Dramatic Texts >> Perch Zeytuntsyan >> Born and Died

BORN AND DIED by Perch Zeytountsyan, translated by S. Peter Cowe 


Act I

Two people enter. One wearing a coat, a fur hat, a wool scarf and gloves. The other wears only a thin shirt.
 
DIRECTOR
It's cold. There hasn't been a winter like this in Erevan for ages.
 
ACTOR
But I'm sweltering. There hasn't been a summer like this in town for years.

DIRECTOR
There are people out there looking at us. Tell them that our conflicting ideas will be reconciled in the end.
 
ACTOR
But they don't want reconciliation with anyone. They're totally irreconcilable.

DIRECTOR
Since it's dark and only their silhouettes are visible, I naturally see with my inner eye those I want to see. (He calls from downstage.) Mom . . . It's me, your struggling son. I don't even have a name in the playbill. I'm listed in the program as "Director." This is my friend, remember him? No name for him either. He's listed as "Actor." We grew up togeth¬er, you remember? (Aside) How would she remember? She died at a tender age. (Pointing) There's a beautiful woman sitting in the fourth row, eighth seat from the end. How can we find out who she is? Try to remember. Why have we come here? By the way, where are we?
 
ACTOR
We're on the stage of the Hrachya Ghaplanyan Dramatic Theater near the "Youth" subway in Erevan.

DIRECTOR
Huh! I've heard reports that, according to Einstein, physics transforms a phenomenon, which takes place in three dimensions into one that exists in a four dimensions. If so, I'm lost.
 
ACTOR
But then you were always hopeless at physics.
 
DIRECTOR
Nevertheless, Armenians are a talented people. Napoleon's adjutant was an Armenian.
 
ACTOR
Aram Khachatryan's also Armenian.
 
DIRECTOR
Khachatryan? Never heard of him. But try to remember why we're here. I've only an hour and twenty minutes spare. I have to go to the visa office to collect my passport.
 
ACTOR
Suvorov's granny too ....

DIRECTOR (Pointing at the wall)
What's this picture on the wall?
 
ACTOR (Looking)
All I know is the title's "Twentieth Century."
 
DIRECTOR But why twentieth century? What's that supposed to mean?
 
ACTOR (Pointing)
It shows a painter, a nude model, and a canvas. The painter and the model are blurred and deformed. But the nude on the canvas is extremely realistic and lifelike.
 
DIRECTOR
I'm not blind. Why are you telling me what I can see for myself?
 
ACTOR
I didn't say it for your benefit. There are people out there in the dark who don't have a clear view.

DIRECTOR
This painting can be a keyword for our show.
 
ACTOR
Which show? This routine we're doing right now or our staging of Gogol?
 
DIRECTOR
What Gogol? Oh . . . Good of you to remind me. I mean, of course, this production you and I are acting in right now without as much as a name or surname.
 
ACTOR
But since you're going abroad for a year, you need to infuse me with your interpretation of the play.

DIRECTOR
Of course. What a superb memory you have. I envy you.
 
ACTOR
You're the director and lead actor of the Memoirs of a Madman..

DIRECTOR
There's one hour and ten minutes left. In an hour and ten minutes I have to go to a meeting with some Pakistanis at the Armenian Organization for Overseas Cultural Links.
 
ACTOR
Following convention you should say a few words about Gogol as a lead in to the first rehearsal.
 
DIRECTOR
He was born in 1809 and died in 1852.

ACTOR
That's it?
 
DIRECTOR
I've stated the most basic fact. He was born and died. If you ask me, the dates are secondary.
 
ACTOR
There are people out there who've come to watch our rehearsal. Have you forgotten you're a famous director and actor? They've come to take leave of you, their idol.
 
DIRECTOR
Tell them I've exactly one hour left. I'm going to the Armenian Lifeguards' Association to meet the electoral board.
 
ACTOR (To the audience)
He has one hour left.
 
DIRECTOR (Pointing to the audience)
They've been listen¬ing to us, haven't they, and haven't understood a thing. I'm sure they haven't understood a thing.
 
ACTOR
They've come to celebrate the great maestro's triumph and the failure of my mediocrity.
 
