Warsick: Testimonial Plays Share Ukrainians’ Experience of War

March 8, 2023
A black and white photograph of two actors on a stage. One stands with his arms thrust behind him, bathed in light, while the second stands behind, arms out front as if to catch him.
Scene from Performance Survivor’s Syndrome, based on a work by Andriy Bondarenko, Harmyder Theater (Lutsk, Ukraine), directed by Ruslana Porytska (@ruslana.porytska), starring Vadym Khainskyi (@vadym_khainskyi) and Pavlo Porytskyi (@porytskyi) / Photo by Ihor Dynia

Ukrainian drama has become an essential genre for registering the shock and pain experienced by millions of Ukrainians since February 2022 and offering the world an opportunity to understand, empathize, and help.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Ukrainian drama has become one of the first genres to register the shock and pain experienced by millions of Ukrainians and offer the world an opportunity to understand, empathize, and help. After the initial days of utter numbness, many Ukrainian playwrights forced themselves to return to writing—this time in the subgenre of testimonial drama, as witnesses to the brutality unleashed by Russia on its peaceful neighbor.

Thanks to the American writer, translator, and theater scholar John Freedman and his colleagues, many of these plays were quickly translated into English and other world languages and performed as part of Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings. This project initiated by Freedman gained such tremendous momentum that in the first seven months, over a hundred different Ukrainian plays were performed at more than 250 readings.[i]

Ukrainian cultural activists also launched a variety of drama projects aimed at international readers and spectators. Despite their smaller scale, these initiatives contributed to the widespread dissemination of Ukrainian testimonial drama. One of them was Antolohiya24 (Anthology24), a collection of theater texts written in the first months of the war and published in October 2022 by the Ukrainian cultural NGO Parade-Fest.[ii] The anthology was then translated into English for worldwide distribution. Likewise, Kyiv-based ProEnglish Theater, an independent theater group performing in English, organized a series of international events to present Ukrainian wartime drama and raise funds for humanitarian purposes.

Why has drama been so instrumental in sharing Ukrainians’ experience of war? First, as a dynamic and flexible genre, drama (along with poetry) is often quick to respond to the traumatic experiences of individuals or societies. Testimonial plays associated with past military conflicts serve as evidence of this. For instance, between July 1, 1914, and December 31, 1918, in Britain alone, 2,971 new plays were submitted for performance license to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Many of them were war-related.

Second, since the process of testimony presupposes the presence of an active listener and cannot be done in solitude, it is theater, with its in-built dialogism, that provides the most suitable setting for literary testimony.[iii] The presence of a live audience constitutes the central factor which makes theater more fitting than any other art form to bear witness to trauma.[iv] The spectators are in some sense compelled to experience the trauma themselves, or to relive it if they had gone through something similar in the past. Performed testimonial drama therefore has a very strong affective impact.

This is one reason why recent Ukrainian drama has resonated so strongly with global audiences. Performed worldwide while the war in Ukraine is still ongoing, it has borne and continues to bear witness to Ukrainians’ suffering and survival—experiences that are extreme yet also at least somewhat recognizable in our present age of “trauma as a universal condition.”[v] These Ukrainian plays feature striking testimony on how the body and the mind process the pain of war, how one simultaneously strives to survive and feels guilty for it, and how bearing witness to what is happening in Ukraine becomes one’s raison d’être.

These Ukrainian plays feature striking testimony on how the body and the mind process the pain of war, how one simultaneously strives to survive and feels guilty for it, and how bearing witness to what is happening in Ukraine becomes one’s raison d’être.

Body as Stranger, Mind in Flight

The body assumes one of the central roles in wartime testimonial drama. In many cases, traumatic experience leads to body numbing and an inability of the mind to control the body’s basic functions.[vi] Moreover, as a result of wartime trauma, one loses a sense of being protected within or outside of oneself.[vii] The body no longer seems to be a safe place to be, and the mind tends to disassociate from it. Many plays written shortly after the beginning of the war testify to such body experiences. In Slovnyk emotsii voyennoho chasu (2022; A Dictionary of Emotions at the Time of War, 2022), Olena Astasieva describes packing things for evacuation as if under hypnosis.[viii] Later in the play, she notes that when she eventually reached Europe, the scene around her seemed unreal and toylike.

A number of plays written early in the war refer to the split of the body and the mind. In Syndrom utsililoho (Survivor’s Syndrome), Andrii Bondarenko describes Ukrainians as ghosts that go from place to place to be with family and friends “shuddering from rocket attacks” or “frozen in fear” while their bodies “obediently remain” where they were left.[ix] He compares the bodies to children who were ordered to sit still holding the backpacks with documents while the souls travel to those who are “dying under the bombs.” In the final episode of the play, Bondarenko describes his experience of walking on a sunny day. He notices that the “dazzling blue sky” makes his body respond to the spring around. The body relaxes and a “faint smile appears,” but the mind does not follow. Anna Halas’s testimonial play Khroniky evakuyovanoho tila i zahublenoi dushi (The Chronicles of the Evacuated Body and the Lost Soul) is entirely premised on body-mind separation as a result of war trauma and forced relocation.[x] She observes that despite her body’s efforts to perform daily chores and ensure her children’s well-being, her soul hovers over her devastated homeland.

