Beyond the Theater Curtain: Recollections of an Icon

Gurgen Janibekyan’s headshot for The World, Yes Turned Upside Down (Photographer unknown)

In May of 1897, Gurgen Janibekyan, one of the greatest Armenian actors to ever grace the stage and screen, was born. While Janibekyan starred in many plays and films and helped create many memorable characters throughout his illustrious career, I’d like to focus this article, written in honor of his 44th death anniversary, on one of his most cherished characters—Markar, the lead role in the play The World, Yes, Turned Upside Down («Աշխարհն այո, շուռ է եկել»), which was written by my great-grandfather, playwright Aramashot Papayan. Markar is the father of three sons and has forbidden his youngest two from marrying until his eldest finds a wife, so the youngest brothers devise a plan to help their older brother marry.

According to the biography Aramashot Papayan by Suren Aghababyan, two months before his death, Janibekyan said, “I’ve played a lot of Armenian roles, but I never enjoyed playing their characters like I did with Markar. Markar’s role is as lovable to me as the role of Grigor Agha in the play The Cliff. This is one of the roles that uncovered the true understanding of an Armenian.”    

Gurgen Janibekyan with his wife Anahit and Aramashot Papayan

A couple years ago, I discovered a photo of Papayan and Janibekyan together. Later, my grandmother shared more photos with me and gifted me the program of The World, Yes, Turned Upside Down, which was first staged by director Vartan Adjemian. Inside the program was Janibekyan laughing insatiably, the perfect headshot for his leading role as Markar. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about his involvement in Papayan’s play.

Gurgen Janibekyan and Arus Asryan as Markar and Nubar in the play The World, Yes, Turned Upside Down (Photographer unknown)

I discovered many other famous faces: Arus Asryan, Jhenya Avetisyan, Donara Mkrtchyan, Edgar Elbakyan, Sos Sargsyan; the list goes on. I also discovered actress and Honored Artist of the Republic of Armenia, Shake Toukmanian. “I would love to interview her about this,” I thought to myself. Months later, I found myself on the phone with Toukmanian, her sweet voice filling up my living room. 

“I’ve seen your great-grandfather many times on stage,” she said to me. “I’ve seen him in-person. I’ve known him, however much it was allowed. People like that only communicated with the directors and actors like Janibekyan. When we saw them in the theater, we would greet them with respect. We were very humble. If we were seated and an actor came into the room, we would stand up and make space for them.”

Toukmanian was 16-years-old when she entered the Gabriel Sundukyan State Academic Theatre, where she would ultimately develop a long-standing career. Sundukyan Theatre was known for harboring some of the greatest actors in Armenian history, including Janibekyan.

A few years into her time at the theater, she was given a small role as Zovik in The World, Yes, Turned Upside Down, an opportunity for her to admire Janibekyan from close range.

Shake Toukmanian’s headshot for the play The World, Yes Turned Upside Down. She was 18 years old at the time.

Toukmanian described Janibekyan as “honorable, talented, very kind, well-wishing towards the youth, helpful.” She continued, “He was that kind of actor. If it was possible to showcase him on the world stage [as an actor], he could very easily be comparable to American actors.”

Later, she took on the lead role of Varduhi, formerly played by Jhenya Avetisyan. During this time, she was able to understand more about Janibekyan’s personal character.

“We rehearsed many times. [Janibekyan] was very meticulous,” recalled Toukmanian. “He was very helpful. [Because] it’s hard to enter a play in the middle of its run rather than being there from the beginning.”

Unfortunately, Janibekyan fell ill, leaving him unable to continue the role of Markar and cutting short Toukmanian’s time as Varduhi. Since no one could replace Janibekyan’s portrayal of that character, the curtain closed on The World, Yes, Turned Upside Down.

“Before Janibekyan became sick, The World, Yes, Turned Upside Down continued for years with great furor, great applause. It was a different play. The audience went crazy for it. Not to mention, what kind of actors were playing [in it].” 

Janibekyan received many awards throughout his career, including People’s Artist of the USSRthe highest honor for an artist during the Soviet era. There is a street named after him in Yerevan. His well-known grandchildren, including Sos and Gurgen Jr. Janibekyan, continue his legacy today.

I hope, dear reader, that I have shared with you a new memory… one that will ignite the flame of Armenian nostalgia, so that Janibekyan, master of the theater, will never be forgotten.

Jane Partizpanyan

Jane Partizpanyan

Jane Partizpanyan is the Development Assistant for the Armenian American Museum and Cultural Center of California, a historic world-class project currently under construction. She is also a regular contributor to The Armenian Weekly and a published poet, having been featured in several literary journals and magazines. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and public relations from California State University, Northridge, where she graduated magna cum laude.
Jane Partizpanyan

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