The roots of Ukrainian theatre

Valentinа ChistyakovаThe roots of Ukrainian theatrical art can be traced to the ancient Eastern Slavic folk games, theatricalized work songs and rites, as well as to the art of the jesters of Kievan Rus and the interludes staged at what were called school theatres (theatres at Ukraine’s first establishments of learning, such as the Ostrog School and the Kiev Academy).

In the 17th and early 18th century the school theatres staged didactic religious and morality plays and historical dramas — c. g., Theophan Prokopovich’s tragicomedy Volodimir (1705) praising in an allegoric form the reforms of Peter I, and By the Grace of God... (1728) describing the Ukrainian liberation movement under Bogdan Khmelnitsky. Between the 17th and 19th century folk puppet theatre enjoyed a high degree of popularity in Ukraine. Its plays had a satirical purport and scathingly ridiculed the vices and wrong-doings of foreign overlords, the clergy and the serf owners.

In 1819 Ivan Kotlyarevsky, the future initiator of a new trend in Ukrainian literature and playwriting, staged at the Poltava theatre his play Natalka Poltavka in collaboration with Mikhail Shchepkin who was destined to become a great actor and reformer of Russia’s theatre. This was the first attempt at organizing a professional Ukrainian national theatre which wras to combine drama and music, drawing on the vocal and dance treasury of Ukrainian folk art and on the achievements of the Russian theatre.

Significantly, Natalka Poltavka remains to this day an adornment in the repertoires of many Ukrainian music and drama theatres, especially of Poltava’s Gogol Theatre. When, in 1969, Ukraine marked the bicentennial of Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s birth, Poltava was the venue of a national competition for the best performance of the title role of Natalka Poltavka. In 1972 the Poltava Theatre staged Kotlyarevsky’s play (accompanied with the music by Mikola Lysenko) at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. The production was a tremendous success to which the outstanding operatic singer Ivan Kozlovsky contributed in no small measure when he brilliantly sang the part of the play’s protagonist Petro.

The interpretation of Natalka Poltavka by the Poltava Theatre and other companies has preserved many of Shchepkin’s traditions. It was Shchepkin himself who initiated the democratic and realistic trend in the Ukrainian art of acting.

In the first half of the 19th century mixed Russian-Ukrainian companies toured Ukraine. They staged plays by Ivan Kotlyarovsky and Hrihoriy Kvitka-Osnovyanenko ( the comedies — Shelmenko the Batman, A Hell of a Wife, Shelmenko the County Clerk and Matchmaking at Honcharivka) and works by Russian playwrights — Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector-General and The Wedding, Denis Fonvizin’s Ignoramus, and Alexandr Griboyedov’s Wit Works Woe.

The appearance of famous Russian actors in Ukraine encouraged to a large extent the assertion of progressive ideological and. aesthetic principles in Ukrainian theatrical art. Yet another great influential factor was the work of the great Taras Shevchenko, with his revolutionary-democratic views and his libertarian, poetry, in particular his profoundly democratic historical drama of mores and manners Nazar Stodolya.

In the latter quarter of the 19tli century the realistic and democratic traditions of Kotlyarevsky, Shchepkin and Shevchenko were continued and developed by the famous Ukrainian actors, directors and playwrights Marko Kropivnitsky, Mikhailo Staritsky, Maria Zankovetska, Panas Saksahansky, Ivan Karpenko-Kary and Mikola Sadovsky who, as Konstantin Stanislavsky wrote, “went down in letter of gold in the history of world art.”

In 1882 Kropivnitsky organized the first Ukrainian theatre company, and one year later he, in collaboration with Staritsky, brought together a large music and drama group. Besides dramas, it staged national operas and operettas, the immortal Natalka Poltavka always being the first to start the company’s theatrical season.

Having no resident theatre, these troupes toured many cities and towns of the Russian Empire, working under very unfavourable conditions. From time to time they united into larger companies with small choirs, an orchestra and several pairs of dancers, and then dispersed because of financial difficulties. The most brilliant and distinctive companies grouped around Kropivnitsky, Staritsky, Saksahansky, Karpenko-Kary and Sadovsky were those which included the great Zankovetska and such famous actors as Lyubov Linitska, Hanna Zatirkevich-Karpinska, Yevfrosinia Zarnitska and Ivan Zamichkovsky.

The plays of Kropivnitsky, Kotlyarevsky, Shevchenko, Staritsky, Karpenko-Kary and Panas Mirny voiced a wrathful protest against social inequality, oppression and ruthless exploitation of the peasantry by the landed gentry. Against the background of these social evils they showed the beauty and wisdom of the common people, and through numerous ethnographical episodes vividly presented their art of dancing and singing.

