Theatre runs deep in Armenian culture – a 10th-century fortress at Saimbeyli in Cilicia had three storeys of theatres and two storeys of libraries. The Hellenic kings of Armenia patronised theatre in the 3rd century BC, and Greek dramas played to King Tigran the Great.
In ancient times Greek drama was popular in Armenia and several amphitheatres were built during the Hellenistic age including one at Tigranakert, the new capital which Tigran II built. When the Romans sacked the city in 69bc the actors were killed during the celebration games which followed. After the conversion of Armenia to Christianity in the 4th century drama was suppressed by the Church and there is no record of any Armenian theatre until the 18th century when plays were put on by the Armenian community in Venice. The first recorded performance of a play in Armenia proper since the 4th century is often said to have been of Alexander Griboyedov's Woe from Wit in 1827 at the palace of the Yerevan Fortress with members of the Imperial Russian Army as the cast. That seems highly unlikely as this scathing satire on corruption, ignorance and bribery in Tsarist society was banned during the author's lifetime and not staged until 1831.
The first regular theatre in Yerevan opened in 1865 and in that year Gabriel Sundukian (1825-1912) published Khatabala which may be said to represent the foundation of a realistic Armenian drama. Theatres were established in several Armenian communities both in Armenia and among the diaspora in cities such as Teheran and Tbilisi but those in Ottoman-controlled areas were repressed after anti-Armenian action started in earnest in 1894. During the Soviet period drama blossomed with a healthy diet of Armenian and Russian works as well as Armenian translations of foreign classics, particularly Shakespeare, who translates very well into Armenian. Since 1991, as with all the arts, the curtailment of government subsidies has led to considerable retrenchment although several theatres survive at Yerevan and Gyumri.
There are about a dozen active theatre houses in Yerevan specialising in musical comedy, contemporary plays and drama revivals. The musical comedies and shows for kids are easy to follow and very professionally done. Armenia has a rich tradition of folk dancing, and chances are you’ll stumble across a performance in a public square. Revellers at country weddings might not be so professional, but then it is the real thing. Armenia has a rich diversity of dances and costumes, straight out of a medieval spring festival. There are also dance and ballet companies in Yerevan.
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