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Shakespeare in the Undiscovered Bourn
Les Kurbas, Ukrainian Modernism and Early Soviet Cultural Politics

by Irena R. Makaryk

published by University of Toronto Press

Les Kurbas - director, actor, playwright, filmmaker, and translator - was the first artist to introduce Shakespeare to the Ukrainian stage. Creating the foundations of Soviet Ukrainian theatre and cinema, he was also responsible for its avant-garde direction. Shakespeare in the Undiscovered Bourn is the first book-length study in English of Kurbas's modernist productions of Shakespeare and the first book on Soviet Shakespeare productions in Ukraine in any language. Situating Shakespeare within the ideological and cultural debates and conflicts of the early Soviet period, Irena Makaryk traces the trajectory of Shakespeare's and Kurbas's fortunes while also investigating the challenges that modernism posed to early Soviet ideology. Ukraine's cultural history - still an undiscovered bourn - has frequently been submerged within a homogenized Soviet experience. The fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent opening up of many hitherto inaccessible archives has allowed a new probing of the master narratives created during that regime. Invoking contemporary debates about the cultural uses of Shakespeare (especially issues of canon, classic, and authority), examines the complexities of the Soviet encounter with Shakespeare. It thus makes an important contribution to the studies of theatre, cross-culturalism, modernism, and postcolonialism.

Irena R. Makaryk is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa.

'Shakespeare in the Undiscovered Bourn is a marvellous study of the theatre in Kyiv and Kharkiv in the years following the 1917 Revolution. It opens several new vistas for scholars and provides a splendid introduction to the brilliant director Les Kurbas, who is practically unknown outside Ukrainian academic circles. Irena Makaryk draws on her knowledge of Shakespearean scholarship and postcolonial theory in order to illuminate Kurbas's contest with the ethnographic realist traditions of Ukraine and with the Soviet authorities. Her book is rich with insights into the reality that conditioned the making of "Bolshevik culture," the inspiration that produced the remarkable flowering of the Ukrainian avant-garde, and the chain of events that led to the imposition of a deadening authoritarian rule.'
Myroslav Shkandrij, Department of German and Slavic Studies, University of Manitoba

'Shakespeare in the Undiscovered Bourn is a skillfully executed triple-play. Irena Makaryk has made a valuable contribution to the reception history of Shakespeare's plays in the twentieth century. Her study of the work of Les Kurbas and other theatre artists in Ukraine is equally valuable for its insights into the emergence of modernist aesthetics in the 1920s. And all this is framed by a fascinating study of political intrigue in the early years of the Soviet Union. This is a book with wide appeal; it should find a large and appreciative audience.'
Michael Bristol, Department of English, McGill University


Irena R. Makaryk’s Shakespeare in the Undiscovered Bourn: Les Kurbas, Ukrainian Modernism and Early Soviet Cultural Politics makes for a thrilling read. The trail of the Bard in Ukraine led Makaryk, a Canadian Shakespeare academic, to Kurbas. After he perished in Stalin’s purges, Kurbas became an Unmentionable, a time bomb in the Ukrainian cultural landscape. His productions were removed from the repertoire and his “director’s diary, lecture notes, maquettes, films and photos were destroyed.” Wondrously, Makaryk drags Kurbas out from undeserved oblivion. Her passion for him leaps over the confines of her academic theme. Although her analysis of the Bard in the bloody mayhem of early Soviet politics is astute and original, what makes the book tick is the biography of Les Kurbas… Makaryk discusses three separate productions of Shakespeare – Kurbas’s Macbeth (1924), Saksahansky’s Othello (1926) and Yura’s “blunder” Midsummer Night’s Dream (1927)… Kurbas was keenly aware of his pioneering mission; so is Makaryk. Ukrainian culture is “the undiscovered bourn,” and she gives voice to its ignored and repressed history… Every chapter requires [the author to have] a thorough familiarity with two cultures – the Byzantium of Shakespearean scholarship and the secret, ruined history of Ukraine. Makaryk rules triumphant, and the joy of the successful hunt shines through every section…
Banuta Rubes, “The Bard as Modernist Revolutionary, A Canadian Academic Unearths the Work of a Ukrainian Genius, Literary Review of Canada, September 2004

“Makaryk does a superb job in describing Kurbas’s theoretical views as well as the actual productions, which are illustrated by many fine photographs, a number of which emerge from archives for the first time.”
Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj, Slavic Review

“The strength of Makaryk’s book lies in the wealth of information she provides on Ukrainian theatre, largely from sources available following the collapse of the Soviet Union. She introduces details about theoretical issues,, acting practices, influences and cooperation among artists, staging, costumes , performances and reviews of the day… Makaryk has written a valuable study. It is balanced, insightful, and has broad resonance. She lucidly and artfully situates Shakespeare in the Ukrainian national tradition and in the all consuming “Bolshevik culture.” She addresses historical and theoretical issue that will be of interest to Slavists and students of Modernism. Her study is a wonderful addition to the growing scholarship on one of the most vibrant and dark periods in Ukrainian culture.
George Mihaychuk, Canadian Slavonic Papers, March-June, 2005

“This lucidly written, powerfully argued study attempts to reach several audiences, in particular Shakespeareans and specialist in modern theatre history as yet unfamiliar with the contributions to it made by Ukrainians, in particular by the book’s main hero, les Kurbas. Yet I am certain that specialists in Ukrainian studies will also read this book with considerable interest, as it presents a significant amount of original archival research as well as an outstanding attempt at a synthesizing presentation that places internal Ukrainian cultural developments with a broader crosscultural, interdisciplinary, and theoretical context.
Vitaly Chernetsky, Journal of Ukrainian Studies, summer 2007

  • Book is available from Yara at special price $40 + $5 shipping in handling,
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