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Noble men and unspeakable villains: redefining courage in times of chaos

A review of Andrew Upton's adaptation of the White Guard, a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov



The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov, adapted by Andrew Upton, is a play about the horrors and chaos of the Russian Civil War. It is easy to get lost among the different forces fighting each other in the play: the Germans and Petlyura, the Reds and the Whites. It is a chaotic situation from the start, and it gets even worse when people like Struzhinsky start switching sides. However, there is a broader and stronger categorization of the male characters that runs through the play: the distinction between 'bastards' and 'noble men'. Nobility, in this sense,  has nothing to do with name, social position, or wealth. It is purely a personal moral quality.  The best example of a noble man is Alexei, who is intelligent, non-violent, yet brave, compassionate and respectful of others. In the other camp are Talberg, Shervinsky, Hetman, and Petlyura’s men. The text makes the distinction obvious enough through the use of language, descriptions and actions of the character. For example, Andrew Upton labels  Hetman by a strong term (57) that in Russian translates to “pig”, “unspeakable villain”, and “bastard”. But the production ridicules these men even further, through actors deliberately portraying caricature-like characters. Both the script and the production make a very clear distinction between worthy men and scoundrels in The White Guard.

Talberg is obviously a coward and a selfish liar. He abandons his wife in a war-torn city. Not only his wife, but his duty and his country. In the production Lena (played by Justite Mitchell) is sad to hear that he is leaving, but she does not look very shocked. It is as though knowing her husband, she realizes he is capable of this kind of cowardly treachery. The Turbin brothers do not like him, even though they are family. Alexei (normally a very gentle and peaceful man) almost gets into a fight with him for this act of utter selfishness. Lena herself says about her husband: “I don’t respect him” (39). Talberg uses pitifully diplomatic language; he does not even have the courage to tell things how they are: “I am not ‘running away’. I am escaping” (15) or “German train? Doesn’t take wives”, while he is really thinking “Lena, I don’t care about you, you are going to be a burden for me” (14). The actor Kevin Doyle says this in a high-pitched, swimming tone of voice that is perfectly fitting to the spineless slippery nature of the character he plays. All Talberg has to show is his dignified name, fine clothes and a waxed moustache (for which he need to thank the makeup artist and the costume designer Stephanie Arditti), but not a trace of honour or courage. When he comes back to his own house, he surveys it with a pistol; but even the pistol does not make him courageous: he jumps up and almost faints when he is discovered, squealing like a pig while being thrown out.

A little higher up on the social scale but not very different from a moral point of view is the Hetman. As a historical figure, he is a complete political marionette. As a person, he is an epitome of an egocentric coward who thinks he has power over everyone. Antony Claf, who plays the Hetman, reveals the character in stages: at first the Hetman walks in proud long strides, talks in a commanding voice, demands that Leonin speak Ukranian.  After he finds out that Petlyura’s soldiers have broken through the defense line, he loses confidence, starts stumbling over his sentences and thoughts: “Wait, wait, wait. So? Hang on. So…? Hang on right here. We have. You Russians are still with us? […] So…? We have the White Guard / and the Germans, of course. Yes. That’s right.” (47). When he is standing there alone to the left of the stage, facing the audience, we can almost see his mental process of seeking escape. And when the Germans arrive he no longer looks powerful and commanding, but rather pathetic and laughable, first, hiding under the table, then desperately trying to put someone else’s uniform behind the screen, then dictating his last will with his head bandaged-up. Even more appalling is his decision about the soldiers’ fate: “Yes. Fight to death. Fight to the last man and, and, and dispatch everything available” (53). He does not know the price of a human life and is ready to sacrifice hundreds, even thousands for no reason, except to ensure his own escape. In the text his attitude is so well contrasted by that of Alexei, who tells and then orders (because they would not betray their vow) his soldiers to go home and take care of their wives and mothers (69).

