This past fall, at a conference on “Armenian Art and Culture in the Ottoman Empire Before 1915,” I presented a paper entitled “Arrested Development: Western Armenian Theater in the Nineteenth Century.” The paper examined the emergence of Western Armenian theater in Constantinople – or “Bolis” – amidst a period of national awakening known as “Zartonk” and of linguistic transition from classical to vernacular Armenian.
As I delved into my research, I could not help contemplating that in all of Los Angeles there had been two – just two – productions in Western Armenian the whole year, and that both of them had direct links to 19th-century Constantinople: the Krikor Satamian Theater Company’s rendition of “Shoghokort” (The Flatterer) by Hagop Baronian was written in that time and place, while my own revival of “Hin Asdvadzner” (Ancient Gods) adapted an iconic work by Levon Shant, who was born in Bolis and spent formative years there prior to the Genocide.
CONSTANTINOPLE — 19th Century
Western Armenian theater as we know it today did not really emerge as an art form until the 1850s. Pioneering productions by Mgrdich Beshigtashlian and Srabion Hekimian led to the formation of the Eastern Theater, the first professional Armenian troupe. The early 1860s were years of upswing for the Eastern Theater, which boasted an extensive playlist of historical plays and staged over 40 works in translation. Imports included escapist fare (from French and Italian originals), melodramas, and both traditional and musical comedies. The works of Goldoni and Moliere were particularly favored.
In the late 1860s, a producer named Hagop Vartovian founded the Ottoman Theater under a 10-year government license that allowed him a monopoly of sorts. His venue, the Gedikpasha Theater, was the largest of its kind in Constantinople, seating nearly 900. Over the course of the ensuing decade, Vartovian staged an estimated 200 productions in Armenian and a similar number in Turkish; these consisted of historical plays, melodramas, comedies, and operettas – many of them in translation. A controversial figure, Vartovian soon began catering to Turkish playwrights and audiences, to the detriment of Armenian productions.
An alternative to the Ottoman Theater was Bedros Maghakian’s short-lived Volunteer Society, which solely staged plays in Armenian, and Serovpe Benglian’s operetta company, devoted exclusively to musical theater. Benglian’s repertoire featured the works of Dikran Tchouhadjian, the composer of the first Armenian opera, “Arshak II,” and operettas with Turkish librettos, such as “Leblebiji Hor Hor Agha” and “Zemire.”
Several Armenian playwrights were prolific during this era, including Bedros Tourian, who is best remembered today as a poet. In general, however, the caliber of playwriting was subpar, and virtually no scripts written in the 1800s remain a part of the Armenian theatrical canon. Hagop Baronian’s brilliant satires, like “Medzabadiv Mouratsganner” (Honorable Beggars) and “Baghdasar Aghpar” (Uncle Balthazar), constitute the sole exceptions, although they were never performed during their author’s lifetime. Levon Shant, the only other major dramatist to come out of Constantinople, did not actually begin writing plays until the dawn of the 20th century.
After a mere three decades, Western Armenian theater in Constantinople essentially came to a halt in 1880 because of government bans. Its arrested development meant that it never weaned itself from European translations and never transcended the genre of historical plays to reflect contemporary society (unlike Eastern Armenian theater, which embraced social realism). Rather than establishing a foundation for diasporan theater to build upon, the 19th century provided more of a blueprint to imitate.
BEIRUT – 20th Century
The western dialect of Armenian became the language of the Diaspora in the post-Genocide era, and theater in that dialect proliferated in communities scattered across the globe thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and the Hamazkayin Educational and Cultural Society.
Diasporan theater in the 20th century, however, had its heyday in Beirut, where Hamazkayin blazed a trail with its formidable ensemble, the Kasbar Ipegian Theater Company.
Ipegian staged his first play in Beirut in 1931 – an extraordinary feat, considering that the Armenian community in Lebanon was the product of a recent genocide and still suffered the immediate trauma of that calamity. Ipegian’s premier production was Levon Shant’s “Oshin Bayl” (Bailey Oshin).
By the early 1940s, a formal company had been formed under the aegis of Hamazkayin, and three Shant plays were staged in quick succession: “Ingadz Perti Ishkhanouhin” (The Princess of the Fallen Fortress) in 1942; “Hin Asdvadzner” (Ancient Gods) in 1944; and “Gaysruh” (The Caesar) in 1945.