Many of those who observe the war online and empathize with the people of Ukraine might also experience the separation of body and mind portrayed in the plays. This war, in contrast to other major military conflicts in the past, has instant media coverage, which makes massacres, missile strikes and other atrocities immediately visible. In fact, anyone following the war closely becomes an eyewitness, involuntarily engaged in this traumatic experience. Their bodies may be safe from rockets, but their mental presence in war-torn Ukraine could aggravate their sense of vulnerability. Moreover, witnessing the war live online makes people more receptive to testimonial drama as readers or spectators, since recent traumatic memories tend to remain in the senses and dramatic narratives can easily trigger bodily reactions, such as tears or trembling.

Survivor’s Guilt

As a psychological condition, survivor’s guilt implies that a person did something wrong by surviving a traumatic experience at a time when many others did not. In the face of survivor’s guilt, one is left to wonder Why me? as they fight with the powerful sense that they are unworthy of their fate. The idea of survivor’s guilt appears repeatedly in wartime drama in different contexts. In Sadyty yabluni (Planting Apple Trees), Iryna Harets admits that she feels guilty about living in a relatively safe region as her sister suffers from missile strikes in Kharkiv.[xi] It is a challenge for her not to think about other places where people are on the verge of disaster without food and medicine, with children dying of dehydration. In Halas’s The Chronicles, the feeling of guilt is primarily linked to evacuation. Remarkably, the authors who lived in occupied territories felt guilty that people in other places suffered more. For instance, in A Dictionary of Emotions at the Time of War, Astasieva, who spent several months in Russia-occupied Kherson, states that she felt guilty when she read about Kharkiv and Mariupol because these cities were heavily bombed. Astasieva mentions that they were “kind of outside of things” as everyone else was fighting. In other words, the feeling of guilt is omnipresent and can arise in various circumstances.

Bondarenko’s Survivor’s Syndrome, as the title suggests, addresses the idea of guilt as well. “Are we alive at all, we who survived?” he asks, as he is no longer sure who he is after the apocalypse arrived on February 24, 2022, destroying everything that was reliable and valuable. He mentions that even though cafés, train stations, and other facilities in his city were not damaged, they can no longer function the way they used to. They transformed into something different. In the same way, people who survive will be very different after the war and will have to reassemble themselves piece by piece.

Looking Back

Ukrainian playwrights, who represent several generations of Ukrainians born either before or after the newly proclaimed independence of Ukraine, have experienced bouts of political and social turbulence, which has seemingly made them stress-resistant. Most of them, however, have never experienced an all-out war on their land. Having heard the stories of their grandparents about the total war, they never believed that it might occur in their lifetime. Thus, it is not surprising that, in their testimonial plays, these authors often look back at their family history in an attempt to find some support.

In Myr i spokii (Peace and Tranquility), Bondarenko states that for the first twelve years of his life he lived in “relative prosperity, peace and tranquility,” which led him to believe that wars and revolutions were a thing of the past.[xii] In fact, he emphasizes the general lack of preparedness for war among the generations of Ukrainians raised under peaceful conditions and addresses the experience of his ancestors who survived World War II and the Holodomor. In Moya Tara (My Tara), Luda Tymoshenko tells a story about her grandfather who “fought on various fronts, repairing military aircraft,” and met her grandmother in Germany where she was a forced laborer.[xiii] After living through the atrocities of war, these people developed a deep sense of compassion and empathy, which they passed down to their children and grandchildren. In The Chronicles, Halas also refers to her great-grandmother’s experience. In World War II, the woman managed to save her children from German bombs and survived in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, which, for the author, may hold clues to protecting her own children in the ongoing war.

Ukrainians after the War

Although much of Ukrainian testimonial drama is intensely focused on the present or the past, some plays do attempt to look forward, beyond the horrors of war. They strive to observe how the world has changed and identify emerging new senses that might give hope to survivors and witnesses. One such sense is that of the war as a watershed moment, after which surviving Ukrainians will never be the same. For instance, in Survivor’s Syndrome, Bondarenko describes February 24 as the day when “a neighboring country killed us all,” yet also desperately seeks a path for Ukrainians into the future: “Who will we be? Where will we be? What will our purpose be?”

Bondarenko and other authors do not doubt survival itself, but many feel strongly that this survival will carry with it the obligation to remember and witness.

