Image - A postcard from a play staged by Marko Kropyvnytsky's theatre troupe in 1885. Image - A scene from the Berezil theatre production (1923) of Georg Kaiser, Gas I. Image - A scene from Les Kurbas production of Mykola Kulishs Peoples Malakhii in the Berezil theater (1928).

Theater [театр; teatr]. Elements of theatricality can be traced in Ukrainian folk customs and rites, games, folk oral literature, and folk dances back to pre-Christian pagan traditions and rituals. They are especially evident, even today, in the spring vesnianky-hahilky, the summer Kupalo festival, and the winter carols and above all in the ceremony of the Ukrainian wedding. Theatrical entertainment and participation in many rituals was provided by skomorokhy. With the Christianization of Ukraine, the Divine Liturgy took on elements of theatricality, and the church adopted or converted many pagan rituals for its own purposes. The recorded history of nonritual Ukrainian theater begins in 1619 with two intermedes staged between the acts of a Polish religious drama. The further development of Ukrainian theater was influenced by European medieval theater, the Renaissance, and classicism in the court (see Rozumovsky's Theater) and in school drama, particularly at the Kyivan Mohyla Academy. The prohibition of school performances at the academy by Metropolitan Samuil Myslavsky in 1765 resulted in many of its students' contributing to the development and popularization of vertep puppet theater, which was portable so that those involved were less likely to be prosecuted. Vertep performances consisted of two parts, religious and secular, and were the prevailing form of theatrical entertainment in rural areas. Also common was a folk drama consisting of a one-act play based on a local event—for example, Koza (The Goat), Mlyn (The Mill), Did i baba (Old Man and Old Woman), and Pip i smert’ (The Priest and Death). Eventually more historical portrayals evolved—Tsar Maksymillian, Tsar Herod, and Lodka (The Boat); these were the archetype of 19th-century ethnographic theater.

Ukrainian secular theater became popular during the 19th century, beginning with the staging of the first Ukrainian-language plays of Ivan Kotliarevsky and Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko by the Poltava Free Theater in 1819. From the end of the 18th century, Ukrainian landlords organized serf theaters at their estates, where Ukrainian plays were sporadically performed. Ukrainian performances were also staged by Russian-Polish troupes. The pioneering Ukrainian actors were Karpo Solenyk, Mikhail Shchepkin, and Liubov Mlotkovska. In Western Ukraine, Ukrainian performances (particularly by Fedir Yakhymovych in Lviv), such as the dramatization of a Ukrainian wedding in 1835, first occurred in theological seminaries. Amateur secular performances began at the end of the 1840s in Kolomyia, Peremyshl, and Ternopil with adaptations of Kotliarevsky's dramas and with plays by European dramatists, such as Józef Korzeniowski, A. Kotzebue, and Molière.

In Russian-ruled Ukraine many amateur theatre groups and touring theaters were active by the end of the 1850s. In Kyiv the leader in setting up amateur troupes was Mykhailo Starytsky, and in rural areas, Ivan Karpenko-Kary. Although the 1863 tsarist government circular (see Petr Valuev) prohibited the use of the Ukrainian language on stage, the development of Ukrainian amateur theater continued. It reached its apex in the performance in 1873 of Mykola Lysenko's opera Rizdviana nich (Christmas Eve Night, based on Nikolai Gogol's story), directed by Starytsky in a populist-ethnographic style.

The first professional Ukrainian theater was a touring troupe in Austrian-ruled Galicia and Bukovyna under the auspices of the Ruska Besida society (later Ukrainska Besida). Founded in 1864, it is an important landmark in the evolution of modern Ukrainian theater, and notable for its productions, in Ukrainian only, directed by Omelian Bachynsky. The Ukrainska Besida Theater reached the height of its popularity under Ivan Hrynevetsky and was active until 1914.

In contrast to the more liberal circumstances in Western Ukraine, the 1876 Ems Ukase completely prohibited Ukrainian performances in Russian-ruled Ukraine, thereby paralyzing Ukrainian theatrical life there until 1881, when the first touring theater in eastern Ukraine was founded, under Marko Kropyvnytsky. Touring theaters led by Mykhailo Starytsky (1885) and Mykola Sadovsky (1888) and Saksahansky's Troupe (1890) followed. Their repertoire consisted mostly of populist-romantic and realistic plays by Kropyvnytsky, Starytsky, and Ivan Karpenko-Kary. Censorship did not permit performances of plays with historical and social themes and completely prohibited the staging of plays translated from other languages. Each performance had to include at least one Russian play, and the territory of the touring theaters was limited to Russian-ruled Ukraine. In 1897 Starytsky, Sadovsky, Mariia Zankovetska, and Panas Saksahansky attended the First All-Russian Conference of Stage Workers in Moscow, presented Karpenko-Kary's Zapyska (Memorandum), and spoke out against the restrictive conditions imposed on Ukrainian theater.

