This play performed in 19. Istanbul Theatre Festival on 10th May 2014 by Tiyatro Boğaziçi and Berberyan Kumpanyası.
Author: Fırat Güllü
Stage Director: Cooperative effort
Video Director: Mesut Tufan
Assistant Video Director: Irmak Sueri (Üçlü Piriz)
Camera: Asuman Zirek (Üçlü Piriz)
Sound: Çağdaş Karagöz (Melodika)
Editor: Uras Büyükyılmaz (Üçlü Piriz)
Light Effects: Yervant Boyacıyan, Murat Cavak
Music: Anurçner/Anahit Valesian
Costumes: Ayşan Sönmez, Serda Aslan
English Translation: Mark David Wyers
Narrator: Tilbe Saran
Abdullah Cevdet: İlker Yasin Keskin
Young Vahram Playing Hamlet: Sercan Gidişoğlu,
Young Muhsin Playing Laertes: Özgür Eren
Muhsin: Fırat Güllü
Vahram: Boğos Çalgıcıoğlu
Handan: Ayşan Sönmez
(The narrator reads along with the visuals)
Now we are in front of a historical place of worship in Beyoğlu, the Ağa Mosque. Just across from the mosque, a modern place of worship is rising up: a temple of consumption, a shopping centre. Nearly a hundred years ago there was a theatre here, the Odeon Theatre. In 1911, an extraordinary theatrical performance was put on there. The name of the play was Hamlet and the author was an English man by the name of Shakespeare, who had penned the work hundreds of years earlier. However, the spectators of Istanbul were hearing his lines performed for the very first time in Turkish.
The primary figure behind this performance was a doctor by the name of Abdullah Cevdet. Because he was opposed to the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, he was exiled to Egypt, where he translated Hamlet into Turkish and had it published in 1908. His translation was the one used for the performance at the Odeon Theatre. He, the first translator of the work into Turkish, was there among the spectators.
(Visual of the actor playing Abdullah Cevdet)
Abdullah Cevdet: I first got the idea to translate Hamlet, a masterpiece of European literature, back when I was studying medicine. You might wonder why a young man who hadn’t yet come into his own as a poet would attempt such a feat. But the reason is clear: there was a close relationship between the Turks in the era of Sultan Abdul Hamid II and Hamlet. As you know, prince Hamlet, a virtuous, generous, enlightened and exalted lover of art, was drawn into a conflict with his step-father, whom he held responsible for the death of his father. After the martyrdom of Midhat Pasha, the Young Turks saw Sultan Abdul Hamid II as such as step-father. When the constitution was dealt a deathly blow by the sovereign, the most pressing problem for the Ottomans was “to be, or not to be.” The reason behind the first conflict between someone like me, a student sitting at his small desk, and Sultan Abdul Hamid II, seated on his grand throne of the sultanate, was Midhat Pasha. Soon after there was a spate of calamities, escapes, imprisonments and exile. Hamlet was published in Turkish for the first time when I was in exile in Egypt. A few months later, it was in my fate to witness the Young Turk Revolution.
(The narrator picks up where he left off)
The second figure behind the performance of the play was an Armenian actor. Even though he was just 23 years old, throughout the month of Ramadan in 1911 he took on major roles in a serial theatrical work and was greatly admired by the spectators of Istanbul. His name was Vahram Papazyan. He was born in Istanbul and studied at the Murat Rafealyan College in Venice. After that, he decided to become a theatre actor and in Italy he found ways to get the training he needed. It was his idea to put on a production of Hamlet for the first time in Istanbul.
Ertuğrul Muhsin, the 19 year-old actor who played the part of Laertes in this engaging performance, would go on to carry out important work for the sake of Turkish theatre and become a leading national figure in that art form. He was close friends with Vahram, and for a while they were roommates.
During rehearsals, these two young actors often met up with the translator of the play and took advantage of his vast knowledge as they brought about the first political interpretation of Hamlet in the Ottoman era.