The troupe was renamed to memorialize Ipegian after his passing in 1952. George Sarkissian, who succeeded Ipegian as artistic director, enhanced his predecessor’s achievements and left a rich legacy of his own. It was during Sarkissian’s decades-long tenure that the company acquired its own venue – the Hagop Der Melkonian Theater, which was constructed in 1969 and operates to this day. Remarkably, alongside the Ipegian company, Hamazkayin sustained theater ensembles sponsored by its local chapters. Independent troupes like Varoujan Khedeshian’s Theatre 67 and Zohrab Yacoubian’s Experimental Theatre also had successful tenures in Beirut, but the only ensemble that has managed to survive nearly as long as Ipegian is the AGBU’s Vahram Papazian Theater Company, founded in the late 1950s by esteemed actor and director Berj Fazlian.
Shant’s plays were mainstays of Ipegian productions, and Hagop Baronian was a frequent presence across a number of theater companies, but these companies were committed to producing original works as well. Many of these works, like Jacques Hagopian’s “Grunguh Guh Gancheh” (The Crane Beckons), dealt with the diasporan condition, while some pieces, such as “Bourj Hammoud ’78,” specifically focused on the Lebanese-Armenian community.
Translations were never in short supply, and farces were aplenty, but substantive works by Ibsen, Ionesco, Miller and, unsurprisingly, Saroyan, were given their due.
Western Armenian theater in Beirut was not limited to patriotic fare or light entertainment, like it had been in Constantinople; rather, it was frequently peppered with weighty dramas that tackled moral issues and sophisticated comedies that toyed with absurdism. Still, its development was arrested by civil war and an ever-dwindling Armenian population.
It goes without saying that Armenian theater remains very much alive in Lebanon; just this year, the Ipegian company staged “Asdvadzayin Gadagerkoutyun” (Divine Comedy) and the Papazian troupe produced “Bidi Ella . . . Bidi Chella” (It’s On . . . It’s Off). Beirut is probably still the place where most new plays written in Western Armenian originate. But levels of productivity there are a fraction of what they used to be, and the current trajectory suggests that the future of Western Armenian theater, whatever it might be, will unfold elsewhere.
LOS ANGELES – 21st Century
So is Los Angeles the future of Western Armenian theater? Not yet – though it should be. Los Angeles is a unique – and perhaps unprecedented – diasporan community in that it boasts huge numbers of both Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian speakers. At the same time, it is a community large enough, educated enough, and affluent enough to sustain a thriving theater scene in both dialects. Los Angeles could never supplant Yerevan as the place where Eastern Armenian theater burgeons, but it could well become the next center of Western Armenian theater.
The road to that goal is one fraught with challenges. Los Angeles, unlike Constantinople in the 19th century and Beirut in the 20th, does not even have an Armenian theater space. It has only one standing theater company – comprised of non-professionals. In the current century, a single individual, Vahe Berberian, has perhaps created more original works in Western Armenian – a pair of full-length plays, along with monologues, sketch comedy, and an improv show – than any other L.A.-based theater organization.
Hamazkayin has been unable to form a main troupe, and the quality of productions by its chapters has tended to be low-end. AGBU’s Krikor Satamian Theater Company (formerly Ardavazt) has been the only steady presence, although the caliber of its output has been inconsistent. Satamian, an alum of AGBU’s Papazian ensemble in Beirut, typically programs tame entertainment that’s exclusively comedic, often in translation, and frequently dated.
To become the center of Western Armenian theater in the 21st century, Los Angeles needs an Armenian theater venue, some version of a training academy for actors, financial resources to commission plays, and a mechanism to cultivate audiences. How does all that happen?
It happens through the work of producers – whether organizational, individual, or both. Theater is not a solitary art form like writing a novel or painting a canvas. It requires producers who can secure funding and provide the infrastructure necessary to stage plays. History proves this point: Theater in Constantinople was made possible by producers like Vartovian; the Ipegian ensemble in Beirut enjoyed Hamazkayin’s support; and the AGBU provides backing for the Satamian company in Los Angeles and for similar troupes in diasporan communities as far-flung as Buenos Aires and Sydney.
Producers need to develop strategic plans that contemplate the growth of Western Armenian theater, so that each success leads to a greater one. Such long-term thinking is needed to ensure that the third century of Western Armenian theater does not become another instance of a brief heyday or a period of arrested development.
"Asbarez," January 2, 2015