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A TASTE OF ARMENIAN DRAMA - PART ONE Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian July 21, 2008 I. GABRIEL SOUNTOUGIAN'S `BEBO' AND THE AFFIRMATION OF HUMAN DIGNITY Gabriel Sountougian's (1825-1912) `Bebo, a comedy in Three Acts' (Selected Works Volume 2, 1973, Yerevan, Armenia) written in 1857 is the earliest of those contributions to the modern Armenian dramatic tradition that retain their value for today. A passionate affirmation of the dignity of all men and women it makes the case for honour and equality as conditions for decent human relations. It also shows how these are trampled upon by men of power in their dealings with those they deem their inferiors and how money plays its brutal role in the process. Sountougian excels because he does not write to any a-priori moral design. The drama emerges from the daily preoccupations, from the hopes and the woes of the common people whose characters he has expertly fashioned. Disaster beckons for fisherman Bebo's family. His sister's fiancC) has threatened to call off their marriage unless Bebo immediately pays a promised dowry. Gezel's marriage was to be an occasion for family rejoicing as well as a public affirmation of her integrity and honour. The marriage has been announced and the two have even kissed in public. For the fiancC) to now withdraw would be devastating. The termination would be seen as evidence of some terrible wrong-doing, some unforgivable deformation of character and morality, but not of course in the prospective husband but in Gezel the woman. Public humiliation and private pain are unavoidable. Bebo cannot pay the dowry that was to come from a debt owed to him by merchant Haroutyoun. The debtor's note has been lost and so seizing the opportunity Haroutyoun refuses to acknowledge let alone pay up. They have not contravened any code of humane morality, but submitting to the spirit of the time Bebo's family accept the right of society to judge and condemn them in the name of flagrantly backward social tradition. So they feel profoundly humiliated and shamed. But to this feeling there is a profoundly authentic and moral core. They feel it as failure of family duty, as failure to prevent another human being, their beloved Gezel, becoming an object of slander and ostracism. Bebo feels it as failure to honour a promise. Though it is the fiancC) who threatens to bring about dishonour and shame upon Bebo and his family, Sountougian locates the deeper roots of their plight in their social powerlessness. This emerges particularly in scenes of Gezel and her mother Shushan cursing their lot as they sew for a pittance to make ends meet. They are victims of the powerful who deceive, cheat and reduce them to abject poverty and dependence. Self-consciousness of their poverty appears sometimes forced, but not enough to stultify the natural flow of dialogue free of didactic authorial preoccupation and enriched by gems of folk wisdom from Shushan in particular. Act Two transfers the scene to merchant Haroutyoun's household where the contrast with Bebo's abode is striking, but not primarily on account of the disparities of material wealth. Among Bebo's family there is morality, a sense of honour and duty and there is love. In Haroutyoun's home there prevails vacuity, conspicuous consumption, contempt, vanity and shocking brazenness in living off ill-gotten gains. To compensate for his middle-aged decrepitude Haroutyoun can afford both to dye his hair and buy himself a new young wife. In his vanity and his narcissism he is utterly real and modern as is his wife Ephemia diseased with incessant purchasing. A spendthrift, heartless creature, full of contempt for her servants she is also filled with intense dislike for her step-daughter. In relations between the two Sountougian shows the ugliness of loveless marriages made of money. Bebo's unannounced and dynamic entry into Haroutyoun's home brings to an end its self-satisfied ease. As he demands payment of his debt, his sister's impending fate fires his speech with a passion that concentrates all the injustice felt by the common people at the hands of men like Haroutyoun. Here we see one of the finest artistic affirmations of the dignity of men and women and of the necessity of a moral core to human relations and actions. Bebo feels his humanity, his sense of dignity and his sense of self passionately. On storming into the household, challenged about his identity he replies `Who am I? I am me!' He does not demand charity but respect. As the scene unwinds, his monologues bring into focus the corrupt structure of the world of the rich, and in his reaction Haroutyoun reveals in turn the anxiety of the rich when challenged. The concluding Third Act leaves an indelible imprint. Haroutyoun's deception is exposed. To avoid the matter going to court he offers to repay his debt with interest to boot. But with the damage done to Gezel, with her scoundrel fiancC) now searching elsewhere for dowry and for a domestic servant her fall is final. There can be no resurrection of her reputation and no man will now marry her. So Bebo turns down Haroutyoun's offer hoping to publicly expose him in court, but not just on his sister's account. In one of the closing speeches he stands forth as avenger preparing to strike down the Haroutyouns of this world who indifferently squeeze the poor of their humanity. `You have cheated many others in the same way as you tried to cheat us, you have played this game with many others, you have cut many throats and I would not be Bebo if I did not take revenge for all of them.' The clash that Sountougian has depicted so sharply remains an inspiring portrayal of the consequences of the moral rot at the core of the social order that today too has millions of victims. Anyone who thinks that Bebo's drama is only of historical interest could ask the 25,000 landless and impoverished Indian peasants who in October 2007 organised a month-long march on Delhi the Indian capital. They marched to demand land rights from landlords throwing them off the land that they have tilled for generations but for which they cannot produce official documentation! II. TERENIK DEMIRJIAN'S `NAZAR THE BRAVE' Derenik