DIRECTOR
But they're taking us for madmen. I'm wearing a warm coat, you a thin shirt. Yet we're not pulling a stunt. I'm shivering and you're boiling. Who gave them the right to sus¬pend belief? Who gave them the right to take us for madmen?
 
ACTOR
When they hear the real madman in Gogol, you can be sure they'll understand him easily enough.
 
DIRECTOR
Why don't they find us credible? We're alive with flesh and blood, a Erevan address and bread stamps ....
 
ACTOR
Because the painter and the model are blurred and deformed, but the nude in the painting is extremely realistic and lifelike.
 
DIRECTOR
Let's get on with it. We're playing Nikolay Vasilii Gogol. Born and Died.
 
ACTOR
As our director's carriage pulled up at the gate, I, the minor functionary Poprishchin who sharpens His Excellency's quill pens, quickly moved out of the way, squeezing up against the wall to avoid being splashed. The footman opened the door and the girl flew out. Why on earth had she gone out in this rain? She recognized me. For my part I was desperately trying to wrap my overcoat around me as much as possible, because my coat was extraordinarily shabby and worn. She entered a store, while her puppy Meji lingered on the street and I suddenly heard a delicate voice, "Hello, Meji." (Breaking his performance) Hey that's something! Who says that?
 
DIRECTOR
I gave you a reading list on Gogol. Especially the Gershenzon book. Have you read it?
 
ACTOR
Time was short. I didn't get round to it.
 
DIRECTOR
And you think that doesn't show on stage? The viewer, my dear friend, is even aware of what you've had for lunch on a given day, greasy Armenian fare or Poprishchin's watery Russian cabbage soup.

ACTOR
I'm starving. I haven't eaten a thing. (To the audience) Who sensed that the actor was starving? You in the fourth row, eighth seat in, for instance, did you realize it?
 
DIRECTOR
From the outset you need to be psyched up for Poprishchin's screech, which the eminent poet Block has called "The screech of all Gogol." You have to be prepared, not Pop-rishchin. (He interrupts his lecture in mid course. He becomes somewhat enervated. His arms droop from his shoulders involuntarily, and he slowly descends to the auditorium and goes up to a closed door, which isn 't there and is not visible.) When they appointed me artistic director, the people at the ministry told me I had the right to enter every nook and cranny except . . . except this door.

ACTOR
And you've never gone inside?
 
(The director shakes his head in the negative.)

 
And yet the door's not locked.
 
DIRECTOR
So it's all the harder to open.

ACTOR
Come on, let's go inside. If you like, I'll go in first.
 
DIRECTOR (Startled)
No, no. What are you saying? They must know something if they said, "Don't open it."
 
ACTOR
And you've no problem with that?
 
DIRECTOR
At first I was resentful and would fly off the handle, writing petition after petition to the first secretaries Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev, and then after Armenian independence to the Supreme Council, the Commission on Human Rights, always eliciting the same response, "It is not advisable."
 
ACTOR
I'll go in right now, before your very eyes.
 
DIRECTOR
Don't you dare! That's off limits! Now I too know it's off limits! Don't you dare!
 
ACTOR (In a whisper)
Haven't you ever entered in your dreams and kept it a secret from yourself?
 
DIRECTOR
Dreams? I don't have dreams. Besides I don't keep any secrets from myself. (Becoming severe). The door's off limits. Now it's not only the authorities withholding permission, but me too, on my authority as artistic director. (Bitter sneer) You'd think we've smashed down and entered every door, leaving only this one. Get on with the rehearsal, and be sure to read the Gershenzon book.

ACTOR (Continuing his spiel)
"You should be ashamed of yourself, Meji, lifting your leg at a lamppost." That same delicate voice again. And I heard, I myself heard Meji reply, "I, bow wow. I, bow wow. I'm really sick." I confess I was extremely puzzled hearing him speak like a human. But then, when I weighed everything carefully, I was no longer puzzled. In fact the world has witnessed similar examples. In England a fish rose to the surface of the water and uttered two words in such a strange language that scholars have spent three years trying to identify it, so far without success. I also read in the paper about two cows who went to a store and ordered a pound of tea for their own use. But I admit I was more puzzled when Meji said, "I'd written you a letter, Fidel. I guess my manservant Polkan didn't deliver it." Dock my pay if I'm lying. In my whole life I've never heard of a dog being able to write. Writing's an aristocratic kind of thing.
 
