Shirvanzade, one of the major names in Armenian realist novel and theater, was born Alexander Movsisian on April 18, 1858, in the town of Shamakhi or Shamakha, currently in Azerbaijan. Shamakhi had then a sizable Armenian population and was the center of the Armenian homonymous diocese. The violent earthquake of 1872 ruined the town and led to the emergence of Baku as a pole of attraction for the Armenians. After attending the Armenian diocesan school and the Russian provincial school, the future writer was forced to drop school in 1875 due to his father’s unexpected bankruptcy and leave for Baku to work and help his family. For the next eight years, he worked at the provincial administration, oil company offices, and various companies as scribe, assistant bookkeeper, and bookkeeper.
He started contributing to the Armenian and Russian press. In 1883 Shirvanzade moved to Tiflis (Tbilisi) and published his first short story, “Fire in the Oil Factory,” followed by the novella “From the Memories of a Clerk.” Two years later, his novel “Honor” made him famous. From 1886-1891 he worked as secretary at the weekly Ardzagang of Tiflis, and published various novels and short novels in serialized form there.
Shirvanzade wrote and published his best works in the 1890-1905 period, which coincided with social and political ascent in the Russian Empire. Among his production we should mention the novel “Arsen Dimaksian” (1895), the short novel “Evil Spirit” (1895), and the novel “Chaos” (1898), among others, in which he continued to depict different aspects of social reality. “Chaos” is considered a masterpiece of Armenian realist novel both for its literary and ideological values.
The writer was a member of the Social Democrat Hunchakian Party at the time and he defended the cause of Western Armenians with articles and activities during the Hamidian massacres of 1895-1896. He went to Russia to organize activities to gather material support for his compatriots in Turkey, but he was arrested and jailed in the infamous prison of Medekh, in Tiflis. As a result, he was exiled to Odessa from 1898-1901.
Shirvanzade played an exceptional role in the history of Armenian theater and play writing. He has been usually put in a trilogy with Gabriel Sundukian (1825-1912) and Levon Shant (1869-1952). He brought Armenian modern life on the scene, depicting social contradictions, political conflicts, and moral relations. His plays written during the first quarter of the twentieth century include familial, social, psychological, and political dramas (“The Princess,” “Evgine,” “Did She Have the Right?, “Honor,” “For the Sake of Honor,” “Evil Spirit,” “The Ruined One,” “In the Days of Terror”), and comedies (“The Charlatan,” “Morgan’s In-Laws”). “For the Sake of Honor” and “Evil Spirit” have been translated into English.
The writer lived in Paris in 1905-1910 and then returned to the Caucasus. The nightmare of World War I and the Armenian genocide left a heavy impression on him. He referred in many articles, letters, and literary works to the causes of the genocide and the inhuman actions of the Turkish authorities, as well as the political games of the great powers.
Shirvanzade went back abroad again in 1919 to receive medical treatment and resided in Paris until 1926, when he settled in Yerevan and continued his literary activities. He earned the titles of Popular Writer of Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Emeritus Cultural Worker of Transcaucasia. He passed away on August 7, 1935, in Kislovodsk (Northern Caucasus), where he had gone for medical reasons. He was buried in Yerevan at the city pantheon (now Komitas Pantheon).
Several of Shirvanzade’s works became film scripts: “Honor” (1925), “Evil Spirit” (1927”), “For the Sake of Honor (1956), “Morgan’s In-Laws” (1970), and “Chaos” (1973). Schools and streets in Yerevan and other places in Armenia bear his name, as well as the State Theater of Kapan.