The democratic nature of Ukrainian theatrical art received ardent support from Russia’s progressives with whom the Ukrainian actors, directors and playwrights maintained strong ties of friendship. Zankovetska’s brilliant talent as an actress won the praise of many Russian artists and authors, above all Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and the founders of Moscow’s Art Theatre Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Captured by Zankovetska’s penetrating and sensitive dramatic power, Nemirovich-Danchenko remarked that “she could speak from the stage in a universally intelligible language of emotions, at the same time remaining a true daughter of her native Ukraine in all her stage masterpieces.”

Ukrainian theatrical troupes travelled extensively through Russia and Ukraine, and the best of them appeared on the stages of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, and even in Paris.

In Western Ukraine, which at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ukrainian professional theatre appeared in 1864. Called Ruska Besida (Ruthenian Colloquy) it was organized, by Yevgeniy Bachinsky and employed such able actors as Teofilia Bachinska, Yosip Stadnik and Ivan Rubchak. Its democratic principles and realistic projection were greatly influenced by the works of Ivan Franko, the acting skill of Zankovetska, and the stage direction of Sa-dovsky who led the company from 1905 through 1906.

In 1907 Mikola Sadovsky organized the first resident theatre in Kiev. It took up the traditions of Kropivnitsky and Staritsky and started to study the experience of the Russian theatre, in particular Moscow’s Maly Theatre and Art Theatre. Sadovsky united his adherents into a remarkable company with Zankovetska in the lead, and considerably expanded the company’s repertoire including in it not only the plays of Kotlyarevsky, Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, Shevchenko, Kropivnitsky, Staritsky, Karpenko-Kary, Ivan Franko and Lesya Ukrainka, but also Ukrainian versions of works by Russian playwrights — Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector-General, Alexandr Ostrovsky’s A Profitable Job, and a number of operas and operettas. Sadovsky’s theatre was the focal point for a large group of talented actors, among whom were Ivan Maryanenko, Hanna Borisohlibska, Maria Litvinenko-Wohlgemut, Olena Petlyash, Yelizaveta Khutorna, Lyubov Linitska, Vasil Vasilko and Les Kurbas, who carried the best traditions of this company onto the stage of the Soviet Ukrainian theatre.

In 1916, Les Kurbas, together with Polina Samiylenko, Vasil Vasilko, Kost Koshevsky, and the young budding artist Anafcole Petritsky organized the Molody tealr (Young Theatre). Among its most distinctive productions were Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex and Moliere Tartujfe. The bold innovative pursuits of the Young Theatre company were supported by the Soviet Government, and in 1919 the company merged with the First Shevchenko State Theatre of the UkrSSR. On its basis, the Berezil Theatre was organized, in which Les Kurbas continued his quests for new forms of scenic projection and turned over to heroic and revolutionary themes.

The Great October Socialist-Revolution of 1917, having done away with the Russian Empire’s system of bourgeois and landowner rule, brought within reach of the working people all the treasures of art, which were created through the exploitation of their labour and which had so far been at the exclusive disposal of the exploiters. The Revolution gave a mighty impulse to the newly born Soviet and, particularly, Ukrainian theatrical art. The great Lenin defined the main objectives of the cultural revolution in the field of art in a brilliantly simple way — to bring art nearer to the people and the people nearer to art. From the very first days following the victory of the Revolution these objectives have been consistently translated into practice.

The Communist Party and Soviet Government always gave prominence to the development of the theatre in our country. Already on November 22, 1917 the Council of People’s Commissars decreed, on Lenin’s personal initiative, to transfer the theatres to the authority of the Department of Art at the State Commission of Education which eventually was reorganized into the People’s Commissariat of Education headed by Anatoliy Lunacharsky. The Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars “On the Unification of Theatrical Work.” signed August 26, 1919 by Lenin, was an event of historical importance in the creation of the new Soviet theatre.

The process of organizing new theatres and making them accessible to the broadest sections of people was also intensive in Ukraine which was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist Republic at the First All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets held in Kharkov on December 25, 1917. Transferred to the authority of the People’s Commissariat of Education of Ukraine, the newly organized theatres staged plays for workers and Red Army soldiers free of charge, trying to make the messages of their productions understood by the working people. The actors performed in units of the Red Army and on the front line of the Civil War, at workers clubs, in mass propaganda shows, and during revolutionary holidays. Travelling propaganda groups and theatre companies carried on extensive artistic and political work among workers, peasants and Red Army soldiers.

