During the last decades, a bohemian community has been discussing that artists have lost their greatness. It seems to have faded away. They are talented. They are personalities. They want to study either. But they don’t have that greatness, which marked Giulietta Masina and Anna Magnani, Solomia Krushelnytska and Olena Pchilka. Critics and theorists claim that today, writers (singers, actors, and actresses) are not that great as they used to be. Who knows. Perhaps, each generation admires its idols and doesn’t accept the next ones. Perhaps, the point is in some time collisions and terms. Anyway, when you watch films with Natalia Uzhvii – for example, in the film Rainbow – you can’t but think that such gifted people are born as often as once a century.
Natalia Uzhvii was born on September 8 in Liuboml, the Volyn region. She was the eldest child in a large family. She began helping parents since she was a little girl. She had to look after her younger brothers and sisters. The family was not wealthy enough to provide each child with an education. A little Natalia made the way as she could, “I was taken by a seamstress for learning… I can sew, embroider. I appreciated these skills only later. However, I was dreaming about teaching. I was preparing for exams by myself. At daytime, I was spending my time at the seamstress’s, at night, I was reading dozens of books by candlelight. I was very afraid to test out. However, I passed the exam and became a teacher in the village at the age of 16.”
She had to teach Maths, Language, and Geography in three classes. In the beginning, she was a teacher in two small villages, then in the town of Zolotonosh. It was there where Natalia saw an amateur theatre for the first time and “tied herself in knots… However, I didn’t try to betray my profession, school and theatre were everything for me for four years. My “Artistic University” started for me in Zolotonosh. I played 65 roles in 6 years…”
In the beginning, Natalia had a pseudonym Alimova as her parents were against such a “frivolous” occupation of their daughter. They were often sermonizing that the profession of an actress was unserious and even indecent. They said that a decent woman couldn’t doll up and entertain Red Army soldiers and seafarers. They advised her to take on some serious business. Later, Uzhvii will say, “It hurts me the most when I read in letters that being an actress is a frivolous occupation. Some people think that a person who is on stage every night, well dressed up, in a pretty wig, lives an unusual life, declares some words, and is applauded after a play – lives his or her best life, he or she can get everything easily. No! They are so wrong! Naïve people!”
In winter 1922, following the advice of Ivan Le, a writer, against her parents’ will, Natalia went to the capital to enter some directing courses. However, Natalia didn’t manage to find such courses in Kyiv. She decided that she couldn’t return home after her failure. So she went to the Shevchenko First Ukrainian Theatre. Who knows, maybe, she is lucky!
“Her appearance and behaviour caught my attention so much that I decided to arrange an exam for her immediately (in the theatre lobby). She was worrying so much as she was declaring poems, monologues… I was very excited so I decided to read dialogues with her, and as a partner, I got full contact with a debutante. Fire in her expressive eyes was out and then burst into a blaze again…,” Ivan Marianenko, a theatre director and Uzhvii’s teacher, shared his memories.
“This first professional theatre was a school for me. My teachers were masters. In the winter of 1922, we were living and having rehearsals in the village of Sviatoshyno. There were many destroyed cottage houses. A house had three walls and a roof. There were plank beds and hay, we had our own pillows – all our belongings were always with us. There was a brazier with coal on a windowsill, I cooked lentil. To pay for a room’s rent I washed floors or sewed something for a hostess…” – the first Ukrainian Oscar holder was quite undemanding.
Theatre was only called Kyivan, actually, it was always on the move. A young actress visited cities as well as small towns, like Lohovytsia, Pyriatyn, and Lubny.
Actors stayed in Odesa for a plenty of time – to establish there a State Theatre of Ukrainian Drama. “For the grand opening, we staged a play Arsonists (Polumiari), which was directed by Borys Hlaholin in a modern way,” Uzhvii writes. “I played the lead role so I bought for my heroine fox fur, Japanese kimono with dragons and a huge brooch with artificial gems. I wanted the audience to like me. The premiere was a huge success. Anatolii Lunacharskii, a play author, the Russian Federation People’s Commissar for Education, was also in the hall… It was literally a crazy season; every play was a “boom”, a huge “boom”! Odessites said to me, “We give you a passport, indeed, you are an actress.” How did I manage not to go bananas?!” Uzhvii shared her memories.
She had already felt what the fame of a primadonna was like. In 1926, she accepted the invitation of Les Kurbas to join the Berezil theatre. Her modest debut was a small, almost noteless role of a handmaid. In one of the scenes, Natalia had to stand aside and just laugh. The next day, a review said that “only a great actress could laugh that way.”
“Kurbas was teaching us, actors and actresses, to control our bodies, to bend it to an inner state of our characters. He was bringing up a sense of proportion in us, ability to choose strictly both inner and outer tools of expression. Finally, Kurbas taught us a mastery of transformation. To achieve this goal he was throwing actors and actresses literally from cold to hot,” Uzhvii writes.
This period of Uzhvii’s career is believed by critics to be the most fruitful, the brightest. Except for theatre, Uzhvii managed to be shot in three films: Pilsudsky Bought Petliura, Taras Shevchenko, Taras Triasylo.
In 1926, Uzhvii also got married with Mykhailo Semenko, a poet-futurist. In a year, she gave birth to a son Mykhasia.
“I will never forget the 20s in Kharkiv: a dormitory in the Zhativsky Lane, a two storey building with a corridor system, it must have been once a poor hotel. Young writers, artists, and actors of the Berezil Theatre were living there. There were some boxes used for primus stoves somehow against each room. There were so many interesting meetings in that poor building!”
