The Theater of Ancient Armenia

The Theater of Ancient Armenia

The first theater building in Hellenistic style known to us in Armenia and intended for a large number of spectators was built under King Tigran II the Great (reigned in 95-55 BC) in his new capital Tigranakert in 69 BC.

The beginning of the Armenian national theater was laid by the son of Tigran II King Artavazd II (reigned in 54-34 BC). Under him in the town of Artashat where the tragedies and comedies of Greek authors had been staged, an Armenian theater was established in 53 BC. This was connected with the following episode described by Plutarch.

Artavazd II and the Parthian King Orodes II were celebrating their victory over the Roman commander Crassus in the Battle of Carrhae in the royal palace of Artashat. In the palace, the tragedy of Euripides “The Bacchae” was being performed.

During the play, the Parthian satrap Sillak ran into the hall and threw onto the floor the severed head of Crassus that had been sent from the battlefield. Then, the Greek actor Jason of Tralles who was playing the role of Agave picked the head up, replaced with it the mask and fake head of the hero of the tragedy Pentheus and, “falling into a state of Bacchic ecstasy, enthusiastically said: ‘We bring home the horns of a deer just killed on our happy hunt.’”

Plutarch writes that “it was a delight to all those present.” According to well-known theater expert G. Goyan, this significant episode was not accidental but deliberately thought out and played according to a scenario previously prepared by Artavazd himself. This is evidenced, as Plutarch points out, by the presence of a Parthian Pomaxaft (Exatr), the participant of the Battle of Carrhae who had beheaded Crassus.

The head of Crassus had been brought to Artashat before the feast in honor of the victory over Rome began, not during the performance. Consequently, the episode with the head of Crassus was played by the Artashat theater troupe according to the direction of Artavazd II, who entered the history of the culture of Ancient Armenia as its first playwright.

Thus, already in the 1st century BC, there was a professional theatrical culture in ancient Armenia. It, however, had its own prehistory largely associated with religious beliefs wherein the cult of each deity was accompanied by its own specific ceremonial which included certain sacred acts played in the temples. In addition to the priests and priestesses, participants of religious rites and mysteries were performers of various kinds, such as dancers, singers, acrobats, and musicians.

Among the significant precursors of the professional theater were all sorts of folk theatrical performances. In particular, the original theater of the gusans (a word identical to the Greek mimos, which denotes playing or singing in the theater) which had developed in tragedy, comedy, and farce-buffoon genres was very popular.

The origin of the tragedy genre in Armenia was associated with the oldest cult ceremonial rites of the burial of the “dying deity.” There were also kings and court nobility with their need for a cult of ancestors which, glorifying those who went to the other world, would strengthen the power of the “relatives” of the gods remaining on earth.

Indispensable participants of these magnificent rites were the gusans who were announcing sad news with their voice. These gusans were called dzaynarku (from Armenian, literally lamenting, mourning) or voghbergak (mourning-singer). They reported the circumstances of the death of a nobleman, glorified him and the feats he committed, and mourned his death.

In an effort to remind about the dead perhaps more vividly, the gusans tried to visualize the deceased by imitating their voice, gestures, and movements. So, the tragedy genre was born. The texts of the representations were performed in the form of a story or transmitted orally. At the same time, a chorus was obligatory, and the movements of the actors were characterized as pantomime dancing.

Deep ties of this genre with pagan rituals of burial, the mourning of the dead, and the chanting of their exploits are reflected in the very word voghbergutyun (mourning singing), which in the Armenian language still expresses the notion of the tragedy genre. When the Greek tragedians appeared in Armenia, they found the art of the gusans at a certain stage of its artistic development – on their way to the transition from pagan religious rites and actions to the ancient theater.

This allowed the Armenians to see already something familiar in the ancient tragedy brought from Greece. That is why the Greek term tragedy which would enter many languages of the world did not enter the Armenian language – the local term voghbergutyun, which was the name of an ancient pagan burial ceremony, had been already well-established in the Armenian language.

The comedy genre of the Katakagusan Theater has evolved from comic-cheerful singing — the katakergutyun — which accompanied the ceremonial of the ancient cult associated with the “resurrecting deity.” It was also associated with the ritual of joyful celebration of the revival of nature and the onset of spring. Along with men-gusans, women were also involved with it, called vardzak (from vardz, payment).