On the stage appeared new interpretations of old plays breathing of revolutionary and heroic fervour, e.g., Kote Marjanishvili’s interpretation of Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejana staged in early 1919 in Kiev and Les Kurbas’s highly romanticized stage adaption of Shevchenko’s The Haidamaks. The latter was the cooperative effort of the Young Theatre and the First Shevchenko State Theatre of the UkrSSR. Its premiere took place on March 13, 1920 in Kiev and was a notable cultural event in Soviet Ukraine. Its principal characters were played by Ivan Maryanenko (Honta), Valentina Chistyakova (Oxana), and Vasil Vasilko (the Bard). In the play Kurbas extensively used the music of Mikola Lysenko, Kirilo Stetsenko and Reinhold Gliere. Parts of Shevchenko’s poem, used as commentaries between scenes and episodes, were read by a female choir dressed in long linen dresses and wearing colourful ribbons plaited into braids. Their expressive gestures and passionate recital were reminiscent of a choir of an ancient Greek drama. All these elements allowed the director to create a poetically elevated atmosphere on. the stage, setting off the intensely dramatic events of the play. Staged at a time when the Ukrainian people had at last severed their bonds of centuries-old social and national oppression and when the Red Army was liberating the country from foreign invaders, The Haidamaks produced an unusually strong impact on the audiences.

In January of that same year the Ivan Franko Theatre started its work in Vinnitsa. One of its first productions was Gorky’s The Lower Depths staged by the outstanding director and actor Hnat Yura. In 1926 the Franko Theatre moved to Kiev. Among its founders we find the names of such prominent artists of the Soviet Ukrainian stage as Amvrosiy Buchina, Olexiy Vatulya, Maryan Krnshelnitsky, Kost Koshevsky, Olexandr Yursky and Olga Rubchakivna.

The above-mentioned First Shevchenko State Theatre of the UkrSSR (organized in March 1919) was led by Alexandr Zagarov, a pupil of the famous Stanislavsky and an ardent advocate of the principles of the Moscow Art Theatre. From 1927 this theatre worked in Dnepropetrovsk and is now one of the leading music and drama companies in Soviet Ukraine.

Zagarov also played a notable part in shaping the realistic and aesthetic foundations of the Maria Zankovetska Ukrainian Theatre organized on the basis of Saksahansky’s People’s Theatre in Kiev in September 1922. One of its founders, Boris Romanitsky, commenting on Zagarov’s productions of Gogol’s Wedding, Gabriela Zapolska’s The Moral of Pani Dulska, Goldoni’s La locandiera (Mirandolina), and his brilliant presentation of the Governor in Gogol’s The Inspector-General, wrote the following about him:

“Having arrived in Ukraine from the Moscow Art Theatre, he learned the Ukrainian language to perfection and was an example for the actors in its knowledge. Generally, his influence as a remarkable director was greatly appreciated by all of us. I remember him as a director, as an actor and as a human being with the most beautiful qualities: sincere, passionate, trusting.”

Together with Yasil Yaremenko, Olexandr Korolchuk and Varvara Lyubart, Romanitsky set to work on creating a new theatre company which would organically combine the best traditions of the Russian and Ukrainian theatres. “We are a theatre of the present day,” lie declared, “and we try to re-create the themes of our epoch... to be nearer to the working masses, to be understood by all.”

The company of the Zankovetska Theatre actively collaborated with Ukrainian dramatists in creating a modern repertoire. Among its most interesting productions were Mikola Kulish’s 97 and Commune in the Steppes, Ivan Mikitenko’s Dictatorship, Ivan Koclierha’s The Fairy of the Bitter Almonds, Ivan Dniprovsky’s Apple Captivity, Yakiv Mamontov’s Republic on Wheels, Miroslav Irchan’s Family of Brushmakers, and Olexandr Korniychuk’s Death of the Squadron, Platon Krechet and In the Steppes of Ukraine. The company travelled extensively throughout the Donbas and the Krivoi Rog, Dnepropetrovsk, Nikolayev and Zaporozhye regions, presenting their productions to a wide audience of workers. Today the Zankovetska Theatre is headquartered in Lvov.

Almost simultaneously with the Zankovetska Theatre, another company, Berezil (March), was organized in March 1922 in Kiev under Les Kurbas. In 1926 the theatre moved to Kharkov. In 1935 it was renamed the Shevchenko Theatre and Maryan Krushelnitsky was appointed its artistic director. A talented student of Kurbas, he contributed tremendously to the overall achievements of the Shevchenko Theatre.

