Exploring Lviv’s Rich Theatrical Tradition

  • Exploring Lviv’s Rich Theatrical Tradition
  • Exploring Lviv’s Rich Theatrical Tradition
Issue 11, March 2009.

This month see’s International Theatre Day, making this the ideal time to explore Lviv’s long tradition as a focus of Ukrainian theatre. Many elements of Lviv’s theatrical inheritance can be traced in ancient Ukrainian folk customs and rites, with many of today’s theatircal customs dating back to pagan traditions and rituals. These are especially evident in the Spring vesnianky songs, the summer Kupalo festival, winter carols and above all in the ceremony of the Ukrainian wedding. Elements of all these traditions are upheld by Lviv’s many theatres, where the best traditions of international theatre are also in evidence.

In ancient Ukraine theatrical entertainment was provided by the 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 non-ritual Ukrainian theatre begins in 1619 with two interludes staged between the acts of a Polish religious drama. The further development of Ukrainian theatre was influenced by European medieval theatre. The prohibition of school performances in 1765 resulted in the development of vertep puppet theatre, which was portable so that those involved were less likely to be prosecuted. Even today this tradition remains alive and well in Lviv.

West Ukrainian secular theatre became popular at the end of the 18th century, when Ukrainian landlords organised slave theatres on their estates where Ukrainian plays were sporadically performed. At around this time Ukrainian performances were also staged by Russian-Polish troupes. The beginning of the 19th century saw the staging of the first Ukrainian-language plays by Ivan Kotliarevsky and Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko. Amateur secular performances began at the end of the 1840s in Kolomyia, Peremyshl, and Ternopil with adaptations of Kotliarevsky's dramas.

Polish and German Performances Predominate

The first Lviv theatres actually appeared as part of the city’s Greek-Slavic schools and via the Armenian collegium. The first professional theatre is thought to have opened in 1795, following the expulsion of the Jesuits. However, this early attempt at a regular theatre was eclipsed by the Skarbek Theatre (often referred as the New Theatre), which arrived in 1842 and would dominate Lviv’s drama scene until 1899. Funded by Count Stanisław Skarbek, construction of the building began in 1837 and was for a period thought to be the largest theatre in Europe. Apart from the theatre itself, the complex also included apartments which were occupied by such famous personalities as Artur Grottger and Juliusz Kossak. On the opening day of the theatre, March 28, 1842, a Franz Grillparzer play in the German language was presented, and on the next day, Aleksander Fredro's play Sluby Panienskie was presented, this time in Polish, reflecting the prejudices of Lviv’s multicultural society. In 1871 this policy was switched, with only Polish plays included into the schedule. Ultimately, it was to be made obsolete by the arrival of Lviv Opera House, but the building remains to this day and is now home to the Ukrainian Drama Theatre named after Maria Zankovetska.

Among Lviv’s theatres, the Les Kurbas Theatre is arguably the most challenging, pushing back boundaries both within Ukraine and internationally. Founded in 1988 by Volodymyr Kuchynsky and a troupe of young actors who, like the celebrated Ukrainian director Les Kurbas back in 1918, found themselves “stuck amid old repertoires and longing for something more.” The list of ground-breaking performances to have come out of the Les Kurbas Theatre is long indeed, and the current troupe has been honoured by a wide range of international prizes.
Twice a year the Les Kurbas Theatre arranges educational programmes for Lvivites dealing with the theatre industry. These workshops are dubbed: "Theatre: Method and Practice," and they have become part of the cultural fabric of the city.

A Fresh Look at Classical Theatre

Lviv’s most celebrated alternative troupe, however, remains the Voskresinnia Spiritual Theatre. Founded in 1990 by Yaroslav Fedoryshyn, this audacious theatrical venue has built up a reputation for creative interpretations of classic theatrical genres and bold new innovations that eschew technical advancements but strive to offer a new perspective on traditional theatrical set pieces. The Voskresinnia Theatre has won numerous awards and produced performances in cooperation with leading troupes from Poland, Germany, Slovakia and Moldova. They are members of the International European Theatre Meeting (IETM), and the International Festivals and Evens Association (IFEA).
Voskresinnia is closely connected to the annual Golden Lion theatre festival, held in Lviv each autumn. Golden Lion was launched in Lviv in 2000 and is widely acknowledged as the country’s leading theatrical event, growing in size and stature every year. The festival is framed around the concept of offering new approaches to the classics, and has become the place for many international troupes to experiment with new interpretations of their own before a discerning Lviv audience.

Monument to Habsburg Majesty

Despite the plaudits which Lviv’s alternative theatrical scene has attracted in recent years, the city’s top venue remains the Opera and Ballet Theatre, which first opened to the public in 1990 and was known as the Grand Theatre until it was renamed by the invading Soviet forces in 1939. The cost of building this magnificent structure was said to be more than 6 million Austrian crowns, a phenomenal amount for the time. Stories which claim that the architect committed suicide as a result of fears that his structure was sinking are far-fetched - Zigmunt Gorgolewski actually died three years after the opera opened to the public. However, there is some truth to the rumours that the opera house did sink after completion, but officials assure us that this was a temporary problem which ceased to be a concern by 1905. Today the opera house remains superb, with many fans raving in particular about the imperial lodge, which stands to the right of the main hall. This lodge was traditionally reserved for representatives of the aristocracy such as the governor of Halychina or Marshal Pilsudsky. There is even a tale that when Austrian Prime Minister Count Kasimir Badeni was attending an operetta, the actor Myshkowskyi, who according to script was supposed to fall in front of Japanese emperor and shout “Mi-ka-do!” instead prostrated himself in front of the imperial lodge and shouted “Ba-de-ni!” earning himself a fine and a day in prison.

Last year Lviv opera became the first Ukrainian theatre to join the Opera Europa association, signing up in Brussels in December 2008. The purpose of this European alliance is to strengthen of opera troupes across the continent, and Lviv’s finest will surely be a welcome addition. At this stage it looks like the first fruits of this collaboration will be tours from Polish, Czech and Hungarian theatres, thus keeping alive the Habsburg links of the venue.