DIRECTOR
Stop, stop. We're Armenian. We need traditional theater. Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett are for nations with full stomachs. But we, thank God, are not full yet.
 
ACTOR (Sincerely)
You're a difficult act to follow.
 
DIRECTOR
I know. What do you think? Why did I go out of my way to ask you to play the part? Why didn't I get in touch with Khoren Abrahamyan or Sos Sargsyan? (Slowly and deliberately) I needed someone who admired me and was prepared to be my understudy.
 
ACTOR
You've got fifty-five minutes left.
 
DIRECTOR (Looking at his watch in alarm) Fifty-seven. In fifty-seven minutes I have to go to Actors Equity for a session with the president. (Suddenly he fixes his eye on the closed door and becomes riveted to the spot. The door creaks. The sound grows still louder and more menacing. In a panic the director goes into the house, violently drags one of the spectators from his seat and sits down in his place.) I've come to see the performance. There's no law that says I have to be on stage all the time. (To the spectator) You get up on stage for a while. Experience the torment of someone else's pain for a bit. (To all about him) He's the director, not me.
 
The actor climbs down to the house, strokes the director's head, puts him at ease, then carefully helps him up from his seat, takes him by the arm and brings him back on stage.

 
DIRECTOR (Downstage, unable to avert his gaze from the closed door, which is not there and is not visible)
My father used to threaten to shut me up in the attic if. . . if I didn't stop being a goody gum drops. I was the best-behaved kid on the block and that offended his male pride. The loft door would always creak. They said that it was haunted by spirits. At night I would curl up under the blanket. Once I was afraid one of my hands was still outside, but my fear was so great I couldn't muster the strength to save my hand by bringing it under the blanket and with the rest of me. So my hand and I spent the night apart: one safe, the other exposed to the dangers of this incomprehensible world. (Breathless from anger). It's not right to scare children. Their psyche's too fragile. Wait, have patience. When they grow up, they'll learn for themselves what fear is. Don't screw up our children.
 
His gaze searches out the spectator he had removed from his place. He takes one step forward to go into the audience again, but the actor prevents him and guides him back upstage.
 

ACTOR
Relax. Forget about the door. I'll bolt it good and tight. I'll have a wall built over where the door is now.

DIRECTOR (Startled)
No, no. The door has to be visible. Access has to be free at all times, so that ... so as not to go in. Carry on. I miss Poprishchin.
 
ACTOR (Continuation) At around half past one an event occurred far beyond my powers of description. The door opened and the daughter of the house appeared. My God, how she was dressed, her clothes were dazzling white like a swan. Her whole appearance radiated like the sun, God bless my soul. She glanced at me and let her handkerchief drop. I dove head first to pick it up, slid on the damned parquet and almost broke my nose. But I managed to keep my balance somehow and retrieved it for her. O you saints, what a handkerchief it was, most delicate, made of soft velvet. The very essence of general-dom issued from it. She thanked me with the hint of a smile, so faint her sugar lips hardly have moved, and disappeared. "Go home," said the footman. "The master has already left the house." (Rhetorically) I detest footmen. At least he could have taken the trouble to bow. Why, you slave, you know I'm a man of rank, and noble lineage? How could I be confused with the sons of plebeian intellectuals, tailors or officers' aides? I'm only forty-two years, an age at which my service is just beginning. I too will become a colonel, I'll bet a month's pay on it. Or even a notch or two higher. (He interrupts himself.) But you're not getting into the spirit of the rehearsal. I haven't had any feed-back.
 
DIRECTOR
Up front in a rehearsal, you should be acting in your own style. But you do a splendid imitation of me, even though the tracing paper shows. You're not very original.
 
ACTOR
That's the greatest praise I could receive.

DIRECTOR
Tell the people out there it'll all be okay.
 
ACTOR (Surprised)
What will?
 
DIRECTOR
Everything . . . Everything .... Let's move on. Actor: Oh, what exquisite furniture! What mirrors and crystal!
 
Suddenly the lights go out.
 
DIRECTOR
They shut down the lights to cool the place down. Tell the audience that the theater lighting system is operated according to set cues.

