wardrobe ladies ran to the wardrobe room for a needle, Ilya Ilych timidly began to deal with his matter.
At first the ballet master didn’t understand. He looked at him, struggled to recall and couldn’t figure out what was wanted of him.
“Valentin Borzykh pushed you? He does that sometimes. But it’s ballet, after all. Don’t stand where you shouldn’t. And what do you want from me — from me? What instructions? Oh, so you think I should rescind the reprimand? You know, I’ve got more important things to do, if you don’t mind. Hey, you over there — from the nut house! How many times have I told you to lock the door? Don’t let anyone in! Let’s repeat that bit again. Places, please! Begin!”
Ilya Ilych didn’t even have a chance to open his mouth when muscular student dancers gently pushed him out the door and slid the lock. He stood there, shocked, listening to the dull tapping of shoes interspersed with the inspired shouts of the maestro, and then he headed to the administration office.
The administration was its own world, Olympus, the kind of place where Ilya Ilych felt immediately ill at ease and out of place as soon as he walked in. There was really no reason to get flustered, but still…
Unlike the other rooms, there were lovely rugs and ministry furniture, and the secretaries looked like movie stars. After all, the big issues were decided here: profit-making, the performance schedule, tours, ordering dozens of cubic meters 40-milimeter plywood for the sets, determining how many bulbs were needed for the holiday lighting. It was natural for a shy extra to feel at a loss when coming here with his little personal problem.
The director was, thankfully, in his office. But he had visitors, and so the secretary offered Ilya Ilych a chair so he could sit and wait. People in the director’s office have a habit of talking for a long time, and joking around, but when they finally began to leave, one by one, the chief bookkeeper entered in the office with a big pile of papers. He, of course, had every right to walk in at any time without waiting, as did the theater administrator and others who just opened the door, walked in and walked out, while Ilya Ilych, bored, kept count: two just walked in so that means there are five in there. One left, four remain. Two more left but one went in…
The director was just about to be freed up when some foreigners stopped in — well-groomed and well-dressed, wearing gold rings, and everything went into motion, with the secretaries rushing about and bringing into the office mineral water, coffee and opened boxes of cookies…
The guests left after an hour, when the waiting room was packed with people. The director appeared in the doorway, pulling on his mackintosh. Everyone mobbed him, each with their own critical issue, and Ilya Ilych also tried bravely to push his way forward. The director said, “No, no, we can’t do that. Figure it out yourselves. I’m going to the Ministry, yes, yes…What do you want, comrade?”
“You see,” Ilya Ilych said in a rush, “I’m an extra. I was standing by curtain No.2 and in the third act– “
“My dear man, on all issues concerning the extras, go to Finch,” the director said, taking his elbow warmly and making a pleading face. “I’m so sorry, I’m being pulled seven ways to Sunday, and I’m going to be late for this meeting. Finch is your direct boss, and he decides everything… I said to put those budgets aside for now, yes, yes! That’s all!”
Shaking everyone off, he ran off at a clip. Ilya Ilych stood for a while and then left. The circle had closed, but he couldn’t decide if he’d gotten any moral satisfaction out of it or not.
Pasha Platonov, the oboe player, couldn’t rehearse at home, so he usually practiced in the theater during the day. Ilya Ilych found him alone in the orchestra room. Platonov had put down his oboe and was cutting pieces off a large cucumber and dipping them in a pile of salt on a piece of newspaper. He was delighted to see Ilya Ilych and offered to share his cucumber. Ilya Ilych turned down the offer and related all his tribulations.
Platonov took it seriously.
“On the one hand, of course it’s humiliating,” he said. “But on the other hand, you’re like some kind of… child! Honestly!”
“But you said yourself that it was humiliating!” Ilya Ilych exclaimed. “They all…”
“What about them? Huh? You shouldn’t think that anyone wants to do you harm. No! No one talked insolently to you, no one told you to shut up, and everyone, in fact, gave you their full attention. Finch, the performance manager, the director, you, me — all of us are part of a smoothly operating organism. We’re all good people and we all want good for everyone. But everyone is busy with his own work, and no one wants to stop moving, look at something again, and maybe — who knows? Even have to take a step back. That’s such a lot of bother!”
