Theatre Essays & Articles>> Armenian American Playwriting

ARMENIAN AMERICAN PLAYWRITING
By Nishan Parlakian
 

The advent of William Saroyan as a playwright in the late thirties of this century is almost within the grasp of my memory. Introduced to the theater world with his My Hearts in the Highlands by the Group Theater, he blazed into theatrical glory in 1939 with the Broadway opening of his Pulitzer Prize winning comedy The Time of Your Life. Despite his relative­ly short ascendancy on the professional stage, it is fair to say that he was the first Armenian/American (hereafter AR/AM) to carve out a place for himself in the pantheon of greats in American drama.
 
His earliest significant dramas were touched by what Evgeni Vakhtangov, the eminent Armenian director of the Moscow Art Theatre, would have called "fantastic realism," a mode never before seen in American drama. That seminal mode of writing is reminiscent of the more recent Theater of the Absurd of which Saroyan could be deemed a forerun­ner with his 1942 production of Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning. Surely in this publication, the works of Lucia Magarian, Rick Balian, Rose Nal-bandian and others bear a hint of the Saroyan style.
 
Since his Broadway ascendancy (1939-1943), no other AR/AM dramatist, in this fast closing century, has equalled or excelled Saroyan's popularity or fame. But several have become playwrights of great distinc­tion. In particular, Rick Besoyan of Little Mary Sun­shine fame and Eric Bogosian author of the popular play and film Talk Radio have made America sit up and take notice. Ralph Arzoomanian, represented in this issue, certainly appealed to critics with his suc­cessful off Broadway productions of The Coop and The Moths.
 
Other playwrights whose names appear in this issue have won recognition of one sort or another. Lucia Keuroglian Magarian has had stagings of Hunting Kangaroos and Brandy Punch in the Washington, D.C. area. Edward Hagopian's plays have appeared in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Netherlands. Robert Nersesian has had several plays produced at The Youth Theater of New Jersey. Jan Balakian has had an off Broadway production of Home. Rick Balian has had his plays performed throughout the country and Nishan Parlakian's plays have been produced off Broadway and in colleges.
 
None of the playwrights mentioned above is parochial in theme and content, certainly not Besoyan or Bogosian. And when writers like Arzoomanian in his Ellis Island, and Tekeyan in The Armenian Cousins depict Armenians, they, nevertheless, assert universal themes. Similarly Dean Shahinian speaks to those of any faith in examining the foibles of Arme­nian Church parishioners. Alice Ezegelyan's Between Generations, a portrait of an Armenian widow trapped in her past, informs readers that we must all live for the future. Jan Balakian's Home, referring to our genocide, becomes a searing examination of the psychological wounds of all genocides.
 
Other works included herein, deal imaginatively with varied non-Armenian subjects such as the demise of a way of life, the idealization of Greta Garbo, the emotional exploration of inner and outer space, the banding of homeless children and the faces of love in Central Park. Surely there is something for everyone's interest.
 
As the tradition goes, plays are generally publish­ed after stage productions of some consequence usual­ly on Broadway. The problem is that since the six­ties and even earlier it has been harder to get a play placed on Broadway because of the astronomical rise in production costs. The off Broadway route became accessible to many playwrights, but this was not often followed by Broadway level production or publica­tion. It was no simple matter for a playwright to distribute his/her play to far flung regional and col­lege theaters, and small theater groups throughout the country. The publication of plays both before and after non-Broadway productions, therefore, has helped playwright's grow in popularity and esteem.
 
The Ararat board several years ago decided that its past efforts at publishing AR/AM playwrights were too small and concluded that a special drama issue would help bring our dramatists to the attention of the theatrical market. The problem, of course, was space. The full length play has been the usual for­mat for writers interested in commercial productions, but one such play would have taken up the whole issue. For that reason, a search was made of the AR/AM talent pool and a significant number of short plays were turned up.
 

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