The Forty Days of Musa Dagh premieres in Armenia

Armen Elbakyan brings the epic story to the Armenian stage

by Maria Titizian

Published: Friday October 23, 2009

The village priest, men, women, and children of Musa Dagh taking up arms against the encroaching Ottoman Army. Their heroism would become the stuff of legends and a source of inspiration for the novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Tigran Tadevosyan / Photolure

The people of Musa Dagh before the deportation order. Tigran Tadevosyan / Photolure.

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The Forty Days of Musa Dagh premieres in Armenia

Yerevan - Having served as a coporal and telephone operator in the artillery corps of the Austro-Hungarian military on the Russian front during World War I, and after seeing with his own eyes the horrors of the war, Franz Werfel an Austrian-Jewish writer went on to document the story of the Armenians of Musa Dagh (The Mount of Moses).

Werfel wrote his novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, in 1932-33. While it is a fictionalized account, it is based on historical events that took place in Musa Dagh during the Armenian Genocide. On the first page of the book, he writes: "The miserable sight of some maimed and famished-looking refugee children, working in a carpet factory, gave me the final impulse to snatch from the  Hades of all that was, this incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian nation."

Armen Elbakyan, one of Armenia's most respected directors, has taken this story, which recounts how the villagers of Musa Dagh ascended their mountain and organized a self-defense against the encroaching Ottoman army, and has brought it to the Armenian stage.

A final dress rehearsal of the production of "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" prior to its premiere on October 24, took place at the Sundukian Theater on October 21.

The play, which lasted approximately two hours, was a large production by Armenia's standards and drew intermittent applause from the audience, with several curtain calls upon its conclusion.

The story centers around Gabriel Bagradyan, played by Harutyun Movsisyan, who was a lieutenant in the Ottoman Army distinguished for his heroism. His wife, Juliette, played by Anna Elbakyan, was a French national, and they had one son, Stepan, who during the defense of Musa Dagh perished after a feat of courage beyond his years.

Although their passports had been confiscated by city officials and there are some ominous signs of a coming calamity, the villagers of Musa Dagh remained largely oblivious to what was happening all around them. Gabriel, realizing the impending doom, with the help of other villagers startedstockpiling as many weapons as they could hide from Ottoman officials. When several refugees arrived in Musa Dagh, bringing with them tales of horror and forced deportations from Zeitun, the villagers realized the danger ahead.

When orders arrived that the 6,000 villagers of Musa Dagh must leave their homes, they decided to stay and fight rather than be forced on to a humiliating death march. When the Protestant priest of the village, Aram Tovmassian, was successful in persuading some of the villagers to abide by Ottoman orders, a woman in the village stepped out and said, "If the men are too afraid to stay and fight for our land, then we women will stay and fight."  This statement was greeted by thunderous applause by the audience.

After fighting off the Ottoman Army for 40 days, the villagers of Musa Dagh were rescued by French and British warships whose crews had seen their distress signals. While Gabriel sent everyone off to be placed on the boats, he returned one last time to his son's grave. The final scene of the play: it is Gabriel, the mountain, and the cross on his son's grave. He turns one last time, faces the audience and then in a blast of gunfire is killed by the Turks.

As the final curtain came down, every Armenian heart in the theater felt Gabriel's pain.

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