Ilya Ilych started off on his own, “But justice—“
“Finch will sing about justice when it touches him personally. He’ll do the rounds and the same thing will happen to him that happened to you. We’ve learned a lot in our time, but not to be empathetic. Until something falls on our heads, we don’t care. But we’re still good people! Just tell me — have you seen a lot of injustice in your life? And how often did you get involved if it didn’t concern you? We’re like the guy next to you, and the other guy, and your Finch — everyone is like that. We’re busy. And when we’re talking about someone else’s humiliation, we’re really busy.”
“So I’m a fool?” Ilya Ilych asked glumly.
“I wouldn’t rule that out,” Platonov said, laughing.
A serious opera theater put on the mindless operetta “Les Cloches de Corneville” for the sole reason that it brought in an audience. The singers, used to operatic passions, had a hard time with the operetta silliness, and so the performance turned out to be not intelligent, and not stupid, but kind of asinine. Everyone was sick and tired of Les Cloches, but the audiences kept coming and the performance held on, even though everyone performed it almost mechanically.
That day they were not at the top of their game. The singers rattled through it. In places where God himself would have laughed, the audience stubbornly remained silent. That in turn depressed the performers, and there was that kind of fug on stage that was worst of all in a theater: everyone sees that it’s not going well but no one know how to save it, and everyone is only thinking about how they can get through it as quickly as possible.
Ilya Ilych had played a servant, a villager, the carrier of a sedan chair, and a man in a street crowd. The extras, under the influence of the same general fug, walked awkwardly, stood in the wrong places, and made mistakes. Ilya Ilych and the rest of them were thinking just one thing: how can we get home as soon as possible?
During the interlude while the sets were being changed, the extras played various people going to the market. The student dancers had just been paid their stipends so they didn’t show up, and so there weren’t a lot of extras. Finch frugally sent onstage one little group after another, while in the audience people scraped their chairs, coughed and blew their noses.
Ilya Ilych was already in his costume of a wandering musician when Finch loaded him up with an enormous prop drum and pushed him into position just off stage.
“Don’t rush, don’t rush!”
Either Ilya Ilych had a headache from waiting in the director’s office, or maybe Finch pushed him too hard — but in any case, under the heavy drum Ilya Ilych lost his balance, tripped over nothing at all and fell spread-eagle on the stage.
This was apparently comical because someone in the audience finally laughed. Ilya Ilych tried to keep the damn drum from slipping by spinning in place, catching his balance and looking longingly toward the other side of the stage that he needed to get to — and with that the audience broke into gales of laughter. The audience thought he wasn’t really an old man, just an actor made up to look old, and that this was all planned.
And then a miracle happened.
Ilya Ilych limped off stage, but everyone who came on after him was greeted with laughter. The performers felt the emotion and began to milk the laughs even in places where they’d never gotten them before.
This was followed by the colorful scene at the market, interrupted by thunderous applause. The performers broke through the fourth wall. Suddenly there was a spark and brilliant wit. The audience kept laughing, applauding, and the performance ended as a fabulous success.
At the end of the last act, Ilya Ilych was dragging the sedan chair into the corner and was about to head upstairs when Finch flew at him like a hawk.
“The theater director was sitting in one of the boxes with foreign guests. He ordered me to find out who that was. I ran up to him myself, gave him your full bio, and I said that you’ve been working here for 30 years. ‘Give him a bonus!’ Don’t you see — our extra saved the show! A bonus, my dear man — no, we’re over budget, but then at least we can organize a vacation through the local party committee…”
Ilya Ilych wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.
“Good God, how can this be?…” he muttered. “I don’t want anything… just rescind my reprimand, please. Honestly, it wasn’t my fault. I stood by curtain No. 2 and Borzykh…”
“You’re still singing that same song?” Finch said, annoyed. “I can’t do it. It’s like a mechanism — once you hit the button, the lever goes down and that’s it. There’s no going back. But today, my dear man, you get a bonus.
“I wasn’t trying.”
“All the more reason! That means it’s sheer talent. Forget about the reprimand, and I’ll get right on organizing a vacation for you. Head up high!”
