BY MYRNA DOUZJIAN
When the announcement for Aram Kouyoumdjian’s adaptation of Levon Shant’s “Ancient Gods” went out several months ago, I wondered why the director chose to stage this century-old historical play. Though “Ancient Gods” is a canonized classic that scandalized audiences when it was first staged in Tiflis in 1913, I doubted its ability to engage a contemporary audience. Would viewers care about the problems of ascetics living in a monastery on an island in Lake Sevan during the ninth century? Fortunately, Kouyoumdjian’s unique approach to the lengthy, didactic original resulted in the creation of a thought-provoking production. By honing in on the psychology of a single character, this new adaptation successfully evoked Shant’s belief in the capacity of literature and the dramatic arts to enliven the dying remnants of culture.
The plot of “Ancient Gods” centers on a pair of romantic, though unconsummated, relationships – between the father superior of the monastery and Princess Mariam, its patroness, and a young monk and Seta, Princess Mariam’s niece – that call into question the isolated, celibate lifestyle of the two Christian clerics. Both monks face the temptation of romantic love: while the father superior experiences an emotional connection with Princess Mariam as they collaborate on the construction of a church complex, the young monk gets a taste of physical attraction when he rescues Seta, who is overthrown from a ship caught in a storm at sea. The monks’ resistance to the respective women in their lives has detrimental consequences. The father superior experiences a metaphorical death when Princess Mariam suggests that the church is the product of their love for one another. And the young monk, guilt-ridden by his desire for Seta, experiences a literal death, hurling himself from a precipice into the raging waters of Lake Sevan.
By emphasizing the impossibility of these parallel relationships, the play explores the tension between a number of juxtaposed opposites: old and new; sensual and celibate; body and mind; nature and man; life and death; polytheism and monotheism. It suggests that the comparatively new, monotheistic Christian religion unnaturally suppresses the organic approach to life offered by pagan religious practice. That is to say, the play privileges the ancient gods, who embrace human desire and worldly pursuits as necessary parts of life.
Because parallel relationships and contrasted themes drive the play’s plot, Kouyoumdjian’s decision to adapt “Ancient Gods” as a solo performance worked to intensify its central conflicts. This contemporary rendition, starring the incredibly talented Aram Muradian, reimagined the original script as primarily a psychological drama. Playing the role of the young monk and intermittently enacting the roles of the father superior and Princess Mariam, Muradian’s character embodied not only the young monk’s struggle to control his carnal desire for Seta, but also the competing ideologies and perspectives that the original script propounds.
Muradian, tasked with conveying an intersection of characters and conflicts, and given a minimalist set and props, which included a table, chair, cot, bed sheet, and a stand for a jug of water and a cup, accomplished no small feat. The actor’s movements symbolized a compounding of emotion most effectively: he frequently traversed the stage and moved from low-lying positions on his cot to standing upright and up high, on the table. Even when not in motion, he often swayed from side to side, forward and back, making the audience aware of a constant push and pull in himself and in the play. The combination of these movements represented the state of the young monk’s torn psyche, as well as the inner turmoil experienced by both the father superior and Princess Mariam.
The production’s reliance on a dynamic performance by Muradian dispelled my original skepticism about the relatability of “Ancient Gods.” Kouyoumdjian had taken many necessary liberties to modernize the original: significantly abridging the script, eliminating its expressionist elements, incorporating stunning lighting effects, and focusing on the most emotionally intense scenes, such as the young monk’s imagined conversations with Seta and his disagreements with the father superior. Reflecting again on the director’s choice to produce the play, I realized that the work’s historic and literary contexts also speak to the present moment. Shant, like many of his contemporaries, approached the revival of Armenian literature through the excavation of an ancient, pagan past. By adapting Shant’s work, Kouyoumdjian, in turn, delivered his own powerful message about the role of returning to the storehouse of literature with a sense of ownership – one that’s equivalent to Shant’s ownership of ancient beliefs and customs.
The play’s Armenian-language performance in Los Angeles gives further occasion to consider this adaptation as a commentary on the parallels between Shant’s time and our own. Muradian, a native Eastern Armenian speaker, made a commendable effort to perform in Western Armenian. Nevertheless, pedants probably frowned at his conjugation of some verbs and his pronunciation, which often sounded like a hybrid of Western and Eastern Armenian. However, Levon Shant’s writing itself combines elements from both branches of the language. More realistic viewers, then, would agree that the “impurities” articulated by Muradian resembled something like Shant’s language and the current ways of speaking Armenian – ways that attest to the continued interaction between the two modern standards of the language – in the Armenian transnation.
Kouyoumdjian made a bold decision by casting Muradian. It was a choice that refused to confine spoken language to dated notions about how things can and should be said. In light of the discussions about Western Armenian as an endangered language, Kouyoumdjian’s approach reminds audiences to treat this language and literature as alive, malleable, and ever-evolving parts of culture. His choices with the play and its casting convincingly insist that reimagining the classics is as crucial to cultural production as the writing and staging of entirely new texts.
Myrna Douzjian, Ph.D., is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University, where she teaches the “great books” general education courses in the humanities. You can reach her or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at email@example.com. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at criticsforum.org. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to .criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.