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‘The Dragon’: Russia’s Satirical Parable of Autocracy and the Human Spirit

This 1944 play could have been written as an allegory for Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
April 1, 2022
‘The Dragon’: Russia’s Satirical Parable of Autocracy and the Human Spirit
(Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

On February 23, the day before Russian troops invaded Ukraine, the Economist ran an article about a 1944 Russian play, The Dragon, by Evgeny Schwartz, depicting it as a remarkably timely exploration of autocracy and its corrupting effects on the human soul. Timely indeed: the play, a trenchant political and philosophical parable in the guise of a fairytale, has ripped-from-the-headlines passages that could have been written as an allegory for Vladimir Putin’s war. The Dragon has been keenly relevant to several generations of Russians; it deserves to be better known beyond Russia as well.

Schwartz, alternately spelled Shvarts (1896–1958), was primarily a children’s writer whose work, finely balancing drama and humor, often appealed to both young and adult audiences; his legacy includes brilliant stage and screen adaptations of Cinderella, Don Quixote, and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen . He also wrote two extraordinary political plays that were promptly banned from the stage after the opening night: The Shadow, another Andersen adaptation, in 1940, and The Dragon in 1944.

The Dragon (available in an uneven English translation by Laurence Senelick) takes place in what seems to be a vaguely German and vaguely medieval town. A wandering knight, Lancelot—distantly related, he says, to the famous Knight of the Round Tablelearns while passing through that the town is ruled by a huge, three-headed, fire-breathing dragon who has been around for 400 years and extracts a tribute from the populace: not only an ample supply of food but the customary annual sacrifice of a maiden. This year, the unlucky girl is Elsa, the daughter of Lancelot’s gracious host Mr. Charlemagne. Yet, to Lancelot’s dismay, both Charlemagne and Elsa are cheerfully resigned to their fate and even insist that the dragon is not so bad: after all, he offers protection from other dragons in case they still exist, and he once breathed fire on the lake by the town to provide the residents with safe boiled water during a cholera epidemic. He’s even become one of the folks, so to speak, frequently taking on human form with a separate persona for each of his three heads.

When the tricephalous dragon shows up for a visit, Lancelot challenges him to a fight. But the dragon isn’t his only adversary: the town’s mayor (who pretends to be mad) tries to talk him out of the fight, as do the town’s top citizens. The dragon’s human flunkies, who include the mayor’s son and Elsa’s former fiancé Henry—now the dragon’s personal secretary—try everything from bribery to attempted murder. But all their efforts fail, and Lancelot even manages to connect with sympathetic craftsmen who provide him with a sword, a lance, a flying carpet. and a hat of invisibility. After an intense battle the dragon is slain, but Lancelot is left gravely wounded and perhaps dying as the curtain comes down on Act 2.

The cast of a 1963 U.S. production of ‘The Dragon,’ in an English translation. (Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library)

Fast-forward to Act 3, a year later. Lancelot has vanished, while the mayor, miraculously cured of his mental afflictions, has become president of the Free City and claimed the title of Dragonslayer after a “special commission” concluded that Lancelot was a wannabe hero who merely wounded the monster, leaving it to the mayor to finish the job in a spectacular feat of bravery. (When Charlemagne timidly ventures to say that he simply cannot make himself believe that it was the mayor who killed the dragon, the mayor-turned-president snaps, “Oh, you can do it. If I can believe it, then you most certainly can.”) The craftsmen who helped Lancelot are imprisoned along with other malcontents, while most of the people have easily transferred their obsequious submission from the dragon to the faux dragonslayer—who is now set to marry a despondent Elsa. Lancelot’s unexpected return—it turns out he was rescued after all—provides an ambivalently happy ending: the mayor and Henry are taken to prison and Lancelot and Elsa are reunited, but the difficult task of turning the townsfolk into free men and women (“the dragon will have to be killed inside each of them,” says Lancelot) still lies ahead.