(We see a black and white scene. Abdullah Cevdet is seated in a large embroidered chair, and Vahram and Muhsin, wearing their stage costumes, kneel down before him.)
Shakespeare is a universe unto himself, a world unto himself. In nations where Shakespeare is unheard of and hasn’t been translated, there should be no embarrassment about curling up in shame. In a letter he wrote to Catherine the Great, the famous thinker Voltaire said, “The Turks should be eradicated because they have no appreciation of poetry and literature.” Though that may be calumnious, I’d say that nations where Shakespeare isn’t liked should be wiped from the face of the earth.
Vahram: Sir, as I acted out your translation of the text, one of the most difficult parts was the famous line “esere o non essere,” as it is said in Italian. But you translated it as “being or not being.” With all due respect, shouldn’t it be “to be or not to be?”
Abdullah Cevdet: Every translation is difficult. And fully translating Shakespeare is nearly impossible. In a commonplace translation, just finding the meanings of the words and then putting them down on paper isn’t enough. A dictionary could even do that. Likewise, merely conveying the sense of all the expressions could be done by schoolchildren. The value and beauty of a translation is measured by how it reflects the true essence, execution, and natural flow of the original text. This is particularly true for Shakespeare. His genius lies not in his words, but in his sentiments and thoughts, as well as his manner of executing them and creating descriptions.
Muhsin Ertuğrul: Sir, in the scene with the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, I’m undecided how I should intone his words of conceit as I try to conceal that traitorous plan.
Abdullah Cevdet: My dear Muhsin, let’s go over the scene together on stage.
(Muhsin and Vahram stake their positions onstage.)
In the first Ottoman production of Hamlet, the two young men who were behind the project came face to face onstage in the fifth act of the play in the second scene, which is one of the crucial points in the story.
(Fade out. The stage lights up. Young Muhsin and young Vahram, in their roles as Laertes and Hamlet, shake hands, holding rapiers in their other hands...)
Hamlet: Give me your pardon, sir: I've done you wrong; but pardon't, as you are a gentleman. This presence knows, and you must needs have heard, how I am punish'd with a sore distraction. What I have done, that might your nature, honour and exception roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness. Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet: If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away, and when he's not himself does wrong Laertes, then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it, then? His madness: if't be so, Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd; his madness is poor Hamlet's enemy. (…) Sir, in this audience, let my disclaiming from a purposed evil free me so far in your most generous thoughts, that I have shot mine arrow o'er the house, and hurt my brother.
Laertes: I am satisfied in nature, whose motive, in this case, should stir me most to my revenge: but in my terms of honour I stand aloof; and will no reconcilement, till by some elder masters, of known honour, I have a voice and precedent of peace, to keep my name ungored. But till that time, I do receive your offer'd love like love, and will not wrong it.
Hamlet: I embrace it freely; and will this brothers' wager frankly play. Give us the foils. Come on. (…) I'll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance. Your skill shall, like a star i' the darkest night, stick fiery off indeed.
Laertes: You mock me, sir.
Hamlet: Come on, sir.
Laertes: Come, my lord. (They attack one another)
Laertes: Well, again!
Hamlet: (...) Come. (They fight) Another hit; what say you??
Laertes: A touch, a touch, I do confess. (...) My lord, I’ll strike him now.
Hamlet: Come, for the third, Laertes: you but dally; I pray you, pass with your best violence; I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
Laertes: Say you so? Come on. (They play to a draw) (...) Have at you now!
(Laertes wounds Hamlet; they drop their rapiers in the rush and thrill of the fight, and pick each other’s rapiers. Hamlet wounds Laertes.)
Hamlet: Muhsin… Muhsin… Muhsin…
(As the scene fades, a telephone rings. In the dark, it rings again and again. Then a voice is heard in the dark.)
Voice: Muhsin... Muhsin... Muhsin...
(A spotlight illuminates Muhsin, who is sitting at a table.)
(The other end of the table is also lit up and the spotlight shines on Vahram, who is standing.)
