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Theatre / The Mannequins' Ball

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The Mannequins' Ball, original title Бал манекенов, is a satirical play in three acts written by Bruno Jasieński for publication in 1931. The play was one of Jasieński's first works after obtaining Soviet citizenship in 1929. Less than a decade later in 1938, Jasieński was one of the many people targeted and murdered during the Great Purge and his oeuvre became forbidden until Jasieński's rehabilitation in 1955. The Mannequins' Ball therefore only had a few immediate years to be put to stage, a notable one occurring in Prague in 1933, and then had to be rediscovered decades later. For perspective, it took until 2000 for the script to be made available in English.

The play opens at the eponymous annual ball held by the headless mannequins in France, or at least Paris. The leader of the French Socialist Party, Paul Ribandel, accidentally discovers the ball. The mannequins can't afford a credible witness and therefore non-lethally behead him. One mannequin takes the head for himself, donning it so that he can attend a human party a few blocks over. This party, the setting of the second act, is hosted by Mr. Arnaux, the owner of a car factory. Among the guests are his daughter Angelique, his competitor Frederic Levasin, Levasin's wife and Arnaux's mistress Solange Levasin, and a representative of the Bank of France named Devignard. Ribandel is invited to prevent a strike brewing in Arnaux's factories, yet Levasin wants that strike to happen so he can swipe Arnaux's customers. The mannequin posing as Ribandel is bombarded with bribes and flirtations to make the strike go one way or the other, but he doesn't understand what's going on and ends up organizing an even bigger strike at both factories with the bribes he's received. The second act ends with the mannequin being accused of improper conduct with Solange and the police urging the party-goers to stay inside because the strikers have taken to the streets. During the third act, the mannequin is cajoled into a friendly duel for show so that Levasin can defend his honor. The friendliness drops when Levasin and Arnaux learn that the mannequin posing as Ribandel instigated the strikes at both their factories. Just as Levasin is about to shoot the mannequin, the real Ribandel breaks past the guards and demands his head back. The mannequin happily hands it to him and gets out of the humans' mess.

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Discussion of The Mannequins' Ball inevitably compares it to R.U.R., a play that is only a decade older, from a comparable cultural background, and also about constructs as a secondary working class. The constructs of The Mannequins' Ball, however, aren't a technological advancement that end up rebelling and replacing humans. Rather, they form a hidden society that don't like or understand humans. The mannequins' puzzlement at human behavior and the miscommunication that results from it provide most of the humor of the play.

Бал манекенов can be read in full here. Non-Russian speakers can get by with automated page translations.


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Tropes used in The Mannequins' Ball:

  • A-Cup Angst: A female mannequin in the second scene of the first act is unhappy with her flat figure because being flat-chested is no longer in fashion and therefore she'll likely be thrown out and replaced.
  • Appendage Assimilation: In the third scene of the first act, a male mannequin shows his female hands and explains the store he's from only received those. Another male mannequin shows the legs he took from the hosiery department, also because it was either that or nothing.
  • Asshole Victim: Paul Ribandel is a sleazy womanizer (and corrupt politician). He ends up at the Mannequins' Ball because he catcalls and pursues a female mannequin that he mistakes for a woman. The female mannequin is very distraught he wouldn't leave her alone, even when she started running. Ribandel gets beheaded so he won't rat out the mannequins, which is a fate he earned fair and square. To be clear, Ribandel's beheading ultimately doesn't kill him, but literally leaves him headless and therefore as peculiar and nobody as the mannequins.
  • Bathos: The mannequins' absurd perspective on several serious issues creates entertaining contrast, but the main event is Ribandel's beheading. It is threatening, from the way Ribandel is kept in place by the impromptu guards to the size-based Kangaroo Court that convicts him, until the means of beheading is brought in: a furniture-sized pair of tailor's scissors. And then Ribandel doesn't even die from being beheaded and runs after his head as it rolls away.
  • The Beautiful Elite: The play uses mannequins as a metaphor for the working class, contrasted by the human characters that serve as the elite. Simultaneously, the mannequins themselves are divided in a working class vs elite dichotomy according to whether they have a head or not. All limbs are sparse, but the defining characteristic of the "working class" mannequins is that they don't have a head, whereas the beautiful window mannequins that resemble humans in so many ways do have heads and look down upon the headless mannequins for their perceived deficit.
  • Bribe Backfire: Both Arnaux and Levasin try to bribe Ribandel. Arnaux wants him to prevent a possible strike at his factories over a five franc wage decrease, while his competitor Levasin wants that strike to happen. However, they aren't talking to Ribandel — they're talking to a mannequin wearing Ribandel's head who has no clue what's going on. And as it happens with bribes, they use words to distance themselves from the act of bribery by stating that the money is their contribution to the Socialist Party and the good it does France. Representatives of the strike initiative show up later to ask Ribandel whether they should go ahead with the strike and the mannequin not only gives the go for the strike, but also arranges one at Levasin's factories. Then he hands the representatives the checks from Arnaux and Levasin and relays their words as he interpreted them: that the money is for the good the Socialist Party does. The representatives are very confused that Arnaux and Levasin would finance the strikes at their own factories, but the checks are legit.
  • Corrupt Politician: It's clear from the money and photos of barely dressed women in his wallet that Ribandel's priorities aren't actually with the workers.
  • Divide and Conquer: The representatives of the strike initiative theorize that the reason that Arnaux and Levasin would finance the strikes at their own factories and that Ribandel insists on striking for ten francs instead of five is to paint themselves in a better light and dissuade the reformist majority of the workers from taking further advice from the more vocal communist minority. It's not what's actually going on, but it does make more sense than what is.
  • Double Standard: The gendered difference in beauty standards and the higher difficulty to live up to them for women are discussed by two mannequins during the second scene of the first act. A female mannequin explains to a male one that he gets to live longer because the ideal man's look changes less often, therefore a given male mannequin is relevant longer than a female one.
  • Drawing Straws: Once Ribandel's been beheaded, the mannequins take an interest in owning his head. To start with, the male ones decide the female ones get no claim on it because it's a male head. After that, the interested mannequins get a pack of matches and break the head off one of the matches. The matches are thrown up and whoever catches the headless match gets to have the head.
  • Duel to the Death: Levasin needs a duel to avenge his wife's honor after she and the mannequin posing as Ribandel are caught in a compromising situation. Levasin has no intention of harming Ribandel — it's all just for show and tradition and two bullet holes in the ceiling are enough to clear the air. Then the news that Ribandel organized a strike at his factory and used Levasin's own bribe to finance it comes in and Levasin aims to kill. At the last moment, the real Ribandel comes in and the mannequin, tired of the humans' shenanigans, hands him back his head and leaves. The play ends there — if and how the duel proceeds after that is left open.
  • False Rape Accusation: Angelique's attempts to seduce the mannequin posing as Ribandel are met only by matter-of-fact observations in what ways her body is flawed, such as that her breasts are too small to make the dress she's wearing a good fit. Enraged, Angelique takes off her top and dares him to repeat that her breasts are too small. That's when her father and friends walk in. Angelique tries to save face by announcing her and Ribandel's engagement while threatening Ribandel that if he protests she'll say he ripped off her top.
  • Fish out of Water: The mannequin with Ribandel's head firstly is a mannequin among humans and secondly a bottom rung member of the working class who suddenly gets bribes and flirty women thrown at him at a lavish party because everyone thinks he's big shot Ribandel, the head of the French Socialist Party. He has no idea what's going on.
  • Gold Digger: Solange Levasin is the wife of Frederic Levasin and the mistress of Arnaux. She tells each man that a wife/mistress is an expensive luxury when they complain about her spending habits.
  • Hope Spot: Paul Ribandel, upon walking into the ball, notices that all attendants are headless mannequins. He freaks out, but because it doesn't make sense that mannequins are alive, he reasons he's at a masquerade ball with a peculiar but admittedly creative theme. Happy with his own explanation, he compliments the mannequins for their originality, only to be met with very tense silence.
  • Hypocrite: Solange disparages Angelique to the mannequin posing as Ribandel by saying she's got too big a mouth. The mannequin replies that Angelique said the same thing about her, to which Solange rages that slander like that is typical of women like Angelique.
  • Kangaroo Court: As soon as Ribandel enters the mannequins' ball, the mannequins know they can't let him go. But to maintain an air of fairness, they get their four largest sizes to act as judges and prosecutor. There's no defense lawyer and all witnesses are against Ribandel.
  • Large and in Charge: The four mannequins who are to serve as judges and prosecutor are selected based on the largest sizes present: 44, 46, 48, and 50. Furthermore, 50 gets to be the chief judge while 44 acts as the prosecutor.
  • Love Triangle: Solange Levasin is the wife of Frederic Levasin and the mistress of Arnaux. Frederic doesn't know about her and Arnaux, which he would object to because of a conflict of interest as the two men both own car factories, but he does know she's not the faithful type. As long as she doesn't compromise his honor by being too open about it, he doesn't care.
  • Masquerade: The mannequins keep their liveliness a secret from humans because they are afraid their exploitation will worsen and their freedoms further reined in. In the first act, the mannequins behead Paul Ribandel to keep him from revealing their secret. In the third act, a mannequin that mistakes the headless Ribandel for another mannequin tries to block his passage to the guests at Arnaux's party and urges him to stand still.
  • Murderous Mannequin: Mannequins get to have one ball per year to move about freely and even that is denied them if their stores or workshops stay open past their usual hours. As luck would have it, this year there's a strike going on, so many mannequins can make it to the ball this year. They mingle and share their fears of being thrown away as beauty standards change, share their frustration over having only one night for themselves, share their sorrow over missing parts, and so on. The party is disrupted when a human, the leader of the French Socialist Party, drops in in pursuit of a female mannequin he mistook for a pretty woman. His head is cut off with a giant pair of scissors to keep the mannequins' secret safe. A headless mannequin claims the head for himself and takes a chance to visit the humans' ball some blocks over. He's mistaken for the labor leader and bribed all night until the headless body of the real labor leader crashes the party to get his property back. Tired of humans, the mannequin gladly returns the head and leaps out of the window to escape.
  • No Need for Names: The mannequins don't have names. The closest they have to designations is that they sometimes refer to each other by size number.
  • Off with His Head!: Paul Ribandel gets beheaded so that he won't tell anyone about the mannequins' ball. This beheading doesn't kill him, but renders him akin to the equally headless mannequins. As a matter of fact, at the start of the third act a mannequin in decorative knight's armor mistakes Ribandel for a fellow mannequin when he breaks into Arnaux's home and urges him to hide.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: For all the carefulness the mannequins employ to keep their liveliness a secret, no human actually responds to the sight of a headless Ribandel with anything more than the notion that he's drunk.
  • Xenofiction: The first act is told from the perspective of living mannequins. An example of how this manifests is in the second scene, when a female mannequin laments she's done for because hers is a flat figure and the new beauty standard is for women to have a defined bust. Her dancing partner enquires that if flat-chested female mannequins will end up in a landfill now that they're old news, will the same be true for flat-chested women? She replies that she's heard that humans do end up in landfills too, but that it's different from when a mannequin is thrown out.

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