By Ahmed Ibrahim,
Ancient religious rituals in which professional gusans (troubadours) were hired to sing lengthy verses praising the nobleman’s ancestors gave rise to the Armenian Theatre in Ancient Greece. Both katakagusan (comedians) and voghbergus (lamentation or tragedy singers) performed at festive ceremonies.
Greek tragedies, orations, and historical commentaries by Tigran’s son Artavazd II were written in the first century A.D. and survived until that time. The second permanent public theater in Armenia was built by Artavazd in the previous capital, Artashat. There were frequent productions of Menander’s comedies and Euripides’ tragedies. He is widely regarded as Armenia’s first playwright and director of Classical Armenian Theater. There was a 53 B.C. performance of the Euripides play The Bacchae, according to Plutarch.
Numerous statues of actors and animal and bird masks were discovered during archaeological digs at the Kaitzun Bert fort in Lori, confirming the historical accounts.
Playwrights Derenik Demirchian (1877-1956) and Alexander Shirvanzade (1858-1935) were already well-known in Armenia before the Communist takeover. They remained in Armenia for the rest of their lives, where they carried on producing art. In the same era as Levon Shant, Demirchyan was a prolific novelist, poet, and playwright.
His most well-known play, Nazar the Brave (Kaj Nazar, 1923), which satirizes bourgeois morality, has been successfully adapted to the big screen. Like his contemporaries, Alexander Shirvanzade wrote in a variety of genres. His plays portray a society that is governed by greed, superstition, and hypocrisy while displaying a strong concern for truth and justice. Chaos, Namus, Evil Spirit, and For the Sake of Honor are some of his plays that are still frequently performed. The conflicting issues in the drama For the Sake of Honor are infused with his masterful use of realism.
Many well-known actors from abroad, including those whose careers had flourished in Western Armenia, came to Yerevan shortly after the Sundukian Theatre attained notoriety to join its repertory. They made significant improvements to its repertory, which included plays translated from classical, European, and American plays as well as plays in Armenian. Its modern repertoire is diverse, with Armenian translations of world-renowned dramatists among its offerings.
Petros Adamian and Vahram Papazian were actors whose accolades included superb interpretations of Shakespearean characters. Adamian specialized in playing Hamlet, which he did in Armenian on the stages of Russia and France. According to legend, Vahram Papazian performed Othello 3,000 times in French, Russian, and Armenian. Istanbul-born Papazian spent the second half of his life (1888–1968) in Soviet Armenia.
When Siranush (1857–1922) performed as Hamlet in the Armenian Theatre in 1902, the “breeches” trend—actresses in male roles—entered the theater. She performed other Shakespearean roles as well as European and Armenian roles, but throughout her thirty-year reign on the Armenian stage, her portrayals of Hamlet were a recurrent part of her repertoire. She had the longest acting career of any Armenian actress on the national stage. In 1916, when Levon Shant’s The Emperor debuted on the Tiflis stage, she and Vahram Papazian performed in it. She and Papazian both portrayed Theophano and Ohan Gourgen.
A Shakespeare Center at the Institute of Arts was established in Yerevan, Armenia, not long after England established the Shakespeare Foundation. Since the 1850s, there have been at least 50 Shakespearean drama translators, but Hovaness Massehian (1864–1922), a career diplomat of Iranian descent and Parisian education, is still the undisputed master. In addition to Armenian, he also spoke English, French, Persian, Russian, German, Arabic, and Turkish. He began by translating Hamlet in 1894, and in the years that followed, he also translated Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Macbeth. Even more of his translations, including Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanius, were found after his passing. Massehian was a unique person who, during his career in government service, held the position of the Iranian ambassador to Berlin and London.
From the early 20th century until his passing in 1937, Hovaness Zarifian directed Shakespearean plays at the Armenian Art Theatre in New York. Elia Kimatian, a former member of the Zarifian acting troupe, organized the Armenian Youth Federation’s theatrical group, which he later directed and staged in New York City. Beginning in the early 1940s, he founded the group, which enjoyed a string of successes up until the mid-1960s.
The works of William Shakespeare have been a significant source for Armenian intellectuals throughout Armenia’s historical past.
The impact of the USSR
Vavik Vardanyan, a director and educator, was instrumental in the establishment of the Yerevan Theatrical Institute (now the Yerevan State Institute of Theatre and Cinema) in 1944. People who had aspirations of building a brand-new theater stage made up the first generation of the institute’s alumni. Moscow directors were influential due to the close ties between the Soviet acting and directing schools. It should be noted that young directors who start their schools are linked to the history of theater in Soviet Armenia. One of them was Armen Gulakyan, who studied at the Armenian Drama Studio in Moscow (1918–1925), founded on the same principles as the Moscow Art Theatre Studio, under such luminaries as Yuri Zavadsky, Georgii Burdzhalov, Boris Shchukin, and Ruben Simonov. He studied under Alexander Tairov, the director and creator of Moscow’s Kamerny Theatre (Chamber Theatre), watched the growth of the Vakhtang Theatre, and attended plays at Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Theatre. Gulakyan eventually rose to lead the Theatre of Sundukyan.
Vardan Adzhemyan, a distinguished theatre director and educator of Soviet Armenian descent, started his career in Tbilisi before moving on to Yerevan.
He graduated from the Armenian Drama Studio in Moscow, just like Gulakyan. Adzhemyan returned to his native country after completing his training as a director and worked as an art director at the Theatre of A. Mravyan in Leninakan. Vardan Adzhemyan staged more than 200 plays throughout his career in numerous theaters all over Armenia, greatly influencing the growth of the directing and theatrical arts.
Repertory theaters and the directing school were instrumental in the 20th-century transformation of Armenian theater. This is because Armenian actors who appeared on various stages and went on tour with well-known bands were largely responsible for the theater’s fame in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The development of theater was greatly aided by the establishment of the national theater and school.
The development of new experimental theaters was influenced by the Soviet past, and today’s theatrical productions in Armenia are concentrated in large cities, particularly the capital. Armenian theater after the fall of the USSR is primarily discussed in terms of state theaters, which does not give a complete picture of the country’s theater scene.