A Centrury-Old Theater;An Interview with Hamid Amjad

Hayate Nou, Daily Newspaper
No. 696, Sep. 3rd, 2002
By: Pouya Lotfiyan

Iranian contemporary theater director, writer and researcher, Hamid Amjad, believes that the measures taken by the prominent Iranian theatrical personalities in the 80s to create a state theater has been oriented towards activating Iran's theater and creating plays in compliance with Iran's culture. The general belief that the value of a cultural work merely depends upon its being impressed by the prevailing political atmosphere and making use of symbolic signs rather than direct reference to the nation's political elements should be changed. As a matter of fact, such beliefs manifest the obsolete outlook prevailing Iran's middle-class (and lower classes) intellectuals of the 60s.

Iran's theater of the 14th century, along with all other cultural issues, such as the press, books, cinema, ... etc. have crept upon the waves shaped up as a consequence of the prevailing political and social circumstances. Despite the fact that the cultural terror of the cultural personalities and intellectuals under the rule of Reza Khan, the presence of the allied forces and the open political atmosphere created after September 1941, the coup d'etat of Aug 19, 1953, ... etc. slackened the national, independent and original Iranian theater. Nonetheless, the attempt of the intellectuals and prominent authorities of Iran's theater in the past decades oriented towards creating a national and independent theater is a symbol of growing development and the dynamism of theater in our homeland.
An interview with Hamid Amjad, the contemporary theater director, writer and researcher is aimed at reviewing part of Iran's history of theater besides surveying Iran's intellectual theater in the 60s, "Oskou'i Theater" and "Shahr-e Qesseh Theater Group".

Q: The theater of our homeland has been subject to big challenges as well as ups and downs through 40s and 50s. Meanwhile, it seems that the role of the Aug 19, 1953 coup d'etat has had a decisive role in the developments in Iran's theater after the 50s. Its effect in obstructing many independent theatrical movements in Iran is undeniable. What is your opinion in this respect?

A: Let me say, first of all, that in general our public opinion and in particular theatrical analysis, recording its history and intellectualism has had a downward trend. Besides satisfaction with undefined expressions and brand names, which are used as a habit has been quite common, without having either reached any agreement on defining them or having thought about their meaning and definition. Meanwhile the atmosphere prevailing our theater is full of undefined cliches such as an independent theater, a dependent theater, a challenging theater, a national theater, a global theater,... etc. Being satisfied with such cliches has contributed to neutralizing our discussions and criticism in the recent years and interferes with true and precise analysis. Thus I would like to propose, first of all, to define merely the expressions which are under discussion rather than reducing the whole issue to such expressions. For instance, it should first be clarified "What is an independent theater?" or "What is the definition of theatrical independence?".

Q: The financial independence of theatrical actors from state budget is what is mainly in view, since that mainly accounts for their dependence and being under supervision. One such instance is Bijan Mofid and his "Atelier du Theatre" where "Shahr-e Qesseh" was performed. Then he was summoned by the state agents. In the beginning he resisted and refrained from responding to their call and appear at the "Theater Workshop". However, eventually he gave up and became dependent upon the state budget. Bijan, who was not interested in cooperating with Arbi Avanesiyan, was even witnessed to appear in one of his plays in 2-3 years. Moreover, "Atelier du Theatre" was replaced by "Theater Workshop".

A: I have heard the same story. Nonetheless, the available historical documents show that "Atelier du Theatre" was the name of a theatrical group, whose members besides Bijan Mofid and Mahmoud Ostad Mohammad have neither played in any other play before "Shahr-e Qesseh", nor after it. They were rather Bijan's friends and acquaintances living in his neighborhood. The group was dissolved once they performed the said play. Besides Bijan Mofid, who joined the "Theater Workshop", Ostad Mohammad and Soheil Souzani - who later joined "Theater Workshop" - performed Jean Gene's "Nezarat-e Aliye" (Excellent Supervision) in the Iran America Society by mid-spring 1969. The text of the play was then printed by the "Theater Workshop" as one of its theatrical productions. If Bijan Mofid was not interested in joining the "Theater Workshop" why did he alone leave the "Atelier du Theatre" among others to work with it forever? What evidence is available that he was disinterested in working with Arbi Avanesiyan? After all, what was Arbi Avanesiyan's background at the time and where had he come from?

Q: "Atelier du Theatre" is said to have been closed and "Shahr-e Qesseh" was banned due to SAVAK's (Information and Security Organization) harsh approach. Even its conversion into "Theater Workshop" is rooted in such events. How would you analyze the two events?