Vahram: Muhsin, how are you? Can I stay with you tonight if you don’t mind? It’s very cold there.
Muhsin: Just like 60 years before...
Vahram: Yes, it was you who came to stay with me then.
Muhsin: It was very cold. You put me up.
Vahram: You weren’t the first person to be kicked out for being an actor, and you certainly won’t be the last.
(The two men embrace. Then they sit at the table opposite one another.)
Vahram: (Taking a bottle of cognac from his pocket.) I’ve brought you some Ararat. (He pours some into a glass for Muhsin, and he drinks from the bottle.) This is the best thing to warm you up on a cold night but unfortunately you cannot get it there. (They drink again. Silence.) Lately I’ve been thinking often about the Ramadan of 1911. Those were the days, Muhsin. The company established by Reşat Rıdvan... The Odeon Theatre... The Life of Napoleon... Dreyfus... Othello… And our Hamlet... I’ve been to so many places in the world and performed in hundreds of plays in just about every language; but I could never find the pleasure and excitement I felt during the years when I acted in Istanbul. Ah, don’t you get excited when you think back on those days? Tell me the truth, Muhsin.
Muhsin: Of course I do… We were young then… Naïve, romantic... We used to live impulsively, never looking back.
Vahram: Do you remember what you said when I first mentioned the Hamlet project?
Muhsin: “Hamlet? Nice name.” (They laugh.) But Hamlet never stopped following me. In fact, I always chased after him. Nowadays I’ve been thinking about doing an adaptation of the play.
Vahram: Let’s do a new Hamlet together. You and I, once again on the same stage. Wouldn’t you like to?
Muhsin: Is it really cold?
Vahram: Yes, quite cold. You feel the chill deep in your bones. What Hamlet’s ghost says are mostly lies. (They laugh and drink.) Well, you didn’t respond to my proposal.
Muhsin: Which character will I play?
Vahram: What did you think? Not– (They laugh.)
Muhsin: Why? I’ve played that role hundreds of times and always been praised.
Vahram: I know.
Muhsin: How do you know? You watched me perform?
Vahram: If I could, I would have come, but there was an iron curtain between us. (He laughs.) Despite everything, in those times you could always find someone to come to Erivan from Istanbul and bring rakı, feta cheese and Turkish newspapers. (He pulls a tattered, rolled up old newspaper from his pocket). I still keep this copy of Hakimiyet-i Milliyet from 1927. Maybe you don’t even have a copy. “Hamlet, the grand hit awaited from the City Theatre. Author: William Shakespeare. Translator and director: Muhsin Ertuğrul. Actors: Hamlet, Muhsin Ertuğrul.” Let’s see what the reporter said: “There wasn’t an empty seat on the opening night of Hamlet. The troupe spared no efforts, anticipating the demand that the play would inspire, and clearly worked hard for the extras, props and costumes they needed. Ertuğrul himself played Hamlet. This artist, who after a nearly three-year absence took on a rather toilsome role, reflected deeply on the weakness of Hamlet’s character while keeping beneath the surface his strength and decisiveness.” Compliments, compliments… I felt such pride when I read it. I was reminded of the years when we shared the stage together. In the last scene of Hamlet my sword cut your cheek and the blood went everywhere. (He laughs, then lapses into silence.) And then there was the fiasco of Othello…
Muhsin: It was the end of everything... All that work.
Vahram: Maybe we should think of it as a new beginning... It depends on your point of view.
Muhsin: After all, you were right about most things. There were those old government actors who had already mentally retired, and those old men who called themselves “self-educated” and despised you for being “schooled”... It was impossible to start a new movement with them.
Vahram: What do you mean? It was impossible to even act with them. Because of the apathy of the actors, the play fell to pieces. If you remember, in the end we had to apologize to the audience and stop the performance.
Muhsin: It was you who stopped it. If you did the same thing today, I’d kick you out of the troupe, not them.
