Sensory feat of a supreme kind
February 4, 2000
The House of Khorshid is not where the sun is trapped. If it weren't
for the design, looked at from above, streaked with concrete slabs that
shoot off a concrete semi-circle, it would have been the ultimate misnomer.
In fact, the sun has no way of finding its way into the opaque, black-bean-shaped
stage. It opened in Tehran last month to house a play, appropriately called
But the choice of location is hardly accidental. Should we say, rather,
that the chance occurrence which brought the director of the play, Hamed
Mohammad-Taheri, face to face with the basement of the City Theater, was
part of the reason which gave birth to the staging of Genet's THE BLACKS.
The play is studded with imagery and language to confuse those witnessing
its re-enactment on stage. So much is admitted by Archibald Absalom Wellington,
the first character we meet: "This evening we shall perform for you.
But in order that you remain comfortably settled in your seats in the presence
of the drama that is unfolding here, in order that you be assured that
there is no danger that such a drama will worm its way into your precious
lives, we shall have the decency a decency learned from you
to make communication impossible." Never is the audience let alone
to feel comfortable before the spectacle. Never is he allowed to grasp
in one fell swoop the meaning of words that come at him with relentless
Correctly speaking, there are no audiences in this play, merely spectators.
There is nothing to understand (to hear) but everything to gloat over,
to see. Genet's language defies meaning, "One can dream of an art
that would be a profound web of symbols," he says in another place,
"of speaking to the audience in a language in which nothing is said
but everything is portended." Perhaps this is one reason that he is
regarded as "one of the five most important playwrights" of the
West his ability to write for stage, the visual power of his dramatic
But why was this play chosen. Mohammad-Taheri is elliptical. In an interview
with ASR-E AZADEGAN, on the eve of the play's premier, he betrays nothing.
"I don't know why I chose it, it just felt right," he says evadingly.
"You have to go and see it for yourself." And, true to the tradition
of modern French intellectuals, he renounces the Arts en mass. Asked by
the interviewer, perhaps to salvage something, whether he at least cherishes
the dramatic arts, he answers unyieldingly that he doesn't even enjoy theater
So, why should we, as "spectators", go and see the play? Is
there something here that smacks of directorial self-indulgence, of spoiled-child
once-émigré intellection that will send us howling once the
whole thing is over?
SIAHA is a sensory feat of a supreme kind. Mohammad-Taheri has been
able to grasp and enact a play that has confounded and hamstrung many that
have tried to approach it. To be sure, he has left nothing undisturbed.
Not simply the stage direction (which is conventionally not followed to
the letter) but also the text has been tampered with. The opening act,
the set, the actors and actions, the music and the ending have all seen
a marked re-styling, so much so that one can claim that the director has
created something totally new a definite sign of creative output
and outpour. "Death, Mime, Encounter!" he says in the brochure.
"This theater has spawned from our encounter: Genet, the Text, House
of Khorshid, the translator, Seventy Tombstones, Royaii, Hossein, Afshin,
and death." A statement that can be significant in itself, "each
being a horizon in the skull of encounter." Grisly stuff.
LES NÈGRES was first staged in Paris by director Roger Blin on
28 October 1959 (who later went on to direct other plays of Genet, including
the epical THE SCREENS). In that production, and in subsequent performances
in New York, the actors (all Black) are divided in two. One group, the
Court, is standing on a tier, donning white masks and overlooking the performance
of the group below. Genet specifies elaborate costumes and regalia. Strewn
all around the stage are fetishes and objects (a blond wig, a carnival
mask, a piece of pink knitting, white gloves, etc.), which are used during
the play. A catafalque draped in white cloth and covered with lilies, irises,
and roses is placed in the center of the stage.
For Genet, an object is a sign. It points to the order of the world
in which it is inextricably placed. It forms an essential bond with other
objects that come into contact with it. A blond wig, for example, is more
than what it is; it stands for falsehood, but also for the desire that
it evokes and has come to represent. It belongs to a world that can glorify
itself only by establishing itself in the theater of signs and insignias.
