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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.