Theatre Essays & Articles>> A Brief History of Armenian Theatre

A Brief History of Armenian Theatre
By Dr. Anne T. Vardanian

 
The Armenian Theatre has its roots in the theatre of antiquity, during the formation of the Armenian nation 3500 years ago. It is a natural development of ancient religious rituals, celebrating the Vegetation God or Life Spirit. The chief center of Armenian Paganism was the city of Ashtishat and its temples were the holiest points of worship for the entire nation. Pagan Armenian kings served as high priests, and whenever a king performed a sacrifice to the gods, it was celebrated publicly with the participation of his subjects. Hired professional Goussans (troubadours), sang the praises of the king’s or nobleman’s ancestors in lengthy verses. Goussans who participated in burial rites and lamentations were known as Voghbergou (singers of lamentations or tragedians), and those participating in festive ceremonies were called Katak (Jester) or katakagoussan (Comedians). Tragedy is the natural outgrowth of burial rites, and comedy stems from the fertility rites.
 
The oldest duty of the Armenian Pantheon was the sun god Arev (meaning sun, often a synonym for life). Hence the Armenian expression, “May the sun be my witness,” or “I swear by the sun of my child”. The god Vahagn was known as the god of war and courage. His temple was located in Ashtishat, near the temple of Anahit, Anahit was the most celebrated of all Armenian goddesses and was known as the Great Mother, the “Giver of Life” to the nation. Another beloved goddess was Astrig (meaning little star). The holy feast of Vardavar, commemorating the blooming flower was dedicated to her. Armenians still celebrate this holiday with gay festivities. The god symbolizing nature was Ara the Handsome, whose name was linked with the Assyrian mythical queen Shamiram (Samiramis). Tir, the god of knowledge, was the god who led the souls of the dead to the underworld. As such, Tir’s connection with ancestral worship ceremonies led to the development of Mystery plays.
 
The history of the Armenian Real Theater begins at about 70 BC. According to Plutarch, the first historically known official theatre in Armenia was built during the reign of Tigran the Great, King of Armenia (95-56 B.C.) At that time, neighboring nations at the Western border of Armenia, i.e, Cappedocia, Cilicia, and Syria had absorbed Hellenistic culture, and several theatres were built in those regions. At the peak of his reign, when Tigran the Great tripled his conquests, he built the city of Tigranagert and opened its great public theatre in 69 B.C., fourteen years before Pompey’s first great public theatre in Rome.
 
Tigran’s son, Artavazd II, who was reared in Greek culture, wrote several Greek tragedies, orations, and historical commentaries which were treasured in Greek literature and survived until the second century A.D. After ascending the throne, Artavazd built the second permanent public theatre of Armenia in the old capital of Artashat. The tragedies of Euripides and the comedies of Menander were regularly produced there by a resident group of Greek actors who were brought to Armenia.by Artavazd. They also performed the Greek plays written by King Artavazd. King Artavazd II is considered the first Armenian playwright and director of Classical Armenian Theatre. Plutarch mentions that the Bacchae of Euripides, directed by Artavazd, was presented there in 53 B.C. It was especially eventful for it coincided with the victory of the allied forces of the Armenians and Parthians over the formidable Roman legions. This victory was dramatically announced when Crassus ’ real head was thrown on the stage and used as a “live” prop.
 