ACTOR
What's there to explain? Everybody knows there's a war, and a blockade's in force.
 
DIRECTOR
What war?. . . Are you nuts, or what?
 
ACTOR
Don't you know there's been a war in Karabagh for six years, struggling for national liberation? 

DIRECTOR
Karabagh? War? National liberation?. . . I'm going abroad. . . I can't carry that sort of baggage around? The flight allowance is only twenty kilos.

ACTOR
How can you be so out of touch? Haven't you been living in this city for the last six years?
 
DIRECTOR
What city? Where am I?.
 
ACTOR
Erevan.

DIRECTOR (Dreamily)
Erevan, Erevan .... Now I recall, the city of my childhood, my first love. Who was it? When was it? How long ago could it have been? It's so far in the past. I've only got a memory for smells, and do you know how painful that is? What's that I smell? (He shouts.) Someone's cooking in here again. I've said it a thousand times. No barbecuing in the theater. The theater is a temple, a shrine.
 
ACTOR (In the director's ear)
You're married to my sister. She's your first love. 

DIRECTOR
But I'm a bachelor, damn you. And as far as I recall, you don't have a sister.
 
ACTOR
I have too. Your wife.

DIRECTOR
Tell me then what does she smell like? What perfume does she wear?
 
ACTOR
She doesn't use perfume.

DIRECTOR (Furiously)
Then how do you expect me to remember her? Your sister deprives me of that possibility. I'm sorry, she's condemned to being an old maid. (Triumphantly, as the lights go on) The light's back. Continue. Convince me that you're Poprishchin, just like you tried to persuade me I was your sister's husband. (All at once his enthusiasm becomes deflated and enervated and implodes. Staring at the door) Didn't they say no? Didn't they advise against it? How can I restrain myself any more . . . . ?

ACTOR
Oh, what exquisite furniture! What mirrors and crystal! I'd love to see how the young lady's boudoir is arranged, the jewellery boxes, bottles of perfume and the kind of flowers you're afraid to breathe on, to see how her wardrobe lies draped, more like air than fabric. I'd like to peep into her bedroom. That's where the real wonders are, I bet. A paradise even heaven can't rival. To see the small stool she places her tiny foot on as she climbs out of bed, to see how she envelopes it in those snow-white . . . Oh, Oh, Oh, it's nothing, it's nothing.
 
Pause

 
DIRECTOR
Only forty minutes left. In forty minutes I have to track down a pane of glass to repair my windshield. Yes me, famous director and actor that I'm supposed to be, U.S.S.R. people's artist, state prize laureate. Can you imagine, my windshield? You keep rehearsing though, don't mind me. I'm talking to myself.
 
ACTOR (Continuing)
I called Meji over and said, "Listen, Meji, now there's just the two of us. If you want, I'll close the door too so that no one will see us. Then tell me everything you know about the young lady. I swear to you I won't tell a soul." But the crafty puppy pulled back its tail, crouched down completely and slowly exited. You'd have thought it hadn't heard a thing. I stepped down to the street and went to visit Fidel. But the workers belch out so much smoke and soot from their workhouses that a man of refinement cannot walk the streets.
 
DIRECTOR
Doesn't it infuriate you that even the dogs in this production have names, but you and I don't?
 
ACTOR
Come on, let's invent names for ourselves.
 
DIRECTOR
I've tried. But nothing came of it. Nothing suited me. I tried for you too, but still nothing stuck.
 
ACTOR
Let's appeal to the author. Maybe he can find a solution.
 
DIRECTOR
I don't know who the author of this absurd piece is. All I know is Nikolay Gogol.
 
ACTOR
What about using our own names?
 
DIRECTOR
Oh, that's really tough, my friend. First you have to remember them. And neither you nor I have a superb memory. Second, you need special permission to use them. And who should give that permission I haven't the foggiest. Third, we have to prove those names were ours to start with. Don't tell me it's all right to produce identity papers. If everything were that simple, that logical...
 
ACTOR
So let's take it as it comes. The first day will be the worst, then we'll get used to it.
 
DIRECTOR
You know, I'm even kind of getting to like it. Without a name you can act on stage any way you please. You can be free of all contingencies, dispense with the labels virtuous and villainous, noble and mean, good and bad. Especially as these words today, in contrast to Gogol's times, have lost their meaning and become deceptive. I don't know, I'll stick to being without a name . . . just director.
 