In the Soviet Union of 1944, The Dragon was billed as an allegory for Nazism, and the titular beast has some distinct Nazi-like characteristics, including hatred of gypsies, of whom the town has been “cleansed.” But there is little doubt that Schwartz, who had once been close to a circle of avant-garde poets and artists imprisoned during Stalin’s purges, was also referring to a tyranny far closer to home, and the Soviet censors certainly knew what they were doing when they banned The Dragon. (An adaptation produced in England a few years ago used a framing narrative in which The Dragon’s 1944 opening night in Moscow ends not only in a ban on the play but in most of the cast getting arrested, one by one, during the performance; but that was poetic license.) The play was revived at Moscow’s Comedy Theater during the Khrushchev “thaw” in 1962, in a production in which one of the dragon’s heads bore a strong resemblance to Stalin and the mayor/president looked suspiciously like Khrushchev himself; but after that, it was not produced in the Soviet Union again until 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost was at its height. That year, it was also loosely adapted into a film called To Kill the Dragon, in which the setting was changed from medieval to modern with clear references to Soviet society. (Elsa, for instance, is given female guards/handlers in quasi-military uniforms who precisely replicate the stern and dowdy look of the female Soviet official.)

Oleg Yankovskiy as the Dragon in the 1988 film adaptation, ‘To Kill a Dragon.’ (Via YouTube)

The Dragon continues to resonate in the former Soviet Union today. A 2017 production of the play in Minsk, Belarus is full of rather clear allusions to the Aleksandr Lukashenka regime, especially when, near the play’s end, a bitter Lancelot reproaches the populace for submitting to a new yoke: “How could you let them do this to you? There are millions of you!” (The line is altered from the play, whose text says, “There are so many of you!”) But its relevance to the current moment and to Russia’s war against Ukraine is especially uncanny in the key scene in which Lancelot battles the dragon in the sky while the people watch nervously below—at first siding entirely with their lizard overlord, then quickly shifting their allegiances when things are going Lancelot’s way—and the mayor and Henry try to keep the order.

After a little boy down in the square with his mother (there to provide the voice of an honest observer) excitedly points out that the dragon seems to be getting pummeled, the mayor enters with an announcement: “In order to avoid an outbreak of eye disease, and only for that reason, looking at the sky is forbidden. You will find out what’s happening from news bulletins which the Lord Dragon’s personal secretary will issue as necessary.” (“It’s about time,” comment the citizens, but still eagerly buy a vendor’s mirrors that allow them to watch the battle without looking up.) Meanwhile, Elsa’s girlfriends channel every right and left pundit lamenting that the prolonged resistance in Ukraine only hurts the Ukrainian people: “Why won’t this Lancelot give up?” “He knows the dragon can’t be beaten.” “He’s just tormenting us on purpose!”

What happens next deserves to be quoted in full.

Henry: Listen to a bulletin from the city government. The battle is nearing the end. The enemy has lost his sword. His lance is broken. His flying carpet is being eaten by moths which is rapidly destroying the enemy’s air force. Cut off from his supplies, the enemy is unable to get mothballs and has to catch the moths with his hands, leaving him unable to maneuver properly. The only reason Lord Dragon is not destroying the enemy yet is his love of war. He has not yet had his fill of battle and has not finished savoring his own feats of bravery.

Townsman No. 1: Now I get it.

Little boy: Mommy, mommy, look! I swear he’s getting his butt kicked!

Townsman No. 1: It’s a trick of the eyes, kid.

Little boy: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying—we’re being tricked. I’ve been in plenty of fights, I know when someone’s getting walloped.

Townsman No. 1: Get the child out of here!

Townsman No. 2: I don’t believe—I don’t believe my eyes! A doctor! Get me an eye doctor!

Townsman No. 1: It’s falling down! This is more than I can bear. Get out of my way! Let me see it!

One of the Dragon’s heads lands on the square with a massive thud.

The Mayor: A news bulletin! Half my life for a news bulletin!