Archeological excavations near the city of Armavir have unearthed three large stone tablets containing a long rhythmic Greek poem entitled “The War Loving Goddess”. It is believed by scholars that it is a portion of a tragedy written by Artavazd II. Due to a series of unfortunate historical events, the works of other playwrights have not reached us. Armenia’s earliest Christian reformers, as well as its later non-Christian enemies, destroyed vital records of its early artistic achievements. So thorough was the destruction that there is minimal evidence of pre-Christian Armenian literature. Records about pre-Christian Armenian history are in foreign sources, such as Syriac, Classical Persian and Pahlevi, Greek and Latin. Many pagan customs and mores, however, were absorbed into Christianity and are still evident. While the formal Armenian Theatre, under Tigran and Artavazd, produced plays in the Greek language, the folk theatre of the Goussans continued to perform their plays in traditional, native Armenian. The Great Armenian historian, Movses Khorenatzi (5th century A.D.), tells us that in pagan Armenia, dance was a vital part of the presentation and services of the Armenian epos (epic poetry). The ceremonial rendition of the Armenian epos was made by katakergag Goussans (Comedian Troubadours) through dance movements and mimicry, expressing the meaning of the plot without dialogue. The Comedian Troubadours were the first pantomime players of the Armenian folk stages. The popularity of the Mime theatre increased, and when it reached highly indecent levels of eroticism, the church vehemently opposed its existence. The fifth-century Armenian Catholicos, Hovaness Mandagouni, wrote a series of articles accusing the theatre of demoralizing the nation. His articles provide valuable information on the nature of the theatre, its style and structure: larger audiences went to the theatres than to the churches; actors performed regularly in specially built theaters; and there were daily performances in some theatres. Mandagouni informs us that theatres had upper chambers and were built like classical amphitheatres.
 
During the Golden Age of Classical Armenian in the 5th century the Bible was translated into Armenian (410 A.D.) Great advances in every field followed, including the theatre. But the advances Armenian culture came to an abrupt halt in the seventh century when the Arab invasion slowed all progress. Although a cultural decline existed during the eighth and ninth centuries, the theatre held on and survived. Armenian historians of the era indicate its living presence. Archeological excavations made in the fort of Kaitzun Bert in Lori have uncovered numerous statues of actors and masks of animals and birds, which confirm the descriptions given by historians.
 
During the eleventh through fourteenth centuries, the Armenian theatre continued to improve and enhance its dramatic styles in the Armenian-Cilicia area. The Mime Theatre cleansed itself of erotic excesses, the Tragic Theatre was enriched by employing topics from the epics, and the Comic Theatre satirized the social classes.
 
A decline began with the fall of the last independent Armenian kingdom, the Lusignan dynasty of Cilicia in 1375. Various theatre groups scattered all over Asia Minor, going to autonomous Armenian provinces. Charden, a French world traveller, in his Les Mimes de l’Orient, gives a detailed description of a performance he attended at the Armenian Mime Theatre in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1664. At that time Armenia was under Persian rule. Chardin’s account reveals that the Goussan tradition was still alive with mime action, accompanied by music, singing and dancing, similar to opera.
 
In the eighteenth century, original plays and translations of European plays were published in Classical Armenian. They only attracted a secular audience, and as a result they were seldom performed, but were used in schools in the study of classical Armenian. Plays were written by the resident clergy and performed by the students. The pioneer efforts of the Mekhitarists provided a significant step in the development of the Western Armenian Theatre.
 
In 1855, the first western Armenian amateur theatre group was established by Srabion Hek’imian, and a year later, Beshigtashlian organized a group of amateurs who performed at the Lusavochian School. Their success led to the construction of new school auditoriums and theatres in various parts of Constantinople. Turks, whose introduction to Armenian theatre was at the homes of their Armenian friends, soon saw Armenian actors on Turkish stages as well. It is believed that Armenians played a principal part in the birth of contemporary Turkish Theatre.
 
Dramatists of the late nineteenth century set a strong precedent for those who followed. Major dramatists forged ahead with new styles and early traces of a new vernacular. Bedros Turian ((1852-1872), is credited with freeing Armenian classicism to the vernacular usage. In spite of his short life span, he wrote at least 10 plays and several poems, some of which have been lost in a fire.
 
The foremost satirist of the Armenian stage is Hagop Baronian. From a poor family with a minimal education, Baronian’s brilliance enabled him to master several languages, reading the classics in Greek, French and Italian. His most famous plays are Brother Balthazar, The Honorable Beggars, and Abisolom Agha. Like Moliere, he satirizes human greed, vanity and hypocrisy, using his wit with devastating effect.
 
