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Lesja Ukrainka

Encyclopedia of the life and works


The babylonian captivity

Lesja Ukrainka







(A wide plain. The red sunset turns the waters of the Euphrates to blood. Scattered on the plain are seen the tents of the Hebrew captives. Naked children seek shells in the mud and gather brushwood for the fires. Weary women, mostly old, in rags, are busied preparing supper, each at her own hearth, for the men that have just returned from the town after their toil and are sitting silently under the willows near the water. A little farther off, also under the willows, stand two groups, the Levites and the prophets. On the willows, over the prophets’ heads, harps hang; quivering from time to time, they jingle in the evening wind. Far away are seen the walls and towers of Babylon and sometimes there comes the noise of the city.)

A Woman (at her fire): Husband, come to supper. (A man, still young, leaves a group and silently sits down.)

Woman: Why dost not eat bread? (The man is silent.) Is it bitter? There is nought to be done, poor thing, thou must eat.

The Man (mumbling like an old man): I cannot eat.

Woman: Misery! Hast no teeth? Where…

Man: There! (Points to Babylon.)

Woman: Misery, misery, misery!

An Old Man (approaches an old woman sitting by the extinguished fire of another hearth, motionless, her head bowed down): Give me supper! (The woman is silent and motionless.) Why hast not prepared it? (The woman is silent.) Why hast ashes on thy hair? (The woman is silent, and bows still lower.) Where is our daughter?

The Old Woman: There! (Points to Babylon and pours ashes upon her head.)

Old Man: Adonai! (Tears his garments and falls down. At a third fire sit only men, mostly old. A woman approaches timidly; ragged children hang at her garments.)

The Woman: My fathers, pardon that I ask you; have ye not seen my husband?

An Old Man: How is he called?

The Woman: Ebenezer of Ossia.

Another Old Man: Was he so called before thou wert a widow?

The Woman: What sayest thou?

A Third Old Man: Do not kill thyself! Foes do not torment the dead.

The Woman: What shall I do, miserable, with my little children?

The Children: Mother, mother, mother!

A Mad Woman (wandering among the fires): Happy the womb that did not bear; happy the breast that gave not suck. Hey! rejoice not, Babylonian woman! Hey! be not glad, mother of vipers’ sons!

A Girl (whispers to her companion, pointing at the mad woman): ‘Tis from the time her child was killed in Jerusalem.

Companion: How terrible!

Girl: And I saw it with my own eyes, how the soldier seized her boy by his feet and struck at…

Companion: Be silent!

The Levites (under the willows): For our fathers’ sin the Lord took from us the temple; for our ancestors’ dishonour He took away His church. And now, as a spendthrift’s children, innocent we expiate our fathers’ debt.

The Prophets: Jerusalem smote us with stones, and for it the wrath of the Lord smote her. The daughter of Zion despised us, and for it the son of Baal subdued her.

First Levite (to another): Why hast not been at prayers?

Second Levite: The master sent me to the reckonings. The workmen from Haram are being paid for their labour at the king’s palace.

First Levite: Couldst not find one of the scribes to take thy place?

Second Levite: Service, brother! The master says no men are so skilled at reckoning as the Hebrews.

First Levite: True.

Second Levite (aside to him): For my good help the chief gave me this ring.

First Levite: Glory to the Lord, that He hath distinguished His people by wisdom above the nations of all the world. (Aside.) Is there no need of another to help? (They whisper.)

A Samarian Prophet: Thus spake the Lord: On Garisim I have builded an abode, on its summit I made Mine altar, but ye forsook it and knew not the house of My glory, as the foolish bibbing son knoweth not his father’s abode and wandereth in outer darkness, a butt for strangers’ children.

A Jewish Prophet: Thus spake the Lord: In Jerusalem I made Mine abode among the people, that, as bees come together to one hive, to one queen, so would ye come together unto Me, to the only Temple; but, as a wild swarm, ye flew away, and for it I sent evil hornets against you.

Samarian Prophet: The lion of Judah ravished Israel and dispersed his sheep.

Jewish Prophet: Saul’s descendants are fit to be keepers of flocks, but not of the people.

Samarian Prophet: The Lord of Israel shall reach thee, and through me. (Raises his staff against the Jewish Prophet.)

Jewish Prophet: Lord, remember Thy servant David. (Raises a stone to cast at the Samarian Prophet. Eleazar, a young prophet and singer, just come from Babylon, throws himself between the two.)

Eleazar: Refrain! Cover not with shame the names of Israel and Judah.

Samarian Prophet: Ah! is it thou, prophet of shame? And how hast thou glorified Israel and Judah?

