A talented journalist who published the first Turkish humor magazine in the Ottoman Empire, Hagop Baronian was also an important playwright in the Ottoman and Armenian theater known as the ‘Moliere of Armenians’
It has been more than a century since the death of sharp-tongued satirist Hagop Baronian. However, the literary works of the Armenian Ottoman journalist, playwright and humorist still offer readers a perspective into everyday life in 19th-century Istanbul.
Publishing his first play at just 22 years old, Baronian’s works are relatively few in number but their impact was great, dealing with issues such as marriage and family matters. The products of his journalistic career were likewise pertinent to the times, containing satire and social criticism.
Born in 1843 to a poor family in the city of Edirne in present-day northwestern Turkey, he predominantly went to Armenian schools, although he attended a Greek school for about a year where he learned to speak Greek.
In 1864, he settled in Istanbul, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire, where he worked in various jobs as a secretary and teacher, learning Italian and French through his own efforts along the way.
Here he also started contributing to various journals, gaining experience as a professional writer.
Baronian’s interest in theater manifested at a very young age. His first play, written in 1865, was a short farce called “One Butler with Two Masters,” an imitation of Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s original work, “A Butler with Two Masters.”
Four years later came his first comedy, “Oriental Dentist,” in which he dealt cheerfully with arranged marriages and marital fidelity.
Baronian explored what he saw as decaying family relations, with couples going behind each other’s back, while the lives of spouses and lovers old and new intertwine.
Amid a background of the social developments of the period, the play invites readers to think about the timeless relationship between marriage and fidelity.
He began writing another play, “Flattery,” in 1872. However, this would only be completed half a century later by fellow great Armenian Ottoman humor writer Yervant Odian after it was left unfinished.
Another satire, “Honorable Beggars,” published in 1880-1881, focused on the indiscretion and naivety of a rural notable, while also drawing attention to how open these qualities were to exploitation by an array of artistic, professional, religious and artisanal opportunists.
His last work, “Baghdasar Aghbar,” again criticized Armenian institutions around the theme of divorce. It is one of the most popular plays in the Armenian comedy tradition.
Though he announced in 1887 that he would be releasing another comedy called “Dowry,” he never published this comedy. An incomplete draft of the play, consisting of eight scenes and some episodes, was found among his papers and published following his death.
Baronian’s career in journalism began in 1871 when he became chief writer at Yeprad (Euphrates) newspaper, later also writing in the Megu (Bee) and Khigar (Wise).
He started publishing an Ottoman Turkish humor magazine, known as Tiyatro, on March 20, 1874, followed only a couple of weeks later by Tadron, a bilingual publication in both Armenian and Ottoman Turkish, which was first printed in the Armenian alphabet.
Baronian created all of the content published in the four-page Tiyatro magazine. The biweekly was the fourth Turkish satirical magazine published in the Ottoman Empire.
In Tadron, he discussed issues relevant to the Armenian community at the time. It was also published twice a week and included common content with Tiyatro, with both publications surviving until 1877.
Baronian died of tuberculosis on May 27, 1891, in Istanbul. He is buried in the Armenian cemetery in the city, though his exact place of rest remains unknown.
None of his plays were staged while he was alive, though they became popular in the decade following.
Known by many as Moliere of the Armenians, Baronian shines a light on contemporary social life in his city and his works have proven invaluable to interested historians and laypeople alike.