The modernity of a live tradition:

The modernity of a live tradition: Theatre in Iran
Maryam Ala Amjadi

On Line: 07 March 2012 11:32
In Print: Thursday 08 March 2012

Iranian playwright, actor and scholar of dramatic arts, Dr. Ardeshir
Salehpour (photo by Sasan N. Chegini)
Dr. Ardeshir Salehpour (born 1957) is a prolific Iranian playwright,
filmmaker, actor and scholar of dramatic arts who has a PhD in Arts
Research and over 18 years of academic teaching experience. He is a
regular contributor to national and international theatre festivals
and has organized and directed numerous theatre events within the
country. Salehpour has 8 published plays to his credit and has also
directed 11 documentary films which mainly center on anthropological
issues. His numerous research articles tackle history of art, folklore
music and the nuances of cultural and anthropological issues in Iran.
He has also hosted and contributed to over 500 radio programs. “Bride
and Sparrow”, “Pomegranate’s Daughter”, “Maah Teetee” and “Drama and
Gramophone” are among his published works. Salehpour is presently the
director general of the biennale International Puppet Festival in
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

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

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.

Ta’ziyeh (Condolence Theatre or Passion Play) usually performed during
the month of Muharram and Safar commemorating the saga of Karbala and
Imam Hossein
MAA: Where were the first plays staged?

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

MAA: But Ta’ziyeh is a much older tradition and it actually emerged as
a religious expiation ritual with the dawn of Shiism in Iran. Was it
performed differently during the Qajar period?

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

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.

Kheymeh Shab Bazi (puppetry) with a morshed (elder and narrator) and a
musical performer
MAA: What happens in theatre after the Qajar period?

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.

MAA: But even to this day cinema has a more populous audience compared
to theatre. Can we say that theatre in Iran is still somehow
classified as the art of intellectuals?

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.

Roohowzi which was previously an independent comic genre and staged
outdoors is now an entr’acte in Iranian folk theatre and comedies
MAA: Is Takhtehowzi another name for Roohowzi? Can you please explain a little?

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.

A poster of the Iranian puppet Mobaarak (literally, celebrated or felicitated)

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.

Holy Defense Theatre emerged as a result of the Iraqi imposed war on Iran
13- Although theatre came to Iran about one and half century ago in
its classic sense, street theatre is a much older concept. Iranian
religious and national rituals like naghali (storytelling), Shahnaameh
Khani (dramatic poetry reading) and other forms of art were performed
outdoors and in the public.

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.