A: If "Shar-e Qesseh" was banned by SAVAK, why was it awarded? Besides it was published and performed repeatedly, while it enjoyed wide television broadcasting and the constant cassette distribution. Its director was even officially praised and sponsored. Such comments reflect the obsolete intellectual beliefs of the middle-class and lower class in the 60s, who presumed that everything might be of cultural value merely by being or pretending to be political and opposing to SAVAK! It should be admitted, however, that if such a harsh approach was performed by SAVAK even under that government, there were more culturally-oriented authorities enjoying sufficient authority to oppose SAVAK. Thus why not attribute the establishment of "Theatrical Workshop" and sponsoring Bijan Mofid to those authorities? Besides why should we think that making use of the state budget by the artists would mean that they have sold themselves? The governments are actually required to pay cultural subsidies. This has been quite common worldwide. The problem in those days was that budgets were allocated to almost anything, except to the cultural affairs. Isn't it true that today various artistic and theatrical groups make use of the state budgets?
What kind of logic is it to consider "a hungry artist" as "an artist of merit"? The essence of allocating budgets and cultural subsidies by the governments is not condemned and doesn't necessarily mean that the artists are dependent upon governments. What should be condemned is that the state sponsorship doesn't cover all artists and that a lot of discrimination is observed in the process. It is actually the discrimination which should be condemned rather than the sponsorship itself.

Q: The government had earlier approached the independent Lalehzar Theater, which had been established before the Aug 9, 1953 coup d'etat and the state 25th-Shahrivar Theater (currently Sanglaj) erected in the 60s as well as the "City Theater" with the intention to ban their activity!

A: Lalehzar Theater was quite active in the 40s and the beginning of the 50s, when great artists such as Abdol-Hossein Noshing were active. It should, however, be noted that there is a 12-year gap between the Aug 19, 1953 coup d'etat and the implementation of the state-run 25th-Shahrivar Hall (Sanglaj), when the Lalehzar Theater was reduced to trivial attractions performed along with dances, songs, juggling and summersaults, which could only be opposed merely by making investment in a state theater. In practice, once Sa'di Theater was set ablaze on Aug 19 and Noshing ran away along with his colleagues, who were mostly either members of the Toudeh Party or had staged politically-oriented plays under the open political atmosphere prevailing the country during the rule of Mosaddeq (the prime minister) and in line with the public political thirst, prior to the coup d'etat. In order to make up for the considerable drop in the number of spectators, which was effected in view of the public despair and leaving aside theater on behalf of a great number of actors, "Tehran Theater" and later "Pars Theater" became resorted to commonplace and cheap entertainment. Thus the commonplace theatrical shows attracted the bulk of the public to Lalehzar theaters and lead Iran's theatrical community, even "Barbod Theatrical Association" to follow the same policy in order to survive. As a matter of fact, nothing was left from what was known earlier as "Lalehzar Theater" and nothing worthwhile was ever performed which could be better than the plays presented at the state theatrical halls.

Q: It is said that the 25th-Shahrivar (Sanglaj) Theater was established by Farah Diba in order to curb the theatrical activity of the time. Don't you think that such a measure taken by her, which inflicted a great blow on the independent theater of the 60s, was aimed at taking charge of it?

A: After all, Farah had the authority to take charge of everything she wished, not to mention the Lalehzar Theater! Any way, many available documents prove that the idea of the establishment of a state-sponsored theater was first proposed at the meetings held by a great number of Iran's leading theatrical experts such as Nassiriyan, Javanmard and others, who had a remarkable say in this cultural measure. They are, fortunately, still present and may be called upon to explain the process. Nassiriyan has much to say about the formation of state theater. Even, according to Bahram Beyza'i, the idea of holding theater festivals in Iran was proposed in one of such meetings and the Persian equivalent of the word "Festival", namely "Jashnvareh", was initiated by Nassiriyan. If the formation of state theater, attraction of investment and setting up theater halls may be considered as a treachery, we might have to admit that all the leading actors and theatrical authorities who had an active part in the newly-established state hall, were constantly investigated for the sake of their performances by the state authorities and attempted to make theatrical plays with particular connotations and a type of symbolic expression, then such actors as Sa'edi, Jafar Vali, Akbar Radi, Bahram Beyza'i, etc... would have been known as traitors, who have taken measures against Iran's theater!! I presume that the outcome of those extremist comments and common yet undefined interpretations is to end up with such a paradox. As a matter of fact, the attempts to orient part of the national assets - with which the government is entrusted, but belongs to the entire nation - to a fruitful end in order to create theatrical pieces in harmony with Iranian culture and to prepare proper grounds to address the audience after a twelve-year theatrical standstill - and even serve as a hub of political dissidents, such as Sa'edi, Yelfani, Vali and others - isn't treachery.

