About Us, The Characters and The Songs
The play is an original work of fiction that is set between the spring of 1914 and the summer of 1915. In the vernacular, it is sometimes "based on historical facts" and at other times "inspired by historical facts." Personally, I've never known what either of these really mean, particularly since we are almost never told which "facts" are true, which are inspired, and which never happened at all. Therefore, below I discuss the "facts" as I know them about the characters that "inspired" the play, as well as the underlying facts of certain songs. But the real inspiration needs to be credited to my neighbor of long ago, Set Momjian, who, as an Armenian, opened my eyes to a subject that history has often tragically ignored. It was Set who guided me to an understanding of the deeply horrific and often denied facts of the Armenian genocide.
-- Gerson Smoger
Note: To find more information on the Armenian genocide during World War I or the political environment of New York City before the war, please go to the Links page.
"Benny's Story" was inspired by one of the most notorious incidents in New York criminal history, the murder of Herman ("Beansy") Rosenthal who was a flamboyant, small-time bookmaker. Due to discord between Rosenthal and a corrupt policeman, Lt. Charles Becker, Rosenthal went public with the allegation that Becker was in for 20% of his take. On Friday, July 12, 1912, Rosenthal signed an affidavit naming Becker as his silent partner. Two weeks later, hours before he was to testify, Rosenthal was murdered. A man, who was never identified, had approached Rosenthal to tell him that someone was waiting for him outside and asked him if he could come out for a few minutes. Rosenthal gathered his newspapers under one arm, as the messenger disappeared ahead of him. Four men called out his name and then shot him, one bullet hitting his chest, others to his head. With great irony, Rosenthal hit the pavement as newspapers with headlines bearing his name scattered around. Afterwards, those who participated in the murder were caught fairly quickly, and controversially, Lt. Becker was executed.
The central character in the play, Jason Karras, was inspired by New York journalist Herbert Bayard Swope. In 1909, Swope, originally from St. Louis, was hired as a young reporter by The New York World which was owned by Joseph Pulitzer. When Beansy Rosenthal had a hard time getting someone to believe his story about New York City police corruption, it was young Swope who finally listened to him and got him to reveal details that he hadn't told anyone before. The story proved to be sensational and it catapulted Swope's career. Rather than being sent over to Europe and the Ottoman Empire, as Jason is in the play, Swope was sent to Germany by his editor in the fall of 1914 to send dispatches back to The World. In 1916, he was again sent to Germany, where he produced a series of stories that won him his first of three Pulitzer Prizes. In his later career, Swope would go on to originate the modern "op-ed" page and has been credited with coining the phrase, "Cold War."
Charles Chapin, Carole Chapin's uncle and Jason Karras's editor in the play, was a legendary editor of the evening edition of the New York World newspaper, The Evening World. Some have considered him the greatest editor to have ever lived, although he was also reviled as a hard taskmaster who ruthlessly fired more than a hundred reporters. In 1918, riddled with debt, he shot and killed his wife while she was asleep in bed. He spent the remainder of his life in Sing Sing.
John Purroy Mitchel
John Purroy Mitchel at age 34 became the second youngest mayor in New York City history. He was elected as a reformer, coming into office at the beginning of 1914. Before taking office at noon on January 1, 1914, he called for the resignation of Police Commissioner Waldo.
Carole is a fictional character. In the song, "Should I Miss Him," Carole's memory goes back to her first date with Jason Karras when they went to Times Square on New Year's Eve and watched the ball fall. At the time that would have been a fairly recent event in that it was in 1907 that the New Year's Eve ball made its first descent down the flagpole atop One Times Square.
The Armenian Genocide and the Ottoman Empire
Zoravar Der Kaloustian
There were a number of Armenian villages in the shadow of Mousa Ler ("Moses's mountain") in Anatolia, north of what is now Syria and abutting the Mediterranean Sea. Movses Der Kaloustian was a former officer of the Ottoman army who became the military leader of the resistance and later a hero of France's Eastern Foreign Legion during World War I. He returned to what is now Syria after the war and eventually served in the Syrian Parliament.
The first name "Zoravar" was often used to describe a different Armenian leader during these times. Andranik Toros Ozanian was a key figure of the Armenian national liberation movement. Around the turn of the 19th century, he became one of the most well-known and respected Armenian military leaders, advocating for the independence of all Armenians. His accomplishments were legendary, including leading the Armenians to a victory over Turkish forces. In 1919, he left for Europe and the United States, where he spent the remainder of his life seeking relief for Armenian refugees. A memorial was built on his gravesite with the phrase, "Zoravar Hayots" or "General of the Armenians." "Zoravar" means "commander."
Angelique Der Kaloustian
Angelique is an entirely fictional character. She was chosen to be French in order to demonstrate her metamorphosis. It would not have been uncommon for a wealthy and educated Armenian to take a French wife. In the 19th century, many young Armenian men, such as famed architects Sarkis and Nigogayos Balyan, went to France for their education. While it was contemplated that Zoravar's wife might be Armenian, if she had been Armenian, she would not have had to confront the choices Angelique has to make in the play.
