Culture

PROFILE - Hagop Baronian: Moliere of Armenians

Over a century on, Ottoman-Armenian journalist, playwright, satirist shines light on daily life in 19th-century Istanbul

Merve Berker and Dilan Pamuk   | 05.08.2021
PROFILE - Hagop Baronian: Moliere of Armenians

ANKARA

Despite more than a century having passed since his death, the literary works of Ottoman journalist, playwright, and humorist of Armenian descent Hagop Baronian still serve as a window into everyday life in 19th-century Istanbul.

Publishing his first play at just 22 years old, Baronian's works are relatively few, but their impact was great, dealing with issues such as marriage and family matters, while the products of his journalistic career were likewise pertinent to the times, containing satire and social criticism.

Born in 1843 to a poor family in the city of Edirne in present-day northwestern Turkey, he generally went to Armenian schools, as well as a Greek school for about a year, during which he learned Greek.

In 1864, he settled in Istanbul, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire, where he worked in various jobs as a secretary and teacher, learning Italian and French through his own efforts along the way.

Here, he also started contributing to various journals, gaining experience as a professional writer.

Professional life

Baronian's interest in theater manifested at a very young age. His first play, written in 1865, was a short farce called One Butler with Two Masters, an imitation of Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni's original work, A Butler with Two Masters.

Four years later came his first comedy, Oriental Dentist, in which he dealt cheerfully with arranged marriages and marital fidelity.

Baronian explores what he sees as decaying family relations with couples going behind each other's back, while the lives of spouses and lovers old and new intertwine.

Amid a background of the social developments of the period, the play invites readers alike to think about the timeless relationship between marriage and fidelity.

He began writing another play, Flattery, in 1872. However, this would only be completed half a century later by fellow great Ottoman-Armenian humor writer Yervant Odian after it was left unfinished.

These publications were often suspended due to censorship over the social criticism they contained.

Another satire, Honorable Beggars, published in 1880-1881, focused on the indiscretion and naivety of a rural notable, while also drawing attention to how open these qualities were to exploitation by an array of artistic, professional, religious, and artisanal opportunists.

His last work, Baghdasar Aghbar, again criticized Armenian institutions around the theme of divorce. It is one of the most popular plays in the Armenian comedy tradition.

Though he announced in 1887 that he would be publishing another comedy called "Dowry", he never published this comedy. An incomplete draft of the play, consisting of eight scenes and some episodes, was found among his papers and published following his death.

Journalism

Baronian's career in journalism began in 1871 when he became the chief writer in the newspaper Yeprad (Euphrates), later also writing in the Megu (Bee) and Khigar (Wise).

He started publishing a satirical magazine, known as Theater, on March 20, 1874, followed only a couple of weeks later by the Tadron, a bilingual publication in both Armenian and Ottoman Turkish, which was first printed in the Armenian alphabet.

Baronian created all of the content published in the four-page Theater. The bi-weekly was the fourth Turkish satirical magazine published in the Ottoman Empire.

In the Tadron, he discussed issues relevant to the Armenian community at the time. It was also published twice a week and included common content with Theater, with both publications surviving until 1877.

Baronian died of tuberculosis on May 27, 1891, in Istanbul, buried in the Armenian cemetery in the city, though his exact place of resting remains unknown.

None of his plays were staged while he was alive, though they became popular in the decade following.

Known by many as the Moliere of the Armenians, Baronian shines a light on contemporary social life in his city and his works have proven invaluable to interested historians and laypeople alike.

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