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  • Les' Kurbas: The Harlequin's Grin
  • John Hofland
Les' Kurbas: The Harlequin's Grin. By Stepan Pasechnik. Translated by Usmeshka Arlekina. Directed by Stepan Pasechnik. Kharkov Ukrainian National Shevchenko Theatre, Kharkov. 27 March 2007.

When Sergei Gordeyev organized the March 2007 international theatre conference titled "Les' Kurbas, an Exemplary Man of the Theatre" in Kharkov, Ukraine, he was paying tribute to the theatre director who more than anyone else created what has come to be a uniquely Ukrainian style of theatre. Much as Stanislavsky shaped the Russian theatre of the early twentieth century, Les' Stepanovich Kurbas shaped the Ukrainian theatre. Echoes of the style he created, however, have not been limited to Ukraine. Like his Russian contemporary, Les' Kurbas's work has had lasting international influence. Echoes of his work later appeared in Piscator's use of film as scenery, in the liberties the American avant-garde has taken with theatrical texts, and in the use of space as text that Czech artists championed in the late twentieth century.

The two-day conference, whose participants hailed from all the major cities in Ukraine as well as from Russia and the United States, was held at the Kharkov State Academy of Culture, where Sergei Gordeyev directs the theatre program. The academy—a [End Page 307] major theatre-training center in Ukraine—is located just a block from the theatre named in honor of the legendary Les' Kurbas. Events for the conference included the expected scholarly papers detailing his legacy; a movie commemorating his life and work and his execution by the KGB; a memorial service at his monument in the cemetery outside the city of Kharkov; and, finally, a performance of a production created to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Kurbas's birth. The performance, Les' Kurbas: The Harlequin's Grin, was undoubtedly the conference event that best captured the lasting significance of the artist's work. The performance included several reminders of Kurbas's pioneering stylistic choices: the triple casting of key roles, the inclusion of a chorus, a spare set composed of metaphoric units with strong, tightly limited stylistic choices, and the use of film to comment on the action.

Kurbas was born in 1887, a time when Ukraine was dominated by czarist Russia. Although Russian acting troupes did tour the country at that time to perform Shakespeare and other classics, czarist law forbade Ukrainians themselves from performing classic pieces. The czar considered Ukrainians mere peasants and not worthy of the lofty task of performing "great literature." When the Russian Revolution broke down that restriction, there was a flood of fresh theatrical activity in Ukraine, with Kurbas at the forefront. His aesthetic was fed by two impulses: the first was a desire to create a fresh approach to the classics—"fresh" meaning being attuned to Expressionism and other new forms sweeping Europe during the 1920s; the second was a desire to create work that connected the classics to Ukrainian life. For him, it was as important to let the classics speak to the urban dweller in Kiev as it was to have them speak to the villagers in the tiny hamlets that dot the fertile Ukrainian countryside; hence, after opening in urban centers, his three productions of Macbeth toured from village to village. In every village, the drunken porter appeared between each act, making comments on local weather, politics, and religion, his text changing to fit each community.

Kurbas was one of the first directors to use film as a scenographic element and secondary text; using such electronic innovations during the 1920s in rural hamlets was no small feat. The images used in the film were not intended to create a sense of place, however. Kurbas opposed realism; his scenery was metaphoric. Therefore he used film to comment on the text, to contradict the text, or to punctuate a scene. In this manner, he led the way for the later work of such artists as Piscator and the Czech artists of the Velvet Revolution. Kurbas's other innovations included the use of more than one actor to play a role and the insertion of a chorus. In each of these innovations, he worked to free himself from...


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