Interview with Bahram Beizaie, Examination of the Roots of Theater in Ancient Iran

Nasim-e Saba Daily

Bahram Beizaie, Iranian writer and film director believes that in ancient Iran theater was quite common among the laymen, while intellectuals and men of pen paid little attention to it. Following are excerpts of his outlook on Iran's theater as expressed in an interview conducted by Nasim-e Saba daily.

Beizaie doubts that in old days the Iranian intellectuals who were also men of pen ever had any idea on theater in its real sense. They rather used to present their thoughts either as treatises and interpretations, or in poetical, literary forms as well as lectures and commandments!

In those days, plays were performed by common people, but this doesn't necessarily mean that there was no thought behind them. They used to present their thoughts as plays, which unfortunately have mostly remained traditions and nothing is known about the details. Nonetheless, we are certain that the actors were among the literate common people. There is no doubt that ancient traditions were all rooted in plays. Theater has been developed by a majority of common people. Intellectual features added to it later on account for its remarkable change. In an interview with Beizaie, the following issues were discussed: The origin of theater in ancient Iran, the link between narration and writing play-scripts, passion plays and dramatization as well as women's participation in theater.

Q: Were there any traditions in ancient Iran rooted in theater?

A: All religious cults are somehow rooted in theater. In some cases, theatrical origins overshadow such cults and manifest their features independently. That's how theater was actually developed and various plays were gradually created. In some countries such as Greece, the trend is quite different and they eventually appear as written plays or silent non-literary theater.
Contrary to Greece, in India theater has been developed from religious cults, while the religions practiced in India are quite different from those common to Greeks. All of the religions practiced in India are marked by their own particular cults, while their definition is quite different from that applying to what is today called religion. The primary religions mainly focused on worshipping the virtuous natural forces and eliminating its vicious elements. Their main objective was to suppress the vicious elements.
They create the traditions and religions later become dependent on them. Obviously, the traditions in real life gradually provide the grounds for formation of theater as a combination of traditions with words and performances. Through time they withdraw from religion, while some of them continue to be religious to the end. The typical Indian plays are still known to us. Meanwhile, they are normally classified as non-written or non-literary traditions, such as Bharatanatyam which manifests the tradition of worshiping the world. Despite being quite exquisite, such plays are based on no written scripts and the accompanied recitations have no remarkable literary value. What is significant here is the performance. At the same time, written literary theater was developed in Greece. Similar to other countries, there were some people living in Iran who experienced the same panics and appreciation for the vicious and virtuous natural forces. Thus, such traditions have also been usually practiced in Iran.

Q: Despite monotheist cults practiced in Iran and their conflict with theatrical forms, have the traditional plays originating from them been attractive?

A: Monotheist cults have not always been common in Iran, but it is quite true that such cults interfere with the believers' wide range of imagination and blocks their visualization of the Universe, eternity and many other concepts. The absence of a god, ban of sculpturing, banishing illustration, and theatrical imitation are samples of such practices.
That's how this type of performance was developed where it is possible to dramatize such traditions by incorporating gestures such as weeping into them. They are eventually developed into licensed plays, which may not be acceptable to everyone. However, little information is available on the plays performed in ancient Iran, except that forms of theatrical traditions were common in that period.
Though no precise information is available in this respect, but given that such traditions have gone through changes rather than completely disappearing and some have even survived up to the present day, it is possible to identify them.

Q: Given that our plays mostly concentrate on narrations that were quite common in theatrical tradition, which is in itself owing to oral literature, the main question is whether our plays mostly concentrate on words or theatrical gestures?

A: Narration does not owe itself to the oral literature, but rather serves as its origin. Anyone narrating a story for someone else is actually creating part of the oral literature. Thus narration is equivalent to oral literature and expression of words! Meanwhile, traditions are mostly visual and illustrative. In most traditions, it may have been necessary to read some texts as well that is the first-hand cults.
As is usual to read out a letter of imprecation before starting the traditional carpet-cleaning process in Mashhad-e Ardehal. Nonetheless, I believe that the carpet-cleaning process is actually the main tradition and the oral parts are secondary in importance. Similar to Indian theater, where as the most significant Indian dance -- Bharatanatyam -- is performed, the narrations determine its rhythm and the trend of worship. The performance of the dance is the main appeal about it and it has no literary value. The same trend was common in ancient Iran.

Q: Are the sterilized gestures usually observed in your plays, specially the episodes pertaining to the death of Yazdgerd and the first episode of the "One Thousand and One Nights", based on the performance style of the ancient era or is it simply your way of expressing the major actions reminiscent of those days?

