Contemporary Ukrainian Theater as Baroque Carnival

By
F. Joseph Dresen

The experience of Ukrainian theater is one of trying to balance classical heritage and a tragic history with innovation, according to Pavlo Bosy, Producer, Little Globe Theater, Kirovohrad, and OSI Research Fellow, New School University, New York. Speaking at a Kennan Institute lecture on 1 May 2001, Bosy explained that theater is important for understanding Ukrainian culture because it is "that kind of art which is the most alive, metaphoric and capable of reacting to life issues." Theater, he declared is a "model of society."

In the 19th century, Ukrainian theater developed in three centers--Poltava, Lviv, and what is now Kirovohrad. The main genres, according to Bosy, were comedy, tragedy, operetta, and musical drama. The musical drama, which he portrayed as a Ukrainian invention, helped to make theater accessible to the lower class, but had stagnated by the 1920s and was no longer considered an art form.

Further experiments in theatrical art in Ukraine came to a halt under Stalin. During the 1920s and 30s, Soviet power brutally repressed all forms of artistic expression that was not in line with political preferences from Moscow. Ukrainian actors and playwrights were arrested and frequently executed.

By the 1940s and 50s, theater as an art form had become completely unified and identical throughout the Soviet Union. Special regulations dictated that every new theater should be built on the model of Moscow theaters. Actors were to be trained in the Stanislavsky method, and the repertories of new and classical material were restricted. Musical dramas were favored, as they were simple and easily regulated. Theatrical productions became limited to classical productions that were technically perfect, but stagnant. The only forum for innovation at that time was in stage design, and that form of artistic expression grew to be very important for Ukrainian theater, declared Bosy.

During the 1970s, theatrical experiments became more permissible in the provincial capitals of the Soviet republics. Playwrights from the provinces explored new issues for theater, and were eventually accepted on the stages of Moscow. In time, Moscow grew thirsty for material from the provinces. "The forced artistic unity of previous decades had vanished," argued Bosy, "Some theatrical centers became optimistic, while others, such as in Armenia or Lithuania, became openly tragic."

The 1980s and, especially, 1990s witnessed additional political liberalization. Directors, who in the past were forced to express their views in the symbolism of fables and parables, became freer to say what they wanted, but discovered that they had difficulty finding what to say with the erosion and disappearance of Soviet control. In response, Ukrainian directors turned to post-modern expression, and innovation was expressed in form rather than content.

"The result," stated Bosy, "was a baroque carnival in Ukrainian theater." Directors and playwrights started to reach back to draw upon images and themes from history in order to reinterpret them and place new forms on history. In this way, old classics and theatrical clich‚s were reinterpreted in absurdist approaches, with an emphasis on improvisation. For example, one production of Chekhov's Three Sisters was staged during World War II, with a KGB official playing the villain and accompanied by Elvis Presley music. Bosy described how another production staged a Chekhov play as if they were British actors with no knowledge of Russian life for example, serving vodka from a samovar. Yet another company staged the Eagles' pop song "Hotel California" as a play. Bosy also described one director's technique of having actors trade roles mid-way through a play, and how another director became part of the performance by joining his actors on stage with a video camera.

In addition to a complicated historical and stylistic legacy, Ukrainian theater must also operate in a nation divided by ethnicity and language. Bosy noted that there are different regional approaches to this task. For example, he explained that, by staging productions in English, the theater company that he heads in a provincial Ukrainian city is able to present more explicit and absurdist material than would be possible in Ukrainian or Russian. Fusing stylistic, cultural, and linguistic traditions is a challenge that the artists in Ukrainian theater are ready to meet, according to Bosy: "One of the translations of Ukraine is borderland--something between two worlds. It is like this for theater life as well."

Theater companies, regardless of their individual style or strategy, are an important element in the rebirth of Ukrainian culture. "Culture and art play an important regulative role in industrialized urban society," Bosy argued, "They help to adapt and integrate values of a multi-ethnic society."

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