The most significant Western Armenian classical dramatist was Levon Shant (1869-1952), whose creative outpour spanned half a century with short stories, poems, essays, text-books and plays. (1869-1952) He was a diplomat and an educator, but his real fame rests on his powerful dramatic works. Shant was born in Istanbul and received his early education in Turkey. Later he studied at the Gevorgian Jemaran (academy) in Ejmiatsin, and at universities in Jena, Leipzig and Munich. Shant survived the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, because he was teaching in the Caucasus at the time. His most popular plays are: Ancient Gods, (1909) The Emperor, (1914), The Chained (1918), The Princess of the Fallen Castle, (1921), and Oshin Payl (1929). Like Shakespeare’s chronicle plays drawn from English history, Shant’s most popular plays chronicle crucial periods of Armenian history. He is the first Armenian dramatist to use expressionism and to expertly draw from mythology and blend it with realism, as illustrated in Ancient Gods. With the establishment of Soviet Rule in Armenia, Shant lived in exile in France, Iran, Egypt and Lebanon. When Lebanon became his permanent residence, he and his friend of Jemaran days, Nicole Aghbalian, founded the Armenian Jemaran of Beirut, where he was president for twenty years. In 1930, he helped the famed actor-director, Caspar Ipekian, in the formation of Beirut’s first Armenian Theatre Group. In 1941, Shant again assisted Caspar Ipekian in the formation of the first permanent Theatrical Society in the Diaspora, known as the Casper Ipekian Hamazkayin Taderakhumb (The Caspar Ipekian National Theatre Group), and its first production was Shant’s The Princess of the Fallen Castle. Shant’s plays became a regular part of its repertory from 1942 until his death in 1951, when he was given a national burial in Beirut.
 
The Armenians of the Caucasus enjoyed a greater freedom to develop their arts than did the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the early twentieth century. As a result, the development of Eastern Armenian Drama found its way in the Caucasus under different circumstances. Its founder, Haroutyun Alamdarian, organized an amateur theatrical group in Tiflis in the early nineteenth century. His student, Khatchadour Abovian, wrote the first play of the modern eastern Armenian dialect, Aghchegan Sera, (The Girl’s Love), and it was performed by the group. Another student of Alamdarian, Galoust Shermazarian, wrote a satirical play, Karapet Episcoposi Ararknera (The Deeds of Bishop Karapet). After its performance, he had to flee the country because he had offended the clergy and government officials with its hilarious jabs at both institutions. In 1860, Gevorg Chimushgian organized a professional theatrical group in the Caucasus. Modern Armenian theatres were built in Tiflis, Baku, Nor Nakhichevan, Alexandropol, Kars and Yerevan. In less than twenty-five years, Armenian writers produced plays of literary and artistic value. It was a varied repertoire of original works and quality translations of European masterpieces.
 
The greatest Eastern Armenian playwright of the late nineteenth century was Gabriel Sundukian (1825-1912). Sundukian was born in Tiflis, and as a result of his studies in France and Russia, he learned French, Italian and Russian, as well as classical and modern Armenian. A brilliant man of letters, his plays offer a broad scope of human nature, its frailties and virtues. He was the first dramatist to deal with the Armenian middle and lower classes, and his play Pepo is among the most widely performed plays in Armenia. In 1921 the first state theatre was founded in Yerevan, Armenia and named the Sundukian Theatre, in his honor, His other major works include Embarassment, Sneezing at Night is a Good Omen, The Husbands, Love and Freedom. Derenik Demirchyan (1877-1956) and Alexander Shirvanzade (1858-1935) were playwrights who were already famous before the Communist take-over of Armenia. They stayed in Armenia and continued their creative work there for the rest of their lives. Demirchyan, a contemporary of Levon Shant, was a prolific novelist, poet and playwright. His most popular play, Nazar the Brave (Kaj Nazar, 1923), satirizes bourgeois morality and has been adapted very successfully to film. Alexander Shirvanzade, like his counterparts, wrote in many genres. His plays expose a society dominated by greed, superstition and hypocrisy, demonstrating a deep concern for truth and justice. His plays, Chaos, Namus, Evil Spirit, and For the Sake of Honor are still widely performed. His masterful use of realism pervades the conflicting issues in the drama For the Sake of Honor.
 