If this commander’s approach was not bad enough, the next scene presents us with a glimpse of what Petlyura’s commanders are like. Most of the names of Petlyura’s followers are typical Ukrainian (as opposed to the Russian names of the White Guard commanders), which tells us that these new-born revolutionary leaders have come from the peasant fields. They are dressed in what looks like a salad of god-knows-where-and-how-acquired clothes, not suitable for a harsh winter. This explains the fact that they get so excited about boots that Cobbler gives them after having a revolver at his head (64). The scene is full of violence and disgust. The barracks (designed by Bunny Christie) are broken down, the men’s nerves are broken down – all actors shout and swear instead of talking. They shoot an innocent man after declaring that “every man counts toward winning” (59). (It is funny, because Bolbotun’s name means “hypocrite” in Ukranian). And when the Cobbler arrives with his basket, their immediate reaction is that it’s a bomb and they hide behind each other in panic. They live in a state of constant fear, unbearable hatred. These are the men that Alexei is talking about: “Men with no name, no past, no love” (32), and it can be seen in their violent, nervous movements of the actors and their mad, animal-like faces. In Bulgakov’s text this scene gives us a lot of stage directions, all of them describing acts of violence or brutality. The Act ends with “A huge, ugly, violent cheer from the men on stage” (64), which represents this “tide rising against us” (32) that Alexei talks about.

The first and foremost of these scoundrels, however, is not the Hetman or the Reds. It is Leonid Shervinsky. Even his name in Russian sounds like “a worm”. He is a seducer, a liar, a coward and traitor. In the production he is wonderfully portayed by Conleth Hill as an utterly detestable person: he is neither young, nor handsome, his hair is greased and his general appearance is somewhat oily, despite the fact that he is clean and wears the good clothes. Lena, this incorruptible ideal of a woman, calls him “serpent”, a symbol of a liar and a seducer. In the text Shervinsky does everything to win the favor of a faithful married woman: he brings her flowers in winter, wears his best uniform covered with medals; he is overly-attentive to Lena, always trying to get closer to her. He offers her a drink (28) knowing that this will increase his chances and then starts singing right after Lena tells him that she is in love with his voice. She is right to say that Talberg “might be the lowest coward but … I can’t help thinking you / are worse” (40). Shervinsky condemns Talberg for leaving Lena, to what she responds that he would do the same (39)—and she is absolutely right. When he finds that Petlyura’s army is about to take over and that Hetman is “evacuating” on a German train, he almost begs the Germans to take him with them: “Take me with you. I can be the Herman’s personal adjutant. Or guard, even, if you like” (53). He is ready to get as low as playing a servant to save his skin. At this crucial moment on stage, Conleth Hill wonderfully captures the essence of Shervinsky’s cowardly soul: he perspires nervously, reaching towards the arrogant German general with a slave-like expression on his face.

Shervinsky is always trying to impress everyone around him. He wears his high-rank military uniform to the Turbins’ house, takes pride in his fashionable aristocratic sideburns—he even lies about holding a note for nine bars to impress Lena! But his clothes are subject to frequent change: at the Palace, after Hetman’s departure, he suddenly appears in a civil dress and a detective hat that screams out its purpose of disguise—quite an ingenious touch on the costume supervisor’s part (Stephanie Arditti). When he comes back from Moscow, he is wearing a shabby “neutral” (94) overcoat (underneath which, however, he has a very expensive bourgeois suit) and he has shaven off his sideburns. Lena is very perceptive about this, she contemptuously comments on them being impossible for “comaraderie” (94). She asks him whether he is a Bolshevik now, but he has not switched side, merely his coat. “Change? That’s what you do, isn’t it?”—scorns Lena and compares him with a chameleon (95). Indeed, Shervinsky is a man without principles, he does not care who is in charge as long as he can have his bacon. He himself tells this to Fyodor, the butler: “Regardless of who’s in charge, there’ll always be butchers. Here is some cash” (56). This is why he goes as low as stealing a gold cigar case.