Jewish Prophet: Vile serpent, why earnest from that nest? There is thy God and thy people, begone and glorify them!

First Levite: May the Lord vomit thee out of His mouth, may thy name disappear as spittle! (The people gather round.)

Second Levite (catching a harp from the willows): I will break this cursed vessel.

Eleazar (catching his hand): Touch not my harp, for it is innocent of my sins! Curse me, if thou thinkest I am worthy, but curse not the holy harp.

Third Levite: And how has it sanctified itself?

Eleazar: That never from the first rang a string insincerely.

A Boy: Aha! Therefore thou didst hang it there.

Eleazar (to the Boy, sadly): Why, youth, sayest thou so?

Boy: Pretend not thou dost not understand!

An Old Man: This youth told thee, Eleazar, what thy conscience would have told thee – but a mute cannot speak.

A Man: And it is a vanity to talk to the deaf. (A child stretches out its arms to the harp.)

The Child: Uncle, give me the toy.

First Mother: I told thee, dare not to come to this man.

An Old Woman (to a girl standing near): I see there is no more shame in Israel, when a girl stands uncovered and looks upon a traitor.

The Girl: But I…

First Woman: See, poor thing, it is a great woe when one cursed by God steals a girl’s heart.

The Girl: If he be cursed, I also curse him. (Veils herself and goes away.)

Eleazar (to all): Fathers and brothers, mothers and sisters, since when is it a custom among us to condemn without judging? Truly, clearly tell me, why am I become as a leper among you?

The Old Man: Thou becamest leprous in Babylon, singing for money in the courts to the sons of Baal.

Eleazar: Are ye not all gathered here in Babylon for labour?

First Man: Labourers do not serve Moloch.

Eleazar: Whom then do their arms and vessels serve? Have they not built such an abode for Moloch, as never had our Lord in Jerusalem?

First Prophet: Taunt not captives with their slavery!

Eleazar: Am I not a captive? Why curse ye me for my forced labour?

Second Prophet: The cord, the spade, the plough and axe in men’s hands are men’s slaves; but the word in a prophet’s mouth must serve God only, and none other.

The Old Man: Yet wilt thou ask for judgment, Eleazar?

Eleazar: I will, though the judgment end with stones. The Lord liveth! Ye must judge by truth; an unjust curse shall turn against you.

The Old Man: Let us hear him. Let it not be said we forsook truth on the ruins of Jerusalem. Tell us what constrained thee to sell the word.

Eleazar: That none bought my hands. My father did not teach me to labour, and weak my mother bred me. Though the harp obeys my hands, nor plough nor axe obeys them. I fell under a burden, and the overseer drove me from the labour.

The Old Man: Let then thy father and mother feed thee, who have not taught thee to earn bread.

Eleazar: In Jerusalem I earned honourably by the means they taught me, and here too – but the bread burns that my father brings from Babylon; hard it is to eat from a father’s slavery.

First Levite: Not only bread thy father brings, but also golden rings.

Eleazar (to all): Teach this Levite that gold burns, and not only shines.

First Levite (slyly): Why does thy father’s work burn so?

Eleazar: Am I judged here or my father? Bring then all fathers to judgment, that for their family lose their souls.

First Levite: Why didst not cry to the nation to feed thee with the bread wherewith it feeds Levites and cripples?

Eleazar: I am not Levite nor cripple.

A Little Boy (to his father): Daddy, give me bread!

The Father: I have none, my son.

A Man: Dost see? He heard talk of bread and eating, and says too, “Give me bread.”

Eleazar: Rightly says the boy. He answered for me better than I could know. Ye all heard. While in Israel they speak thus, Eleazar will not share bread with Levites and cripples. He that has bread, let him give to the child; I will take stones from the captives. He that has fish, let him feed the children, and give me a viper that drinks blood from the heart. I shall take it and bear it with me into the courts; it will give sting to my words and its hissing they will hear in Babylon.

A Youth: Much wilt thou earn for such songs in Babylon! Surely less than thou hast earned for the hymns of Zion.

Eleazar: Unwisely, boy, hast spoken. I sang them not hymns of Zion, The hymn of Zion, of all songs the ornament, was as a bride in Jerusalem, as a wife in the holy city; here it were as a concubine, for who taketh a captive as a lawful wife? (The people sigh. Eleazar holds his peace and bows his head.)

A Man: Why didst not sing the songs of captivity? Why hast not poured the bitter tears of slavery? The cold drop pierces the stone, why would not hot tears touch even the wicked heart?

Eleazar: The Lord set pride in my soul. Never have I wept before strangers.

A Man: Pride befits not slaves.