ACTOR
But I want to discover my own name. As it is, without a name my liver has stopped causing me pain. And if my liver doesn't hurt, I'm not me, do you understand?
 
He starts to go.
 
DIRECTOR (Exasperated)
Where are you going? The rehearsal's not over yet. There are some people out there. Meantime, borrow a name from one of them.
 
ACTOR
I want to discover my own, to be myself. . . myself. . . . (Continuing in character)—A girl opened the door to Zverkov's house. She was a fool: I sensed immediately she was a fool. Fidel barked as he rushed toward her. I wanted to push him aside, but the nasty thing almost locked his teeth 'round my nose. When I saw his wooden box over in a corner, I went over to it, messed up the litter, and took a special delight in removing wads of soft paper from it. The good for nothing mutt went for the back of my leg, but let go when it realized I'd taken away the papers, and began whining and fawning. Looking through them later at home, this is what I found: "Dear Fidel, I still can't quite get accustomed to your bourgeois name." The punctuation was correct throughout, not one orthographical error, still there was something canine about the handwriting.

DIRECTOR (Interrupting the rehearsal)
I'm your sister's husband, you say?
 
ACTOR
Yes.
 
DIRECTOR
The sister you don't have?
 
ACTOR
Yes.
 
DIRECTOR (Concerned)
If I'd remembered that, I wouldn't have given you the part. Now they'll slander and badmouth me for giving my relatives preference. So just you go along with the fact that even I was unaware we were related. Do they know?
 
ACTOR
Sure. They know the whole story.

DIRECTOR
So they're right to be annoyed. After all there are many, many others more talented than you.
 
ACTOR
Then how are you going to justify yourself?
 
DIRECTOR
You have the kind of mediocrity I needed to become my reflection. Talent would get in the way. Talent's all about individuality.
 
ACTOR
What should we do now? I don't want to be the cause of an unpleasant atmosphere around you.
 
DIRECTOR
Become my double. Please, just copy me. Forget you're a mediocre actor. Act talent on stage. You can act that at least.
 
ACTOR
I'll do it all. I promise. I'll be worthy of you. Everyone will say it's your shadow on stage, your voice, your facial gestures. (Uneasy) How much time have you got left?
 
DIRECTOR
Half an hour.
 
ACTOR
Where are you going?
 
DIRECTOR
I'm doing the rounds of the warehouses shopping for wallpaper. I'm revamping my apartment.

ACTOR
You won't mind if I follow you around for the next few days. Trust me, I'll make it as discrete as possible. I won't be a burden.
 
DIRECTOR
Your devotion is touching. (He embraces him.) I can imagine how difficult it must be for you to act talent. My poor actor. (Suddenly his gaze falls on the closed door, which does not exist and is not visible. He takes a pair of dark glasses out of his pocket and puts them on.) Perhaps my name's hidden behind there. From time to time I hear the sound of the door creaking through the narrow space underneath, like the shrill cry of a lonely orphan.
 
ACTOR (Continuing to read Meji's letter)
"My mistress Sophie's in an extremely awkward predicament. She's getting ready to go to a ball. I simply can't comprehend, ma chere, what the attraction is. Sophie came home at six in the morning and I guess from her lack of color that the poor thing had nothing to eat there. I tell you openly I'd never be able to live like that. If I didn't have quail with lestragon sauce and fine herbes or fried chicken wings, why I don't know what would become of me."
 
DIRECTOR
Good. Good. Though I'm a bit jealous you're able to imitate me so well.
 
ACTOR
Phew! Damn it all! How can you fill a letter with such tripe. Give me the man, I want to see the man, I demand sustenance for my soul.

DIRECTOR
Good. Very good. You're stealing all my tricks of the trade. Well done. (Enthused) Steal away, make a good job of it. Everything's up for grabs.
 
ACTOR
Thanks. I'm grateful to you for everything.

DIRECTOR
Go on. Go on. You recall what they said about me in the paper, don't you? Which one was it Azg or Erkir? I've already mixed them up. (Recalling the headline) A talent, that is always with us. The title's a bit tacky, but the review's the important thing.
 