After the failed Revolution of 1905 censorship eased, and Mykola Sadovsky was able to organize the first resident Ukrainian theater in Kyiv in 1907 (see Sadovsky's Theater). He successfully produced Ukrainian operas as well as melodramas and comedies of manners in translation. His staging of the new Ukrainian repertoire, including psychological dramas by Volodymyr Vynnychenko and Lesia Ukrainka and impressionist études by Oleksander Oles, was less successful. Populist-ethnographic theater gave way to the realistic-psychological style of acting of Ivan Marianenko and the Society of Ukrainian Actors (1916), the State Drama Theater (1918), and the People's Theater (1918, under Panas Saksahansky).

In March 1917 the fledgling Central Rada endorsed the creation of a Theatrical Committee. The committee began publishing Teatral’ni visty and organized the Ukrainian National Theater, under Ivan Marianenko, Mariia Hrushevska, Mykola Vorony, and Oleksander Koshyts, which was active until July 1918 and performed in a realist style.

Undoubtedly, the boldest innovations in the modernization of Ukrainian theater were initiated by Les Kurbas, whose early work developed at Ternopilski Teatralni Vechory (1915) and Molodyi Teatr (1917–19). At Molodyi Teatr Kurbas experimented with a varied repertoire, including psychological-realistic performances of Volodymyr Vynnychenko's plays, a stylized vertep, and a nascent expressionism in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and in stagings of Taras Shevchenko's poetry, particularly ‘Ivan Hus’ (Jan Hus). In 1920 Kurbas produced an adaptation of Shevchenko's poem Haidamaky (Haidamakas) for the Shevchenko First Theater of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, Marko Tereshchenko founded the leftist Tsentrostudiia, and Hnat Yura founded the Franko New Drama Theater (see Kyiv Ukrainian Drama Theater). The leading new Ukrainian theaters after 1917 also included the Zankovetska Theater in Kyiv and the Odesa Derzhdrama. The core of Molodyi Teatr formed the nucleus of Kurbas's Kyidramte (1920) and Berezil (1922).

The Berezil Artistic Association (1922–33) was an avant-garde theater of European significance. Here Les Kurbas developed his method of ‘transformed gestures’ and trained a whole generation of theater artists. Berezil was composed of six studios and had a staff of directors and many committees. It was first located in Kyiv (1922–6), and there Kurbas staged European expressionist plays, adaptations, and new interpretations of world classics. Later it moved to Kharkiv (1926–33), where Kurbas's most important productions were of new Ukrainian plays by Mykola KulishNarodnii Malakhii (The People's Malakhii), Myna Mazailo, and Maklena Grasa. For contravening the principles of socialist realism Kurbas was removed from Berezil in October 1933 and was later arrested.

In Western Ukraine in 1919, some Ukrainian theaters were attached to the Galician military units (see Theater of the Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, Lviv Ukrainian Independent Theater, and New Lviv Theater). The Theater of the Western Ukrainian National Republic was led by Kateryna Rubchak. In Lviv in 1922 the Ukrainian Drama School was founded, and the journal Teatral’ne mystetstvo appeared. Many touring theaters—notably those under Yosyp Stadnyk, Ivan Kohutiak, Opanas Karabinevych, and Sydir Terletsky as well as Nova Stsena and the Ruthenian Theater of the Prosvita Society—were active in Galicia, Volhynia, Bukovyna, and Transcarpathia. Berezil's ideas were adopted by the experimental Zahrava Theater (1933–8), led by Volodymyr Blavatsky, and by the moderate Tobilevych Theater, led by Mykola Bentsal. In 1939 both were forcibly united to form the first Soviet theater in Western Ukraine, the Lesia Ukrainka Theater, and, under the Nazi occupation (1941–4), the drama section of the Lviv Opera Theater. By the Second World War there was also noticeable theatrical activity in Bukovyna and Transcarpathia—the Ruthenian Theater of the Prosvita Society in Uzhhorod, for example. In 1934 the musical-drama theater Nova Stsena was founded.

After the institution of Soviet rule all Ukrainian theaters fell under state control. In 1919 the All-Ukrainian Theater Committee set out to ‘implement reforms’: it nationalized theaters, sponsored competitions for revolutionary plays, organized touring theaters for the Soviet Army (eg, the Poltava Ukrainian Drama Society), founded workers' and peasants' theaters (see Workers' and collective-farm theaters), and forced many theatrical workers to participate in agitprop theaters.

