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Why is Mariupol still standing? An interesting insight from the history of theater

by Denys Kolomiiets  •  Apr 27, 2022

We want to proceed with the series of articles about outstanding personalities of Ukrainian culture. Naturally, nobody will be impressed by news about the war. However, we want to continue with exclusive materials about cultural figures that greatly influenced the European and the world theater.

In the history of Ukrainian theater, a person personifies the whole Ukrainian theater by his activities. It is Marko Kropivnitsky (1840–1910).

Marko Kropivnitsky
Marko Kropivnitsky

Why has Kropivnitsky’s name become relevant today during Putin’s aggression against Ukraine?

The playwright is the author of more than 40 plays and comedies, which later formed the repertoire of the Ukrainian theater. Director — Director of plays that have captivated thousands of Ukrainians. He was a massive success on tour in St. Petersburg, where his troupe’s performances, which was called “Russian-Malorossian,” was visited by Emperor Alexander III, and expressed his admiration for the actors and the play itself. The actor who played leading roles in productions of his plays by Mikhail Staritsky and Ivan Karpenko-Karogo. He was recognized and welcomed on the streets of cities where his troupe toured — Head of the first-ever Ukrainian theatre troupe. Not a Russian-Malorossian troupe, as was the custom in imperial Russia, but a Ukrainian troupe. A teacher who brought up an entire generation of outstanding Ukrainian actors became famous throughout Russia — Maria Zankovetska, Mykola Sadovsky, Panas Saksagansky. Maybe you do not know these names yet, but when there are separate articles about them, you will be surprised to know their creative work or how they influenced your favorite actors, artists, and writers.

Kropivnitsky with his family
Marko Kropivnitsky with his family

And all this at a time when Ukrainians were not recognized as a nation — “Little Russian nationality,” when the Ukrainian language was not recognized as a language — was called an adverb. In this respect, Kropivnitsky, called by his contemporaries the father of the Ukrainian theater, acts not only as a theatrical figure but also as a political figure. He created the Ukrainian theater, having achieved in 1881 the abolition of the so-called Emskiy decree norm, and was allowed to play Ukrainian plays side by side with Russian ones. At the same time, Kropivnitsky’s troupe was self-financing and did not receive any state support. In his activities, the struggle for Ukrainian theater appears to be a struggle for the independence of Ukraine.
Kropivnitsky’s Ukrainian Theatre toured all over Ukraine. He paved the way for Ukrainian theater in Crimea. He toured with great success in Mariupol, awakening a powerful national spirit in Ukrainians. In Mariupol, he was presented with a gold watch. This fact is very relevant now when the valiant defenders of Mariupol destroy the Russian occupants in the total encirclement.

There was such a remark that when Kropivnitsky came somewhere with his performances, there started Ukrainian demonstrations. We all believe and hope that Mariupol, having such a rich history of struggle, will resist even now.

At the same time, the famous Russian artist Ilya Repin painted a picture where a ship with armed Cossacks was sailing, and Kropivnitsky was leading it…

Let’s take a little break from the trivial history, and I want to share my memories with you, as you will not be able to find any of these on Wikipedia

I must be the only one who knew Sofia Tobilevich, the wife of Karpenko-Karogo, Kropivnitsky’s comrade-in-arms. I, then still a teenager, was introduced to her by my grandmother, Natalia Rodionova’s poetess, whose poetry interested Mikola Voronoi.

Persecuted by the Soviet power (a collection of her poems, which he was preparing to publish, was found in possession of Voronoy, arrested by the NKVD), she was forced to hide in the 1930s with her two young daughters.

Nevertheless, that is not what I am talking about now. That’s a separate story. I mean that my grandmother introduced me, as a teenager, to Sofia Tobilevich. I had several meetings with her. Once I noticed that on the wall of her room, there were portraits of coryphaei on a Ukrainian stage — Kropivnitsky, Karpenko-Karogo, Sadovsky, Saksagansky, Starsky. I was disappointed:

— They are all the same. The mustache, the beards, the critical look, the look somewhere in the distance.

Sophia Vitalievna was indignant:

- Where are the same, young man!

Furthermore, Sophia Vitalievna, stopping by each portrait, told me that Kropivnitsky is the father of Ukrainian theater, the founder of the first Ukrainian musical-drama troupe, and he managed to drag on stage his associate Karpenko-Karogo, returning him from exile for taking part in revolutionary activities.
Staritsky is the founder of the Ukrainian musical theater.
Karpenko-Karyy, Sadovsky, and Saksagansky are the founders of the Ukrainian dramatic theater.
Moreover, later, when I became seriously engaged in the Ukrainian theater, becoming a director and a theater scholar, I took her words concretely. Indeed, “Natalka-Poltavka,” which is at the origins of Ukrainian professional theater, was performed by Kropivnitsky’s company as a musical drama, by Staritsky’s company — as an opera with music by Mykola Lysenko, and by Saksaganskiy, Karpenko-Kary and Sadovsky companies — as a dramatic work. Furthermore, at the foundations of this species division of Ukrainian theater is none other than Kropivnitsky. Finally, I note that there are dramatic, musical-dramatic, and opera and operetta theaters even today in Ukraine.

City of Kropivnitsky
City of Kropivnitsky

The city where he began and developed his activities is named after Kropivnitsky. The name of the city has a historical character. At first, it was named Yelisavetgrad in honor of Empress Elizabeth. Then, in the early years of Soviet power, it was renamed Zinovievsk in honor of Lenin’s odious associate. When Stalin deposed Zinoviev as an enemy of the people, the city was renamed Kirovograd. Moreover, finally, historical justice prevailed — the city was named after the coryphaeus of the Ukrainian theater Kropivnitsky. How not to mention that Kropivnitsky adopted a little child who lived in Yelisavetgrad.

Ukrainian Academic Musical and Drama Theatre in Kropivnitsky is named after Kropivnitsky. It has an entire repertoire of plays by coryphaei of Ukrainian theater and contemporary Ukrainian and European authors. Including Kropivnitsky’s play “By Revision,” recognized by Albert Camus in a conversation with me as a brilliant masterpiece of the theater of the absurd. KropFest was founded in the city of Kropivnitsky.

Ukrainian Academic Musical and Drama Theatre in Kropivnitsky
Ukrainian Academic Musical and Drama Theatre in Kropivnitsky

Ukrainian Kobzar called Shevchenko, Franko — Kamenar, Kropivnitsky — the coryphaeus, the first in the Ukrainian theater, who confirmed its right to exist and flourish in the independent Ukrainian state.

We will continue our journey to the world of theatre in the following article

PhD prof Rostyslav Kolomiiets 27/04/2022

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