ACTOR
I've never heard you talk so much about yourself. What's up?
 
DIRECTOR
What do you mean? Nothing's up, nothing. I'm in excellent health. I have a lovely family. The kids are doing well at school. Yesterday I discovered my son makes the same mistake I used to make at school. He spells the word harass just like you say it, so it comes out — her ass! Nothing's up, nothing. Well? What are you waiting for?
 
ACTOR
Sophie was sitting at the table reading . . .
 
INTERLUDE
 
DIRECTOR
How about breaking for ten minutes? I've brought a thermos of coffee. My wife packed some sandwiches in my briefcase.
 
ACTOR
I'd love some coffee.
 
DIRECTOR
Put on the house lights. (To the audience) I expect you're wondering if I were really the boss around here, I wouldn't bring coffee in a thermos. Someone would be serving me. I'm not following the script just now. So allow me to introduce myself. I'm the director of the production Born and Died and one of the actors. Vigen Avetyan. Born 1955.* Don't laugh, if in fact you are laughing. Really, I'm not role playing now. Ask my buddy Misha.
 
ACTOR
Mik'ayel Nersisyan. Born 1954. I'm Vigen Avetyan's friend. I'm not acting either just now. If you don't believe me, ask Vigen. 

DIRECTOR
If any of you wants to come forward, please step onto the stage. Don't you have anything to say? Why, surely there's no other country has as much to say for itself? I guess you're under the mistaken impression that the performance is still in progress. Okay, if that's how it is, talk among yourselves while we catch our breath.
 
He takes two sandwiches out of his briefcase and gives one to his friend and pours two cups of coffee from the thermos. Then they both move back into a corner.
 

ACTOR
What do you think? Will an Armenian audience like our performance? I mean, they're not familiar with the rules it's played by. They'll swallow Gogol one way or another and stomach his phantasmagoria. But will they make the connection between Gogol and the absurdities of every day life?

DIRECTOR
To say nothing about us. You and me showing up like this. Let's no belabor it. Drink your coffee in peace.
 
ACTOR
What's the intermission for anyway? If you ask me, it's a complete waste of time.
 
DIRECTOR (Jokingly)
Our break's still got six and a half minutes to go.

ACTOR
You know. When I'm acting I believe in myself as an actor and as Poprishchin, but as soon as I stop, everything seems pointless. I'd be happy to bear Poprishchin's troubles. It's only one person's suffering after all? What if they're deep, even bottomless. They still belong to one person. But when do we have the luxury of being one person? A thousand and one things bind us to the street hawkers we detest. From Clinton to the Arabkir district council.....This intermission's been a waste of time.
 
DIRECTOR
But we're more Armenian now. During the intermission. Armenians come to life during intermissions. Armenians have built-in intermissions. Our whole history is full of intermissions. Yes. This is the big intermission. Let's see where it leads to. God forbid it's cut short ....

ACTOR
There are still some people out there.

DIRECTOR
Stop being a smarty pants. You'll irritate the author.

ACTOR
If he's really out there, let's ask him a thing or two. Yeah, why not? After all, we're just bullshitting, taking it easy as we munch our bread and cheese. What can an Armenian depend on if not bread and cheese? When are we going to return to that truth? Or is that on the cards?
 
DIRECTOR (With doubts)
But you play your part well. The audience likes you and you know it. What more can an actor ask for?
 
ACTOR
I want to be one person, even one like Poprishchin, as long as I'm one.
 
DIRECTOR
That means you'll have to spend the rest of your life on stage . . . without an intermission. Are you up to it?

ACTOR
The words we say seem to come from you and me, but ultimately they're dictated by the author. So let's not deceive the audience. We simply can't come up with free conversation. We're a mouthpiece for somebody else. You know, there's a triple, quadruple play at work in this piece.

DIRECTOR (Suddenly laughing)
Today it's a little cool, but you're still in shirt sleeves. How come?

ACTOR
True, today's a little cool, but only a little, and you're wrapped up in a coat and fur hat. How come?
 
DIRECTOR
You see. I haven't taken off my coat, and you haven't put anything on. So there's a link with that earlier director and actor pair. And you're talking about bread and cheese ....
 
ACTOR
I want to live in that absurdity, not this one.
 


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