That evening, it’s showtime at the Variety Theater. In the packed auditorium, the Giulli family open up for Woland’s performance with their cycling trapeze act. Meanwhile, Rimsky, still in the office, wonders why Varenukha has been gone so long.
This chapter is the symbolic center of the first book of the novel. The Giulli family’s act is impressive but innocuous, luring the audience into a false sense of security. Varenukha is missing, of course, because he has been turned into a vampire.
A messenger informs Rimsky that Woland has arrived, and Rimsky goes to meet him backstage. He finds Woland sitting with his two companions: “a long checkered one with a cracked pince-nez, and a fat black cat.” Koroviev dazzles Rimsky by making Rimsky’s gold watch appear behind the cat’s ear. To the amazement of Rimsky and the other performers backstage, the cat drinks a glass of water, holding it in his front paw.
Koroviev’s little backstage trick is a typical one for magicians, but also carries with it the suggestion of threat and criminality. Behemoth, for his part, is just being himself—but is fully aware of the dazzling effect his anthropomorphic abilities have on onlookers.
The bell rings to signal that the main performance is about to begin. The master of ceremonies, Georges Bengalsky, enters the stage and addresses the audience. He announces “Maestro Woland” and his “séance of black magic,” while also pointing out that “there’s no such thing in the world” as magic. The most interesting part, says Bengalsky, will be in the explanations of how Woland’s tricks work.
Bengalsky is a typical compere that would introduce acts at this kind of show (loosely based on music hall/vaudeville traditions). His fatal error is to suggest that there is no such thing as magic—that is, like Berlioz, he believes that everything can be rationalized away. This represents a kind of cowardly affiliation to the status quo that prevents him from seeing beyond his horizons. In this, he reflects the general attitude of the audience.
The audience welcomes Woland to the stage with Koroviev and the black cat. Woland, addressing Koroviev as “Fagott,” suggests that “the Moscow populace has change significantly.” “Koroviev-Fagott” agrees, mentioning the Muscovites’ clothing style and new modes of transportation. Bengalsky, sensing a dip in the audience’s attention, says that “the foreign artiste is expressing his admiration for Moscow and its technological development, as well as for the Muscovites.”
Woland’s comment to Koroviev indicates that this is not the first time that the devil has come to Moscow. Koroviev’s new name is the German word for “bassoon,” emphasizing that this is a performance. The reader knows from Woland’s earlier conversations that he has been around for vast swathes of time (e.g. with Pontius Pilate two millennia ago), explaining why he remarks on the technological advancement of Moscow. This is also a sly dig at the Soviet authorities, who were desperate to compete technologically with Western capitalism.
Woland asks Koroviev if he had “expressed admiration,” causing Koroviev to call Bengalsky a liar. Woland says the more important question is “have the city folk change inwardly?” Sensing the audience’s boredom, Koroviev and the cat perform some impressive tricks with a deck of cards, sending it through the air “in a long ribbon.” They make the deck appear in the pocket of an audience member—someone shouts that this is “an old trick:” a plant. Koroviev then allays these suspicions by making the deck appear in that person’s pocket. The audience member excitedly realizes that the cards have turned into ten-rouble bills.
Bengalsky’s error is going to be a fatal one, incurring Woland’s wrath. Woland’s question strikes at the heart of the novel, asking whether the populace is making genuine progress or remain the same. In this way, Woland functions as a kind of anthropologist, interested in how people’s attitudes to one another, themselves, good and evil—and the devil. He’s also filling a vacuum left by the deficit of genuine artists. As with all good showmanship, Woland and his accomplices are careful to build towards a climax, by starting with small—but impressive—tricks.
Koroviev then makes the audience look upwards. After a flash and a bang, money starts raining down from the ceiling. The spectators frantically snatch at the money, fighting with one another. Bengalsky tries to restore order by stating that they have just witnessed an impressive act of “so-called mass hypnosis.” This, he says, is “a purely scientific experiment, proving in the best way possible that there are no miracles in magic.” He asks Woland to explain how he did it.
