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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Mykhailo Starytsky’s comedy Chasing Two Hares as a national hit

27 January, 2004 - 00:00

Whoever comes to feast their eyes on St. Andrew’s Church, Rastrelli’s masterpiece in Kyiv, is sure to see an eccentric “couple” — Pronia Prokopivna Sirko-Serkova and Svyryd Petrovych Holokhvosty-Golokhvastov heroes of Mykhailo Starytsky’s comedy Chasing Two Hares (an allusion to the Ukrainian proverb “If you chase two hares, you will catch neither.” This sculpture was built here, next to Old Rus’ monuments, at the very end of the twentieth century. Ostap Bender had already stood in Odesa and Panikovsky was hoofing it down Prorizna Street in Kyiv (both are heroes of The Golden Calf by Ilf and Petrov — Ed.)... Pronia and Golokhvastov (a “polite” Russian evasion for Ukrainian Holokhvosty, “bare-tailed” — Ed.) were the first (barring the semi-legendary Marusia Bohuslavka and Shevchenko’s real-life haidamaky) Ukrainian literary characters who turned into monuments for people to look at.

Hares premiered on October 4, 1883, in Kyiv. Yet, those times’ billboards showed a different title — A Landlord’s Lip, but No Teeth — by a popular tradition to use folk proverbs. Only in brackets did they add Chasing Two Hares. There were also two authors, Mykhailo Starytsky and Ivan Nechui-Levytsky, who “compiled” the play. Kyiv theatergoers knew only too well that the production was based on a remade “middle-class comedy” In Kozhumiaky written by Nechui- Levytsky in 1875. The original play was unlucky: it gained the reputation of a work unsuitable for the stage. Thus, in March 1883, Starytsky suggested in a letter to Nechui-Levytsky that he become acquainted with a new version and give his permission for the production, as requested by the Drama Committee. Nechui-Levytsky saw no sense in opposing Starytsky’s intention to overhaul the shelved play.

Mykhailo Starytsky left almost all the dramatis personae, as well as the basic plot, intact. Fearful of going bankrupt, a foxy barber woos two lasses simultaneously. His seemingly successful affairs eventually end in a fiasco rather than a marriage: he is exposed and put to shame. Still, there were also many new things in the revised comedy. The plot became much more dynamic. The characters are not so chatty and melodramatic. Most of the characters had their names changed: Riabko became Sirko, Yefrosyna Pronia, and Hostrokvosty Holokhvosty. Moreover, the central heroes underwent a transformation. In Nechui-Levytsky’s version, Svyryd Hostrokhvosty is a split personality: in some scenes, the uptown Kyiv barber looked like a sentimental fellow from the writer’s native Bohuslav district. In Starytsky’s version, however, Holokhvosty is eccentric and brightly attired. There even is something attractive in this rogue, crook, windbag, liar, and cheat Holokhvosty-Golokhvastov, perhaps because we see a desperate and inspired adventurist, sort of a “maestro” who resembles a tightrope-walker for whom a performance on the arena is not just a routine job but the art of risk, thunderous applause, and the triumph of his talented ego?

The “hares” Svyryd was chasing, Pronia Sirko and Halia Lymar, are, incidentally, first cousins. Starytsky portrays them as an entirely contrasting pair. A damsel who shuns her parents, bends over backwards to rise over the rabble, and is unaware of how ludicrous and miserable her “noble” manners look, contrasts sharply with a “lowborn girl” full of all kinds of virtues. This was caused by the then literary tradition: let us not forget that Chasing Two Hares is the revised version of a work by Nechui-Levytsky for whom such a contrast was a trademark. Suffice it to recall his 1871 novel Clouds with Halia (the same name!) and her antipode Olha Dashkovych whom one can hardly equate, however, with Pronia because her (Olha’s) character is penned without any sarcasm whatever.

Conversely, Pronia Prokopivna is “pure amber,” as Holokhvosty says, a totally comic character. She “did all sciences in a boarding school,” although she could stand no more than three months there, having been “depressed and desolate.” She does not care much for theater, preferring circus: “I go in for acrobats, they’re such handsome men...” By day, she likes strolling “in a regal garden with book in hand, for it is such pleasure to read a novel under the oak-tree.” Pronia reads tear-jerking stuff, such as The Cruel Star, The Black Coffin, Yeruslan Lazarovych, etc. No wonder that the experienced lady-killer Svyryd Petrovych assessed the situation in the twinkling of an eye and chose a proper style for his “declarations of love:” “There is a raging Vesuvius in my chest.” Exaltation and “passion” specially for Pronia Prokopivna (“all my body is trembling inside...” the unforgettable Mr. Khaliavsky from the homonymous novel by Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko would say in a similar situation). It was more difficult for Mykhailo Starytsky to present Halia. After all, she occupies a far lesser place in the comedy than does Pronia. Having quickly seen that Holokhvosty was a rogue, Halia insists, “I am no match for you.” She even seems to be ready to disobey her mother who was finally moved by Svyryd’s saccharine words, for he found a proper style in this situation, too.

