Art can’t heal the horrors of Armenia’s open wounds:
Mark Brown travels to Yerevan to watch an overly patriotic play:
Look southwest from the centre of Yerevan, capital city of Armenia, and you will see Mount Ararat, reputed final resting place of Noah’s Ark and the country’s national symbol. However, the great mountain is not only a source of national pride, but also of national pain.
Ararat stands not within the Republic of Armenia (established in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed) but in historic western Armenia, long since annexed by Turkey. Between 1915 and 1923, the “Young Turk” leadership of the crumbling Ottoman Empire orchestrated the genocide of 1.5 million Christian Armenians, a religious minority they considered to be an enemy within.
The Turkish government continues to this day to deny the facts of what historian and journalist Robert Fisk correctly calls “the forgotten holocaust”. This denial not only shames Turkey, it also ensures that the genocide remains an open wound for Armenians, who are forced to fight for the veracity of this most catastrophic chapter in their troubled history.
It was little surprise, therefore, that the opening production of the recent Armenian theatre showcase in Yerevan (held in conjunction with the world congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics) pertained to the genocide. The Forty Days Of Musa Dagh, a play adapted by director Armen Elbakyan from the famous novel by Franz Werfel, is based upon the true story of the resistance to, and escape from, the Turkish army by the inhabitants of the western Armenian village of Musa Dagh.
Watching the play at the Sundukyan National Academic Theatre proved to be more memorable as an anthropological experience than an artistic one. The production is, at best, a two-dimensional dramatisation of history. Heavy on sentimentality and romantic patriotism, and replete with ultra-demonic representations of the Turks, it is as if the Musa Dagh story had been put in the none-too-subtle hands of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, creators of the stage musical Les Misérables.
Regardless of the aesthetic misgivings of many of the assembled international critics, the overwhelming majority of the Armenian audience meets the play (which premiered last autumn in Yerevan) with enthusiastic acclaim. It is noticeable, however, that the regular outbursts of thunderous applause which punctuate the performance are not appreciations of an actor’s ability or the artistry of the text, but, rather, approval of the sentiments being expressed by the characters. It is as if the audience is reliving the Musa Dagh events directly in the theatre, celebrating the courage of those who resisted and, through the play’s numerous images of Turkish mistreatment of Armenians, feeling once more the agony of the genocide.
One leaves the Sundukyan Theatre feeling curiously uneasy. In the ongoing dispute with Turkey over the facts of the genocide, Armenia has truth on its side. Yet here, on the national stage, that truth is being somewhat vulgarised, turned into a patriotic spectacle in which the audience cheers on its heroes as if they were at a football match. One’s overriding thought is that the memory of the genocide is not best served by the heavy-laden pathos and mawkishness of the production. The source of the play’s popularity is not difficult to see, but populism rarely makes for good theatre.
Hayk Demoyan, director of the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, has spoken of his determination to remove from the museum inappropriate and polemical elements, such as what he calls “old clichés about Turks”. One can’t help but wish that, in adapting Werfel’s novel for the stage, Elbakyan had taken a similar approach.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on 28 June 2010
© Mark Brown