A: Either one might be true. In the first place, I incorporated some of the guises to the major actions and in arranging the mise-en-scenes I had such plays in mind. On the other hand, there is no tradition not featured by its own particular selected gestures. Otherwise, they would have never left behind any trace.
In the everyday life one has to run around, while when it comes to traditions, gestures are chosen and even running is displayed. Here, one may either display the act of running explicitly or represent running a long distance just by taking four strides. That's why we have to choose specific movements or change them in such a way that they will be more expressive. Theater is one thing, while life has a quite different face. Theater is based on real life without being exactly like it. It rather squeezes a lot of concepts and meanings into a concise form so that they might be displayed in a short period of time.
Q: Did the masks used in traditional plays have a symbolic and theatrical role or was the application merely religious?

A: Given that the two concepts you mentioned cannot be in conflict, they cannot be taken as two separate options. Thus they could have either application at various occasions. Since religious and theatrical applications are basically inseparable, the traditional expression of cults constitutes the content of passion plays.
Therefore, at times it is impossible to differentiate between the two. In fact, we are unaware whether masks were used in theater in ancient Iran! The limited number of masks currently used in passion plays is so small that it is impossible to confirm whether they were used in theater. Nevertheless, there are a few with holes which show that they could be used as masks. The old masks were either sewn on fabric or carved into wood. They might even have painted golden faces on statues to represent the king or god.
They might even have had various other applications which are unknown to us. Thus, if all of the inherited ancient masks are collected and passed on to researchers specialized in theater; they might manage to decipher their various applications. If they were given to me along with the knowledge on their antiquity and the place where they were unearthed, I would have been glad to conduct such a research.
Nevertheless, once as I attempted to look for them, no one could provide me with any precise knowledge about them. In fact, it was quite obvious that they were obtained through illegal excavations. Most of such objects are usually sold prior to being discovered. About 10-12 pieces of the unearthed masks were too small to fit the face.

Q: Are passion play and its dramatization complementary to Iran's theatrical culture of the post-Islamic era?

A: Given that we are familiar with the styles from which passion plays were derived, their narrative features are quite clear. So do we know the elements taken from mourning groups observing the mournful occasions as well as those associated with the commemoration of martyrdoms and the requiems related to Siyavash. Thus, it might be said that a social requirement in a special period led the diverse forms of mournful manifestations eventually turn out as passion plays, while traces of their original forms may have been included as well. Pure narration may still be practiced, though at a glimpse it may seem to have disappeared. This is despite the fact that it is still part of the passion plays. Likewise, despite the fact that traditions such as commemoration of martyrdoms or requiems on Siyavash may have been totally stopped, they are still partially included in passion plays.

Q: Is there any passion played called "Siyavash"?

A: For a while, a search for such a script, quite likely to exit, was launched, given that "Suvashun" was one of the ancient traditions we are familiar with. One and a half page in Ms. Daneshvar's book is dedicated to it. Nonetheless, I never managed to find such a script. Narration of Siyavash comprises of a significant part of passion play and its most obvious trace pertains the mourning of the people of Bukhara over the death of Siyavash, which is rooted in legend and continues as reality. According to Abol-Hassan Neishabouri's "History of Bukhara" quoting Khazayen al-Olum, the people of Bukhara mourned over the killing of Siyavash. Musicians have been writing requiems and narrators have referred to the incident as the cry of Zoroastrian priests for the past three millennia. In another chapter of the book, Khazayen al-Olum has referred to the city of Bukhara and Kei-Khosrow's fight with Afrasyab to take revenge on Siyavash. He added, "The requiem of the people of Bukhara over the killing of Siyavash as a revenge on his blood is marvelous and Mohmamad ibn-e Jafar has said that around 3,000 years is past the incident. God knows better."
They might have displayed painted drapes during such ceremonies or performed the scene of Siyavash's bloodshed along with the requiems written on the occasion in accompaniment to music. One of them called "Revenge on Siyavash" has survived to the present day through several centuries, so that Nezami Ganjavi made reference to it under the reign of Khosrow Parviz while he was recounting Barbod's 30 tunes.

Q: Certain locations have occasionally been allocated to the performance of passion plays in the course of history. Were there such places in the ancient Iran?

A: In the Middle Ages, every church or any place where people often used to gather, including the bazaars, automatically were used to the purpose. In ancient Iran, passion plays, specially those purely religious, were usually performed in the city squares, in front of the mosques or in their backyards. The squares were mostly used for performance of cheerful plays, puppet shows and other types of performances. Though squares were not basically constructed for such an application, they were used to this end mainly because passion plays had to be performed somewhere.

Q: Thus, those involved in performing such plays were simply common people and not intellectuals. Am I right?

A: Isn't it possible for common people to be intellectuals?

Q: What I mean by intellectuals is men of pen.

