|The modernity of a live tradition: Theatre in Iran||
In an interview with Maryam Ala Amjadi he discusses the history of Iranian theatre and its progress in today's Iran.
Below is the abridged version of the interview translated by the interviewer.
Maryam Ala Amjadi: Theatre as we see it today, actually emerged in the time of the Qajar King, Nasereddin Shah (1848-1896). What was the history of dramatic arts in Iran prior to the Qajar dynasty?
Ardeshir Salehpour: We are talking about two concepts here. One is theatre as it was defined by the Greeks in its classic sense and the other is namaayesh (dramatics or dramatic arts). Iranian culture which is thousands of years old has a long history of dramatic arts which were majorly, as in many other nations, associated with traditional and religious rituals. But as you mentioned it was indeed during the Qajar period that Iranians were familiarized with theatre in its classic and Western sense. There were several factors that led to the realization of theatre in Iran. Abbas Mirza (1798-1833), the Qajar crown prince, the living conscience of the Qajars, and the first reformist who attempted at modernizing the country, sent Iranian students to farang (a generic word for the West, farangi: foreigner) where they were exposed to various trends of their time, including arts and the theatre. The intellectuals brought with them three new achievements after their return to the country: theatre, newspaper (journalism) and parliamentarism. I would like to draw your attention to an overlooked historical figure and a member of the Iranian parliament Mirza Reza Khaan Tabatabaie Naeeni who founded and self-funded the first theatre journal of Iran in 1908. He believed theatre to be one of the three platforms of a progressive society along with higher education (universities) and newspapers (journalism). The Qajars ruled Iran for almost 150 years, about 50 years of which were ruled by the artist king, Nasereddin Shah. He was a motafanen (literally, entertainment seeking) king who traveled to the West 3 times, after which he could speak French and also attempted photography, music, painting, poetry among other arts. Iranian arts literally flourished during his time. He sent many Iranian painters and musicians to the West to gain experience. Literature also thrived during this period and you have significant figures like Fathali Akhundzadeh.
MAA: He was the first playwright of Iran?
AS: Not only the first in Iran but also the first in Asia and even the Islamic world. He was born in Nukha (which belonged to Iran until 1828) but he later migrated to Tiflis where he started to write plays in addition to works on calligraphy and other arts. He is to some extent Westernized in his thinking and this is probably one reason as to why the Iranian society could not accept what he wrote. His plays were originally written in Turkish and translated into Persian but were not staged or published due to the repressions of that time. Criticism of feudalism, the question of women and depiction of vices like bribery are the common themes of all his plays. He is quite radical in his representation of politics and society.
MAA: So who was the first Iranian playwright to write in Persian?
AS: Mirza Agha Tabrizi who was also the first secretary of the French Embassy in Tehran in 1863. He wrote in Persian and corresponded with his contemporary, Akhounzadeh.
MAA: Was he as successful as Akhundzadeh?
AS: Certainly. He followed the same style and developed the same themes. Akhoundzadeh also edited many of his plays through correspondence, elaborating the nuances of theatre for him. Interestingly, a prominent figure like him stays unknown to Iranian society and even today not many people have heard his name.
MAA: And why is that?
AS: Well, for one thing he was reserved and his criticism of the social and political status of the country was quite radical for his time.
MAA: So his theatrical interpretations of the society were realist in nature?
AS: Very much and quite critical like Akhundzadeh. His plays were later published in Berlin under the penname of Mirza Malkam Khaan. It was only a few years ago that a scholar from Azerbaijan, who was studying the letters of Akhundzadeh, came across Mirza Agha Tabrizi's name among the documents and we came to know about the true name of the first Iranian playwright. There were other pioneer playwrights as well, for instance Hasan Moghaddam who initiated the Young Iranian Theatre in 1921 by staging a play entitled "Ja'far Khaan Returns from Farang (the West)" which actually represents the clash of tradition and modernity. This is the beginning of a new world for Iranian dramatic arts.
AS: When in Europe, Nasereddin Shah always attended the opera and the theatre which he grew quite fond of. When he returned to Iran he asked his architect Doustali Khaan-e Moaerol Mamalek to build Tekkiyeh Dowlat, the royal theatre of Iran which became the biggest religious theatre of Iran where Ta'ziyeh (condolence theatre) and religious plays were performed. It had the capacity for more than 20,000 people. But classic plays were staged at the Dar ol-Fonun (literally, House of techniques/arts, established in 1851, the first modern institution of higher learning in Iran) where a theatre hall with the capacity for 300 people was built by the order of the king. Mirza Aliakbar Khan Naghashbashi was the first stage director and the first translations of the French playwright Molière and other Western plays were staged there.
