Batleika: A Tale of the Belarusian Soul

Batleika Theatre is one of the earliest types of the Belarusian popular art. The traditions of the medieval theatre are being revived and make people happy again. Heart 2 Heart Festival is no exception: Batleika Theatre has been a firmly established part of its programme for several years now.

Batleika is a mystery play that has been introduced to the Belarusian lands from Poland in the late 16th century. Western monks are credited as the inventors of batleika. They used puppet shows based on the Bible to spread the Christian doctrine. The theatre was named after the ancient town of Bethlehem where our Lord Jesus Christ was born.

Bible-themed plays were widely staged across Belarus. They were played with the blessing of the Church during Christmastide, on Theophany Day, and on the New Year Day. The amusing and colourful show was a real miracle and a long-anticipated event for the simple and uneducated inhabitants of the towns and villages of Belarus.

The unsophisticated and deliberately straightforward performances of the cosy batleika touched the hearts of the common folks, children and adults alike. Some witty remarks, concise exchanges, some music — and the thankful audience bursts out applauding.

The audience watched the scenes of the battle between the good and the evil unfold in front of their eyes in the setting of a puppet theatre. Each play consisted of an intriguing plot leading up to a culmination and finally a happy end. The entire history of human relationships with God, the antagonism between the good and the evil powers, human interactions boiled down to the Gospel-like simplicity, to their essence, combined with easy-to-understand morals and the ability to empathize with the characters — that was what made batleika a perfect way to influence the public.

Generally speaking, the batleika’s repertoire could be divided into two genres: the “high” genre focused on religious topics, and the “low” genre featuring satirical scenes from life. The most “canonical” Bible-themed theatrical performance was “King Herod”.

Due to these genre differences, the frames of batleika boxes were constructed in different ways. Each place inside of a batleika box possessed its own symbolic meaning: the “Paradise” was normally located in the upper left corner of the box, while the “Hell” was usually located in the lower right corner.

Puppeteers paid much attention to the decoration of their batleika boxes and the puppets. They used colour paper and geometrical shapes made of straw, paper, carving, and embroidery. The box was made of plywood 0.12” thick and wooden planks 0.09”×0.09” or 0.12”×0.12”.

Biblical stories, usually Christmas-related, were shown on the upper tier of the two-tiered batleika. This tier was lavishly decorated with elements of church decorum. Icons, stars, crosses, and bible-themed pictures were on the back walls of the box. There was a tall arch, coated with gold paper, with an altar inside, in the middle. Two smaller arches were located to the right and to the left of the main arch and served for the passage of puppets. The ceiling was specked with stars made of colored glass. The lower tier represented King Herod’s palace: all everyday scenes were played here. There was Herod’s throne in the centre.

The Belarusian batleika in the late 19th – early 20th century had family traditions. There were children and adults alike in the choir. A small music ensemble, which often consisted of batleika puppeteers’ family members, also took part in the performances. Violin, dulcimer, pipe, tambourine, and concertina were among the most commonly used musical instruments.

A batleika troupe would normally arrive in a town, a city, or a village, and erect their batleika box in a public place. Then, someone would invite batleika theatre to his own house. The puppeteers would place batleika on top of a desk, light some candles, and put the puppets inside, all the while the musicians were playing their instruments. Once they were ready, the performance began.

Petty bourgeois folks counted batleika puppet shows among their hobbies, which would additionally bring in some money.

There were various kinds of puppets. Puppets on a hard stick were the most widespread in Belarus. A puppet’s stick and body were usually made of soft timber. They were stuffed with cotton wool, rags, or paper. A typical puppet was 9-10 inches high. However, there were puppets as tall as 14 in. As a matter of fact, those puppets represented evil characters. 

Batleika puppet theatre traditions continue to be utilised on the professional stage and in the applied arts, including contemporary puppet shows. The authentic art of batleika is getting a new life, with more and more new batleika theatres coming up. Batleika performances have become a good tradition at the Heart 2 Heart Festival. People from London, Berlin, Belgrade, Dublin, and other European cities have already enjoyed these shows.