Bondarenko and other authors do not doubt survival itself, but many feel strongly that this survival will carry with it the obligation to remember and witness. Like the Holocaust survivors who committed themselves to bearing witness for the rest of their lives, some Ukrainian playwrights find hope and even a purpose to survive in their anticipated future ability to preserve and disseminate accurate memories about the war. In The Chronicles, Halas is able to briefly look beyond her present pain when she thinks of the stories she will tell about the kind strangers who cared for those like her, displaced by the war. Bondarenko ties survival to memory in the strongest of terms, pledging “to remember everyone who was killed, every ruined home, every destroyed street,” and building Ukrainians’ new identity on this remembrance: “we ARE this memory now.” After the war, perpetrated with the genocidal intent to wipe out Ukrainians as a nation, taking on the memory about those who were annihilated as a core part of Ukraine’s new identity is an act of moral duty as well as defiance.

Witnessing Is a Must

By authoring their plays in the early months of the war, Ukrainian dramatists assumed the role of active, speaking witnesses—at a time when writing about the atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine appeared almost impossible. Screaming or a shell-shocked silence seemed like a more natural response. Yet they committed this violence against their instincts and took up the pen because the war was in full swing and its outcome could (and still can!) be greatly affected by international support and military aid. Some testimonial plays, such as Oksana Savchenko’s On the Day, make visible this internal struggle to write.[xiv] Although Savchenko feels like “writing is worthless in such times” and “only ammunition matters,” she nonetheless chooses to bare her soul in this moment of greatest despair, so as to have the moral right to say at the end of her testimony: “I ask you, I beg you, I demand—Close the sky over Ukraine!”

Bearing witness to the war, as the destruction of Ukrainian civilians continues, results in gut-wrenching, fragmentary, and incomplete testimonial writing. These dramatic texts permit no closure and therefore no real catharsis, as the traumatic events to which they testify are far from finished. This characteristic demands a particular kind of engagement from the spectators: the audience is called upon not to watch but to witness—which means to share in the pain of the ongoing trauma and to act. Thus, when Natalia Blok concludes her play Our Children about her separation from her sons, who remained in Russia-occupied Kherson, with “My head is full of … my Kherson. And children. All our children,” she models urgent, compassionate witnessing to the spectators, compelling them, too, to let their minds be fully occupied by the suffering of Ukrainian civilians.[xv]

These dramatic texts demand a particular kind of engagement from the spectators: the audience is called upon not to watch but to witness—which means to share in the pain of the ongoing trauma and to act.

Although few Ukrainian testimonial dramas address the audience directly with calls to political action, as does Savchenko’s On the Day, the witnessed pain and the realization that atrocities continue even at the moment of witnessing stir up in the audience a desire to take action. The communal nature of theater, in contrast to the solitary act of reading, for example, makes it more likely that the spectators will act upon this desire: as scholars have argued, “the community of compassionate spectatorship which pain creates is a partisan community, united in solidarity against those inflicting pain.”[xvi] There is no doubt that the readings of wartime Ukrainian testimonial drama have been building such a worldwide community of support for Ukraine, turning the audience into witnesses and sometimes political actors on behalf of Ukrainians.

University of Kansas / Ivan Franko National University


Editorial note: For more on the current war in Ukraine, see the July 2022 city issue of WLT devoted to Odesa and Kharkiv, guest-edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris.

[i] John Freedman, “Liudi teatra po vsemu miru vkliuchaiutsia v pomoshch ukrainskim kollegam,” interview by Yevgeniya Shermeneva, Novaya Gazeta.Baltiya, October 9, 2022.

[ii] АНТОЛОГІЯ24 – Parade (paradefest.com.ua).

[iii] Roxana Waterson, “Testimony, Trauma and Performance: Some Examples from Southeast Asian Theatre,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 41, no. 3 (October 2010): 509.

[iv] Patrick Duggan, “Feeling Performance, Remembering Trauma,” Platform 2, no. 2 (Autumn 2007): 44.

[v] Emilie Pine, The Memory Marketplace: Witnessing Pain in Contemporary Irish and International Theatre (Indiana University Press, 2020), 28.

[vi] Cathy Caruth, “Trauma and Experience: Introduction,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 4.

[vii] Bessel van der Kolk, Psychological Trauma (American Psychiatric Press, 1987), 12.

[viii] All plays mentioned in the essay were written in 2022 and translated into English the same year. Astasieva, A Dictionary of Emotions at the Time of War | Ukrainian Drama Translations (ui.org.ua).

[xvi] Patricia Palmer, “Where Does It Hurt?” in The Body in Pain in Irish Literature and Culture, ed. Fionnuala Dillane, Naomi McAreavey, and Emilie Pine (Palgrave, 2017), 34.

Oleksandra Wallo is the author of Ukrainian Women Writers and the National Imaginary: From the Collapse of the USSR to the Euromaidan (University of Toronto Press, 2020) as well as articles on contemporary Ukrainian literature and film. An associate professor at the University of Kansas, her current research project examines the New Drama phenomenon in Ukraine.

Anna Halas is a playwright, theater translator, and researcher at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv, Ukraine. Her interests are in the fields of theater translation, contemporary Ukrainian drama, ideology, and culture. Her articles also explore different interpretations of identity in literary texts.