Ilya Ilych walked over to the staircase and heard one of the principals say behind his back, “That’s the one, the one who fell with the drum.”
You couldn’t say that it was unpleasant for Ilya Ilych to hear that. He thought about what had happened as he started to climb up to the fifth floor.
Wonder of wonders! The hair dresser didn’t grab his wig, but instead asked him to step in for a minute. She politely had him sit down before the mirror and began to spin him as she thought out loud.
“The next time I’ll make you a different wig. Something salt-and-pepper gray, disheveled, and straggly. Today all everyone is talking about is how you saved the show. Congratulations.”
It was a sensation.
Then there were more conversations. People recalled similar cases: a famous actor at the Moscow Art Theater who was playing the tiny role of a gendarme in “The Inspector General” and completely astonished the audience. Ilya Ilych, flustered, got changed as quickly as he could to get away from this attention and praise.
Downstairs by the door he ran into Platonov, who was leaving with his oboe under his arm.
“I saw,” Platonov said first. “Everyone in the audience was laughing their heads off and I wondered what the hell it was. I look and it’s you. Fabulous, man! Even I laughed!”
“I don’t even know how it happened,” Ilya Ilych said. “Honest to God, I just don’t know. They didn’t take away the reprimand, they’re promising me a vacation, but I’ll be damned if I did anything wrong!”
They went outside by the stage door. It wasn’t late and the street was busy. Platonov said thoughtfully, “The thing about this comedy, for feck’s sake, is that you don’t know what will be thrown at you. But life doesn’t only bring misfortune. Bad luck, bad luck and then — wham! Success. It’s true what they say, that it’s done so you can appreciate the difference. For a long time you had a streak of bad luck, and then it turns out that you’ve got real talent… Maybe we should drink to that?”
They went into the restaurant, sat in a corner, order cognac and tossed them back. They ordered smoked salmon sandwiches — after all, if you’re going to celebrate, go all out.
“Forget about the reprimand?” Ilya Ilych asked.
“Of course! With something like that you have to fight,” Platonov said, “Do the rounds, beg — the hell with it! You’ll just get on everyone’s nerves, and your own. You show what you’re made of. Let’s drink to that.”
After the third glass, life seemed just fine to Ilya Ilych. He was even horrified to think how odious he’d found it just yesterday. He thought fast and furiously.
“Wait a sec, listen!” he exclaimed, suddenly seeing an unexpected opportunity. “Next time I’ll put on a straggly, salt-and-pepper gray wig, all disheveled, and before I go on I’ll put down a doorjamb so that I trip naturally. I remember how it went! I’ll slip but I won’t fall — just let the drum roll over my head. What’d you think?”
“Not bad,” Platonov said, “And then look at them all, squealing like stuck pigs — like ‘what are you grinning about? You think it’s easy to haul around a drum like this your whole life’?”
“Yes! If I rehearsed it…”
“It’ll be great,” Platonov said supportively. “You’ll be great. Your Japanese in Chio-San is good — the make-up and walk are worth millions! You know, you’re as good as any of the principals — when you really think about it.”
Just then lya Ilych suddenly remembered how Valentin Borzykh had knocked him off his feet, and for a second his anger overwhelmed him, and even his rib suddenly ached.
“Oh, let him do his entrechat, the billy goat,” he said, out of sorts. “Let the audience weep. We’ve still got some life in us.”
“You sure do, my old friend, you sure do,” Platonov shouted. “Just wait and see — you’ll be playing kings next.”
Ilya Ilych looked at him in shock.
“Yes! Why not! Sit yourself down on the throne and nod”.
“Why not?” Ilya Ilych said bravely. “I can play a king! I’ve been in the theater my whole life. I’m an extra. Have you ever seen a theater without extras? You play the oboe; I’m an extra. Take us away and what’s left? Just the principal dancers on tippy toe, don’t I always say?”
“You old fool, you’re right about that,” said Platonov, tearing up. “We’ve got to give ourselves some credit. Let’s drink to us. To the extras, old man!”
Want to listen to audio editions?
Purchase a subscription and enjoy unlimited access to all features.
By subscribing you contribute and support authors, translators and editors.