Q: On the contrary, however, in the outset of 60s, according to Mostafa Oskouie (holder of PhD), the main goal set by Anahita Theater was to present a clear example of independent and political theater of its time without relying on state budgets.

A: Let me make a comment on Oskouie's performances being political and simply say that getting involved in politics is quite different from making claims - in a book written on the history of theater years later, even in another era - that everyone has compromised. However, we have been oriented towards politics and forerunners of a challenging theater!! As concerning financial independence, I should remind you that "Anahita Theater" had received financial aid from the governments of their time on several occasions, one of which was a credit worth 800,000 rials extended in 1962 on the pretext of building a theater hall, which was never materialized.

Q: It seems that concurrent to the dissolution of Toudeh Party, revival of the Bolshevik Theater by Oskouie, which was quite a risk, should have been a worthwhile experience under the prevailing circumstances. What is your understanding on the issue?

A: First of all, I should ask, "What do you mean by the Bolshevik Theater?" When and where has he staged such a performance? The performance of such pieces as "The Wedding of Figaro", "The Barber of Seville" and "Othello" are not political and Bolshevik theater. Even if we suppose that Oskouie had performed Bolshevik theater, what would be its significance? As a matter of fact, we have been involved with the very same political outlook and we still presume that the value of any artwork is manifested in the light of its political content or its being banned. Over the past two decades, such a political outlook has blocked the flourishment of creativity among artists. As a consequence, their talents have been suppressed and the evaluation criteria have been overcome by a number of brand names and slogans. In practice, the same political outlook prevailed Sanglaj Theater a great part of the blooming theatrical movement of Iran in the 60s, which should be surveyed again under the light of the pathology of Iran's theater of the 60s. Politics is not exclusive to anyone and no one can ban artists from tackling politics as part of human problems, which might affect their destiny. Nonetheless, giving too much significance to it and having one's mind obsessed with it so that the artist would not express himself/hereself save by a symbolic and mystic language which might lead to a special repetitive symbolism - in which every word would bear a conceptual meaning rather than its original one, as referring to a particular political idea - its negative impression on the artist will be similar to that witnessed in case of Gholam-Hossein Sa'edi - at least in a great part of his artworks). Everyone is aware that SAVAK was quite sensitive to Sa'edi's performances staged at "Sanglaj Theater". However, a great number of the audience attending his performances were attracted to them merely to whisper the definition of the political symbolism of the observed plays to one another and to say, for instance that in such an act the appearance of a boar represented either SAVAK or the Shah.

The conflict between the intellectualism of the 60s and a monster known as SAVAK gradually lead to the unconsciously increasing involvement of the theater in the intellectual tension and controversies. Thus the energy of those involved in theater was mostly consumed in the conflict with SAVAK rather than cultural and aesthetic creativity, which could have, otherwise, been oriented more freely towards making a better judgment on politics, if it were not confronted with politico-maniac concerns. This ended up in the appearance of a compulsory and imposed symbolism. Nonetheless, a dedicated artist of worthwhile expertise such as Sa'edi in practice found himself dealing with the censorship of SAVAK's supervisory department, rather than confronting a never-ending breadth of human problems with which every artist is faced! If Sa'edi and his contemporaries had the opportunity to use their creativity, free from the worries of the prevailing suppression, their potentials would have flourished more widely. They could have come up with more diverse means of expression, rather than being limited within the tight framework of political symbolic conventions. Under such limited circumstances, the performer, the spectators and even the official in charge of censorship or the SAVAK agent supervising the entire process are all defined in a single cultural context and may not be distinguished from one another.

Under such conditions, one (Sa'di) would have no meaning without the other (SAVAK), while both would be senseless without considering the then prevailing politicized atmosphere and its spectators.

Such an unhealthy relationship is the joint consequence of the political suppression and the frivolity of politico-mania, one having the spectator and the censorship supervisor equally in its grip. That's why once everything collapsed, the prevailing theater and intellectual process of those days actually lost its meaning.

Just imagine a cafe in Paris twenty years ago, (just the beginning of revolution) where a number of Iranian dissidents are seen sitting around. A view at a table standing at a semi-dark corner with three individuals sitting at it, who having lost their touch with their previous life style, are subjugated to depression and nihilistic attitudes; will reveal their tendency towards gradual commitment of suicide. One is Gholam-Reza Sa'edi, the favorite leftist intellectual. The other one is Bijan Mofidi, the favorite rightist intellectual, whose relationship with Sa'edi should have been estranged much earlier. The other figure accompanying them could be the same SAVAK agent who had been supervising both of them. Under the current circumstances, he likewise cannot go on living the same way as he used to. All three have been involved in a single process and once the balance was lost neither could go on, irrespective of their positive or negative role.

Front Page