In 1925 the October Revolution Ukrainian Theatre was opened in Odessa. It employed experienced masters of the stage, such as Ivan Zamichkovsky, Hanna Meshcherska, Yelizaveta Khutorna and Lyubov Matsievska, and young talented actors — Natalia Uzhviy, Yuri Shumsky, Victor Dobrovolsky, Yevhen Ponomarenko and Polina Nyatko. Of its first productions the most significant were Kulish’s 97, Dniprovsky’s Apple Captivity, Korniychuk’s Death of the Squadron, Mikitenko’s Skilled Labour, Leonid Pervomaisky’s Young Communist Leaguers, as well as Trenyov’s Lyubov Yarovaya and Lavrenyov’s The Rupture. The theatre’s most important achievements are associated with the activity of its director Vasil Vasilko.

From 1924 on the number of Ukrainian theatres for children and youth began to increase rapidly. As a matter of fact, children’s theatres appeared in our country for the first time in history.

In October 1925 a Ukrainian Opera House was opened in Kharkov. It was the first in the history of our national culture, and in the autumn of 1926 Operas were opened in Kiev and Odessa. To popularize classic opera and ballet among the broadest sections of working people throughout the Republic, travelling opera and ballet companies were organized in 1928. It was only in Soviet times that Mikola Lysenko’s opera masterpiece Taras Bulba was produced, followed by the first works of Soviet Ukrainian composers — Boris Lyatoshinsky’s patriotic Golden Hoop and Shchors, and ballets — Mikhailo Verikivsky’s Pan Kanyovsky and Kostynntin Dankevich’s Lileya.

In the autumn of 1929 Ukraine's first theatre of musical comedy was opened in Kharkov. Promoting the traditions of Lysenko’s and Stetsenko’s classic operettas, the company, together with its conductor and composer Olexiy Ryabov, staged such merry productions as The Sorochintsi Fair and May Night based on Gogol’s famous stories and Wedding in Malinivka, a modern revolutionary musical comedy which for fifty years now has not lost its popularity.

Every type and genre of Ukrainian theatre was actively employed, in the country’s overall effort to build a socialist Ukrainian culture. The stage became a splendid ground for interpreting the heroic events of the Revolution and the most burning issues involved in building a socialist society. The stage also revealed the individual skills of our outstanding directors of the older generation — Hnat Yura, Les Kurbas, Vasil. Vasilko, Boris Romanitsky and Kost Koshevsky, and of their younger colleagues — Maryan Krnshelnitsky, Boris Tyalino, Volodimir Sklyarenko, Les Dubovik and Boris Balaban. Of all the productions which best of all defined the ideological and artistic trend in the development of the Ukrainian theatre asserting the principles of socialist realism, Kulish’s 97 probably holds the most prominent place. It was produced for the first time by Hnat Yura at the Franko Theatre in 1924.

The play’s conventionalized image of a people roused to struggle by the Revolution was presented with a powerful epic sweep. In a diverse succession of detailed scenes the director conveyed a vivid scenic interpretation of the essence of the Socialist Revolution which had struck a responsive chord in the hearts of millions by calling on them to engage in a creativity unprecedented in history.

As Lunacharsky defined it, 97 was the first “powerful play about country life” in the Soviet Ukrainian theatre. It opened up new facets in the acting talents of Hanna Borisohlibska, Olexiy Vatulya, Terentiy Yura and, above all, of Hnat Yura himself, who created the unforgettable stage character of Musiy Kopistka, a landless peasant committed body and soul to Soviet power.

Over fifty years have passed, but 97 still holds a message which keeps on exciting many theatre companies throughout the Republic.

Olexandr Korniychuk’s work as a playwright played a tremendous role in Ukrainian modern drama. Ever since Hnat Yura produced his first play at the Franko Theatre, Korniy-cliuk maintained the closest creative ties with its company which was almost always the first to stage his new plays. Amvrosiy Buchma, Natalia Uzhviy, Hanna Borisohlibska, Yuri Shumsky, Dmitro Milyutenko, Olexiy Vatulya, Polina Nyatko, Nonna Koperzhinska, Mikola Yakovchenko and Volodimir Dalsky breathed life into many wonderful characters from Korniychuk’s dramas and comedies. In the 1930s and 1940s he wrote the tragedy Death of the Squadron, the passionate play about the Revolution Truth, the psychological drama Platon Krechet, the epic historical play Bogdan Khmelnitsky, the witty comedy on modern village life In the Steppes of Ukraine, the acutely topical play Front dealing with our reverses during the first months of the war in 1941, and Makar Dibrova, a drama devoted to important issues of Ukraine’s development in the first postwar years. These creations had a tremendous impact on the whole course of Ukrainian theatrical art and on the exchange of theatrical cultures between all Soviet nations. They were staged by practically every theatre company in Ukraine and by the best companies in Moscow, Leningrad and in many other cities throughout the Soviet Union.

