Les Kurbas: the Revolutionary of the Theatre

Culture & Science
20 March 2012, 15:04

The Ukrainian Weekcontinues its series of articles about great figures in Ukrainian history who had to make the choice of their lives when they found themselves under the press of the Communist system. This instalment is about Les Kurbas, the founder of modern Ukrainian theatre

The contribution Kurbas made to establishing the modern theatre is comparable to that of such 20th-century luminaries as Swiss reformer Adolphe Appia, French Jacques Copeau, British Edward Gordon Craig, Russian Vsevolod Meyerhold, German Erwin Piscator and Austrian Max Reinhardt. However, he was unable to fully realise his potential in the Soviet Union and was murdered by Stalin's repressive machine.


After crossing the border in 1916 between two warring empires, Austro-Hungary and Russia, Kurbas never returned to Galicia again. He maintained a connection with his small motherland and close ones in an unusual way – by luring his acquaintances and friends, such as Galician actors Hanna Babiyivna, Volodymyr Blavatsky, Yanuariy Bortnyk, Amvrosiy Buchma, Yosyp Hirniak, Volodymyr Kalyn, Marian Krushelnytsky, Faust Lopatynsky and Sofia Fedortseva to Greater Ukraine.

The sincere youthful infatuation with socialist ideals which he adopted from his uncle, social democrat Roman Kurbas, coupled with a desire for national self-assertion and self-realisation played a decisive role in his life. He started his career as a theatre director with the high-profile play Jews by Evgeny Chirikov which told the story of pogroms in the Russian Empire in the early 20th century. After Kurbas staged this play in 1909 with a student amateur drama circle in Lviv, he was expelled from the university.

Kurbas had an invincible faith in artistic missionary work which spurred him to action under any circumstances. It is anyone’s guess whether he inherited this feature from his parents, who were actors in the Galician touring theatre run by the Ruska besida (Ruthenian Talk) society, or from his grandfather, who was a priest, intellectual and a bibliophile, or whether he cultivated it in himself despite disillusionment with life and sorrow over unfulfilled dreams. This was the force that made him follow Bolshevik units as the leader of the Kyidramte theatre (Kyiv Drama Theatre), part of the Iona Yakir’s division in 1920. It also pushed him to stage one play after another in the Solovki camps.

An artistic missionary spirit led Kurbas to actions that would appear either too pragmatic or utterly reckless to an average person. His first permanent stage – Theatrical Nights in Ternopil – was set up in 1915 in order to support and feed Ukrainian actors who suffered from the hardships of the First World War in a territory occupied by Russian troops. Ordinary ethnographic plays (such as Natalka Poltavka) were performed for Ukrainian soldiers. It is quite possible that this was a conscious appeal to the national spirit in the grey mass of soldiers who began to recollect what their fatherland was and identify with it.


His next enterprise – setting up a studio in Kyiv in 1916 and, a little more than a year later, opening the Molodyi Teatr theatre (Young Theatre) with an innovative, nonstandard repertoire – seemed a very risky venture. This team, which went down in history as the first modern theatre in Ukraine, initially had no financial support except for the magnanimous permission of impresarios to sometimes perform free of charge in the building of the Bergonie Theatre on Fundukleevska Str. The actors brought some props from home, collected others from neighbours and borrowed from friends. All of it was mixed with enthusiasm and the voluntary participation of people who lived on hope and expectations. Finally, they managed to produce a stage complete with decorations cemented by actors into an aesthetic whole.

The art of quality imagery rested on foundations that are characteristic of most modern-era up and coming drama circles: a studio uniting young actors, an “updated” repertoire and fundamentally non-commercial nature. To Kurbas, however, it was not a theatre in which people played accidental parts and uttered someone else’s words. The stage became the place of important personal expression, because it was about art whose language he could use to speak most convincingly to the world.

These early years, which are now considered an aesthetic school of the national theatrical stage and recognised as the most fruitful period in the theatrical education of Kurbas, Hnat Yura, Pavlo Tychyna, Mykhail Semenko, Anatol Petrytsky and many others, ended in 1920 with the play Haidamaky (The Haidamakas). The allegoric performance was produced by a united troupe of Kyiv-based artists in the newly opened Taras Shevchenko Theatre where Shevchenko’s text, made even more relevant by the military expansion of the Polish troops, acquired new philosophical depths and enriched imagery and set Kurbas apart from his colleagues and like-minded people. It became apparent that this man not only knew the craft of making stage action look like real life but was also able to produce something truly artistic.


In the early 1920s, Kurbas’ idealism (his belief in a better future) and maximalism (in the sense of concentrating all possible effort to achieve a goal) led him to form a revolutionary agitation theatre, which was fuelled by the aesthetics of gloomy plays by German expressionists. He and his students staged plays of sorrow and despair, filled with a premonition of an industrial collapse, in the Berezil Artistic Union (launched in Kyiv in March 1922). They did so in an avant-garde, uninhibited fashion as a kind of ode to the liberated working class.

