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The Critical Corner - 12/22/2009

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PART TWO: A TASTE OF ARMENIAN DRAMA

Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

December 22, 2009


I. LEVON SHANT AND THE DRAMA OF POLITICAL AMBITION AND MATERNAL REVENGE


Levon Shant's (1869 - 1951) dramatic output is by no means the
negligible quality that Hagop Oshagan uncompromisingly judged it to
be. Novelist Stepan Zorian who had perhaps a more accurate evaluation,
thought that Shant's `The Princess of the Fallen Castle', (Selected
Works, Yerevan, 1968) though of indubitable value, could not yet be
compared with his `The Emperor' that he considered one of the few
flawless masterpieces of modern Armenian literature. `The Emperor' may
indeed surpass `The Princess of the Fallen Castle', but the latter
despite some singular weaknesses has still the quality of a modern
classic. Set in 11th century Armenian Cilicia it is a story of
maternal revenge and ruthless political ambition.

After treacherously capturing her family castle the Prince of Kessoun
murders Princess Anna's husband and her two sons and seizes their
estate. As the plot then unfolds, maternal grief and the vengeful
passions that this inspires become almost palpable. Anna's target
Kessoun, in his personal demeanour, his determination to seduce and so
humiliate the woman whose husband he has murdered, in his ambitions to
reign supreme in the region is, if one can use the term, a splendid
personification of the mores of the age, and we can add of elite
brigandage throughout history. To exact her revenge Anna plots the
death of Kessoun's two sons and this at their father's hand.

But looming even larger than the impending clash between Anna and
Kessoun is perhaps a more tragic drama - that of innocence, honesty,
uprightness, love and devotion falling victim to revenge that has
become blind. Emotionally shattered, Anna can make no moral or human
distinctions.  Kessoun's sons are innocent. Sebouh, the older, abhors
his father's greed and violence and even prepares to challenge him.
But the princess remains indifferent, displays no pity and no regard
for his decency, and at the end of Act Two she has successfully
engineered his murder. But in its next stage Anna's revenge is
complicated by the logic of living emotions. Even as she schemes to
kill Adam, Kessoun's younger son, she feels love for him and so is
torn by irreconcilable passions of revenge and budding love. The
passages that chart the final victory the former put to flight charges
that Shant's characters are only stilted expressions of ideas. Anna
may not be perfectly drawn, but as a humiliated woman, as a vengeful
mother who is embroiled in love for one whose death she is planning,
she possesses a complexity and depth that touches human truths.

As Kessoun persists in his attempts to seduce Anna, his Greek wife
Sophia's suppressed jealousy explodes to reveal besides how in the
medieval world even the marriages of women of the elite are moves in a
game of feudal lords battling to acquire and hold land. In Sophia both
the condition of the aristocratic woman as well as some of the social
features of the age acquire effective representation, particularly
aptly in her Greek aristocratic hatred of Armenians whom she regards
as lesser beings. Throughout `The Princess' Shant indeed succeeds in
reconstituting an authentic historical setting for the drama - in
depictions of inter-national feuding, internecine Armenian clashes and
in depictions of war that echo something of record that is left in his
`The Chronicle' by 13th century historian Mateos Ourhayetzi.

The ending of `The Princess of the Fallen Castle' is both ugly and
unnerving. Maternal vengefulness gains the upper hand and so Anna
unsparingly urges Adam to attempt patricide but then betrays him to
his father who now murders his second son in self-defence. As the
truth unfolds Kessoun is shocked and enraged by the realisation that
he has fallen victim to Anna's revenge. But in a brutal manifestation
of personal egoism without a moment's halt to grieve, without any
hesitation he drives on to destroy arch-rival Toros and so realise a
long standing ambition to become pre-eminent among the princes of
Cilicia.

`The Princess of the Fallen Castle' is not without flaws. Sebouh
emerges as something of a refusnik, a rebel against predatory
morality, but as a character he is fragile, a sheet of ideological
cardboard. His condemnations of the morals of the time have no
authenticity and do not have even a pale echo of the passionate
indignation one sees in 11th century Lambronetzi' contemporary
denunciations of the times. Adding to misgivings is a certain
incongruity of language, a miss-match between the play's substance and
the pedestrian language of the protagonists.  Character development in
addition is not so much a process, a maturing of relations as an
almost miraculous happening. Anna for example, consumed by revenge is
suddenly, with no prior indication, in love with one of her victims.