Koroviev’s stunt appeals to the materialistic side of the audience, making its members literally fight with one another to snatch at the money. What they don’t realize is that this in fact part of the big reveal—of their characters. They show themselves to be individualistic, contrary to the stated aims of the Communist project and thereby highlight the contradictions within Soviet society. Bengalsky’s explanation chimes with Styopa’s earlier claim to have been hypnotized—this provides a rational reason for what’s happening. The performance undermines the official line that Soviet citizens live in a utopia.
Koroviev insists that the notes are real and expresses annoyance with Bengalsky. He asks the crowd what he should to do Bengalsky, who suggest tearing his head off. The cat jumps up in a ball of fur and tears Bengalsky’s head from its neck. Koroviev holds the head up as it calls for “a doctor!” He makes the head promise to stop talking “such drivel” before the cat, on Woland’s orders, restores the head to the body.
This is the second decapitation in the novel, albeit only a temporary one. It is an immense show of Woland’s power (though done by Behemoth) and goes beyond anything the audience might have expected from the show. As with Berlioz’s decapitation, this is Woland’s way of emphasizing the limits of mankind’s knowledge, and its arrogant folly in thinking that everything is understandably with reason.
Bengalsky is rushed backstage. He struggles violently and is taken away in an ambulance. Having “kicked that nuisance out,” Koroviev conjures up a “ladies’ shop” on stage. He invites the women in the audience to come up and try on the latest fashions from Paris. Furthermore, he says, they can take whatever they want for free. A “red-headed girl” (Hella) with a scarred neck appears “from devil knows where” to assist the women in trying the shoes, garments and handbags. She sings out the brand names sweetly: “Guérlain, Chanel, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noir, Chanel No.5, evening gowns, cocktail dresses.”
Koroviev moves the show on by adding “pride” to “greed”; that is, his ladies’ shop is designed to draw out the vanity of those in attendance. The women are especially excited because these are the kind of clothes that they simply can’t get in a society controlled by state authority. Hella sings a kind of capitalist siren song, tunefully sounding the sonorous names of the most desirable haute couture.
Though reticent at first, the women flood the stage and urgently grab as much as they can. Koroviev announces that the shop will close in one minute, making the women even more crazed and frantic. One minute later, the shop melts into thin air. At this moment, a deep-voiced man, Arkady Apollonovich, shouts down from one of the boxes, saying that, though the trick is impressive, Woland and company must now explain how they did it.
The shop, of course, is an illusion—though made very real by Koroviev’s supernatural powers. The frenzy of the women highlights that desire has not been eliminated in Soviet society, merely suppressed. Arkady is the latest citizen to act as the “voice of reason.”
Koroviev tells Arkady that they will reveal all—after one last number. He asks Arkady where he was yesterday evening, to which Arkady’s wife interjects that he was at a “meeting of the Acoustics Commission.” Koroviev reveals that, on the contrary, Arkady went to meet his mistress, an actress. A young relation of Arkady, also in the box, exclaims that she now understands why the actress got a lead theater role recently. She and Arkady’s wife fight as the cat announces that “the séance is over!” As the orchestra plays, “something like babel” breaks loose in the Variety. Police try to impose order on the chaos as the stage lies “suddenly empty”: Koroviev-Fagott and the cat, who the narrator now reveals to be called Behemoth, have already melted into thin air.
Koroviev and Behemoth stick to another key principle of showmanship—leave the audience wanting more. Before they go, Koroviev is sure to demonstrate one more instance of hypocrisy among the Moscow citizens. Arkady, in trying to dispel the illusion conjured by Koroviev, attempts to impose a moral standard on the proceedings, implying that it is “wrong” for the audience to be deceived in such a way. Koroviev turns this back on Arkady by highlighting his own taste for deception. In this, he implicitly critiques the “one rule for one, one rule for another” way of living that Arkady represents. The reference to “babel” is a gentle reminder to readers of the biblical elements of the novel, and to see what’s happening in the Variety as evidence of something more universal.