Vahram: Don’t trouble yourself with such thoughts, we Armenians are a bit too proud I suppose. The moment we realize that we’re not wanted, we go away without waiting to be kicked out. That is, if we have the chance, of course. We did go away actually. Those who didn’t were sent away. We bestowed upon you a huge theatre and then stepped aside. Without saying a word... Could we have said anything? Anyways, forget about it, that’s a completely different issue.
(A long silence.)
Vahram: Do you remember how I left in such a rush before the Great War broke out?
Muhsin: Yes, it was August of 1914. You were performing “Grand Night” with the director Mınakyan. The theatre in Şehzadebaşı was packed, and the audience was thrilled. For days advertisements were run about it in the newspapers. Many of the most prestigious figures in Istanbul had already reserved their seats, and everyone wanted to see Vahram on stage again. The stages of Istanbul longed for your return, and you were pouring out your heart in the role of Dimitri. And then you vanished. Later we found out from Arap İzzet that you’d escaped to avoid being arrested.
Vahram: To avoid being arrested... Hm. So, what was my crime? It’s a shame but I still don’t know. When the war broke out I was in Vienna. I’d been invited to Baku and boarded a ship to go there, but in Istanbul, soldiers forced all the passengers off and commandeered the ship. Apparently they were going to use it to send soldiers to Trabzon. I had to wait in Istanbul for the next ship. I went to my sibling Diran’s home. It was a nostalgic time. In the evening we went to Petits Champ and visited Mınakyan, the director. He was pleased to see me. They were performing “Manager of the Steelworks.” They were also rehearsing for “Grand Night,” a Russian play, and they offered me the role of Dimitri. Mınakyan was quite focused on the play. I didn’t want to accept the offer, because I didn’t know when I was going to leave Istanbul. But he insisted. The team was quite good. There was Çobanyan, Binemeciyan, Holas, Aleksanyan, Kınar and of course Mınakyan... As I’d surmised, in the end I couldn’t hold out and I agreed to take on the role, which I really liked. Dimitri Vaysiyevich... Kınar was playing my fiancée Sonya, and Binemeciyan was playing my mother. There was just a week until opening night, so I worked hard to catch up. At the premiere, the audience was thrumming with excitement. Toward the end of the first act, something caught my eye backstage. There was some kind of commotion. Çobanyan, who was watching the play from backstage, motioned to me not to approach. Then, even though he didn’t have a role in that scene, he walked onto the stage and, gesturing to me, said, “Dimitri, the Cossack soldiers have come, and they’re going to take you to Sonya. I told your mother not to worry. You have to leave, right now. Hurry...” There were no such lines in the play. I just looked blankly at him. When he saw that I didn’t understand, he pushed me backstage. Mınakyan was there, explaining something to two people who I realized later were undercover police. When the police saw me, one of them said, “Oh Vahram, it’s good to see you. I think you’ve been in Moscow for quite a while. We have some questions for you. You need to come with us down to the station.” Before I could say anything, Arap İzzet, one of my favourite employees at the theatre, cut between us; he was holding two cups of coffee. Nudging me, he said, “What are you doing here? Quick, get on stage,” and then pushed me in that direction. Then he said to the police, “Officers, the play is still continuing. For goodness sake, the theatre is packed. Why don’t you each have a cup of coffee and relax. You can talk to Vahram after the play. Please, come this way.” Then he took them to the director’s room and closed the door. The police were so stunned that they didn’t know what to say. He pressed some money into my hand and said, “There’s no time to waste. Go now. For the love of God, don’t stop. You have to leave like this and never come back.” Then he took me up to the roof. From there, in the dark of night, I clambered down a rope to a back street. I found out later that when the police realized that I’d fled, they arrested Arap İzzet and took him to the station. Terrible things happened to him there. It pains me... (He becomes sorrowful.) Anyways, the cold of the night air brought me to my senses. I hadn’t even taken off my makeup. I got on the first tram and dashed to the port. Toward morning, a watchman let me on the first departing ship after I gave him a few lira. A few days later, I arrived in Odessa.