Henry: Please listen to a news bulletin from the city government. Lancelot, completely exhausted, has lost everything and has been partially captured.

Little boy: “Partially”? What does that mean?

Henry: It means what it means. It’s a military secret. The rest of his parts are still sporadically trying to fight. Incidentally, Lord Dragon has released one of his heads from service for health reasons and moved it to the reserves.

Little boy: I still don’t get it.

Townsman No. 1: What don’t you get? You’ve lost teeth, haven’t you?

Little boy: I have.

Townsman No. 1: And you’re still alive. There you go.

Little boy: But I’ve never lost my head.

Townsman No. 1: A minor detail.

Henry: Please listen to a commentary on current events. Why is two essentially more than three? Two heads are attached to two necks. That makes four. And besides, they’re very securely attached.

(The Dragon’s second head clatters down onto the square.)

The commentary is postponed for technical reasons. Please listen to a news bulletin. The battle is proceeding in full accordance with Lord Dragon’s plans.

Little boy: And that’s it?

Henry: That’s it for now.

(My translation.)

The Dragon has a great deal to say about propaganda and its construction of alternate reality; a year later, all the people who saw the dragon’s heads fall down on the square readily accept the official narrative in which Lancelot gave the dragon nothing more than a scratch and it was the mayor who killed it. (“But you knew he didn’t kill the dragon!” Lancelot, upon his return, tells a townsman he had watched hail “the dragonslayer” with tears in his eyes. The man shrugs helplessly: “I did at home. But out in the square…”)

But another major theme is the way autocracy cripples the soul—in the play’s version, quite literally. In their final chat before the battle, the dragon boasts to Lancelot about how terrifying “his people” are:

You see, my dear man, I personally crippled them. This way and that, any way I needed. Human souls, my dear man, are very sturdy things. Chop a body in half, and the man will croak. Rip his soul in half, and he’ll just become more obedient. No, no, you won’t find such souls anywhere else, only in my town. Armless souls, legless souls, deaf-and-mute souls, shackled souls, stoolpigeon souls, damned souls. Do you know why the mayor pretends to be crazy? So that people wouldn’t realize he hasn’t got a soul at all. Tattered souls, bought-and-sold souls, dead souls. It’s really too bad they’re invisible.

An hour later the dragon’s three heads are expiring on the square, and the same people who had sworn allegiance to the monster are off celebrating their liberation. “I really should have made at least one loyal soul,” sighs one of the heads. “But the material just wasn’t up to it.” (Whether or not Putin remembers The Dragon, that’s a problem he likely understands very well.) Meanwhile, the mayor reassures Henry that the rebellious mood of the populace won’t last long: “Every dog jumps around like crazy when it’s let off its chain. And then it runs back to the doghouse all by itself.” In any case, “The dear departed trained them so well, they’ll bend to anyone who picks up the reins.”

That prediction, of course, turns out to be true: In Act 3, the language of liberation is nothing more than a cynical cover the mayor-turned-president and his son use to dress up their power. “The weeds of vile slavery have been forever ripped from the soil of our community!” Henry proclaims at the ceremony commemorating his father’s supposed victory over the dragon.

While the play ends on a mostly optimistic note, the 1988 film is much darker: Not only does Lancelot nearly turn into an autocrat himself after deposing the president, but in the eerie final scene he sees the dragon’s human persona apparently reborn (and walking in the midst of a group of children). This ending is especially striking considering that To Kill a Dragon was made at a moment when hope for freedom ran high. Today, few in Russia or outside it believe that removing the Putin regime in one way or another will bring about freedom and dignity anytime soon.

“Some 35 years have passed,” one recent Russian commenter on the YouTube video of the film wrote, “and suddenly, it has become horrifyingly clear that when we watched this movie with a sigh of relief thinking we were saying goodbye to our past, we were in fact preparing for our distant future.”

Another commenter was far more succinct: “It’s amazing how quotes from today’s TV news found their way into this movie.”

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.