Commemorating the centenary of the deportations that began the Armenian Genocide, I Wish To Die Singing – Voices From The Armenian Genocide is a controversial documentary drama uncovering the forgotten secrets and atrocities of a denied genocide – featuring eye-witness reportage, images, music, poetry from Armenia’s greatest poets, and verbatim survivors testimonies from one of the greatest historical injustices of all time.
In this piece, writer Neil McPherson reflects on his reasons for writing the play, his process, and the reactions he’s had.
(The below is taken and edited from Neil’s preface to the play text.)
As far as I remember, the first time I ever heard about the Genocide was when I was eighteen and read Tim Cross’ The Lost Voices of World War One which included the work of three leading Armenian poets, all deported from Constantinople on April 24th 1915.
Seventeen years later, as Artistic Director at the Finborough Theatre in London, I was programming the theatre for the 2005 season. As usual, I researched the anniversaries that fell in that year as they can sometimes be a useful marketing hook for a production. When I learned that 2005 was the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I decided to search for a play that we could produce to commemorate it. All of the plays I could find were by Armenian-Americans. Most were very short, and focused on the experience of the Armenian diaspora in the United States. They all assumed that their audiences already possessed a good working knowledge of the Genocide.
But I quickly learnt that the Armenian Genocide was very far from common knowledge. Most people I spoke to had never heard of it. A very few had, but only vaguely, and then solely in relation to the Holocaust, rather than as an event in its own right. It was then that I started to learn about Turkey’s ongoing denial of the Genocide. I soon found myself reading all the evidence I could find to see if there was any merit in what the Turkish government insist on calling ‘the other side of the story’, so that I could make up my mind for myself.
In the end, it wasn’t the horror of the Genocide itself which forced me to try and tell this story, but Turkey’s denial of it. I needed to scream about how these wounds, hurt, anguish and grief were all intensified because of a blank-faced refusal to tell the truth. And if I wasn’t able to find a play that would do that, then I vowed to try and create one myself.
I called an old school friend who, with his customary generosity, lent me some rare books to get me started, and despite some death threats (always a sign that you’re doing something right), the 2005 production completely sold out its few performances. I decided to wait until the centenary in 2015 before doing it again so that we could open the production on the exact anniversary of the start of the Genocide – 24th April.
Internationally, the denialist lobby were careful to keep their heads down in the run up to the centenary, and so we were able to present the 2015 production without any death threats. The reaction of the Armenian community was overwhelming, including parents bringing their children, and even people who travelled especially to the theatre from as far afield as Beirut and Yerevan to see it.
We did however receive some quite spectacular abuse on social media, which is where not being Armenian myself really came into its own. The first accusation would invariably be ‘What can we expect? You’re just a ‘LIARMENIAN’ and were shocked to learn that no, I wasn’t, not at all. Their second accusation would usually then be that I was obviously a sell-out and the whole production had been paid for by Armenian money. To which the answer was – with no pun intended – ‘I wish’. After that, they usually moved on to suggestions that were mainly scatological and probably anatomically impossible, but which worked very well when I quoted them verbatim in the play itself.
And if you still might be wondering the reason why a non-Armenian felt compelled to try and share this story, the last word should go to the poet Peter Balakian:
‘If the extermination of a million and half people and the erasure of a three-thousand-year-old civilization isn’t important enough to write about, what the fuck is?’
I Wish to Die Singing is available to buy from the Oberon Books website