Muhsin: I was upset that you’d left so quickly. We didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye, but of course later I realized that leaving had been the best thing for you to do. Those were such dark days… But later… Later, a new country was founded. And that country needed someone to create a national theatre. And that’s when we felt the bitter pain of the absence of people like you, of citizens like you.
Vahram: Actually, as I was leaving I dreamed that one day I’d return. You know that I did… But we were no longer wanted in these lands. All the things that happened to me when I came back to work on our first film project…
Muhsin: Which one are you talking about, the first or the second? You weren’t the first person to be beaten for making a film, and you won’t be the last. (He laughs)
Vahram: Don’t joke around, Muhsin. It was me who was beaten because I spoke Armenian in Calamity of Love and had to take to my heels to avoid being beaten in Mystery of the Bosphorus. Muhsin, I know that I can’t change what’s happened in the past but I have no intention of being a new victim.
Muhsin: In Mystery of the Bosphorus, you weren’t the target of that mob of zealots, they attacked us all. Don’t you remember? We barely managed to get away with the camera and lights. All of the equipment was in our names. During the filming of Calamity of Love, we had our share of troubles. My head was nearly split open; I thought we weren’t going to get out of it alive. But you know that the next day, we shot the scene in front of the same people, as the police had come, even if against their will. Nothing comes without a struggle.
Vahram: (Cutting him off.) I’m still waiting for your response to my proposal. A new Hamlet, the best one that’s ever been done…
Muhsin: You know what our greatest pleasure was back in those days? Watching you. We’d change clothes after our performances and some of us would leave. But you would stay. We all knew that you were rehearsing. But often we lied to you. We’d act as if we were leaving the theatre, and then hide backstage and watch you. Your gestures, mimics, poise… Then we’d imitate you in front of the mirror. Your Turkish was more elegant than any of ours. Shakespeare’s verses were first spoken in Turkish by you on the stages of Istanbul. How could you memorize those long texts… You’d recite the whole play like at the first rehearsal.
Vahram: Come now, don’t exaggerate, there were times when I slipped up…
Muhsin: I don’t remember any. There’s no need to be modest.
Vahram: You know Muhsin, sometimes I’m surprised by what you say… Someone hearing you talk like that might assume that you’re just a naive theatre lover who has just begun his career. Who’d believe that this man is the great Muhsin Ertuğrul, founder of Turkish theatre, for God’s sake…
Muhsin: My friend, I’m talking about those days … It was amazing for us back then… You know, improvisation was in great demand then; memorizing texts was considered to be the work of untalented actors.
Vahram: So, does that mean I’m some kind of inept imposter? (They laugh.)
Muhsin: You were the first real star I got to know, Vahram. But then you left and the stage was left to the mice.
Vahram: The pied piper of Hamelin... (He laughs.)
Muhsin: If only we had the power to change the past.
Vahram: Muhsin, there’s no need for us to regret anything. We lived like we had to, and that’s how we’ll die. You were like a brother to me, and always will be.
(They embrace again.)
Vahram: But you’re being so fickle… You still haven’t answered my question.
Muhsin: I can’t accept your offer, because there is another interpretation of Hamlet I have in mind that I want to finish while I’m still in the world.
Vahram: I know, but you won’t be able to perform it. Maybe one of your students will.
Muhsin: They’re like my sons. And like always, as a father you have to think about your sons first of all. All my life, my greatest pleasure was acting in front of an audience, but the atmosphere in which I could truly perform didn’t exist, and I spent my life creating it. I wish it weren’t like that. I wish I’d been like you and that I hadn’t deprived myself of the joy of performing. I wish others had managed the odds and ends of theatre.
Vahram: Don’t be so hard on yourself, Muhsin. What you’ve done isn’t something to be cast aside. Yes, we Armenians did much to bring theatre to life in this country, and we created a beginning, however superficial it was. However, our fledgling theatre was smashed and destroyed under the boots of war. Among the post-war ruins, you and your friends recreated theatre with its scenes, playwrights, actors, and audiences. As for me, I was only an actor moving around the stage of the world. I watched you, admiring and sometimes envying you from a distance.