Soon after the Sundukian Theatre gained stature, many prominent actors from abroad, including those whose reputations had flourished in Western Armenia, went to Yerevan to join its repertory. They contributed to notable advances in its repertory, which included Armenian plays and translations of classical, European and American plays. Its modern repertoire is richly diverse with offerings of Armenian translations of world famous dramatists.
 
Actors whose laurels included outstanding portrayals of Shakespearean characters were Petros Adamian and Vahram Papazian. Adamian’s specialty was the role of Hamlet, which he portrayed on the Russian and French stages in the Armenian language. Vahram Papazian is reputed to have played Othello 3,000 times in the Armenian, Russian and French languages. Papazian was a native of Istanbul and lived the second half of his life in Soviet Armenia (1888-1968).
 
The “breeches” trend (actresses playing men’s roles) infiltrated the Armenian Theatre when the actress Siranush (1857-1932) played the role of Hamlet in 1902. She played European and Armenian roles, as well as other Shakespearean roles, but her portrayals of Hamlet were a recurring part of her repertoire throughout her thirty year reign on the Armenian stage. Her career on the Armenian stage lasted longer than that of any other Armenian actress. She and Vahram Papazian performed in Levon Shant’s The Emperor in 1916 when it first appeared on the Tiflis stage. Papazian played Ohan Gourgen and she played the role of Theophano.
 
Soon after England had established a Shakespeare Foundation, a Shakespeare Center at the Institute of Arts was established in Yerevan, Armenia. Since the 1850’s there have been at least 50 translators of Shakespearean drama, but to this day the translator whose excellence is still unmatched is the Iranian-born, Paris-educated career diplomat, Hovaness Massehian (1864-1932). In addition to Armenian, he was fluent in English, French, Persian, Russian, German, Arabic and Turkish. His earliest translation was of Hamlet in 1894, and during the years that followed, he translated Romeo and Juiet, The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Mac Beth. When he died even more of his translations were discovered: Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanius. Massehian was a rare individual who served as Iranian ambassador to London and to Berlin during his career in government service.
 
During the early twentieth century, productions of Shakespearean plays were performed by the Armenian Art Theatre in New York under the direction of Hovaness Zarifian until 1937 when he passed away. A decade later, Elia Kimatian, a former actor of the Zarifian group, directed and staged The Merchant of Venice in New York City with the Armenian Youth Federation’s Theatrical Group which he had organized. He formed the group in the early 1940s and had a series of successes until the mid 1960s. The actors were young American-born Armenian youth of immigrant parents with no professional experience, but Kimatian’s direction and dedication to the Armenian Theatre fostered quality productions. The diverse repertoire included the works of prominent playwrights such as Shirvanzade’s For the Sake of Honor, Vahan Krikor’s Swan Song, and Levon Shant’s The Emperor, and The Princess of the Fallen Castle, among others. He also produced plays which were adapted or written by Kimatian himself.
 
When the group dispersed in the mid 1960s others emerged. The desire to perpetuate theatre remains constant wherever an Armenian community exists with a competent leader. Through the efforts of Dr Herand Markarian, the Hamazkayin Theatre Group of New York was organized in 1967. Born in Iraq, he earned graduate degrees in Chemistry and Management of Technology. He studied acting and directing in New York, and in 1968 he produced and directed Shant’s Ancient Gods in New York and in Boston.
 