Demirjian's (1877-1956) `Nazar the Brave - a comedy fable in Five Acts' (Collected Works, Volume 5, Yerevan, 1973) is a brilliant and inventive satire on political tyranny and the ambitions of the great powers, their disregard for the interests of small nations, for democracy and for morality. This is Hrant Tamrazian's judgment on what he considered to be the most outstanding of all modern renditions of this classical Armenian rural folktale that Demirjian wrote in 1924. The evaluation is difficult to challenge. `Nazar the Brave' is accomplished art that brings together into a single whole a classic folk tale and the author's modern vision of world politics, a vision that retains merit even today. Nazar is a figure deserving of all the mockery that the sharpest minds and cruellest wits are able to heap upon him. Pompous bravura, empty declamation and preposterous posturing are summoned brilliantly. Nazar is a good-for-nothing lazy layabout, ignorant, nasty, crude and brutish. He is the Armenian Andy Capp for those familiar with the English cartoon buffoon! He is also the personification of grotesque cowardice, fearful of everything, trembling before the smallest unknown movement, fearful even of going out into the dark of his garden without his wife. Yet he is simultaneously a fantasist possessing an image of himself as a man of sterling bravery ready to do battle with and vanquish local bandits before whom all others flee. He imagines himself as the brave defender of the community laying low the most powerful enemy and enjoying all the glory and status that follows. As folk tales sometimes will, fortune smiles upon him, and in a big way. In a bizarre turn of events Nazar acquires the fame of the brave as well as the fortune and the throne of a monarch. Fearfully fleeing two equally fearful cowards he finds himself greeted as a hero in a principality far away to where he has sought refuge and there prepares to lord it over all and sundry. And so in Act Two Nazar comes to strut about as a head of state, as a venerated King and also as personification of degenerate politics. In typical imperial fashion he enters battle against any nation having the gall to refuse humble subordination. The depiction of his indignant protest against those who refuse to surrender their lands is grotesquely funny, but it is also a deeply accurate representation of the history of colonial conquest. As Nazar conspires with cohorts in a manner that readily brings to mind a club of great powers plotting to divide up the world among them, we witness a burlesque transition from farce to political satire. Immensely comical scenes tell universal truths about ruling elites. Nazar's ignorant, nasty, crude and brutish personal traits emerge as personification of the inhuman, heartless, cruel and violent ruling elite in any part of the world. Ever ready to slaughter innocent civilians from foreign lands, Nazar uses his own people to do the fighting and the dying while he and his accomplices feast at tables heaving with luxury. In this regard a significant demonstration of the decline of contemporary criticism appears in a comment on Demirjian's play written by David Gasparyan and published in his 2002 volume `Armenian Literature'. Driven by an unreasoned urge to present prominent Armenian artists as fundamentally hostile to socialism, the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Sovietisation of Armenia, Gasparyan amidst a number of illuminating points also claims bizarrely that `Nazar the Brave', in its exposure of the abuse of political power was written primarily as a critique of the Soviet authorities of the time. Having no textual evidence to support this evaluation, Gasparyan happily attributes to explicit evidence an explicitly opposite meaning. He writes: Wary of unnecessary headaches, in his notes Demirjian indicates that the sources of his characters are from earlier political orders or in foreign lands, this even as he was fully conscious about whom he was speaking and which land he was living in. Everyone writes about his times and has in mind the particular targets of the political life of their times, but for the sake of security, they claim that they are writing about other times than these. Such arbitrary, subjective and invented interpretation does nothing to enhance our appreciation of the play and a gross caricature of the spirit and ambition of the author. But the play was written and published in 1924, at the very moment that a large segment of the Armenian intelligentsia, and Demirjian among them, along with Charents, Mahari, Bakoontz, Nairi Zaryan and many others, expressed greatest enthusiasm and hope for the new Soviet Armenia state. `Nazar the Brave' has in it nohing sloganeering, nothing of the vociferous, of the platitude and the clichC). Dermirjian's success is in the seamlessness of the transitions from farce to political polemic. Nazar's outrageous actions as a head of state are totally consistent with his outrageous personality and both are convincing. His nasty, crude and brutish political actions that are drawn out to their extreme develop naturally from traits of personal character. This consistency that blends comical farce and political statement prevents the political appearing overwhelming or propagandistic. The play is enhanced by unusually important authorial direction, both for the stage set-up and the protagonists' movements. Physical movement, facial expressions and the physical relations between protagonists contribute a great deal to the fashioning and the development of character, plot, comedy and satire. Though there is a wearing thin as a result of some repetitiousness and declamation, the blemish is easily ignored as the journey nears its satisfying end. Returning to its starting point we witness yet another an unseemly squabble between Nazar and his wife who has since become Queen. The fight is sparked by Nazar's attempt to divorce her for a younger, more beautiful, captured queen of noble blood! But as they go at each other hammer and tong, the people commence a revolt. Meanwhile Nazar's cohorts finally realising that he is nothing but a coward proceed to ransack his palace. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.