In 1934 socialist realism, the ‘most progressive method of portraying reality,’ was applied to Ukrainian theater. It affected every aspect—theater arts education, theatrical scenery, drama, theater studies, and even film and television. The insistence upon socialist realism resulted in the dominance of contemporary Soviet drama and an almost complete absence of new contemporary European repertoire (approved repertoire was published in Masovyi teatr), the subjugation of all theaters to the Stanislavsky method of acting and directing, a negation of all stylistic variation in performances, and the suppression of any experimentation whatsoever. Its major effects have been a dearth of contemporary Ukrainian dramaturgy, a drastic reduction in the number of spectators, and a sense of frustration among Ukrainian theater workers, not unlike that of a century ago. The partial rehabilitation of Les Kurbas and his followers in 1961 brought about no significant improvements, and neither did the introduction of perestroika in 1986. In the 1990s, however, new Ukrainian theaters—among them the Kyiv Experimental Theater-Studio, the Kyiv Youth Theater (est 1979) led by Les Taniuk, the political cabaret-style Ne Zhurys Theater in Lviv, and the Lviv Ukrainian Youth Theater-Studio (later Lviv Les Kurbas Academic Theater)—attained remarkable theatrical success.

The Soviet regime, assisted by Party-backed organizations such as the Ukrainian Theatrical Society (which publishes Ukraïns’kyi teatr) and the Union of Theatrical Workers of Ukraine (est 1987), closely monitored and regulated the activity of Ukrainian theaters. They were classified according to status—municipal theater, oblast theater, state theater, puppet theater, amateur theater, or young spectator's theater—and profile—Ukrainian, Russian, drama, musical-drama, opera, comedy, small forms, and so on. The number of theaters in Ukraine was reduced from 81 in 1950 to 60 in 1964—42 drama (many have become musical-drama), 5 opera, and 13 young spectator's (8 in 1987). In 1988 there were 38 Ukrainian, 51 Russian, and 24 bilingual theaters in Ukraine. Only half the theaters in Kyiv are Ukrainian; two are Jewish. The Museum of Theater, Music, and Cinema Arts of Ukraine and the National Museum of Literature of Ukraine have outstanding theatrical exhibits.

In the West after the Second World War, the Ukrainian Theater Artists' Association was formed to co-ordinate theaters in the displaced persons camps. Among these were the Ensemble of Ukrainian Actors (see Ukrainian Theater in Philadelphia) and the Theater-Studio of Y. Hirniak and O. Dobrovolska.

In the diaspora, Ukrainian communities have not been sufficiently concentrated to support professional theater. Nevertheless, amateur theaters have sporadically performed in most cities where Ukrainians have settled, and Ukrainian church, school, and youth organizations, such as the Plast Ukrainian Youth Association, have staged theatrical performances. The Toronto Zahrava Theater has been active since 1953, and the Avant-Garde Ukrainian Theater (est 1983) was notable for its staging of contemporary dramas by Sławomir Mrożek, Samuel Beckett, Ihor Kostetsky, and Marko Robert Stech as well as a production of a modern vertep. Since the 1970s, theatrical and film activists, such as Joan Karasevich, Halya Kuchmij, Lubomyr Mykytiuk, T. Shipowick, and S. Wodoslawsky, have brought productions on Ukrainian themes into the mainstream of Canadian culture. In Australia there are Ukrainian theaters in Sydney and Melbourne. In Detroit the Ukrainian Theatrical Society was founded in 1960. In New York Lidiia Krushelnytska headed the Ukrainian Theater Ensemble from 1965. Also in New York the Yara Arts Group, led by Virlana Tkacz, has created theater pieces (in English) based on Ukrainian drama, poetry, and documentary material since 1990.

Antonovych, D. Trysta rokiv ukraïns’koho teatru, 1619–1919 (Prague 1925)
Kysil’, O. Ukraïns’kyi teatr (Kyiv 1925)
Charnets’kyi, S. Narys istoriï ukraïns’koho teatru v Halychyni (Lviv 1934)
Ukraïns’kyi dramatychnyi teatr, 2 vols (Kyiv 1959, 1967)
Rulin, P. Na shliakhakh revoliutsiinoho teatru (Kyiv 1973)
Luzhnytsky, H.; et al (eds). Nash teatr: Knyha diiachiv ukraïns’koho teatral’noho mystetstva, vol 1 (New York 1975)
Chornii, S. Ukraïns’kyi teatr i dramaturhiia (Munich–New York 1980)
Revutsky, V. A History of Ukrainian Theatre, 1619–1975 (Edmonton 1984)
Voronyi, M. Teatr i drama, ed O. Babyshkin (Kyiv 1989)

Valerian Revutsky

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 5 (1993). The bibliography has been updated.]

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