In 1972, Dr. Nishan Parlakian became director of the newly formed Diocesan Drama Group in New York City. His diverse experience as director, actor and translator provided the group with unique leadership. He staged plays in English and Armenian, and its repertoire included the works of significant Armenian dramatists, including: Sundukian’s Pepo,Shirvanzade’s Evil Spirit, For the Sake of Honor, and Baronian’s Eastern Dentist.
 
The Armenian Theatre in the diaspora was further enhanced when the Armenian General Benevolent Union in New York City sponsored the Ardashat Theatre Group in the late 1970s. Its repertoire included Armenian plays as well as English translations of notable foreign playwrights such as Moliere, Chekhov and Goldoni. The group made great strides under the leadership of director, Krikor Staminan, a graduate of the American University of Beirut, and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in London. In 1977, Satamian assumed the position of National Artistic Director of the AGBU Theatrical Society, and in that capacity, he founded and directed theatre groups in Boston, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles the group became known as the Ardavazt Theatre Group and grew in popularity with each production. Its repertoire includes Armenian plays and English translations of plays by distinguished world dramatists.
 
In 1981, Gerald Papazian, originally from Cairo, who was a graduate of the Yerevan State Institute of Fine Dramatic Arts (Soviet Armenia), became director of the group. He translated many plays from French and English to Armenian. He directed and acted in many of them as well. Papasian’s book Sojourn at Ararat was a major dramatic milestone which introduced the poetry of Armenian writers through English translations and dramatic artistry. The poetic drama staged by Papasian and Nora Armani was declared a soaring triumph combining superbly chosen material and excellent ensemble acting. It premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe in 1986 and had its United States premier at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Los Angeles, CA, from March to June, 1987. That year it was the recipient of four Drama-Logue critics awards for “Outstanding Achievement in Theatre” and was part of the California Art Council’s Touring/Presenting Program. It toured extensively and “sojourned” to Yerevan where it was presented in English to Armenian audiences.
 
In 1988, Krikor Satamian took the reins as actor/director of the Ardvazt Group in Los Angeles, and its popularity continued to grow. In addition to Armenian Classical fare, Satamian translated, acted and directed the works of internationally famous playwrights such as Neil Simon, Oscar Wilde, and Murray Schisgal, among others. In January 2003 the Ardavast Theatre Group succeeded in developing an adjunct division known as the Ardavast Juniors’ Theater Group. The Armenian language play, “Teenage Wasteland,” written by Shahe Mankerian, was presented at the AGBU center in Pasadena and received an enthusiastic response from a capacity audience. The play depicts the alienation of the Armenian youth in the Diaspora, and illustrates how American born Armenian youth face the duality of their cultural milieu. Though experimental in nature, the group envisions a promising future.
 
The Vardan Ajemian Theatrical Group can be credited with more recent productions of Levon Shant’s plays in the Armenian community of California. The group was formed in 1984 by John Nshanian and his wife Shakeh Toukhmanian after they left Armenia. As graduates of the prestigious Yerevan Theatrical Institute, they had both studied with the famed Armenian director Vardan Ajemian. From 1976 to 1980, they joined the ranks of the famed Sundukian State Theatre in Yerevan, and their performances were highly acclaimed. In 1994, they produced Levon Shant’s Princess of the Fallen Castlethe Occidental College Theatre in Los Angeles. Nshanian directed and acted the male lead as Prince Vasil, and his wife played Princess Anna, the female lead and received rave reviews. In 1996, they joined the cast of the Hamazkayin Theatre Company in Armenia and portrayed the same roles, directed by Sos Sargsian. In recognition of the Sundukian Theatre’s 75th anniversary, Nshanian and his wife were invited to Yerevan by the Tatron (Theatre) Foundation in September of 1999. At the foundation’s request, they performed the lead roles in The Emperor with the Sundukian cast. The Vardan Ajemian Theatre Group always plays to capacity audiences in the United States and in Armenia. In so doing, it perpetuates the legacy of Levon Shant’s dramaturgy, and offers the Armenian community the plays of prominent playwrights seldom produced in this country.
 