Muhsin: This is the first time you’ve said such things… I’m truly honoured. And very grateful.
Vahram: We haven’t seen each other for almost forty years, and I think this will be our last conversation, my dear brother. (Silence.) Did I tell you this before? Since my schooldays in Venice, I’ve played almost every single character in existence. I even played Ophelia when I was young. (He laughs.) But there is one character I never played. (He stands up.) Now it’s time to act it out: “Fare thee well at once! The glow-worm shows the matin to be near, and 'gins to pale his uneffectual fire.”
Muhsin: Ghost, act one, scene five.
Vahram: Adieu! Adieu! (The spotlight on him goes dark.)
Muhsin: (Talking to himself) Adieu! God speed to you.
(The stage lights up. Handan enters.)
Handan: Muhsin? What happened? At this time of the night... You must be cold.
Muhsin: A friend from Istanbul just called from Armenia. Vahram is dead.
Muhsin: Vahram Papazyan.
Handan: Vahram Papazyan, the famous Armenian Shakespeare actor...
Muhsin: The encyclopaedias will note it like that, but in fact he was from Istanbul. (He holds out a letter that’s on the table.) I received this letter, but it was too late. Even if it had come on time, would I have been able to carry out his final request?
Handan: (Taking the letter, she starts to read out loud.) “Très cher ami Muhsin Bei, Voilà bien longtemps que je n’avais pas l’occasion d’avoir des nouvelles de vous et surtout de vous écrire. J’espère que cette lettre t’arrivera...”
Vahram’s voice: “My dear Muhsin, I haven’t received word from you in quite a long time and I didn’t have the chance to write to you. I hope this letter will reach you. I would like to go onstage in Istanbul or Ankara. While we still have time, I’d like to you to help me with this. So I ask of you: please write an invitation and send a copy to Moscow and the original to me, so that I can keep track of everything here. Sayad will tell you the address you’ll send it to. I’m still capable of playing any character you see fit for me, in Turkish or any other language. Always your friend and brother, Vahram Pazayan. Erivan, 1964.”
Handan: I’m sorry. I didn’t know that you were so close.
Muhsin: We were. Now I understand how close we were.
Handan: Did you ever see each other?
Muhsin: No. I haven’t seen him for maybe forty years. But tonight it was as if...
Handan: Let me make some linden tea for you, you’ll catch cold.
Muhsin: (Pointing at the bottle on the table.) I just had some Ararat. I can’t drink anything after that. (Silence.) Vahram Papazyan. His father, though he wasn’t a churchman, wanted him to study religion. He sent his son to Venice to be enlightened on Saint Lazzarus. But Vahram chose another religion for himself, and devoutly held to the spirit of theatre. We were born into different religions, but our temple was the theatre and Hamlet was the Bible for all of us. May Allah rest his soul.
Handan: May he rest in peace.
Muhsin: No, you can say “May Allah rest his soul.” During one of our long evening talks when we were young, Vahram once asked me; “Why don’t you Muslims say ‘May Allah rest his soul’ after a Christian dies?” And I said; “There’s no particular reason. I usually say ‘rest in peace’ for everyone. It’s just a preference based on our beliefs…” Then he said, “Since Allah is the same God above, a Muslim should not spare his mercy from a non-Muslim.” May Allah rest his soul…
Handan: May Allah rest his soul…
Muhsin: Most likely the Armenian government will arrange a ceremony for him. He’ll be buried along with other actors in an Armenian cemetery. A theatre will be built in his name and plays will be performed in his honour. Books will be written about his life. But here, where he was born, no one will remember him. Maybe tomorrow his death will be noted in a newspaper, or maybe he’ll simply vanish, only to live on in our memories. That’s why, my dear wife, right here and right now, let’s hold a small ceremony with a glass of Ararat. (He pours some Ararat. They stand up.) Cheers!
(Music, lights, curtain.)