Makar Dibrova was staged at the Franko Theatre by directors llnat Yura and Benedict Nord and the famous artist Anatole Petritsky in close collaboration with Korniychuk. It is an exciting story about the revival of the Donbas after the war and the patriotism and solidarity of the Soviet miners who stood behind this important economic effort.

The principal character Makar Dibrova, skilfully played by Buchma, embodied the indestructible force of Soviet people who had liberated Europe from fascism. Dibrova, as created by Buchma, was a simple miner who had experienced the hardest trials in his trade. He had large calloused hands and twinkling eyes which bespoke a benevolent nature, kind heart and great wisdom — the wisdom of a master of his mine, a master of his country which he, shoulder to shoulder with his compatriots, had raised from the ruins.

In his remarkable identification with the hero, Buchma conveyed not only the deep feelings and complex psychic state of Dibrova, but also the intense process of his thoughts which were oppressed by the uncertainty as to the death of his only son who had been reported missed in action. A dutiful citizen, selfless worker and considerate instructor of young miners, Dibrova, as projected by Buchma, was also an extraordinary loving father.

In the finale of the second act Buchma illuminated with exceptional skill the complex gamut of the old miner’s thoughts and feelings, when the serene atmosphere of peace was suddenly disturbed by a horrible echo of the past war.

In a disused mine, where the Nazis had executed Soviet patriots, a half-decayed bullet-riddled jacket was found. With trembling hands Dibrova unfolded the jacket and found a note in it, reading: “I am writing with blood.. Today we will be taken to the execution site to be shot. During the interrogations we have guarded the honour of the country and the honour of the Party. We had been tracked down and denounced to the Gestapo by Pilip Semenenko. Farewell, comrade miners....” Read slowly and heavily, these words screamed of pain and inexpressible grief. And all of a sudden the tense voice of the old miner broke off when he saw the familiar signature: Petro Dibrova. “Oh my son, my son....” These words were spoken with heart-rending grief, emotional force and pride at the same time. On hearing the sobbing of his wife, he started and, raising his grey head and tear-filled eyes, he said: “Don’t cry, don’t cry... Petro has kept our honour....”

Makar Dibrova tenderly put his arm around her shoulder and led her inside the house, emerging from it after a while with a heavy gait. Lonesome and bereaved, his fists clenched, he entered the yard, looking from time to time at the jacket lying on the bench. Abruptly he turned in his tracks, went up to the bench and carefully took the jacket in his hands, then put it on his knees, gently running his calloused fingers across every fold, touching lightly the bullet traces on the fabric and pressing the jacket to his bosom and stroking it like an infant. And all the while his tear-filled eyes looked into the distance and shone with inexpressible grief. The actor approached the proscenium and stopped dead. He looked out into the auditorium as if spying Petro somewhere in the distance, and the tense, taut silence was interrupted by his bitter sobs: “My son, oh my son....” Old Dibrova pressed his face against the jacket of his dead son and tears ran profusely down his grey mustache.

Tin's scene was the highpoint of the entire production and of Buchma’s skill in creating this stage character. It made the audience hold their breath and concentrate every sense on the development of this profoundly psychological drama. Those who saw Buchma playing Makar Dibrova seemed to have personally lived through the tragedy of the hero and remembered this experience for the rest of their lives.

Buchma, whose artistic endeavours combined so organically our classical national traditions in acting and the experience of the modern Soviet theatre, created yet another unforgettable stage character — Mikola Zadorozhny in Franko’s Stolen Happiness produced by Hnat Yura at the Franko Theatre.

The director succeeded in raising Franko’s psychological drama of mores to the level of a tragedy of great social implication, a tragedy which passionately voiced a humanitarian message by deeply sympathizing with the people whom an unjust social system had robbed of their happiness. The tragedy unfolds against a scenic Carpathian background and authentic ethnographic details of peasant life.

The events centre around the poor peasant Mikola, his wife Anna, played by Natalia Uzhviy, and the gendarme Mikhailo Gurman, a brutal yet unhappy man in love with Anna from his youth, who was expressively played by Victor Dobrovolsky.

Yuri Stanishevsky


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