Most Asian performances, including the
Ta’ziyeh, have been introduced to the Western world as
if they were merely antiques, and not as the live and passionate
performances that they actually are
September 5, 2005
Without a doubt, a scholarly study of this importance
to an understanding of Islamic drama is long overdue, and Professor
Malekpour effectively positions Ta’ziyeh within a lively
discourse of religiously rooted theatre and ritual. He is obviously
determined to get theatrical respect for the form, and I believe
he achieves his goal brilliantly.
-- Don Rubin,
Editor, World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre
by the distinguished theatre director Peter Brook as "a very
powerful form of theatre", Ta'ziyeh is the Islamic drama
of Iran. This work examines the evolution of the Ta'ziyeh, which
involved elements drawn from Zoroastrianaism, Mithraism, mythology,
folklore and traditional forms of Iranian entertainment. The following
is from The
Islamic Drama (Routledge, 2004) by Jamshid
The Islamic Drama of Iran is known
as Ta’ziyeh or Shabih. It is a religious
drama, enacting the suffering and the death of Imam Hussein, grandson
of the Prophet
of Islam. In 680 AD he was massacred along with his family in the
plain of Karbala near Baghdad by the soldiers of Yazid, the Caliph.
This drama was described by Peter Brook, the distinguished director
of theatre, as “a very powerful form of theatre” when
he first saw a Ta’ziyeh performance in 1970 in a village
in north of Iran. Many theatre critics like David Williams claim
that it was the Ta’ziyeh which “had fired his (Brook’s)
imagination” for future experimental productions such as
Orghast and Conference of Birds.
The evolution of the Ta’ziyeh
involved the incorporation of countless elements drawn from religion,
mythology, folklore and traditional forms of Iranian entertainment.
This development took place over a long period of time. However, the Ta’ziyeh,
in its fully evolved theatrical form, came into existence in the mid 18th century.
It reached its highest point during the rule of the king, Nasseredin Shah (1848-1896),
who built Takiyeh Dowlat. This magnificent playhouse for the Ta’ziyeh provided
seating for a large number of spectators.
The Ta’ziyeh suffered significantly
in the 20th century when it was attacked by a number of pro-Western and nationalistic
movements which objected to the performance of such religious dramas on account
of their belief that such performances encouraged social stagnation.
suffered even further when it was banned in the 1930’s by the Pahlavi regime,
and Ta’ziyeh groups were forced to take refuge in the rural areas far from
the reach of the authorities. However, the support of faithful spectators (most
of whom are from low socio-economic backgrounds) as well as the theatrical appeal
of this form of drama with its simple, powerful and flexible style of performance,
have kept the Ta’ziyeh alive. Today, it is possible to see many Ta’ziyeh
performances throughout Iran.
Despite its importance, the Ta’ziyeh has been
almost totally ignored by Western theatre historians and critics. While Christian
passion plays of the
middle ages are dealt with extensively in almost every book which has been
written about the history of world theatre, and numerous specialised
books have been
written about this type of religious drama, almost no mention of Islamic religious
drama (the Ta’ziyeh) has been made. Why such a gap left in histories
of world theatre needs to be looked at.
Islam is the world’s second largest
religion with a world following of one billion people. Consequently, it would
appear that the lack of recognition
of the Islamic drama of Iran is due to ignorance on the part of Western theatre
historians who seem to be only interested in Christian religious dramas.
a more pessimistic view point one could assume that the lack of recognition
of the Ta’ziyeh is due to the anti-Islamic sentiments that the Western
world has harboured for so long. One might argue that, because of political
the West has created an environment in which even the cultural achievements
of the followers of Islam are completely ignored. Furthermore, this form of
discrimination, and the lack of understanding it produces, affects not only
the Ta’ziyeh but is also part of a bigger problem experienced in Asian
The Ta’ziyeh and other Asian theatrical forms
have mostly been interpreted and introduced to the West by diplomats
and travellers. These were people who
were not familiar with the theatrical techniques employed in the Ta’ziyeh
and other forms of Asian theatre and saw performances from an alien cultural-political
perspective. Even if among them were those who did not wish to culturally exploit
these performances, their views remained those of antique collectors rather
than theatre scholars.
