The word on the theatrical Ukrainian street these days is Forest Song (Lisova pisnia), written by fin-de-siècle modernist Lesya Ukrainka. Playing at the Les Kurbas Lviv Academic Theatre (L'vivs'kyi Akademichnyi Teatr im Lesia Kurbasa), the production logs it at just over three hours, but it is well worth it. This is not a review—if you're east of the Polish-Ukrainian border, go see it. The production does, however, have some implications that made this historian think more generally about culture in Ukraine, Poland and Eastern Europe.
Lesya Ukrainka's Forest Song in Lviv
First, about the author: Lesya Ukrainka (1871-1913), whose real name is Larysa Kosach, came from an urban intelligentsia family in Kyiv. You can visit her family's house-museum in Kyiv today on Saksahans'kyi Street. Her uncle was Mykola Drahomanov, a famous Ukrainian revolutionary figure who left for Austrian Galicia to pursue his political goals. Her mother was also a revolutionary, a playwright, and also wrote under a pen-name: Olena Pchilka. They were all Social Democrats and were arrested in 1907—briefly. Lesya Ukrainka, through her verse and through her family, was at the heart of the late imperial urban intelligentsia vision of a cultural and political project for Ukraine.
Let's remember—Ukraine as such did not exist at that time, but rather the region that is today Ukraine then belonged to the Habsburg and Russian empires. The young Lesya wrote in Ukrainian, and her plays are full of dense imagery, romance, and beautiful Ukrainian verse. I am sure I am not the only one who fell in love with Lesya Ukrainka by shedding a few tears over Forest Song in Ukrainian class—equally because of the poetic verse and the theme of faithless men and doomed love.
Now, about the play: Forest Song (1912) tells the story of a woodland nymph, Mavka, who falls in love with a human boy, Lukash. You already know it is not going to end well. They fall in love, but Lukash belongs to the human world, she to the magical forest world, and they cannot be together. For example, Lukash wants to cut down Mavka's "friends"- the woodland plants and trees—in order to build a house. Lukash's mother dislikes Mavka and finds a human girl for Lukash to marry; he rejects Mavka, she dies. She comes back to Lukash, as a spirit, later in his life, when he realizes what he had lost. I'm summarizing the plot—there's scenes with forest spirits, a bit where Mavka is turned into a tree by Lukash's tricky wife, and modernist verse in Ukrainian. The images are classic: man vs. nature! Forbidden love! Betrayal…and redemption! Lukash betrayed the song of the forest, but the song of the forest will always remain for those who choose to listen.
Now, about the theatre and the production: The troupe was founded at the very end of the Soviet empire, in 1988, by director Volodymyr Kuchyns'kyi and some excellent actors, some of whom were from Kharkiv and trained in the tradition of the famous Ukrainian theatre innovator Oleksandr "Les" Kurbas (1887-1937). The youngsters created an avant-garde group and shook things up, earned the reputation of the best troupe in Ukraine, and are now—as of 2007—a state-funded theatre. This has posed some challenges for them, both financially and artistically, but here is not the space for this discussion. As I said, the production is very good, but redolent with cultural and historical myths that require some exploration. A director new to the theatre, Andrii Prykhodko, who often works in Kyiv, created the production with the Lviv actors and with Mariana Sadovska, an amazing singer-songwriter. The music is thrilling, the costumes, by Bohdan Polishchuk, are lush and gorgeous. The theatre received a grant from the Rinat Akhmetov Fund for the Development of Ukraine, one of the only sources these days for individual artists and arts institutions. The question is: how and in what direction is Ukrainian culture developing?
Prykhodko and company have created a concept for the three-act production. First of all, there are some casting choices. Lukash is played by a different actor in each of the three acts (Orest Sharak, Mykola Bereza, Andrii Kozak). The actress playing Mavka (Oksana Kozakevych) also plays the woman Lukash eventually marries. In this production, that character speaks Russian. So it appears to the audience that the Ukrainian villager betrays his faithful Ukrainian love for a faithless Russian woman. While in the first two acts, the costumes and songs are set in the mythic folkloric past, the third act takes the audience to a present-day Ukrainian urban landscape. We hear contemporary news played over the radio in the background, and we hear characters speak Russian, or a Russian-Ukrainian mix called surzhyk. We see clotheslines draped with post-Soviet rayon garb cover the stage. Lukash is now an alcoholic harried by his vulgar Russian-speaking wife. In one of the most gripping moments in the production, Lukash, as portrayed by Andrii Kozak, has a moment of silent stillness crouched on the ground in the center of the stage; his eyes tell the entire story.