But Mohammad-Taheri has chosen to ignore all the essential fetishism
of Genet. His BLACKS are not Blacks anymore. They have been transformed
beyond retrieve. No blond wig or white glove to point to the colonial/sexual
order. No white mask or elaborate costume to designate and distinguish
master from slave. The spectator is not constantly reminded of the colonial
order that the play sets out to expose. In fact, all master/slave relations
have been tamed. The Court (comprised of the Queen, the Judge, the Governor,
the Missionary, and the Valet) is incarnated in one person.
To compensate for that, not only the floor is used as a blackboard to
act out many of the scenes, but new symbolic fetishes bread, pomegranate
have been introduced to add different layers of meaning. Then, there
is the House of Khorshid, which the director so masterfully employs as
an integral part of his reading of the play. Once lights are turned out,
the set is engulfed in near-absolute darkness. The spectator is at once
present to death and birth, a theme the director chooses to focus on with
intent. Dimmer lights and candles are used extensively to now force the
spectator to be at the mercy of dark forces, haunted by imaginary ghosts,
and now to reveal what took place in darkness.
As the spectator descends the stairs to enter the House, and before
he is actually allowed to go in, he is greeted with words of Archibald
(not part of the actual play, but words that Genet wrote on a different
"In cities of today, the only appropriate place to build a theater
which alas is situated on the peripheries of the city is the
cemetery. The choice of such a location will do a great service to both
the cemetery and the theater. The architect who builds such a monument
will not tolerate the idiotic structures that people imprison their dead
in. If a theater is built in such a location, people who walk in and out
of it must march through paths that will career between graves. Imagine
people who, after seeing 'Don Juan', come out of the theater and, before
they go back to their ordinary lives, walk in between the dead who have
been buried there. Their conversation, even their silence, will not be
the same as when they walk out of city theaters. As such, death will be
nearer and lighter, and theater more important. As for the spectator: Only
those can attend a theater who can prowl in cemeteries at night to confront
a mystery. I speak of erecting a theater among the graves only because
in the world today the word death is an opaque word."
The House of Khorshid has allowed the director to make good on the author's
wish. To make the word "death" shine forth with brightness in
the basement of the City Theater.
In a note to Roger Blin, when THE SCREENS was being produced, Genet
explains that "in order for this event the performance or performances
without disturbing the order of the world, to impose thereupon a
poetic combustion I should like it to be so strong and so dense that it
will, by its implications and ramifications, illuminate the world of the
dead billions and billions and that of generations unborn."
This stems from Genet's conception of theater: "If we maintain that
life and the stage are opposites, it is because we strongly suspect that
the stage is a site closely akin to death, a place where liberties are
Following Archibald's oration, the spectator is ushered into the repository/womb.
He is present to his death, six feet underground, so to speak, among the
dead, who will rise up in turn to greet him as stage actors. For the next
two and a half hours, he is bolted by a dazzling display of spectacles
and images enacted on stage. Once the performance is over and the spectator
mounts the stairs, he is at once born into and raised from the dead. The
experience is total.
In the original play, the cast is composed of actors and actresses from
different ages. With Mohammad-Taheri's rendition, we have a cast comprised
entirely of young performers, which offers a new understanding of the play,
perhaps one that may hint at the power relations in the current social
atmosphere of the country.
Unlike Genet's play, Mohammad-Taheri's SIAHA engages the actor in little
dialogue with other actors; instead, the play is mostly composed of a series
of monologues which each character takes turn to impersonate. The order
of appearance, the theatrical gestures, and, as such, their meaning, have
all been meddled with and transformed.
The director succeeds in wrenching out of his cast difficult, acrobatic
tasks. Again, in a note to Roger Blin, Genet gives instructions on how
to conduct the performers: "Don't be afraid to have the actors and
actresses transform themselves into jackals, turkeys, etc. into trees
also." They are all made to carry out physically strenuous and rambunctious
stunts: Standing on their heads, somersaulting in mid-air, scrapping their
lips to the floor, screeching, howling, yapping, squawking, etc. This is
no easy drama for the performers, who may see injuries with every night
and who pour sweat after each turn. Nor is it an easy drama for the spectator,
who is actively engaged in the staging, so close and personal to him.
SIAHA is not a play for entertainment. But it is an event not easy to