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The Critical Corner - 07/21/2008

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Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

July 21, 2008


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!


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

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

    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

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.

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