Their family life, unfortunately, wasn’t successful. Some neighbours and other witnesses say that Semenko’s mother didn’t like Natalia. Others say it was because of a complicated and awful Semenko’s temper. Some claim that it was a bohemian way of life, which broke their family – with its freedom, parties, and conversations till dawn.
The damned 30s came. In 1933, when Semenko was arrested, and their son was declared “the enemy of the people”, dog days began for Natalia. Her room was wrapped in fear for long. Fear was everywhere. It didn’t let her sleep at night. It made her be afraid of every sound and step. The theatre was also under the danger. Especially, Les Kurbas was. People in coats offered her, “You have an option: to sign a collective document against him or to lose, besides your husband, your child.” She chose her child. Who dares to judge her?
Uzhvii’s niece says, “We had been omitting this topic for a long time in our family. Only when my daughter was born, aunt Natasha got the child to bed and suddenly said to me, ‘Do you understand me now’ And told me about these events…”
After all these, Uzhvii couldn’t stay in the Berezil. That’s why in 1936, she accepted an invitation from Gnat Yura and moved to Kyiv. Here, in the Ivan Franko Kyiv State Academic Ukrainian Drama Theatre, she was working the rest of her lifelong 50 years.
In the theatre, she met her last love – Yevhen Ponomarenko, an actor. He was 10 years younger, and he stole her heart. They were always hospitable. They could be happy on any days. And at the beginning, those were dog days. As Uzhvii once came home, she found a note left by her brother, “I have problems… the NKVD detained me… your Zhenia.” In some weeks, there was another note, “I am in prison… Nazar.” Only in 20 years, Natalia Uzhvii will get a paper, which will say that both of her brothers are rehabilitated because they are not guilty. Posthumously.
Back in 1937. Being afraid of any steps in the corridor. Fear everywhere. Guilt. And work in the theatre. She spent all her time there. “If you saw Natalia Uzhvii in the Stolen Happiness by Ivan Franko or in a Shakespeare’s comedy or heard how gracefully and plainly she declared Pavlo Tychyna’s Traktoristka (Girl Tractor Driver) – you won’t mix her up in your memory with any other actress – there were much tenderness, slyness and a pure Ukrainian soul in her characters,” Ivan Kocherga wrote. “I saw Shakespeare on many world stages, but in Kyiv, Shakespeare was read and felt better and deeper, staged freshly, brightly and youthfully. To see Uzhvii playing Beatrice means to be present at the feast of pure art,” Franciska Gaal, a French actress, was very impressed by Uzhvii. But there were the same years. Damned…
When the Second World War came to the USSR, Uzhvii was on tour in Moscow. Evacuation. The town of Tambov, Semipalatinsk, Tashkent. And everywhere she played and was applauded. Despite the time. Against the time. Acting. Plays in a shooting gallery and hospitals. Work. Work is the crucial thing.
Uzhvii didn’t agree to play in Mark Dontsov’s film at once. “I can’t see another actress playing the role of Elena. There is a special decision about your participation in the film. Vanda Vasilevskaya and Alexander Koreichuk arranged everything so you will be free from work in the theatre temporally. We are waiting for you,” the director wrote to her. And she agreed.
“I can’t believe it now that I could refuse to play in the rainbow. But for that time, I worried and doubted much whether I would be able to do it. I remember each episode and scene – I put too much strength into it, I lived it. You can’t forget such things,” she said later.
The film won the Oscar. At Broadway, people were lining up 14 weeks in a row to see the film. “On Sunday, the film was shown in the White House. I invited Pr. Charles Bolen to interpret for us. But we would have understood it without interpreting,” Franklin Roosevelt wrote. “As the film is on, people start to applaud and cry from time to time. We want to kiss characters and help to punish enemies,” a review in the Resistance says. “… we avenged ourselves on enemies for Elena Kostiuk’s death, for a beastly execution of the baby and thousands of killed people,” soldiers wrote her. Was she happy about that? Uzhvii always wanted to play strong women with dramatic fates. She wanted roles to be complicated, ambiguous, with a diapason. To make viewers’ heart shrink. And she played. Unfortunately, not only in theatre and films…
Suddenly, her son Mykhasia died of cerebral fever. He was a promising student, did well at university and tried himself in art. After that, Natalia started to visit the cemetery every day. She was standing by the grave for hours. Or she just was sitting by his portrait at home. She didn’t even want to hear about theatre. She thought it was over. But she had too much strength and talent left.
On the day of a play, she usually didn’t eat anything, only drank coffee. She came to the theatre an hour and a half before a play. After the doors were closed, she already was living on stage. “You always felt easy, naturally beside Uzhvii. She was neither arrogant nor capricious like many stars,” Yulia Tkachenko, an actress, shares her memories. She kept in her wardrobe a business costume and her award of the Hero of Socialist Labour in the form of a star. She wore them only when she needed to arrange something for her colleagues at authorities’.
She had repose of manner. She was elegant even when she was a senior. She even attended theatrical parties. Even though she was becoming weaker.
From the diary of Yevhen Ponomarenko,
“ – February. She is getting tired very quickly. Any move is a challenge.
– March. Doctors are more often here.
– April-May. Natalia is getting worse. Drinks only tea. Has a terrible pain.
– July. She is gone… Tuesday.”
She died on July 22, 1986. She is buried at the Baikove Cemetery in Kyiv.
We could draw a line here. But she was an actress. It means she with all her dramas, passions, obsessions, love, cheatings and disappointments was absorbed by the black and white film. She is still a queen there. Unlike with us, mortals, nothing bad will happen to her there.
By Serhii Osoka