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Time Out of Memory: Ta'ziyeh, the Total Drama

by Peter Chelkowski
Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
New York University

The dramatic form known as the passion play is often associated exclusively with Western, and specifically, Christian theatrical tradition. One of the most highly developed and powerful examples of this genre is, in fact, the ta'ziyeh -- the passion play of the Shiite Muslims performed in Iran -- which recounts the tragedy of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. It is the only serious drama ever developed in the Islamic world, except for contemporary theater, which was introduced into Islamic countries along with other Western influences in the mid-19th century. In an extraordinary development, this summer's Lincoln Center Festival 2002, will include a ta'ziyeh, performed in July by Iran's foremost actors. The production will be staged for only the third time in the West, after receiving critical acclaim and playing to packed houses in Paris, France and Parma, Italy.

The tragedy reenacts the death of Hussein and his male children and companions in a brutal massacre on the plain of Karbala, (about 60 miles south of modern day Baghdad), in the year 680 AD. Hussein's murder was the outcome of a protracted power struggle for control of the nascent Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Two factions arose with competing views on the leadership selection process for the head of the community, or caliph. The Sunnis believed that the caliph should be elected according to ancient Arabian tradition, while the Shiites advocated that the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad possessed a divine right to authority in both spiritual and temporal matters. Hussein became the head of the Shiites after religio-political opponents assassinated his father and elder brother. His refusal to swear allegiance to Yazid, the Sunni caliph in Damascus, made it necessary for Hussein to seek refuge in Mecca. Eventually with his family and a group of supporters, he set out for Kufa, a city where he had numerous partisans.

On the journey to Kufa, Hussein and his party were ambushed by Yazid's troops and forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the Sunni leader as the price of their freedom. Tradition has it that this took place on the first day of the month of Muharram. For ten days, Hussein's company was cut off from water in the scorching desert of Karbala. Despite the knowledge that his supporters in Kufa had abandoned him after being terrorized by Yazid's army, Hussein refused to take the oath. On the tenth day, after an intense battle, all the male members but one of Hussein's party were savagely killed. Their heads were cut off and taken as trophies to Yazid in Damascus, while the female members of the party were taken hostage. The battle at Karbala and its aftermath precipitated the definitive schism of the Sunni and Shiite Islamic branches.

The slaughter at Karbala came to be considered by the Shiites as the ultimate example of sacrifice, the pinnacle of human suffering. The month of Muharram became the month of mourning, when Shiites all over the world commemorate Hussein's sacrifice in stationary and ambulatory rituals of unequaled intensity. It was from these ritual observances that ta'ziyeh, which literally means to mourn or to console, arose as a dramatic form. Once Shiite Islam was officially recognized as Iran's state religion in the sixteenth century, royal patronage ensured that the Muharram festival observances would assume a central position in the cultural and religious identity of the country, and the festival became a unifying force for the nation. When the stationary and ambulatory aspects of the ritual merged in the mid-18th century, ta'ziyeh was born as a distinct type of music drama.

Like Western passion plays, ta'ziyeh dramas were originally performed outdoors at crossroads and other public places where large audiences could gather. Performances later took place in the courtyards of inns and private homes, but eventually unique structures called takiyeh or Husseinyeh were constructed by individual towns for staging of the plays. Community cooperation was encouraged in the building and decoration of the takiyeh whether the funds for the enterprise were provided by a wealthy, public-minded benefactor or by contributions from the citizens of a particular district. The takiyeh varied in seating capacity from intimate structures able to accommodate a few dozen people to large buildings capable of holding 1000 spectators or more. Often the takiyeh were temporary, erected especially for the observance of the Muharram festival. During the festival period, the takiyeh were lavishly decorated with the prized personal possessions of the local community. Refreshments were prepared by women and served to the spectators by the children of well-to-do families. Takiyeh Dawlat, the Royal Theater in Tehran, was the most famous of all the ta'ziyeh performance spaces. Built in the 1870s by Nasir al-Din Shah, the Royal Theater's sumptuous magnificence surpassed that of Europe's greatest opera houses in the opinion of many Western visitors.