Putting on the play, Starytsky applied an interesting method: Holokhvosty and Pronia speak an incredible language, also a “character” in the comedy Chasing Two Hares. It is in fact a linguistic cocktail, a mixture of quasi-high-society parlance, bureaucratese, pidgin, and folksy style. Russian words mingle with Ukrainian ones, and French words produce the most wonderful malapropisms (“we... will set up such a Montpansier that your mouth will water...”); a “high” style gives way to colloquial phrases, which looks like self-parodying (“Ahm so much’n love like I was boiling water...”). There also are butchered words, such as “natiral khvamilies,” “chimpaign,” “boarder school,” “arnges...” However, Holokhvosty can also sound more natural when he addresses himself. Although he likes changing masks, he does not always do so in time. In addition, masks tend to stick to his face, and others see it only too well. Uptown boys say Svyryd Petrovych “has risen above the middle class but not reached the nobles,” a very precise characterization. As Holokhvosty simultaneously belongs to different social strata, professional and ethnic niches, he is, to use a modern phrase, a marginal man. This is also proven by the linguistic antics played by Starytsky’s hero. He is Holokhvosty and Golokhvasty at the same time. The barber tries to supersede the Ukrainian language environment with “noble” Russian-French talk, which results in God knows what. Given this hero’s split personality (or duplicity?), Valery Shevchuk came to a conclusion that “ Chasing Two Hares can thus be interpreted not only at the level of everyday life but also at that of auras: on the one hand, Holokhvosty wanted to be Golakhvastov (i.e., Russified), and, on the other hand, he also strove to be an authentic representative of Kyiv’s Ukrainian middle classes — these were in fact the main hares that he chased to his moral detriment. But, in reality, both he and Pronia Prokopivna were on the way out of the Ukrainian aura, destroying their Ukrainian identity. This is the reason why the play acquired an enduring value as an instance of major philosophical conclusions and still remains popular” (Valery Shevchuk, At the Time’s Shore: My Kyiv: Introduction, Kyiv, 2002).

Ivan Nechui-Levytsky and Mykhailo Starytsky emphasized the following: the comical artificiality of Pronia and Golokhvastov results from the voluntary loss of naturalness, and the aggressive rejection of their Ukrainian nature. Both writers see this aggressiveness as the beginning of moral degradation. This is also a tradition created by the moral imperative that formed the attitude of Taras Shevchenko, Nikolai Gogol, Svydnytsky, and Nechui-Levytsky to the grimaces of “Little Russian provincialism.” When Holokhvosty jeers at uptown Kyiv fellows, “Stupid khokhly!, when Pronia reproaches her parents for speaking “the language of the rabble,” this brings about an absurd situation, a crisis of identity, to use a modern psychological term. The second-hand dealer Sekleta Pylypivna, Halia’s mother, finds far simpler words, “Stupid-headed turncoats!”

The calamitous consequences of national “turncoats’” actions is an essential, but not the only, leitmotif in the comedy. In the literary retrospective, Starytsky’s Holokhvosty is typologically related to Gogol’s Khlestakov and, in the perspective, to Ostap Bender. For they are all adventurous and talented. As adventurism is fickle and, on the other hand, eternal, this means that the comedy Chasing Two Hares, written over 120 years ago, can be interpreted by theater producers in more than one way. Interestingly enough, contemporaries noted that the premiere of this play on the stage of Kyiv’s Bergonier Theater in 1883 was not quite a success. “Mark Lukych [Kropyvnytsky], Zatyrkevych and Sadovska excellently played Sirko, Sekleta, and the shoe seller, respectively,” Saksahansky reminisced. “Zankovetska gave a poor performance as Pronia: she failed to incarnate this silly ignoramus and put on airs. Zankovetska seemed to be ridiculing a certain Pronia. Sadovsky might have been a better Holokhvosty...”

Later, however, the comedy Chasing Two Hares became one of the Ukrainian theater’s star attractions. It was especially popular in the early 1960s, after the Dovzhenko Film Studios made a film in 1961 starring Oleg Borisov as Holokhvosty and Margaryta Krynytsyna as Pronia.

And, a few hours before the year 2004 was rung in, television showed the musical Chasing Two Hares. It was no laughing matter. The authors turned out to be at odds with humor. Alla Pugacheva was about thirty years late to play the role of Pronia. As to Maksim Galkin who was destined to play Svyryd Petrovych, the happy director M. Papernyk said in an interview that in some cases Galkin outplayed Oleg Borisov himself. In fact, he overplayed the part rather than outplayed Borisov... Still, Hares is still on the march. This means we are sure to hear more than once, “Quiet! Bare-Tail is coming!”

By Volodymyr PANCHENKO, Doctor of Philology; Professor, Vice-president, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy
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