AS: Ta'ziyeh is a traditionally religious genre and in Tekkiyeh Dowlat it was performed more dramatically with many embellishments, with music, other accessories and theatrical equipment during the month of Muharram and Safar. So the first religious theatre space is Tekkiyeh Dowlat and the first classical theatre space is Dar al-Fonun.
MAA: Did the world of classical theatre in those times reach out to people from all layers of the society or was it restricted only to cliques?
AS: Classical theatre in Iran was entirely an intellectual phenomenon, mostly restricted to the narrow circle of the elite and those educated in the West. These groups realized that many of the Western elements in the translated plays had to be nativized. When Moliere's Tartuff was translated, it was staged under the title of "Haji Riyahi Khan". Even the first actors were of Armenian descent and so they did not sound completely Iranian. Gradually they were replaced by jesters and comedians at the palace court who were not literate and because they could not read the texts, they had to improvise, in the process of which more Iranian elements were integrated into the plays. Of course, Ta'ziyeh which is rooted in the religious beliefs of the Iranian people was accepted with more enthusiasm as a public art.
MAA: So dramatic arts were performed prior to this period as there were already comedians at the court?
AS: After classical theatre and Ta'ziyeh, the comedies performed at the court were the third form of theatre in Iran of that time. The court jesters performed a genre known as Baghghaal Baazi (literally, shopkeeper play) which later matured into Siah Bazi (black play) and Takhte Howzi (a genre of folk drama).
MAA: What is Baghghaal Baazi?
AS: It is a type of play that actually emerged during the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736). It mainly revolves around the story of a baghghaal (a shopkeeper) and a man who plays different tricks on him. It was a form of light comedy, like farce, mainly for entertainment.
AS: In the first half of the Pahlavi period (1925-1941) due to the new social conditions theatre halls were built one after another in the Lalehzar district (the art street of Old Tehran). After 1941 and with the downfall of Reza Shah, theatre enjoyed a brief relative freedom until 1953 when theatre was at its peak and there were about 40 theatre halls in Tehran.
MAA: So at that point theatre was no longer limited to coteries?
AS: Yes. The number of theatre halls during this time shows how the public had eagerly embraced theatre.
MAA: But this was restricted only to the capital. What about other cities?
AS: Tehran and a few major cities. Tabriz is among the first cities to embrace theatre and even opera houses. Several honarestan (art schools) dedicated to acting were founded during the first half the Pahlavi period. Even an opera house was built on Ferdowsi Street in Tehran which is currently a bank building, but you can still see what remains of its round structure.
MAA: Cinema came to Iran shortly after theatre. What were the repercussions of this new phenomenon on theatre?
AS: Cinema was only five years old when it first came to Iran. It was actually theatre that helped to raise cinema as a new art in Iran. Many theatre actors would go to cinema halls to elaborate the story of the silent films for the audience and so, gradually theatre fans found themselves also at the cinema. Even some theatre halls were replaced with cinema halls and finally it was theatre actors who ended up in films. So of course, theatre then faced more challenges than before. Because cinema can reach out to the masses, it is more of a public art and also because it is quite editable, it has prevailed more. One could say that theatre and cinema have somehow managed to thrive and exist alongside each other.
AS: Not only in Iran, it is almost the same everywhere else. Theatre is the art of the elite and cinema is a much more common art. Compared to cinema, theatre cannot attract a large number of people to itself. People who go there are usually already accustomed to the art of theatre as a social and political critique which opens spaces for discussion and thinking.
MAA: And is this not a limitation?
AS: No, because some other forms of theatre like street theatre can actually relate more to people but in its entirety, the essence of theatre appeals more to certain crowds in a way that it does not to others. There are other types of theatrical performances that exclude this definition but in its classic and ultimate sense, theatre attracts certain groups of people while cinema has created the space to draw more people from different walks of life.
MAA: Some cultural experts believe that one of the many functions of art is to elevate and upgrade culture. If theatre is restricted to the elite, then how can its repercussions reach all layers of the society?
