- Shakespeare in the Undiscovered Bourn: Les Kurbas, Ukrainian Modernism and Early Soviet Cultural Politics
Les Kurbas was a central figure in the modernist transformation of Ukrainian literature that took place in Soviet Ukraine in the first decade after the revolution. He was the founder and director of the Berezil' Artistic Association, first in Kyiv and then, after 1926, in Kharkiv, where it moved. His impact on Ukrainian theatre and the literary climate of Ukraine in the 1920s was enormous. Almost single-handedly, he transformed Ukrainian theatre, which had been a simplistic ethnographic medium, restricted by tsarist edicts to a narrow register of quaint productions, into a powerful artistic force where modernism struggled with the new ideological restrictions imposed by a communist regime and European classics and competed with Ukrainian dramas in bold new productions that broke new theatrical ground. Kurbas brought the best of western European theatrical practice, melded it with the creative energies of Ukrainian and Russian modernism, and developed a theatrical style and repertoire that challenged both viewers and commissars to examine the function of art and ideology in a new age. Needless to say, such dramatic innovation did not always find a receptive audience. In Kurbas's case however, it was a hostile ideological and national reaction that doomed him. The Soviet authorities in Moscow had no sentiment for such free-spirited modernist expression. But since Kurbas was doing it in Ukrainian, not in Russian, both the theatre and its creator had to be destroyed. The genius that had helped transform Soviet and indeed European theatre became a victim of a regime that saw no benefit in Ukrainian modernist art.
Irena R. Makaryk's book tells the story of Kurbas's theatrical efforts from his earliest tentative steps as a student in Vienna through his major successes as the master of the Berezil' Theatre in the capital of Ukraine and finally to his tragic conflicts with the thuggish arbiters of Soviet aesthetics. She organizes her narrative chronologically and structures it around a [End Page 332] series of Shakespearean presentations. Kurbas's own Macbeth, first in the Ukrainian countryside (Bila Tserkva and Uman') in 1919-20 and then in Kyiv in 1924, Saksahansky's Othello in 1926, and Yura's Midsummer Night's Dream in 1927. The subject of her monograph, however, is the complex interaction of modernist poetics, communist ideology, Ukrainian patriotism, and the peculiar vision of a political theatre developed by Les Kurbas.
The great strength of Makaryk's book lies in the blending of three very great virtues. First, she has done a very thorough job of researching the archives in Ukraine. This is no mean task, given the conditions that prevail there to this very day. Her study benefits enormously from the extraordinary level of detail that supports her analysis. Second, Makaryk is equally at home in west European theatrical history. Kurbas was not exclusively a Ukrainian figure. Although little known (largely as a result of his fate), his work put him in the vortex of European theatrical innovation in the decade following the First World War. Makaryk has the facts and the insight to make these interconnections come to life. Third, Makaryk is a Shakespeare scholar with deep roots in theory and the interpretation of theatrical productions. Her analyses and descriptions have the benefit of centuries of theatrical experience. Her only fault, if fault there must be in such an excellent book, is that she cannot divorce her feelings, both enthusiasm and anguish, from the story she is telling. [End Page 333]
Maxim Tarnawsky, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Toronto