Shervinsky’s character is further revealed in his treatment of people around him. When at Lena’s house, he is completely disregarding anyone else’s presence. Conleth Hill conveys this through using overlooking glance and neglecting, theatrical (even for stage) gestures. The actor has very small and smooth hands that are so eager to touch Elena. Hill walks with his chest forward, his chin above his nose, he carelessly moves a chair, walks into the Turbins’ house like he owns him, hands his coat down to Nikolai without asking. In contrast, although Larion did stumble in the Turbins’ house uninvited, he burst into ceaseless apologies after realizing his rudeness. Another episode that proves Leonid’s arrogant attitude is his talking to Fyodor. Conleth Hill makes it Shervinsky’s lines sound very cold and conceited, ordering and never showing any sign of gratitude and even calling the man a “footman” (43). It is no surprise for us that later Shervinsky has to give Fyodor big stacks of banknotes that accompany each of his cover-up remarks: “Let me shake your honest, working hand”, “I’ve always thought myself a democrat, really, at heart”, and “Lets say we never served the Hetman on were ever a regular to this place” (56). If he was kinder to the man before, he would not have to buy his loyalty now. In contrast, when Alexei has to deal with the caretaker at the gymnasium, he is very soft, patient, and respectful to the old man. Alexei calls the man by the name (67), he asks him, rather than orders: “Is there a safe? Somewhere for this?’ “Heve you a key?” (67). Bulgakov deliberately put these characters in similar situation to highlight how differently they act according to their moral upbringing.

 Crucial moments in history reveal the true nature of men. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s play The White Guard the characters of Talberg, Hetman, Petlyura’s soldiers and Shervinsly are ruthlessly condemned for lacking honor, courage, or humanity. Bulgakov shows that this distinction is non-political, that there are good and bad men on every side, and that even the ones who are respected and considered noble aristocrats (like Talberg and Shervinsky) can turn out to be rats not worthy of a human name. Howard Davies production brings this theme across through a wonderful collaboration of the director, actors and designers. Even though the English audience might not have understood the complicated historical changes that are taking place during the course of the play, they definitely understood the contrast between the eternal values that Lena and her brothers present and the corruption of Shervinsky, Talberg, Hetman and Petlyura’s men.


Taking into consideration the target audience of Bulgakov’s original script explains in depth a lot of the political, as well as emotional (nostalgic and sentimental) points of the play. Bulgakhov wrote The Days of the Turbins long after the Revolution and the civil war were over and when the new regime had been settled. By that time he could look back at the past events from a historical perspective. Although the play describes the events at the brink of a great change in history, the characters inside the play are not aware of what is coming ahead and how dramatic those changes are. Alexei prophesizes what is going to happen and there is a general feeling of fear for tomorrow that all the characters share, but there is still hope. The author does not portray that many disastrous effects the revolution has produced: the house of the Turbins still stands strong, it is warm and welcoming, Lena and Larion are taking down the Christmas tree, and the other men are ready to celebrate the end of battles. Little did they know that this Christmas may be the last one they will celebrate.


The change of the regime brought with it poverty, famine, corruption, bedlam, waves of political and religious repressions. The author decides to demonstrate this powerful moment in history, because it evokes both memories of the past and images of the future. Bulgakov was in his twenties when the described events took place, and he was very traumatized by them. First of all, it was an emotional shock from all the cruelty and death that he, being a doctor, had to witness. This initial pain, loss of the members of the family was, of course, scarring, and the author includes several death references and death of Alexei to demonstrate this human disaster. But a wound made by a death of a beloved person eventually heals, emotions toughen in this new cruel world, and when people have cried out all the tears about their dead sons, brothers, and friends, there is a greater sorrow left—pity for what has happened to their country, their past. Not only did the war kill people, it killed their lifestyle, their ideals, their dreams and aspirations.


Needless to say that from a historical and social perspective the Russian monarchy was a very unjust system that exploited the lower classes, but from a personal viewpoint the Revolution was a tragedy for those who were not concerned with politics or class. For these people it was simply a grey faceless wave of horror that destroyed everything on its way. These starved and angry proletarians destroyed everything that was associated with the hated aristocratic class: they burned works of arts, books, icons, tore down churches, palaces, melted the crown jewels into bricks of gold. For the educated and cultured people like the Turbins who play the piano, sing romances, type up letters, take care about having clean tablecloths and a Christmas tree at their home, it was unspeakable vandalism. Bulgakov was a famous satirist and it is not surprising that he includes the following passage in his text: “Poets”. Indeed, the socialist regime produced generations of worthless artists, poets, liberators, who got their titles and government villas just for praising the Soviet ideology in coarsely phrased sentences. 

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