Armenian holocaust meets brain disease

Armenian holocaust meets brain disease

Robert Cushman
National Post

March 26, 2004


Artword Theatre, Toronto

Araxi Arslanian’s grandfather survived the Turkish massacre of the
Armenians during the First World War. She herself has survived
Arterio-Venous Malformation, a brain disorder that kills most of the
people it afflicts. Her play Rogues of Urfa, which she performs
herself, is a solo piece that tells these two stories in alternating
slabs, narrated by protagonists whose kinship is revealed only at the

One doesn’t want to make light of so much real suffering, but the
mixture doesn’t take. The monologue form is always perilous, and here
it has the effect of reducing an individual medical case-history and
the virtual elimination of an entire people to the level of a couple
of hard-luck stories. Plays about illness are always a tough
proposition because the pain, in most cases, is nobody’s fault; ergo,
there is no conflict. If such a subject is to have any dramatic life,
it has to be approached from other points of view besides that of the
sufferer; otherwise, the play becomes a mere complaint.

The Armenian holocaust obviously presents different opportunities and
different problems. The event may be said to have set the tone for the
20thcentury; Hitler famously said the world’s amnesia about the
Armenians made him feel safe about eliminating the Jews. The details
are horribly familiar: the families burned alive in their own homes,
the mass graves dug by the victims, the death marches, the war
obscuring the whole operation. (At that, there seems to have been more
international protest over this genocide than over the later one —
not that it did any good.) Only the gas chambers are missing, but
doubtless the Turks would have got around to those if they’d had the
technology and if they’d had numbers as great to dispose of. It’s a
story that still needs telling, and it provides some duly harrowing
moments here. But it is diminished — not only in scale but in
emotional impact — in being presented so much as the story of one
man. Arslanian’s forbearer comes from the town of Urfa, identified as
the birthplace of Abraham (and so presumably identical with the
Bible’s Ur of the Chaldees).

“I am a young man of the city,” he says, “its secret prince.” Many
times he repeats this rubric, whose first part may be unexceptionable,
but whose second is never supported: His story supplants that of his
granddaughter every time. It functions, in fact, as a form of aural
ID — one that starts out mildly irritating and ends up screamingly
intolerable by the end. He and two friends escape from one of the
forced marches and take refuge with the French army; returning home
after the war they find prejudice as rampant as before — another
example of history, so to speak, anticipating itself. The trio are
presumably the title’s “rogues of Urfa” but there is nothing very
colourful about themto justify the appellation — and it also seems to
devalue the intercut story of Arslanian herself, which is surely meant
to be equally important.

That it is literally her story is only made explicit at the very end,
when her father addresses her by the author’s own first name; but it
has been plain enough all the way through. She begins by telling us
how, as a schoolgirl in Canada, she tried to present a puppet play on
the Armenian experience, and how her classmates laughed at her;
initially one assumes that this was racial prejudice, but it turns out
that she was exhibiting the first symptoms of AVM. Admitted, full of
hope, to the National Theatre School, she is forced to leave — by
what seems, from her account, to have been a monstrously unsympathetic
administration — when she started having seizures. Then came a spell
at university and an eventual breakthrough into the professional
theatre, where she went through hell at the hands of colleagues who
referred to her as “Seizure Sally.” This seems to refer to her
appearance in a Toronto production of Our Country’s Good for which,
nonetheless, she won a Dora — an event she has recalled in interviews
with, it must be admitted, justifiable satisfaction.

One sympathizes, sometimes painfully, with her constant feelings of
being excluded, but still feels that one is only hearing half the
story; however appallingly people may have behaved to her, the laws of
the theatre dictatethat they should be condemned out of their own
mouths rather than hers. George Orwell said that an autobiography
should only be believed when it shows its subject in a bad light, and
the same applies even more to a play-length soliloquy. Everything
Arslanian tells us may be factually true, but it doesn’t make good

In pursuing her drive toward self-vindication (or, if jargon’s your
dish, self-empowerment) Arslanian may actually be short-changing
herself, since she seems competent as a writer and skilled as a
performer. A big lady, she throws herself enthusiastically into the
angular bits of mime-to-music that her director, Rebecca Brown, has
either devised or permitted to mark the transitions between her two
principal personae. None of her characters is much characterized, but
she shifts very confidently between voices.

The conclusion, that survival runs in the family, comes across both
hurried and sentimental; one can feel happy at the escapes of both
generations without regarding them as more than a fortunate
coincidence. Recurring references to “sand” and “white light” are not
enough to unify the play’s two halves. As a person Arslanian is fully
entitled to her convictions on this score — she has probably more
than earned them — but as a dramatist she needs to persuade rather
than affirm.

The Artword Theatre hosts this production, but did not originate it;
all the same, despite the horrors that it relates, it’s very much in
the house’s familiar folksy feel-good mould.

Until April 4. Box office: 416-504-7529