It is for this reason that most Asian performances,
including the Ta’ziyeh, have been introduced to the Western world as if they were
merely antiques, and not as the live and passionate performances that they
actually are. Due to these problems, they labelled the Ta’ziyeh “a
crude form of theatre” which failed to observe the unties of place and
These diplomats and travellers were not able to understand
that ignoring the neo-classic
unties of time and place in fact created one of the theatrical strengths
of the Ta’ziyeh as this allowed both the audience and the performers the
flexibility to move from one place or time to another. Even those few Western
such as Antonin Artaud and Bertold Brecht, who have come across these performances,
have had such little knowledge of Asian theatre that their observations have
been based on emotional and dream-like impressions rather than on scholarly
Artaud (1896-1948) after seeing only one performance
from a Balinese dance troupe
in 1931, for instance, was drawn towards ‘Oriental theatre’ and
based many of the controversial aspects of his own Theatre and Cruelty on
what he understood
from this performance. But the problem with Artaud’s theory in relation
to Asian theatre is that it not only failed to make the understanding of Asian
theatre for the West clear, it may even have made this form of theatre appear
to be even more difficult to understand than it really is.
Brecht (1898-1956) was also influenced by Asian theatre and the development
of the technique of ‘verfremdung’ or ‘estrangement’ or ‘alienation’ was
partly based on his partial understanding the acting techniques employed in a
Chinese performance (by Mei Lan Fang) which he saw in 1935 in Moscow.
Apart from Artaud and Brecht who at least alerted
the Western world to the importance of Oriental theatre the few
who have written about Asian theatre have mainly
concentrated on discussing Japanese and Chinese theatre. As a result of this
concentration on Japanese and Chinese theatre, most other forms of Asian theatre,
including the Ta’ziyeh, have been ignored.
Of those Westerners who did
show an interest in the Ta’ziyeh, two are important.
The first Westerner who paid serious attention to the Iranian religious dramas
was the Counte de Gobineau who in his book Les Religions et les philosophies
dans l’Asie Centrale (Paris, 1865), dedicated a section to the Ta’ziyeh
and introduced this form of drama to French scholars. The second was Matthew
Arnold who, in one of his lectures, Essays in Criticism (London, 1871), compared
the Ta’ziyeh to the passion plays of Middle Ages.
However, these and
other writings on the Ta’ziyeh were not written from a theatrical viewpoint
and as a result they did not attract the attention of most Western theatre
It was not until 1970 that the Ta’ziyeh became known to Western theatre
Peter Brook, after seeing a Ta’ziyeh performance in that year,
expressed his enthusiasm for the theatrical qualities of this form of drama.
Peter Brook has arguably made the greatest contribution to introducing the
as a form of theatre to Western theatre scholars and, more importantly, to
theatre performers. But somehow, despite Brook’s contribution, the West
remained largely ignorant of the Ta’ziyeh.
With this research, taking a theatrical viewpoint,
I have attempted to trace and discuss the origins and development
of the Ta’ziyeh. In addition I
have tried to provide a guide for those who wish to carry out further research
on the Ta’ziyeh in the future. With this in mind, I have included an
extensive bibliography of sources, both in Persian and English.
it has been argued, is the only form of religious drama derived from Islam.
According to the drama critics of the Arab world, no Islamic country,
with the exception of Iran, is known to have any form of Islamic-religious
drama. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, states: “The Shi’i
passion play called Ta’ziyah is the only serious drama ever developed in
the Islamic world, except for contemporary Western theatre”.
is supported by the critic M. M. Badawi who has published widely on Arab
theatre and drama. Badawi writes that the Ta’ziyeh “is virtually the sole
dramatic spectacle of a tragic nature which we encounter in the
Islamic world prior to its cultural contact with the West”.
Malekpour's The Islamic Drama is available at
from Taylor & Francis Group
Ta'ziyeh: Iran's indigenous theater
Ta'ziyeh mourning rituals
By Peter Chelkowski