The production is about Ukraine. Ukraine is both Lukash, who has lost his way and sold out to the Russians and the cheap city life; Ukraine is also Mavka, betrayed by the Russians and herself. Ukraine is lost. Mavka was the true path: nature, simplicity, traditional songs, clothes, and language. But there is more to Ukraine, is there not? In the production Russian is used to symbolize anti-Ukrainian, evil, faithless…but in fact there are not only many Russian speakers in Ukraine, but Russian culture is part of Ukrainian culture, like it or not. Moreover, we don't live in the village, but in the urban twentieth century. In negating the urban, modern, and Russian-speaking, the production actually eliminates many choices of cultural inspiration for today's Ukraine. It's overly simplistic and sets up faulty dichotomies between Ukrainian-Russian, between village-city, between folk-reality.
Interestingly, the same problem faced cultural and political elites in the 1920s and 1930s. The generation after Lesya Ukrainka really did gain cultural and political autonomy—for a while, in the Soviet Union—and they faced the very same issue of how to develop Ukrainian culture. Who were they and where were they going? The questions plagued them the way it plagues artists today. Could Ukrainian culture be urban, modern, could it incorporate Russian (not to mention Polish or Jewish)? What these artists were left with—after purges, denunciations, and centralization—was traditional village dress, folk songs, and classic authors, just like Lesya Ukrainka. So for a historian, the production of Forest Song gives a sense of déjà-vu: haven't we had this discussion before, and is this really the answer? I had to wonder: is there another way?
There is another option in a production begun in 2008 at the Laboratorium Dramatu theatre in Warsaw that offers just such an alternative. This theatre is similar to the Lviv theatre—a hip and young crowd enjoying productions with contemporary relevance. This production also deals with the thorny question of Polish identity, but in a different way and with a different conclusion. Adherence (Przylgnięcie), by Piotr Rowicki, is a result of a workshop organized by the theatre's director, Tadeusz Słobodzianek. A group of Polish gangsters moves to a small town and the leader of the gang gets infected by a dybbuk. That's right, a dybbuk—the spirit of a young Jewish girl murdered during the Second World War.
As he struggles to figure out why this has happened to him, he slowly begins to understand the community's past and, in the process, alienates everyone around him. He discovers that the Jews were murdered in this community during the war and were buried precisely where he was trying to build a new home. He begins digging, to uncover the past, to free the dybbuk, to recover his identity. The community objects, and his best friend and fellow gangster shoots him and he falls into the mass grave. Obvious? Sure. But profoundly true: the future lies in the past. Our shock in the audience at the play's end makes us both complicit with the gangsters, but also on the side of the search for—in German—Vergangenheitsbewältigung, coming to terms with the past. The past—like it or not—is a part of us. But not an imaginary past, a very real one.
The work of Laboratorium dramatu continues; Słobodzianek has created a production called Our Class (Nasza klasa), about the Jedwabne story, but more generally about Polish-Jewish, past-future relations. Could I imagine a play similar to Adherence or Our Class performed at a hip theatre in Ukraine? Not really. Ukrainian identity—as suggested by the critical popularity of Forest Song – lies in myth, folklore, and classics; Polish identity is in facing the past. On the one hand, the comparison is not fair: it's easier to face the past as part of the European Union, with European Union funding, for example. On the other hand, scholars, theatre practitioners, and cultural figures have written on the way that theatre, and art more generally, can play a part in society's coming to terms with past trauma, and offer a way for audiences to find meaning in their lives.
Forest Song asks the right questions: how did we get here and where are we going? And it asks these questions in an interesting and worthwhile way. But rather than arguing over Ukrainian identity, what occurs to this reviewer is why is there such an obsession with identity to begin with in Ukraine? And why are the answers the same answers as nearly a century ago? I'd love to see a play that dealt with the Soviet past as something experienced, as opposed to something that was done to them. Surely the best hope for Ukrainian culture is not mythic songs and long-lost folk culture.
Mayhill Fowler holds a PhD in History from Princeton University and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.