From Constantinople to Yerevan and from Paris to Moscow, Vahram Papazian would become the most accomplished Shakespearean actor of the Armenian scene worldwide for half a century.
He was born in Constantinople on January 6, 1888, in a middle-class family. He graduated from the Esayan School (1902) and the lyceum of Kadikoy (1902-1904), and had his debut on the stage in 1904. Then he went to the Murad-Raphaelian School of the Mekhitarist Congregation, in Venice, where he studied from 1905-1907.
In 1907 he departed for Paris and then for Baku, where he performed with an Armenian theater group for a few months. After this experience, he returned to Italy and studied at the Art Academy of Milan from 1908-1911. Famed actress Eleonora Duse was among his teachers. During his student years, he performed with Italian itinerant groups and gradually perfected his roles (Othello, Romeo, and Hamlet, among them). He returned to Constantinople in 1908 and his performances of Othello, at the age of 20, earned him the applause of Armenian audiences and the press. He went to Paris in the early 1910s to study the different currents of theater and become closely acquainted with acting techniques. As a professional actor, he performed from 1910-1913 in Constantinople and Smyrna, and from 1913-1917, in Baku and Tiflis. He enriched his repertory with a roster of roles in Armenian and non-Armenian plays.
|Papazian as the title character in Shakespeare's Othello|
Papazian played in fifteen Russian silent movies from 1917-1918 with the pseudonym of Ernesto Vahram, and would later play in three more films in 1922-1923. In 1920 he returned to Constantinople, where he performed until 1922. After the occupation of the city by the Kemalist forces, he settled in Soviet Armenia. He would perform and direct in Yerevan, Baku, and Tiflis between 1922 and 1927. He moved to Moscow in 1928 and then performed in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) from 1929-1931. In 1932 he played in Lithuania, Letonia, and Estonia, and in the same year he left for Paris, where he played Othello with the Odeon Theater group; his performances were singled out by the French press. In 1933 he visited Berlin, where he met the famous director Max Reinhardt and studied closely the German school of acting.
Thereafter, he returned to the Soviet Union and was distinguished as People’s Artist of Armenia and Georgia in 1933, and People’s Artist of Azerbaijan in 1935. He toured the cities of the three countries in 1934-1935, and continued his tour through Russia and Ukraine from 1936-1941. He played in Moscow in 1941 and settled in Leningrad from 1941-1944, where he survived the German blockade.
After years of new presentations in Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, and Transcaucasia, from 1946-1954, Papazian finally settled back in Yerevan as a member of the Sundukian Academic Theater, and he also directed plays in Yerevan and Leninakan (now Gumri). He returned to cinema in four films from 1953-1964, and in 1956 he was given the title of People’s Artist of the Soviet Union. In the last fifteen years of his life, the actor revealed himself to be an accomplished writer with his two-volume memoir, Retrospective Regard (1956-1957). He also wrote his reminiscences on Western Armenian actors, My Heart’s Duty (1959), and several books on performance analysis about the roles of Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.
His art belonged to the classical school, enriched by elements of neo-romanticism and psychological realism. His performances of Shakespearean roles were grounded on the traditions of ancient tragedy and the Renaissance, as well as his own Armenian viewpoint.
Vahram Papazian passed away in Leningrad on June 5, 1968, and was buried in the Pantheon of Yerevan. The State Theater of Stepanakert (Karabagh) carries his name.