Vertep

Vertep

Vertep (Ukrainian and Вертеп) was a kind of portable puppet theatre and the corresponding type of drama in the culture of East Slavs (Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians) which presented the nativity scene, other mystery plays, and later secular plots as well. The original meaning of the word is "secret place", "cave", "den", referring to the cave where Christ was born, i.e., the Bethlehem Cave "Вифлеемский вертеп" in the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church. It originated in 17th century, coming from the Western Europe via Poland, where it was known as szopka, to Ukraine, and finally to Russia.

In Belarusian culture it was also referred to as Batleika (батлейка), from "Bethlehem".

Vertepi were also known in both Croatian and Serbian folk culture, notably in the districts of Syrmia and Kolubara.

A typical vertep was a wooden box, one or two storeyed. The floors had slots through which the puppeteers controlled wooden puppets. The upper floor of the two-storeyed box was used for the nativity scene, while the lower was for interludes and other mystery plays (most often featuring the Herod and Rachel plots) and secular plays, often of comedy character.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the atheistic Soviet state severely persecuted religion and the associated elements of culture, and by 1930's the tradition of Christmas verteps was virtually eliminated. The word itself survived in the meanings of "robber's den" and "the den of depravity".

Ukrainian vertep

The Ukrainian vertep, or puppet theatre, first appeared in the first half of the 17th century. It is believed that it was introduced by a student of the Kiev-Mohyla Academy. The vertep puppet theatre was made familiar to Ukrainian rural communities by wandering deacons and students of the above mentioned Academy. The Vertep theatre had numerous regional variants. The performance was divided into two separate sections, sacred and secular, with the latter taking the form of either a tragedy or a comedy.

The sacred act was based on the Nativity scene with interludes, while the secular was based on day to day life often lampooning the various national traits of the local population with characters such as the Kozak (Ukrainian/Cossack), Liakh (Polak), Moskal (Russian), Zhyd (Jew), Tsyhan (Gypsy). Each was accompanied by representative dance music (Kozachok, Krakowiak, Kamarinskaya, etc. Religious Christmas carols were also sung, often in harmony. Some early verteps told of the destruction of the Cossack Sich.

The vertep box often had the construction of a multi-storey building. The sacred act took place on the upper level (with occasional interludes on the lower floor) and the secular one taking place only on the lower floor. The Ukrainian vertep differed considerably from the Polish Szopka, the Belarusian Batleika and the Russian Petrushka, or rayok puppetry.

In recent times at Christmas young children dress as the various characters and act out the plays of the vertep. This form, following the old tradition of Malanka, is quite popular in Western Ukraine. Often hidden political meanings are placed in the performances.

References

  • Литературная энциклопедия 1929—1939, Article "Вертепная драма".
  • Entsyklopediya ukrainoznavstva Vol 1. p. 232, Paris, 1955.

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