Prominent Eastern Armenian writers came to the forefront during the latter part of the twentieth century. English translations of their plays have been published by the Columbia University Press (2001) in Modern Armenian Drama: An Anthology, edited by Nishan Parlakian, Professor Emeritus of Drama at John Jay College City University of New York, and S. Peter Cowe, Naregatsi Professor of Armenian Language and Culture at UCLA. The book contains English translations of significant Armenian plays which are: Pepo by Gabriel Sundukian (1871), Honorable Beggars by Hagop Baronian (1880), Ancient Gods by Levon Shant (1908), and Nazar the Brave by Derenik Demirchyan (1923). More recent dramatic works include Unfinished Monologue (1981) by Berj Zeytunstyans, which illustrates the constraints of a rigid bureaucracy and its destructive elements and Madmen of the World, Unite! (1992), by Anahit Agharsaryan. Agharsaryan is a contemporary female playwright, whose work saw fruition in the post Soviet era. Her play satirizes the political arena with dialogue emerging from mental patients.
 The course of Armenian drama has been as rugged as its historical terrain with heights of grandeur and pits of despair. Despite its plight, the Armenian presence in the world of theatre continues to gain prominence. To the world at large, the most widely acclaimed American dramatist of Armenian descent is undoubtedly William Saroyan (1908-1981) . He was born of immigrant parents in Fresno, California and never lost touch with his proud Armenian heritage. Although Armenian is not the language of his dramatic output, his literature echoes with the soul and spirit of his forebears. His plays have been translated to Armenian and performed on Armenian stages, the most popular been The Time of Your Life, and My Heart’s in the Highlands. Saroyan was the first playwright to receive both the Drama Critic’s Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his play, The Time of Your Life. (He did not accept the Pulitzer Prize Award.) Although his most published and produced plays were between 1939 and 1943, his short stories and novels are still widely acclaimed. When he died, after cremation, half of his ashes were delivered to the William Saroyan Foundation and the other half is permanently enshrined in the Pantheon of Greats in Armenia. In 1997,during the sixteenth anniversary of his death, all of Saroyan’s literary papers were placed in Special Collections at Stanford University Libraries, now designated the William Saroyan Archive.
 The determination to record our past and to herald our present has burgeoned a throng of new playwrights of Armenian descent published in Nishan Parlakian’s new collection, Contemporary Armenian American Drama: An Anthology of Ancestral Voices by the Columbia University Press (2004). A first of its kind, it includes plays written in English by notable Armenian Americans. The thematic content reflects the outrage of the Armenian Genocide, and the forced transplantation of the Diaspora and its demands of assimilation. Among the plays are: Ellis Island 101, by Raffi Arzoomanian, Armenians by William Saroyan, Grandma Pray for Me by Nishan Parlakian, Dance, Mama, Dance by Barbara Bejoian, Nine Armenians by Leslie Ayvazian, and Mirrors by Herand Markarian.
 
The Armenian theatre has a treasure chest of dramatic literature and offers gems for those who wish to explore its contents. Although invading hordes have destroyed early theatrical records, the theatre continues to thrive. In spite of horrendous odds, historically and geographically, Armenian drama has experienced a renaissance, which continues to progress in Armenia and the diaspora with presentations of original Armenian plays and translations. Whether drawn from the romantic past or from contemporary social issues, Armenian drama offers a universe of thematic motifs and opportunities for bold theatrical staging, as well as scholarly research for those who dare to traverse that path.
 

Excerpt from The Translation and Analysis of Two Major Historical Plays by Levon Shant
by Anne B. Vardanian
The history chapter is titled "A Brief Survey of Armenian Theatre" (dated April 1982)

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