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Serious drama
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

Described 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 Malekpour.

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.

The Ta’ziyeh 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.

From 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 motives, the West has created an environment in which even the cultural achievements of the followers of Islam are completely ignored. Furthermore, this form of cultural 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 theatre.

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 time.

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 theatre specialists, 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 evidence.

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.

Similarly, Bertold 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 specialists. It was not until 1970 that the Ta’ziyeh became known to Western theatre scholars.

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 Ta’ziyeh 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.

The Ta’ziyeh, 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”.

This claim 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”.

Jamshid Malekpour's The Islamic Drama is available at from Taylor & Francis Group

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