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from the July/August 2003 issue

Iran in Theater

Last summer in New York, two Iranian theatre events cracked open a small window on a dramatically alien world. Each made its impact without benefit of a text that could be comprehended by the audience; and each in a very different way was emblematic of the chasm to be bridged in transposing theatre successfully from one culture to another. Atilla Pessyani's Mute Dream succeeded on its own terms by avoiding language altogether. On a set caged by wire net, a muffled and shrouded deaf-mute girl is subjected to education. Student and teacher, played by the director's daughter and wife, are locked in the abusive and codependent struggle of an isolating failure of communication, while Pessyani contributes bizarre musical effects from the sidelines and a live duck watches the action inscrutably. Frustration mounts to a final explosion of rage and liberation. In the total absence of language, the piece is fiercely expressive-of a desperate need to break through barriers of imposed silence, to be heard as one is, not taught how to be. If the production surprised its New York audience, it was only with the realization that avant-garde theatre of the highest quality is alive and well in the Islamic Republic of Iran; they speak this language at least as well as we do.

The Lincoln Center Festival set Pessyani's claustrophobic gem in contrast with the epic vastness of the ta'ziyeh, the traditional Iranian passion plays that portray the historical beginnings of Shi'ite faith. In the wake of Sept. 11, the ta'ziyeh themes—of martyrdom, doomed battle against impossible odds, and the slaughter of innocents—might be expected to offer some insight into the alien psyche of Islam. The New York audiences were politely and respectfully enthusiastic, clearly aware that they were playing host to a living expression of religious faith, to performers who were devotees first and actors second.

But the ta'ziyeh performances lacked the supertitles that were a common feature of other festival imports. The audience had to rely on program notes to decipher the narrative, and on the music and spectacle—complete with galloping horses, wandering sheep, and bloodied children—to hold interest. They missed the simple, poignant poetry of the dialogue. And they missed entirely the most critical element of the performance that makes ta'ziyeh in its native environment such an emotionally overwhelming experience: their own role as participants at an event not just reenacted but relived in a catharsis of communal mourning.

Curiously, this aspect of a situated event, where external circumstances lend heightened meaning to the action on stage, is a common feature of Iranian theatre in its many manifestations. It is operative not only when ta'ziyeh occurs in its natural setting, heralded by processions of flagellants, but also when the very act of staging a play becomes a political statement, or when the strategy for getting a scene past the censors itself steals the scene. The New York audience did in fact get a taste of this, though not through any religious experience. The welcome they gave to the ta'ziyeh performers was surely heightened by knowledge that the program had very nearly missed cancellation, and last-minute changes were frantically made when performers were denied or kept waiting for visas as a separate drama played out between the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil.

That the Lincoln Center performances were touted as the first Iranian theatre to be seen in the U.S. since the revolution ignores the extremely varied Iranian émigré theatre active here and the constant traffic of individual artists between the U.S. and Iran. It also sidesteps the fact that, since the revolution, theatre groups from Iran have been well represented at festivals in Europe. Sadly, we are the ones isolated in assuming others' isolation.

On a brief visit to Tehran last fall, I was struck by the intense energy of the cultural life of this city of twelve million people. There were surprising contrasts with the prerevolutionary Tehran of my memories: where illiteracy had been the norm and shop signs were painted with pictorial clues, there were now hundreds of bookstores, the windows filled with thousands of new titles published locally. An exhibition of conceptual and video art at the Museum of Contemporary Art held my attention for two solid days of delight, and put to shame a recent, similarly-themed show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I went to the government-subsidized City Theatre, chose more or less at random from the four shows running in different halls, and paid seventy-five cents for my ticket. What I saw was a production of Sophocles' Antigone directed and designed by Majid Jafari that was stunning in its lean, stark staging entirely on a narrow catwalk that split the audience. It was stunning also in the extraordinary physical and vocal work of the actors, and even in the costume design, which gave the women the same athletic freedom as the men while still managing to adhere to the letter of the laws of Islamic propriety.

Jafari's work, like that of Pessyani and so many Iranian directors, owes a huge debt to Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Tadeusz Kantor, and other leading lights of the European avant-garde who accepted invitations to the Shiraz Festival before the revolution. That their influence remains powerful after a generation and a revolution speaks not only to the continuity of this lineage among Iranian theatre artists, but also perhaps to a special cultural fit, a familiarity with the ritual roots of theatre that brings us back to ta'ziyeh—which, not surprisingly, fascinated Brook and Grotowski when they saw performances in Shiraz.