First Prophet: The horn of pride in thee rose above grief and holy love!

Eleazar: Measure not the measureless with the endless, for thou wilt not see what will come of it.

A Youth: Eloquent is Eleazar among the captives! Why in the Babylonian courts do his love and grief and pride hold their peace? Surely the place is too small?

Eleazar: And didst thou think it were enough? O youth, I have measured all those Babylonian courts and know their size. It happened I crossed that court where our people is building a tower for Moloch. I stopped and gazed at it. The marble is white as bones in the field, the porphyry grey as shed blood, the gold shines as a bright fire. It stands unfinished, like ruins; the cries of our conquerors are heard, and the groans of our people. I know not how, with a great voice I shouted over the whole place, “Jerusalem!” With a cry answered the captives from the wall, and with laughter answered the guards. “Is that ruin called in any wise, has that desert still a name?” I went away to the market where they sell captives into slavery. There a rich merchant was choosing the most lovely captives.

Women: Misery, misery, misery!

Eleazar: I said, “Think, lord, these girls have fathers and brothers. Were thy sister or daughter taken captive, would the foe sell her?” He answered, “This the fate of captives.” I went farther and saw a small, weak slave, and a tall, strong Babylonian loaded him with wares, as a mule, and drove him with a stick. I cried, “Stay! To torment such a small boy!” “For this he is a slave,” he answered, arrogant. “And were thy son sold,” said I, “he too would be a slave?” “Surely; not otherwise,” said the rich man, and laughed aloud, “but I do not sell my sons, and thine, thou seest, I buy.” Who, what will touch such hearts? Once only with my songs I got a tear from a stranger; the king himself wept at the end of Saul and Jonathan’s death.

A Voice from the People: Long live the merciful king! In him only is our hope.

Eleazar: The merciful king wished to reward me generously.

First Levite: What gave he thee, Eleazar?

Eleazar: He gave me a chamber in his palace and Jewish captives, as many as I would. From that moment I cursed the songs that get tears from conquerors; they are the tears of the Nile’s crocodiles.

The Youth: Thou shouldst have sung them of the fame of our ancestors, that they might know the strength of our people.

Eleazar: I sang.

The Youth: And what? (Eleazar is silent.)

The Old Man: Say, Eleazar, how the strangers heard the songs of fame.

Eleazar (slowly): One of them whistled and, smiling, shook his head. Another said, “Not all that is true.” A third bade me join the military singers; and all, one after the other, said, “Is there only that in the world which is in Jerusalem? Knowest thou no songs of Edom, of Misraim? Was not the fame of Amalek, Ammon and Amareus as the past fame of Israel?”

First Prophet: O Lord, chastise the hostile lips with the dumbness of death.

Eleazar: I began to sing them of Edom, of Misraim, of foreign speeches in a foreign speech. They heard how treacherous Edom’s crooked sword broke against Ashur’s armour; how Amalek, Ammon and Amareus from ravishers became slaves; how Misraim, master of half the world, once the lord of the tribes of Israel, had to submit to the eternal might; how horse and rider fell into the sea, and all the Pharaon’s might, whenas was voided the abhorred house of toil and the cursed place of slavery was devastated.

The Youth: And what did the listeners?

Eleazar: There were those who paled.

Second Prophet: May they grow pale and cold for ever!

The Youth: Why didst not say that also for these will come a day of judgment?

Eleazar: For that word there is no room in Babylon! Today I sang them of Ophir, Sidon and Tyre, their power and wisdom and treasures, as are not and never will be in the Babylonian treasuries.

First Levite: Didst gain much for this song?

Eleazar: Thinkest, the treasures of Canaan? See, I have bread for this day’s supper.

The Youth: Surely, for songs that praised Babylon’s power thou hast earned more than one golden ring?

Eleazar: The vile speaks only with poison, but poison hurts not every man. When heardest me sing songs of the Babylonian glory and might? (The youth is silent and ashamed.) Thou hast judged thyself by thy silence.

The Old Man: Eleazar, it may be thy songs are good in Babylon, but Misraim and Edom and all their tongues will not bring Palestine to mind and awake the thought of Jerusalem.

Eleazar: Is there already need to bring it to our minds?

The Old Man: Not to us, but to those that among foes have used to speak the foreign speech

Eleazar: How will they understand the inborn song? How sing it in a foreign speech?

The Old Man: With thy foreign words thou wilt forget to say, “ Jerusalem! “ (Eleazar stands thoughtfully. His hand begins to touch the strings of his harp, and his voice sounds, neither singing, nor wailing, as of one who sleeps.)

