Annajanska, the Bolshevik Empress

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Annajanska, the Bolshevik Empress
George Bernard Shaw 1934-12-06.jpg
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Date premiered 21 January, 1918
Place premiered Coliseum Theatre
Original language English
Subject A princess becomes a revolutionary
Genre comedy of ideas
Setting A General's office in Boetia

Annajanska, the Bolshevik Empress: A Revolutionary Romancelet is a one-act play by George Bernard Shaw, written in 1917.

A one-act play is a play that has only one act, as distinct from plays that occur over several acts. One-act plays may consist of one or more scenes. In recent years, the 10-minute play has emerged as a popular subgenre of the one-act play, especially in writing competitions. The origin of the one-act play may be traced to the very beginning of drama: in ancient Greece, Cyclops, a satyr play by Euripides, is an early example.

George Bernard Shaw Irish playwright, critic and polemicist, influential in Western theatre

George Bernard Shaw, known at his insistence simply as Bernard Shaw, was an Irish playwright, critic, polemicist and political activist. His influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extended from the 1880s to his death and beyond. He wrote more than sixty plays, including major works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). With a range incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory, Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation, and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.


The play is obviously influenced by the Russian Revolution that year. It takes place in an imaginary country which has recently experienced a similar revolution. The two main characters are the daughter of the ruler, who once ran away to join the circus as a girl, and now supports the revolution, and an army officer who opposes it.

Russian Revolution 20th-century revolution leading to the downfall of the Russian monarchy

The Russian Revolution was a pair of revolutions in Russia in 1917 which dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the rise of the Soviet Union. The Russian Empire collapsed with the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II and the old regime was replaced by a provisional government during the first revolution of February 1917. Alongside it arose grassroots community assemblies which contended for authority. In the second revolution that October, the Provisional Government was toppled and all power was given to the Soviets.



General Strammfest, whose family has served the Panjandrums of Beotia for 700 years is unhappy about working for the new, very unstable, revolutionary government. He can't make up his mind whether to send his reports to the provisional government or one of the competing factions: "Maximillianists" or the "Oppidoshavians". He hopes to restore the old regime. He soon learns that Grand Duchess Annajanska, the beautiful daughter of the Panjandrum, has escaped from the palace to which the royal family have been confined. Reports state that she has eloped with an officer. Who is this man and what are their plans?

News arrives that the Duchess has been captured, but not her lover. Annajanska enters, adopting the haughty air of a princess. The general questions her about the elopement, but she denies it ever happened. The General is concerned that her lover intends to start his own faction, but what is it? Annajanska asks to speak to him in private, but he refuses. She contemptuously ignores him, produces a revolver, and forces everyone else to leave at gunpoint. She tells the General to abandon his counter-revolutionary dreams. She wants no more Panjandrums. Attachment to the old regime is just keeping the people in thralldom. He should work for their liberation. Strammfest argues that revolutions typically create more oppression, not less. The Duchess says that the people will have to be forced to be free. New leaders will arise who will push things forward. She wants a new energy to be unleashed, saying "I am for anything that will make the world less like a prison and more like a circus." She would happily appear on stage as the "Bolshevik Empress". As for suggestion that she eloped with an officer - she opens her cloak to reveal a military uniform underneath. She is the mystery officer herself.


It was first produced on 21 January, 1918 at the Coliseum Theatre. It was originally described as a translation of the work of an imaginary Russian writer called Gregory Biessipoff: "Annajanska, the Wild Duchess, play in one act from the Russian of Gregory Biessipoff". [1] The lead role was played by Lillah McCarthy. The "wonderful white uniform" she theatrically unveils at the end of the play was designed by Charles Ricketts. [2]

Lillah McCarthy English actress and theatrical manager

Lillah Emma McCarthy was an English actress and theatrical manager.

Charles Ricketts British artist and publisher

Charles de Sousy Ricketts was a versatile English artist, illustrator, author and printer, and is best known for his work as book designer and typographer from 1896 to 1904 with the Vale Press, and his work in the theatre as a set and costume designer.


J.W. Hulse argues that Shaw's work always implies a tension between the writer's reformist and anarchist tendencies. His Fabianism was disturbed by Bolshevik radicalism, while his anarchic side looked forward to the wildness of revolution. Gareth Griffith says that though Shaw portrays both pro and anti-revolutionary views, the play is clearly pro-revolution. He argues that "Shaw's letters from the period do not suggest he feared a Bolshevik victory and, though the play does affirm the challenge of revolution, that affirmation was far from straightforward." [3]

The play is set in "Boetia", a term for a province of ancient Greece proverbial for the stupidity of its inhabitants, a meaning that was common in English at the time the play was written. [4]

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  1. Violet M. Broad & C. Lewis Broad, Dictionary to the Plays and Novels of Bernard Shaw, A. & C. Black, 1929, p.213.
  2. The Times, January 22, 1918, p.23
  3. Gareth Griffith, Socialism and Superior Brains: The Political Thought of Bernard Shaw, Routledge, New York, 1995, p.289
  4. The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, Merriam-Webster, 1 Jan 1991, p.360