AS: A bus driver drives a bus but the idea of theatre is to become the driving force of the bus driver. This is what we say when we want to talk about theatre as a sublime art that attempts at uniting people from different layers of the society by relating to them. Before the advent of cinema, theatre was very popular and perhaps if the process of going to the theatre was not disconnected due to the emergence of cinema, then today going to the theatre would probably be a part of the Iranian lifestyle, just like going to the cinema which was previously a family tradition during weekends. Theatre is one of the many faces of civilization as its core meaning is founded on the idea of democracy, to embrace one and all. For a few years now, our motto at the International Fajr Theatre Festival has been "Theatre for all".
MAA: How is it possible to have a theatre for all?
AS: By defining short and long term goals and planning ahead. By establishing more theatre halls and creating spaces for democracy and prevalence of this art. Theatre means the prevalence of social criticism and thinking. Whenever we go to watch a play, we contribute to the criticism of the society and disapprove of its vices. Theatre also aims at pleasure and entertainment but with a purpose and it enfolds sublime cultural concepts.
MAA: From its very beginning, going to the theatre is like a ritual.
AS: Precisely. Many theatre theoreticians have defined theatre as a ritual, a ceremony, even like going to the temple. It is indeed among the first human arts and it deals with humans and humans are its subject matter and as we said it helped to promote cinema. Cinema is theatre where industry and technology are at its service through visual effects. Of course, cinema has also evolved to have a unique definition today but in general one can say cinema is one breath away from theatre and that breath is live performance which is the most attractive and unique feature of theatre, incomparable to any other art. Theatre is a combinative art that embraces other arts like music, poetry and painting. It is also an artistic teamwork.
MAA: So what about teleplays? Do you think a play loses its intended function when it is recorded or adapted for television?
AS: Teleplays are a form of theatre. Before 1979, people used to watch live theatre on television just like the way they can now watch live football matches at home. There were also previously popular radio plays which brought people and theatre closer. Going to the theatre is like a ritual and because of its live performance it, is seems more credible than the illusion of a television image.
MAA: So if we want to define certain features exclusive to Iranian theatre, what would they be? What is the contribution of Iranian theatre to world theatre in general?
AS: Iranian theatre is majorly based on dialogue. It is more about diction than action. We have a strong oral tradition particularly due to the form of our literature and poetry which is so entrenched in our day-to-day life and conversation. Iranian art is poetry, music, painting and architecture. Iranian art is the Persian carpet. There is a carpet in every Iranian house.
MAA: And a book by the Persian poet Hafez and a copy of the Holy Quran.
AS: Yes, and these are the factors that actually impact theatre in Iran. Iranian theatre is so intertwined with religious arts, before and after Islam as Iranians have always had an inclination for theological knowledge. Iranian theatre in its more systematic and religious mode is represented through Ta'ziyeh which is a completely Iranian genre and in terms of comedy we have the genre of Takhtehowzi.
AS: Yes, during the reign of Ahmad Shah (1909-1925), two Iranian artists Abbas Moases and Ahmad Moayed decided to expand the genre of baghghaal baazi for the first time by performing on a wooden board covering the howz (a centrally positioned symmetrical axis pool in traditional Persian architecture), hence the name roohowzi (on the howz) or takhtehowzi (takhteh: wooden board, wooden board on the howz). As the howz is situated in the center of the back or front yards and gardens, people could watch from rooftops, terraces and windows and this made it a very public form of art. Roohowzi and Ta'ziyeh are the signature styles of Iranian theatre.
MAA: How do you see the future of Iranian theatre in the 21st century?
AS: Theatre like any other phenomenon will have to endure transformations in order to adapt to the needs of the times but it will continue to live and evolve. Today theatre is getting closer to the realm of performance. In addition to dramatic diction, theatre has and is experimenting with new forms. Visual arts, lights and sounds can shift the focus of the play from dialogue to other aesthetics and this transcends the traditional definition of theatre where you have the classic protagonist and antagonists and so on. Theatre will continue to evolve as a human truth and a human concept, for as long as humans exist, theatre will thrive even if it changes forms. It will always preserve its allure due to the essence of live performance. It is also among the best cultural communication forms and can bring people closer. Even if we don't know the language of a play, we may lose some information on the literature but not the dramatic performance which is comprehensible regardless of language. Language is just one of the many elements in theatrical structure and visual language is also as significant. Primitive man used body and sign language too. Theatre is not an oral art. Visual elements like mise-en-scène, actions and facial emotions which have an archaic relationship with the human mind and can create human situations are as significant and perceivable regardless of time and space.