Eleazar: My right hand was strong; who could overcome it? Did I then say to myself: “Happy am I; I have my right arm”? Spake I ever thus: “Right arm, know thou art mine!” But the evil foe wounded my hand and cut off my right arm. Whom shall I overcome now? Who will not overcome me? Day and night I say to myself, “O misery, where is my hand?” I look upon my shoulder and weep, “Right arm, how forget thee?” (He quietly touches the strings. The people weep.)

My father had a rich vineyard, my mother a green garden. I walked in it, plucked the berries and trampled the leaves with my feet. An evil neighbour set fire to our vineyard and wasted the green garden. The vine was burned, the berries dropped and its glorious beauty fell to ashes. If I find beneath my feet, be it only one leaf, I shall press it to my heart, Dear brothers, say, has none of you, be it only one leaf from my vine? (The strings sound still more sadly, and the weeping becomes louder.)

I dreamed a dread dream – who shall divine it? ‘Twas as if I fell into the hands of the enemies. What have they done to me, my terrible enemies? My arms still are mighty, my legs still are strong, my eyes still are clear, and my body is sot hurt. Only my tongue, my tongue was for their vengeance. I wished to speak a word; I wished to lift up my voice. But my lips spake with blood and cried with silence. (A long pause. The harp falls from Eleazar’s hands and the sigh of its strings dies away. The people’s cries cease abruptly. Silence. He speaks with respect, but firmly and distinctly.) Fathers and brothers, mothers and sisters! I wait for a stone or a word from you. (Silence.) What curse is more awful than silence?

The Old Man: We do not curse thee, Eleazar.

The Youth: Forgive me my hard word, brother.

Eleazar: Ye do not curse me. I forgive all your words. But still I am cursed with the dreadful curse of blood. The blood of our fathers, shed in vain for our lost liberty, weighs upon my head and yours, and bows down our forehead to the earth, to the stone that the hand of my people hurled not against me. A man’s son fell and cut himself on a sharp stone; in despair he rent his garments of honour and strewed ashes of disgrace upon his head. O, as the temple I fell, as Jerusalem we fell all, and, as hard as it is to rebuild our temple, so hard it is for us to rise out of the dust of slavery’s dishonour. Shame fell upon our arms that rose not to take the lives of us conquered, but rose to labour for the enemies. Leprosy covered the bodies of the girls of Zion, that they drowned not themselves in the Euphrates, but went to entertain the sons of lasciviousness and nurse the fruit of their shame. And shame covered my lips that from hunger these lips grew not still, but spake the strange speech in those cursed courts where all songs sound – and only that which bursts from the heart must die. Infamy oppresses us worse than chains, it bites worse than iron fetters. To suffer chains is inhuman shame, to forget them unbroken yet greater ignominy. Two paths we have, death or disgrace, till we find a way to Jerusalem. Brothers, let us look for a way to the temple as the gazelle seeks water in the desert, that the mighty foe may not say, “Now have I slain Israel; it is dead!” And ere we find it, let us fight for our life as the wounded badger in the hunt; let it not be said among men, “The Lord of Israel fell asleep in Heaven.” O Babylon, too early is it to rejoice! Still our harps sound among the willows, still tears flow into the Babylonian rivers, still the daughter of Zion burns with shame, still the lion of Judah roars with fury. The Lord liveth, my soul liveth, Israel liveth, even in Babylon!

The Voice of an Overseer from the Camp: To the tents, Israel; the night cometh.

(The people separate and go to their tents. On the distant towers are seen the Babylonian magicians, foretelling from the stars. The camp grows still. From Babylon faintly comes the sound of revels. The solemn night trembles over the captive camp and Babylon. Here and there quicken the overseers’ fires. Silence.)



Source : Five russian plays with one from the ukrainian. – New York : E.P.Dutton and company, 1916, pp. 153 – 173.

Translation from the ukrainian language by C. E. Bechhofer.

From the preface by C. E. Bechhofer:

A word or two may be said of Larissa Petrovna Kossatch (1872-1913), whose pseudonym is "Lesya Ukrainka" — "Lesya of the Ukraine." The same influence that is visible in Chekhov and ripe in Evreinov has been felt also in the newly revived Ukrainian, or Little Russian, literature. Lesya Ukrainka gave it a depth and wealth of vocabulary it sadly needed and, by introducing the European, has countered the decadent spirit of the ultra-national Ukrainians.

The Babylonian Captivity, translated as an epilogue to this volume, represents the enslavement of the Ukraine by its powerful neighbours; but its style is a victory. The translation of The Babylonian Captivity from the Ukrainian is due mainly to Miss Sophie Volska, of Kiev.