A number of western theatre artists also declined their invitations to the Shiraz Festival as a protest against the Shah's repression; but that's a footnote in a history that plays odd tricks. Political theatre of protest has been the most voluble voice in the history of modern Iranian theatre imported from the west. From the middle of the nineteenth century, when students returning from Europe first introduced western theatre to elite circles in Tehran, the repertoire—whether translated, adapted, or new writing—has focused on social critique. Here the role of the Communist Tudeh party in Iranian intellectual life of the last century cannot be overstated. German Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht is probably the single most important foreign influence on Iranian dramatic writing. Censorship, of course, remains a constant. It eases periodically, as in the brief "springtime" of the early days of the revolution, or more recently under Khatami, but in the big picture this is just the ebb and flow of a force that tends to politicize every act of theatre.

The writers who seem to me most ripe for translation into English are those who weave together these three strands of the political, the avant-garde, and the traditional, and who do so with the poetic sensibility that lies at the heart of Iranian cultural expression—not because they are easy, but because they are both challenging and characteristically Iranian. Although the religious content of ta'ziyeh is anathema to many secular progressive writers, the form itself is a treasure-house of minimalist/expressionist theatrical technique. And traditional Iranian performing arts include not only ta'ziyeh, but also epic recitation, puppetry, and an entertainment called siabazi or ruhozi, which is similar to commedia dell'arte, though it relies more on rapid verbal wit than physical comedy. All these forms have been mined successfully to some degree by contemporary playwrights. This reclaiming of still-living traditional forms seems to unlock a deep resonance, often through childhood memories of performances, that is absent in the type of multicultural appropriation that is fashionable on our own stage. For a translator, the difference is subtle; I can only describe it as a kind of integrity in the writing that can make the awesome task a little more approachable.

But sometimes it remains beyond reach. In the early eighties I worked in Los Angeles with Bijan Mofid, translating, producing, and designing plays that he had written in Iran and was anxious to present to American audiences. Mofid's City of Tales was the most popular play ever written in Persian, running for seven years in Tehran before the revolution and broadcast by fans in protest from the rooftops of Tehran when the revolution turned sour. It was the satirical portrait of a mullah in this musical play that led to Mofid's exile. But for all that it was his masterpiece, he believed it was untranslatable. I agreed, so dense was the web of allusions to unfamiliar cultural icons, so rich the verbal play and reference to different traditional forms. A scholarly translation perhaps, freighted with footnotes, but not something one could bring to the stage. More accessible was his children's play The Butterfly, and the brilliant poetic allegory on the fall of Mossadeq, The Moon and the Leopard. Both have the charm and deceptive simplicity of a folktale (the former traditional, the latter his own creation), but are rich with layers and layers of meaning. If an American audience only grasps a fraction of what is there, they are still the richer.

Mofid was a director, musician, and actor, as well as a writer. He was totally immersed in the practical realities of the stage, and he rewrote extensively for each production. This readiness to respond to changing circumstances, and his availability in the process of translation, was a translator's dream. But dreams can take many forms. Bahram Beyzaii, whose early work The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad is featured here, was inspired to write for the theatre after a deep study of ta'ziyeh and the epic literature. Beyzaii was less fortunate than Mofid in the endless battle against the censors, and it was years before his prolific writing had the benefit of production and feedback from the stage. The enforced isolation gave his dramatic writing the immersive quality of a sustained narrative poem. These many years and many staged productions later, he is sanguine if a director makes cuts; the worlds he has created remain complete of themselves.

When Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, or Brecht are presented on the Tehran stage, they are appropriated in much the same way they are on the American stage: mined for their contemporary impact, their relevance to the political and human dramas that are playing out on the streets beyond the theatre. They are not presented as object lessons that somehow explain western culture to Iranian audiences. (Unfortunately, that task falls to Hollywood.) If Iranian dramatic literature will ever truly come alive on the American stage, the magic will happen through a similar act of appropriation—not by capturing an exotic cultural form to feed a curiosity piqued by the ravages of our foreign policy, but by watching the human truths of a foreign drama play out as if they were our own.


recommended link:

A comprehensive review of Iranian theatre by M.R. Ghanoonparvar, from Encyclopedia Iranica:

Read more from the July/August 2003 issue
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