A review of Lorne Shirinian’s play “Monumental”

By: | Posted on: 11.07.2012

Published in 2010 by Blue Heron Press, Lorne Shirinian’s play, Monumental, is a satirical 3-act play, which is both light-heartedly witty and strikingly serious at the same time. The play deals with a topic that is perhaps familiar to many Armenians, but certainly not adequately explored, synthesized, and disseminated in the Diasporan-Armenian arts sphere – at least not in the opinion of this reviewer. Though this play has yet to be staged, simply reading it among friends has served for a springboard for discussion and this piece should be regarded as an invitation for creative minds that seek an exploration into themes of national and cultural identity and the memorialisation of a past calamity.

The play has 3 main characters. Arak is a focused middle-aged man who has devoted himself to the nation in exile. He has been appointed director of a small centre in a desolate corner of the diaspora. Bed, who is younger than Arak, is the administrative assistant of the centre. He has taken on the role since he is a writer and, at some point, he had felt that this setting may be conducive to creative thought and exploration – although, we realize right away that he is no longer keen on staying there. Both Arak and Bed know of family stories from the Armenian Genocide, which come up on occasion, and we witness the impression these stories have had on them; the burdens and obligations they feel, as well as the opinions they’ve formed for what should be done now. Gali, a 27 year old female character that is introduced later, has a family history dating back to the Holocaust. Similar feelings originating from her family history have compelled her to study “Cultural Thanatology,” or in her words, “How groups who have experience catastrophe view the impending death of their culture and what they do about it.”

Intentionally non-specific, Shirinian gives us little detail, permitting the viewer to draw parallels between what he regards as familiar, versus what he sees on stage. Absurdity is rampant in Shirinian’s design for the setting; The very existence of such a centre in such an apparently harsh and desolate climate is an absurdity in itself. No one ever visits. Arak attends to seemingly endless administrative matters, writing reports to the headquarters. References are frequently made to drumming noises and attackers, which we never know for certain to be real or imagined. The viewer is challenged to consider the importance of these elements – does it matter that the centre is so isolated? How are these absurd elements analogous to the actual diasporan struggle (if we want to call it that) which we live in today? Act III begins with Bed asking “Don’t you find it strange that the centre has disappeared?” It seems Shirinian’s play is almost dreamlike in its absurdity, in that basic presumptions of where and when we are can continually change to suit the wayward path that the characters take in their thought on the topics at hand.

Indeed this is a play about the Genocide of the Armenians and diverging views of how Armenian’s should think and feel about it. As a focal point for this conflict between Bed and Arak, we have the issue of whether or not the centre should build a monument commemorating the Genocide, as has been requested of them from the headquarters.

Arak’s and Bed’s diverging opinions on the matter seem to be a push-pull between two quotes that Shirinian includes in the foreword to his play:

“Once we have assigned monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember” (James E Young, “The Counter-Monument…”)

versus

“A loss that radically escapes any representation is impossible to mourn” (Luce Irigaray)

Indeed, there is more than these two clashing thoughts that separates Arak and Bed – Bed assigns more importance to cultural evolution. He is more concerned with the “here” and “now,” and is more enamoured by how we may grow in our new surroundings, in his words, to “reinvent ourselves.” Arak, on the other hand, is the agent for remembrance and honouring of victims; He is apprehensive of any other discussion on the matter that is not focused on what matters most, for other talk may simply be distracting from the gravity of the Genocide, while insulting the victims. Free of political reference, Shirinian’s work has no regard for what is perhaps the most effective approach to take for the sake of achieving a national goal of recognition, reparation, and the prevention of such crimes in the future – That’s not what this play is about. It is more human. It is about how we choose to regard our past and how we let it define us today.

Shirinian comments: “The action of the play presents a chain of memories and poses questions. Who owns the memories of the Genocide five generations after the events: the survivors who bore witness and who have all died, those who appropriated the victims for their own ends, or those who reacted to it as a metaphor? And to whom shall their genocide be bequeathed: the historian, the critic, the dramatist, novelist or poet? What is there at the end of this succession of memories? Enlightenment or confusion? Can the truth be found only at the beginning of the Genocide, or can other truths be produced as the story changes over time with each retelling?”

“The past for some, like Arak, needs to be articulated in concrete form to become memory. Generations later in the diaspora, the issues of memory and forgetting, memory and repression, and memory and displacement arise around the construction of the monument. National identity, as Bed realizes, more and more refers to cultural or collective identity in the absence of identity of the nation-state. Arak’s monolithic notions of identity are shaped by defensiveness and victimhood, although he denies it. Unlike bed, he fails to see that identities are always heterogeneous and require multiplicity for them to remain viable.”

Dialogue on these themes, peppered with flashbacks and one thoroughly entertaining backgammon match, is what forms the make-up of the plot. The play reaches a climax as Gali, the 27 year old Jewish researcher, is injected into the mix. She serves as a catalyst for Bed’s decisive action to change his course, and takes the plot to a climax that is better left unspoiled.

The play is loaded with challenge and flexibility for the director – The script suggests noises in the distance, changes in the weather, and glimpses of memory from the Genocide. As a reader of the script, we wonder how much of this resides in the heads of the actors, and how much of it is true? Even the shape and appearance of the monument is given minimal description. The director may incorporate his or her own vision for this.

Characters are rich with personality and wit. There is so much substance in the text that the play has great value simply as an exploration into three complicated human beings and the relationships among them. Bed’s character is in turmoil – not only is he troubled by the centre and the monument, but he also has his professional struggle pertaining to his unread manuscripts. This is further complicated by his romantic interest in Gali, who herself is also balancing her commitment to her research with her budding romantic interest for Bed. The actor playing Arak will certainly have his work cut out for him. He is a man with personality flaws – stubborn, insensitive, and at times ruthless. I don’t believe it is Shirinian’s intention to equate strong feelings of national pride with delirium and irrationality. The challenge rests on the actor to paint the portrait of this complicated man, while not allowing the audience to succumb to the temptation to dismiss his view on the Genocide simply because he is a difficult character to like.

Monumental is a playground for interested creative persons, offering lots to explore. A capable director can exploit the content of the script to stage a play that is a serious meditation on genocide and its impact on humanity. At the same time, a director can use this play as a satirical exploration in character development and experimentation with witty humour and absurdity. Perhaps, if Shirinian is lucky, a director will emerge that can simultaneously achieve both.

 

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