It was with these tense and ecstatic scenes in which dozens of actors moved together as one gigantic creature that he stunned ordinary viewers, friends, rivals and foes. It was from this metaphorical persuasion, allusion-rich ambiguity, technical sophistication and rich sense of the plays staged by Berezil in its early days that the “Kurbas theatre” emerged and developed into a full-fledged artistic whole.

At first glance, Kurbas appeared to be pro-Bolshevik. The city audience did not always understand his plays. But his artistic power arose from the fact that he attracted intellectuals, aesthetes and left-wing radicals. The Soviet government began to eye this phenomenon with suspicion starting from the mid-1920s. Kurbas’ prophetic gift to see things most people preferred to turn away from and speak about what was just about to happen became the most distinctive feature of Berezil plays, which went against the grain of Bolshevik censorship.


Kurbas entered a new stage of his theatrical pursuits in autumn 1926 when Berezil was forced to move, as an exemplary theatre, to Kharkiv, the then capital of Ukraine. First, the Kharkiv audience swallowed, with a wry face, Fernand Crommelynck’s Tripes d’or (Golden Guts), a play about avaricious and narrow-minded petty bourgeois. Irony and the grotesque portrayal of human nature did not strike a chord with the viewers but sent Mykola Khvylovy, who wrote a review of the play, into rapture. Both the public and the critics were waiting to see what would happen next, because the Kurbas theatre clearly left its early stage behind and was going full steam ahead to parable-like, critical and intellectual action.

In 1928, Berezil staged Mykola Kulish’s Narodnii Malakhii (The People’s Malakhii). Painter Vadym Meller recreated the streets of Kharkiv on stage with advertisement-style ease of comprehension and simplicity. The protagonist, Comrade Stakanchyk, confused reality and fantasy like a schizophrenic. The proletarian and proud Kharkiv, filled to the brim with new partocracy, could not tolerate this caricature of itself, even though Soviet realities were indeed split into incongruous fragments: frenzied industrialisation when concrete was poured around the clock and rammed it in with worn-down boots, a food card system and banquets for Communist Party bosses and so on.


In 1930, Kurbas staged Ivan Mykytenko’s Dyktatura (Dictatorship) in which words were recited and declared rather than spoken. The play was about "the movement of 25,000", the elimination of kulaks and forced collectivisation. It was a mystery play in both form (small bird houses for every character) and content. If Kurbas had been dealing with gods (the theatre was a way to curry favour with them in antiquity), they would have heard him. But the Soviet deities since the early 1930s were undereducated seminary graduates, reckless military commanders and seasoned political intriguers.

Kurbas’ last work on the Kharkiv stage was the political agitation piece The Death of the Squadron by Oleksandr Korniychuk. He never actually completed it. (It was later done by Borys Tiahno.) After Kulish staged Maklena Grassa, a play about a poor girl from the bourgeois Poland, as a universal lamentation in 1933, the government no longer trusted the unrealiable utopianist and dreamer to lead a theatre.

The press launched a vicious campaign against Kurbas. His revolutionary innovative theatre was stigmatised as a "subversive organisation." A meeting of the theatrical collegium that discussed Maklena Grassa was the apotheosis of his persecutions. He was accused of "bourgeois nationalism" and Berezil was pronounced to be unfit for developing Soviet Ukrainian art. An arrest followed. Kurbas worked on building the White Sea-Baltic Canal and later found himself in a Solovki camp where he kept his artistic fire burning. His life ended in early November 1937 when a large group of Ukrainian intellectuals were executed by shooting in Sandarmokh to mark the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution.


Oleksander-Zenon (Les) Kurbas (1887-1937) was born in Sambir, now Lviv Region, into a family of theatre actors. He studied in the Ternopil Gymnasium, the University of Vienna and Lviv University. In 1916, he joined Mykola Sadovsky’s theatre in Kyiv as an actor. He founded the Molodyi Teatr threatre in 1917, the Kyidramte touring theatre in 1920 and the Berezil experimental theatre studio in March 1922.  He was fired from the position of theatre director in October 1933 and arrested in December 1933 in Moscow. He was sentenced to five years of prison, shot on 3 November in 1937 in Sandarmokh and rehabilitated in 1957.


Haidamaky (The Haidamakas, 1920)

Gas (1923)

Jimmie Higgins (1923)

Komuna v stepakh (A Commune in the Steppes, 1925)

Narodnii Malakhii (The People’s Malakhii, 1928)

Myna Mazailo (1929)

97 (1930)

Dyktatura (Dictatorship, 1930)

Maklena Grassa (1933)

Maksym Hrach (1933)

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