A: The strange thing about common people in ancient Iran is that they were gifted with the ability to compose poems without known to read and write. They even knew the contents of written interpretations by heart. Some of the narrators even recorded the scripts of what they narrated, such as Darab-Nameh, Smak Ayar, etc., which were not actually written by scholars. They rather belong to narrators and are now taken as literary works. Such written scripts are rather narrative, not intellectual. Nevertheless, they have been based on intellect. The scripts written by common people are not necessarily short of speculation. In fact, many of the available written works seem to me as quite common. The same thoughts have been repeated on and on for several centuries without any new ideas being incorporated into them.

Q: Did women play in the outdoor plays performed in squares?

A: No, with the possible exception of particular women who seldom performed as an actress or dancer mostly when orchestras moved around. In other plays, women were present only in the background and as the family and household of puppeteers or artists. Most of the Iranian plays were performed quite simply and by a few artists, while narrators used to move around by themselves. So did the puppeteers! They scarcely ever migrated with their families. Nonetheless, in stopovers, women were present as dancers, specially the nomads who had more freedom. They even spread carpets in the city squares, played music and danced and were paid. There are some photos showing women's orchestras.

Q: Thus women should have been playing in theater ever since the Qajar era?

A: No! During the reign of Safavids, women used to play music in court orchestras, while others had formed women's theatrical groups.
One of the images depicted on the front cover of one of my books called "My House Drape" shows a group of women of Baisonqor era, about nine centuries ago! However, in those days, it was not common for an actor and actress to appear face to face either as antagonists or protagonists. Women rather acted in the plays performed exclusively by women or in women's mourning ceremonies. They also accompanied men's orchestras as dancers.

Q: Did the Arabs arrival in Iran put an end to the performance of plays?

A: Their arrival affected it to a great degree! Nonetheless, every theatrical style ended up being practiced somewhere else. However, they lost their points of strength. Just pale traces of such initial theatrical styles can be observed in the literary texts of the period. The water-splashing ceremony commonly observed under the reign of Shah Abbas Safavid was held in some locations such as Kashan Bazaar, where some 50 years ago the coppersmiths used to splash water at one another. The reason for the tradition is still unknown. But it seems to be a variation of an old ambiguous and outdated tradition. No budget has ever been allocated to research on such issues. I myself continued my studies in this respect for a while. However, given that I ended up on the verge of bankruptcy, I had to quit. In general, research on such themes is quite costly and difficult.
I presume that no tradition did ever become completely outdated, but the natural trend of their growth was rather blocked and they became limited.

Q: Are comic passion plays rooted in traditional plays such as Rou-Hosi and Siyah-Bazi?

A: Comic passion plays were developed in response to the spectators' requirements. Man can hardly put up with so much pain and suffering. At some point, he would rather need to laugh. The same applies to actual mourning ceremonies, where at times the mourners burst into laughter.
There is a point where suffering is overlooked and this is true about all the world tragedies. Besides the Greek tragedies, there are satires and comics. Similarly in addition to our passion plays, there are comic passion plays. This is mainly so because man cannot put up with being sad for several days in a row. One is rather inclined to express his/her inner feelings. That's the time when comedy steps in. This is the basic need of the human nature.

Q: Doesn't its structure differ from other types of passion plays?

A: It is much simpler and lighter in structure. Exaggeration in all dimensions is the basic cornerstone to comic passion plays. Nonetheless, exaggeration was mainly displayed in the performance rather than the script of such plays. The scripts rather focused on some sacred Shi'ite figure and the humor of the opponents, who occasionally ended up converting into Islam once they witnessed a miracle.
The irrelevant and humorous hailing of the verses written by the past poets was among the comic elements of such plays. Thus, the verses were actually satirical. In comic passion plays, the devil, who was attired in a colorful patchwork robe and held a crooked stick in his hand, was one of the permanent narrators. Meanwhile, his unexpected leaps and bounds and horrible croak-like voice were funny instead of being dreadful. In fact, the contradiction of his rigid masked face and his moving body mainly accounted for his looking funny. Besides the epic music accompanying the show was another element which sounded funny the moment it was played. Comic passion plays were performed in the common locations during the religious festivals, Fridays and the holy lunar months of Muharram and Safar, except five days before Ashura. The show started with a major episode. The main point to be noticed is that the performances similar to passion plays were rooted in the ancient Iranian traditions. Associated with fertility. Such traditions consist of cultivation as a representation of burial and growing which provides an occasion for celebration and happiness. The comic dramatization of passion plays is based on rituals associated with fertility.

Q: As a last question, would you tell us how old is the traditional comic play?

A: What is still being performed in the contemporary era in a modern style dates back to the reign of Qajar dynasty. There is, however, some evidence that in earlier periods, small moving theatrical groups used to perform similar shows at squares.

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