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Drama Canadian

Hats of Mr. Zenobe, The

by (author) Robert Astle

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Initial publish date
Dec 1997
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Dec 1997
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I first became aware of the story of Vahan Poladian, the inspiration for Mr. Zenobe, through my colleague Agnès Limbos to whom I had sent some rough notes on the new piece I was working on. One day I received a phone call from Agnès, who was on tour in Switzerland. She had just visited the Musée de L'Art Brut (Outsider Art Museum) in Lausanne and seen Vahan Poladian's remarkable collection housed there. Strangely enough, his story dovetailed with many of the ideas that I had sent to Agnès just months earlier.

I travelled to Lausanne myself, and spent an incredible day looking at Poladian's creations and screening the short film Monsieur Poladian á St. Raphael. I was shocked and astonished by his story of exile, crumbled spirit, then spectacular transformation of creative ardour, verve, and passion.

Vahan Poladian was born in Kayseri, Turkey in 1902. The Turks began systematically killing the Armenians in 1915, with a death toll that reached 1.5 million. Poladian's family fled the country. With the assistance of relatives, Poladian attempted to immigrate to the USA, but he was refused entry. He went instead to Cuba, where he worked as a travelling salesman. But this did not last long. Poladian was able to return to Europe when France accepted him as an immigrant.

He settled in Paris, where he made contact with the expatriate Armenian community. Poladian married an Armenian woman who bore him a daughter, Viviane. With the onset of the Second World War, however, Poladian was conscripted by the French Army, and forced to leave his family. His unit was captured by the Germans and Poladian was sent to a POW camp.

Upon his release at the end of the war, Poladian made his way back to Paris, only to discover that his wife and child had disappeared. For several years he searched in vain for them. His mother had also immigrated to France and he was briefly reunited with her after the war. She died soon after, however, and her death and the loss of his wife and child was a devastating shock for Poladian.

Poladian became "socially autistic," closing off the world. In 1966, at the age of 64, he entered the Armenian Home in St. Raphael, France. He would spend his remaining years there. The Home gave Poladian a stipend of one franc a day, which he used to create an amazing phantasmagoria of hats and costumes. Twice daily he paraded through the streets of St. Raphael, showing his collection of "Ancient Terrors and Glories," always with "the hope to change the world with laughter."

Vahan Poladian died quietly in the Armenian Home in 1982 after refusing to eat. Part of his enormous collection of hats and costumes was donated to the Musée de L'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Robert Astle is a writer, director and teacher. His solo plays Heart of a Dog and The Hats of Mr. Zenobe have been produced and performed in Canada, the USA and Europe; the Toronto production of The Hats of Mr. Zenobe garnered him four Dora Award nominations. In the 1980s he was a member of Small Change Theatre, a company that toured clown and mask plays around the globe. He taught clown and bouffon theatre at Concordia University as well as playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada and was the Playwright in Residence at Montreal's Centaur Theatre. He presently lives in New York.

Excerpt: Hats of Mr. Zenobe, The (by (author) Robert Astle)

Zenobe: On the sea, on the sea. Six hundred people in our life boat, all wearing life jackets. We turned our backs on those villages. Enough blood and tears. We clung to the rail of that life boat we called "Hope."

Zenobe leaps off the basket with newfound energy

Zenobe: I saw all the hats of the New World. Fez, yarmulke, fedora, panama hat, bowler hat...cowboy hat. All the hats of the world in that huge waiting room. (Aside.) Note how we wait in the 20th Century. Everything was tall in the New World. Even the Immigration Police.

Zenobe grabs the dressmaker's model with the General's costume and hat on it and raises it to an absurd height. Zenobe plays the voice of the Police, manipulating the dressmaker's model like a puppet.

Police: Papers.

Zenobe: No Possible Return... Armenia.

Police: Cough three times.

Zenobe: (Coughs.) I'm terribly fine... Awfully good.

Police: Born where?

Zenobe: Armenia.

Police: Shot in the arm?

Zenobe: No, no...I'm Armenian.

Police: Coming from where?

Zenobe: There.

Police: Going to?

Zenobe: Here.

Police: WHAT?

Zenobe: I'm Armenian. Now I'm Here.

Police: No Armenians. No Martians here. Not your kind!

Stung and humiliated, Zenobe backs away tipping his hat with a certain politesse oblige.

Zenobe: No, it is you who are kind. Very kind. Thank you, thank you. Thank you.

He now speaks directly to the public.

Zenobe: Thank you, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for letting me into your country...(Ironically.) For a very short time.

Zenobe tosses his suitcase on the basket, sits on the basket and continues the rocking motion as before.

Zenobe: The sea, the sea. We turned our backs on the very tall New World. We clung to the rail of the lifeboat we called "Not Your Kind."

Zenobe steps off the "boat" and tests the ground.

Zenobe: Vivre la France. Vivre les canards de France. Vivre les portes de France. Vivre les polices de France.

Zenobe sees the dressmaker's model. He lowers the dressmaker's model on its tripod.

Zenobe: The Police in France were not that tall.

Zenobe imitates the voice of the French police:

Police: Papiers.

Zenobe: (Struggling with his French.) Pas Possible de Retournez... Armenian.


Police: Bienvenu.

Zenobe: Bienvenu. Merci, monsieur, merci. Tres gentil. Tres, tres gentil.

Zenobe backs away from the Police, bowing graciously. He passes the door and notices the HOME painted on the door.

Zenobe: Home... Is where they let you hang your hat. Home... Is where they let you hang your empty picture frame. Home...Is where they let your heart be.

Bowing once more to the Police.

Zenobe: Merci. Merci. Mercy. Mercy.

Editorial Reviews

“In this century of dispossession the ultimate refugee is the man who carries his own door with him. The pudgy patchwork figure who shambles onstage at the start of Robert Astle's new one-man show is trailing, and pushing, an overflowing collection of junk: shabby suitcases, a tatty doll's buggy, velvet curtains, a headless dressmaker's dummy, a hat stand...and a wooden door.

What gives The Hats of Mr. Zenobe its peculiar texture and flavour is this weave of fascinating story with insights into its teller. It was inspired by the true-life biography of exiled Armenian Vahan Poladian, who transformed a veritable catalogue of personal tragedies and losses into a kind of street satire cum pageant, from the home base of an anylum for elderly Armenians in France. Poladian saved himself from despair and madness by his own deliberate acts of creation. On a stipend of a franc a day he assembled an amazing collection of hats, costumes, canes, umbrellas, spectacles, stuff, and emerged twice daily for 30 years into the street to make people laugh by his performances.

In an amazing succession of hats—which substitute for his squashed fedora, a bizarre military helmet, a dictaphone through which man may speak to God, a miner's helmet with lamp, and many others—Mr. Zenobe's own heart-wrenching story of exile, conscription, internment, and dispossession unfolds.

What we see is the transmutation of politics into agit-prop headgear and tragedy into entertainment. It's a surprising, inventive, hat-felt piece of work from one of our original artists.”

—The Edmonton Journal

Other titles by Robert Astle