Carnival fun in urban areas filled with a mass of spectators was accompanied by all sorts of jokes and ridicule. This comedy-farcical genre especially loved by the people had been known even before the Armenians became acquainted with the Greek comedy theater.

Therefore, the concept of comedy from ancient times to the present day has been denoted in Armenian not by the Greek word but by its local term, katakergutyun. The words comedian (katak) and comedy man (katakergak) are derived from it. Greek comedians Aristophanes and Menander whose traditions were continued by the local katakergaks were referred to in Armenia by local terms.

The word theater (Armenian: tatron) entered the Armenian language through the Greek word theatron and its Syriac transcription tatras.

As in the entire Hellenistic East, in Armenia, the theater was an integral part of urban life. Stray troupes of comedians, mimes, and tightrope walkers who were playing everyday scenes on the streets, exposing human vices to the nation’s consensus, were also very popular among the people.

In the early medieval period, theatrical art which had inherited the experience of the Armenian Hellenistic theater saw a boom. At that time, theaters continued to be built in an antique pattern, in the form of amphitheater-like stone buildings. Special seats in the upper rows were assigned to women.

The theatrical repertoire was twofold. On one hand, it continued to evolve from the tragedies and comedies of Euripides and Menander and also appears to have been represented in the plays of local playwrights who imitated Greek authors, Armenian epic poems, and comedies in the spirit of folk satirical poetry. On the other hand, there was also an entertaining farce-buffoon pantomime drama in the form of the theater of the popular folk comedy.

Theaters enjoyed immense popularity not only among secular layers who were nicknamed gusanamol for their commitment to this type of art but even among some of the clergy, albeit they only supported the socially useful (from their own point of view) “edifying” comedies of Menander and the “heroic” tragedies of Euripides and did not accept works based on fabulous mythological plots. The orthodox part of the Armenian clergy completely rejected the theater as an institution of dangerous paganism which was preventing the deep mastering of Christianity.

This kind of struggle of the Christian church against the pagan art of the ancient theater was also carried out in Byzantium and Syria. In Armenia, the sermons of John Chrysostom (350–407 AD) translated into Armenian were well known, in particular, his “speeches against those who, leaving the church, rush to hippodromes and theaters.”

Similar views were held by the Armenian Catholicos Hovhannes Mandakuni (in position in 478-490). In his expressively titled speech “On the Lawless Theaters of Devil” he, addressing his compatriots, said with anger and grief that “from the most disgraceful iniquities of yours, the Devil’s theaters rejoice and triumph hourly, and the churches of Christ weep bitterly and mourn.”

Despite the general decline of culture in Armenia during the period of Arab domination (7th-9th centuries), the theatrical art, firmly rooted in the life of the people, continued to exist during this time. Seeing its popularity, the church fathers were still distressed and said that “when theatrical performances are staged, the church is mourning the loss of the people.”

Meanwhile, it is known that already relatively early, the use of elements of theatricality in church services began in the oldest Eastern Christian churches (Syrian, Greek, Armenian). Some of these theatrical elements did not last long, while others have survived to this day – for example, the altar in the Armenian church which is arranged exactly like a theatrical stage.

This was also reinforced in the language since the word bem (from Hebrew bama, i.e. elevation) denotes both an elevation for the altar and a theatrical scene. The adjective bemakan is also synonymous with altar and stage. In addition, the word khoran is used to denote an altar, to which corresponds the Greek word skēnḗ.

On both sides of the altar are steps that connect it with the main church building. A movable curtain is stretched across the entire width of the altar. When it is drawn, a proscenium forms in front of it, used in the same way as in the theater.

Medieval Armenian miniatures with images of actors and even whole theater performances on various secular (for example, genre scenes on parables, fables, allegories, etc.) and cult (in particular, from the Old and New Testament) themes, scenes with mummers, trained animals, performances of musicians, and dancers provide the richest material for studying the national theater…

Alla Ter-Sarkisyants, Doctor of Historical Sciences

Theatrical art in miniatures. Actors performing pantomime dance




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