The 1850s became a period of cultural awakening for the Western Armenian centers of Constantinople and Smyrna. Many young people were getting their higher education and bringing back new ideas with them. Armenians and Greeks used to be the carriers of European innovation in the Ottoman Empire. Theater was among those innovations.
Patriotic plays in Classical Armenian and comedies in Turkish were developing the interest for theater among the public. The Altunduri (Altunian) brothers headed the formation of a theatrical committee at the beginning of 1861 in Constantinople. Arakel and Stepan Altunduri knew good French and made several translations, but above all, they had the financial means to organize theater performances. The theatrical committee would become the founder of the first Armenian professional drama theater in modern times. They rented a building that belonged to Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Pera (nowadays Beyoglu), which was called Cafe Oriental. The premises were revamped and decorated, and a state license was secured. The theater was renamed “Oriental Theater.”
The first performance, on December 14, 1861, was “Two Sergeants,” a melodrama by French playwright Rota. The theatrical group was formed by ten actors (including important names of the time such as Bedros Maghakian, Serovpe Benklian, and Mardiros Menakian) and two actresses (Arusiak Papazian and Aghavni Papazian); the presence of women on the stage was a novel element in Armenian theater. The theatrical committee had hired an Italian director, Asti. An interesting element was that Mikayel Nalbandian, the Eastern Armenian writer and journalist, who was visiting Constantinople at the time, read a speech at the inaugural performance. He reminded the public that, “The theater stage is not less than the study chair; the stage of the theater is that chair where philosophy sits and, embodying the living word, with practical ideas and examples, liberates the public from the effort of understanding those ideas only through imagination.” He also encouraged the bravery of the actresses: “The history of Armenian theater will not forget the names of the respectable damsels, Arusiak and Aghavni Papazian, who are the first to have set foot on the theatrical stage. They have fought against common prejudices and have come to the arena after overcoming them. Long live them!”
The first season of the Oriental Theater lasted five months, until May 1862. The group presented four original plays and four translations. However, theater was still a field of polemics among progressive and conservative writers and public figures, and the Oriental Theater ceased its activities in April 1863. It was reopened in 1865 under the direction of playwright Srabion Hekimian. It was finally closed again in mid-1867 after several performances of Romanos Sedefjian’s play “Vartan Mamigonian, Savior of the Fatherland,” dedicated to the memory of Nalbandian, who had passed away the previous year in a Russian prison.
Despite its short life, the impact of the Oriental Theater would be lasting. Many of its members would continue their activities in different groups and become pillars of Western Armenian theater until the beginning of the twentieth century.