Health & Theatre
Drama Therapy in Iran
Like other artistic realms which deal with human emotions and the vicissitudes and experience of human life on earth, theatre too can have therapeutic effects, promoting mental health and facilitating individual and communal growth. As a relatively new form of therapy, it has caught the attention of experts as a creative method in rehabilitation of mental health patients.
Although drama therapy is practiced in the West as an effective method in the overall betterment of mental health patients, it is not as old in Iran. In fact, the first instance of drama therapy can be traced to the Hafeziyeh Mental Health Center of Shiraz, back in 1960.
In the recent years, however, experts of occupational therapy and dramatic arts have employed drama therapy at rehabilitation centers for the disabled and veterans of the Iraqi imposed war against Iran in the 1980's.
This method was first used successfully in the treatment of war casualties (mental health groups) less than 10 years ago at Tehran's Sa'aadat Abaad Mental Health center. Group treatment of patients is first controlled through medicine after which therapeutic plays are chosen for them according to their specific individual traits and history. In this method, patients have the opportunity to express their internal conflicts behind the mask of a role and acting by developing different dramatic techniques. This is also a good chance for patients to internally familiarize themselves with their emotions and needs and to reform and improve their mental health balance.
1- Ta’ziyeh (mourning play) usually performed during the month of Muharram and Safar was registered on UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November 2010.
2- Kheimeh-shab-bazi (literally, night-tent play) which peaked during the Qajar period is Iranian traditional puppetry performed in a small chamber. There are two people involved in the performance: a musical performer and a person called morshed (the elder, the narrator and also a character). The dialogue is between morshed and the puppets. Instances of this dramatic art can be found in Persian poetry as early as 7th and 8th century.
3- In the month of Muharram and Safar, theatre and cinema halls are closed except for staging mourning and religious plays like Ta’ziyeh.
4- There are over 40 theatre halls active in the city of Tehran. Khaneh Honarmandaan-e Iran (House of Iranian Artists) is one of the many happening art places in the city where artists and art lovers often mingle and plays are staged.
5- Ta’aatr-e Shahr (City Theatre) also known as the heart of Iran’s theatre was opened in 1962. It is the largest theatre in Tehran and the Middle East. Situated in the south-east side of the Vali-Asr square, the complex was initially a fun park where circus groups performed during the weekends. It currently has 8 sections and 5 theatre halls as follows: Main Theater Hall, Chaharsoo Stage, Ghashghaei Hall, Sayeh Hall, Kargah-e Namayesh (workshop). Other sections include a library, the theatre archive and documents centre and a conference hall.
6- The first play staged in the main hall of the City Theatre was Antoine Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” directed by Arbi Avansian.
7- Another happening theater site is the Talar-e Vahdat (Unity Hall) in Tehran. At times, theatre students and budding artist stage various types of dramatic performance in the cafés of Tehran.
8- Built a little before 1961, Sangelaj Theatre hall is probably one of the oldest classic theatre halls and was well-equipped even from the start. This complex was unique for its technological facilities, accessories, light and sound quality and architectural acoustics. Performance of Iranian plays and the contribution of the national arts groups made this theatre the cradle of Iranian dramatics and the first Iranian theatre site. The building has historical value as it has been a witness to numerous social, cultural and political changes.
9- According to the Sassanid history, the first female dramatic artist was known by the name of "Azadeh Rumi" who was a khonyagar (versatile performer, musician and storyteller) at Bahram-e Goor’s court (the fourteenth Sassanid King of Persia (421–438).
10- The first Iranian woman stage director is Mahin Abbas Taghani better known as Mahin Oskouei (1929 – January 2006), Iran's pioneering female theater arts figure. She studied in Russia alongside Jerzy Grotowski, and her career included all aspects of Iranian theater, including writing plays and translating.
11- The first plays in Iran were staged as early 1886. At that time, theatre was acknowledged as a masculine art and not only women could not enter the realm of theatre and men performed the role of women but they were also prohibited from attending plays.
12- Born in 1912, Iran Daftari is the first Iranian woman who performed in a play on stage.
14- Ta’aatr-e Defa’e Moghaddas (literally, Holy Defense Theatre) is a relatively new genre which emerged during and after the Iraqi imposed war against Iran in the 1980's. This genre is expressive of the war, its aftermath and the religious and national beliefs and ideals that pertain to defense.
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|Last Updated on 10 March 2012 11:37|