But balancing these and other flaws is the deeply passionate account
of love-driven revenge and expansionist political ambition. The result
is a riveting tale of individual, maternal grief and revenge, egoism
and ambition, of jealousy and hatred, of political greed and deception
that reveals something of the uglier side of humanity, but also,
albeit in relief, the nobler and softer instincts, defeated here
though they may be.


II. NAIRI ZARIAN - `ARA THE BEAUTIFUL' AS HE FALTERS

Compared to Gabriel Sountougian's `Bebo', Levon Shant's `The Princess'
or Demirjian's `Nazar the Brave' Nairi Zarian's (1900-1969) `Ara the
Beautiful an epic Tragedy in Five Acts' (Collected Works, Volume 2,
Yerevan, 1962) is less than impressive, and this despite passages of
unquestionable poetic beauty. A 1940 Soviet era verse rendering of the
renowned epic of pre-Christian Armenian King Ara's death as he
struggles for independence against lusting Assyrian Queen Shamiram,
`Ara the Beautiful' is too rhetorical in its Second World War
patriotic concerns to rise to the level of genuine art. It does
however require comment if only as a balance against its widespread
appreciation as a masterpiece of Armenian drama.

In Act One protagonists promisingly appear in poses that suggest
drama. But the promise is never realised. There is little vitality in
relations between characters who are lifeless though sometimes clothed
well in poetic garb. There is an absence of the individual eye, of the
particular authorial vision, of individual sensibility that would give
the rendering novelty, vibrancy and life beyond mere formal repetition.
There is in addition no natural flow into Act Two. If this is in the
unfolding of Shamiram's imperial ambition, in her lust for Ara or in
her determination to win him or conquer him then it collapses in
verbosity that characterises much of the proceedings. Dialogue does
not fix real life or emotion with precision or crispness. One gets
instead a bookish formalised rendition.

Still, at the end of Act Two impressed by moments of poetry the reader
perseveres. But any residual hope for recovery is dashed when the
scene shifts to Armenia in Act Three. Here again dull figures march
across the stage uttering a sentimental patriotism tinged with visions
of an unpleasant national grandeur. This is all a terrible pity for
Zarian clearly demonstrates a poetic talent. In one instance
responding to Ara's compliment about the quality of his advice,
Vashdag to underline his loyalty and care says that his words `circle
you like the soldiers guarding your Treasury.' Yet couplets of poetic
excellence cannot cover over an intellectually and artistically arid
stage.

But it has to be said! In the last two acts there is an unexpected
resurrection. In confrontations, first between the aggrieved and
jealous Queen Nvart of Armenia and her King, and between Ara and
Shamiram the drama for the first time acquires arresting force.
Gripping scenes show the Armenian King both as head of state and
ordinary man prevaricating, balancing and calculating as he considers
personal or political choices and how these will affect him and the
fortunes of the state. Here something of the dough of life, as Hagop
Oshagan would say, Shamiram is resurrected as a startling warrior
queen who is at the same time personally forlorn by her failure to win
Ara's love. Here there are powerful passages with dialogue that
thrillingly captures advance and retreat in the battle between
Armenians and Assyrians right to the very end.

Yet Ara the Beautiful is not salvaged and remains overall wanting for
its woodiness, for its inability to fire the plot and character.
Ironically such flaws, when they are partly overcome, are overcome in
characters that undermine the very patriotic intent of the author.
These more effective characters are the egoists, self-seekers and
graspers,- namely Shamiram and the Armenian merchant Gatmos who urges
an Armenian conquest of Assyria that would facilitate his personal
enrichment!  As a result of this more vividly portrayed iniquity
virtue appears artificial and weak. The very success of the drama's
unsavoury characters exposes the emptiness of the patriotic characters
the author intended to promote.

It is difficult to understand the acclaim for `Ara the Beautiful'.
Some may have been carried away by the flashes of poetry, or by the
treatment in Stalin's Soviet Union of patriotic themes drawn from
ancient national epics. Perhaps commentators were overcome by the
charm of the language that utilised the reserves of classical Armenian
at a time when Armenian, along with other languages in the Soviet
Union, was being systematically abused. But though these are cause for
historical note they do not amount to enduring art. Nairi Zarian
sometimes displayed real literary talent. But this alas was largely
defaced by servitude to the Soviet bureaucratic machine. `Ara the
Beautiful' though written to inspire the Soviet Union's honourable
anti-fascist war, unfortunately remains an example of this thwarted
talent.


--
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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