Reverend Dikran (and Anoush) Andreasian
Dikran Andreasian was born in the shadow of Mousa Ler. In 1914, he moved to Zeitoun where he served for a year as the pastor of the Armenian Protestant Church and ran the Mission Orphanage with his wife. Three to four hundred families at a time were marched out of Zeitoun as the city was stripped of its Armenian inhabitants. Finally, he and his wife were sent to banishment with their orphans. When he and his wife reached Marash through the aid of American missionaries, they were permitted to travel back to Yoghanolouk, the village he grew up in. Twelve days after he reached his family home, the banishment order came to the villages around Mousa Ler. Dikran joined the Armenians who went up the mountain. In fact, upon reaching Cairo, his memories were documented and published by Arnold Toynbee, the noted British historian.
In the song, "They Came," Dikran sings about his wife Anoush being assaulted. Rape was extremely common during the deportations. One military commander is said to have told his men to "do whatever you wish" with the women. Deportees were displayed naked in Damascus, then an administrative center of the Ottoman Empire. A German consul in Aleppo reported that he had heard from an Armenian that 25% of young women, (those whose appearance was "more or less pleasing") were raped, often multiple times. This resulted in many girls and women being left behind dying.
While it is hard to be exact, it is generally estimated that between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 Armenians were killed during World War I. Tens of thousands went into exile. Many were forced to march into the Syrian Desert with no supplies and under abominable conditions. Approximately, twenty-five concentration camps were set up in the desert with an estimate that between 150,000 and 400,000 were killed in the Deir ez-Zor camps alone.
"Have a Beer"
Beer is an ancient and universal drink, going back at least to the Ancient Egyptians. "May you grow old on one pillow" is a heartfelt and classic Armenian saying about the future life for a marrying couple. There are also a number of toasts in the song. "Genatzt" is Armenian for "to your life." "Yamas" is Greek for "to your health". "Proost" is Dutch for "to your health". "Noosh" in Persian means, "Enjoy it, and let it be part of your body." "Salut" is Catalon for "health." "L'Chaim" is Hebrew for "to life." Another type of alcohol mentioned, "Oghi," is an Armenian clear fruit vodka, though it is sometimes also equated with Arak. In either case, it can be very strong. In 1955, Ernest Neubach wrote a song for the movie, "Die Fischerin vom Bondensee," using the words, "Im Himmel gibt's kein Bier, Drum trinken wir es hier." "In heaven, there's no beer. On that account we drink it here.". This is the basis for a lyric sung by Dikran and Daniel. "Hear, Hear!" was originally a British abbreviation for, "Hear, all ye good people, hear what this brilliant and eloquent speak has to say!" and then it morphed into agreement with the speaker, followed by the clanging of glasses. Finally, the song also includes a number of types or names for beer, including brew, malt, lager, ale and stout.
The starting date for the Armenian genocide is often considered to have been on April 24, 1915. On that day, Ottoman authorities arrested approximately 250 Armenian intellectual and community leaders around Istanbul (which at the time was referred to by its Roman name, Constantinople.) This is what is meant when the song, "Success," refers to emptying the prisons for "teaching" and "preaching."
The song also mentions Ambassador Henry Morgenthau who was appointed to his position by American President Woodrow Wilson. Morgenthau received numerous reports about the massacres and deportations taking place. He famously admonished the Ottoman Interior Minister Taalat Pasha "Our people will never forget these massacres." However, the massacres continued. Morgenthau and several other Americans decided to form a public fund, raising over $100 million. Through Morgenthau's personal friendship with Adolph Ochs, the publisher of the New York Times, the massacres received prominent coverage in the American press with over 100 articles being published by the Times alone. Morgenthau resigned in 1916, realizing he could not sit back and watch what was happening any longer.
While he was Ambassador, Morgenthau asked Washington D.C. to intervene and stop the carnage. However, as part of its early proclaimed neutrality during World War I, the U.S. government refused to get involved. Throughout 1915, America staunchly presented itself as being neutral and no official condemnation ever came from Washington.
Reverend ("Badveli") Haroutune Nokhoudian
Reverend Haroutune Nokhoudian, whose name was later changed to Harry Serian on Ellis Island, was the pastor of the Protestant Church in Beitias. He believed that it would be impossible to resist and hoped that the severity of the Turkish punishment might be alleviated by not initiating armed resistance. He was a deeply religious man of faith and believed that his parishioners needed to be concerned with God's kingdom rather that man's, and that the Armenians should trust in the Lord. About 60 families from the village of Beitias and a number from the next village went with him to Antioch under armed Turkish guard. They were later sent on the "death march" to the Syrian desert. He managed to survive the deportation and eventually resettled in Troy, New York.
The Turkish government issued orders for the deportation of the residents of the villages surrounding Mousa Ler ("Musa Dagh" in Turkish), which was merely a small part of the wider course of deportations and massacres. Many of the people of the villages began to plot out their defense. They decided to resist the Turks at the high point of Mousa Ler, determining that this was the most defensible area. They held off the Ottoman army for 53 days from July to September 1915, before French and British ships, beginning with the Guichen, were able to evacuate 4,200 men, women and children from Mousa Ler.
This musical has taken Jeffrey Sorkin and me a long time to complete and to get it to where it is today. Sometimes life gets in the way. For Jeff and me, the years just seemed to go by while other priorities came up. But for both of us, this musical remained in the ever-present background. And during those periods, the music and the play were sometimes written frenetically and sometimes they languished. For the most part, completion occurred when the play was copyrighted in 2008. Even then, however, there were other priorities, but we hope that now you enjoy the result.