In contrast to the richness of the theater decoration, ta'ziyeh stage décor and props are quite stark. All takiyeh, regardless of their size, are constructed as theaters-in-the-round to intensify the dynamic between actors and audience: the spectators are literally surrounded by the action and often become physical participants in the play, (in unwalled takiyeh, it is not unusual for combat scenes to occur behind the audience).

The main drama occurs on a raised, curtainless platform in the center of a building or courtyard. Subplots and battles take place in a sand-covered, circular band of space around the stage. Actors frequently jump off the stage into this space to mark the passage of time or a journey, and scene changes are indicated when a performer circles the platform. If there are auxiliary stages that extend into the audience, they serve as settings for scenes of special significance. Corridors running from the stage through the seating area serve as passageways for troops, messengers, and animals. The starkness of the stage represents the barrenness of the desert plain at Karbala. Props are few and largely symbolic: the Euphrates River is denoted by a basin of water; a tree branch indicates a grove of palms. More utilitarian props such as chairs or bedding and cooking utensils are carried onstage by the actors or even by members of the audience.

Costumes are also meant to be representational. Although fabulously elegant stage attire was common at the Royal Ta'ziyeh Theater during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah, there was no attempt to make the actors' garments historically accurate. The main goal of costume design was to help the spectators identify a character and his nature by his clothing. This practice has continued over time with certain characters adopting the prevailing fashions of the day for their particular roles. Thus, an actor in Nasir al-Din Shah's era playing a Western ambassador wore a frock coat -- the standard diplomatic outfit of the 19th century; since World War II, the same ambassador may be depicted wearing a British military uniform. Performers in women's parts wear baggy black garments which cover them from head to toe. Since female roles are played by men, the voluminous robes and veils also provide concealment. Additional clues to a character's identity can be discerned through various accessories: sometimes a learned man wears reading glasses, while a villain appears in sunglasses, (reflecting perhaps the worldwide influence of American gangster films). Color symbolism further helps the audience to recognize different dramatic personalities and situations. When a white cloth is put on a protagonist's shoulders or he dons a white shirt, it is understood that the white symbolizes a shroud and he will soon sacrifice his life and be killed.

An even more obvious indication of a character's disposition is found in the way that he delivers his dialogue. In the ta'ziyeh, protagonists sing their parts and antagonists recite theirs. Dressed in red to symbolize blood and oppression, the villains often purposely overact by shrieking their lines in harsh unpleasant voices. By contrast, the heroes sing their parts in the classical Persian modes and clothe themselves in the green color of the garden paradise. Traditionally, actors were chosen for their physical attributes. Protagonists playing Hussein for example, were expected to be tall with broad shoulders and fine beards. This could and did cause casting problems, however, since a fine singing voice was necessary to complement the pleasing physique of a hero. Young boys with good vocal skills who began by playing girl's roles in the ta'ziyeh, often assumed the parts of young men after their voices changed. If a young actor did not attain the stature deemed compatible with a heroic part or if his voice retained a feminine quality, he would continue to play female characters.

Singers are accompanied by a variety of drums, trumpets, flutes, and cymbals. An orchestra can be quite substantial or consist of just a few musicians depending on the financial resources or theatrical experience of the troupe. Drum music announces that the drama is about to begin. It may be repeated several times, particularly if the audience needs more time to assemble. Once the spectators have gathered, a fanfare is played while the actors file into the performance area in procession. This is followed by a short overture which sets the mood for the play about to be performed. The drama opens with the pish-khani, or prologue, which presents a summary of the plot sung by the chorus. During the pish-khani, everybody sings, including the antagonists. Usually the chorus gathers in the main performance space, but it occasionally divides into two groups on either side of this area and sings alternate lines in antiphony ("call and response"). Throughout the play, programmatic instrumental music alternates with singing. These musical intervals set a mood or advance the action by indicating the passage of time. They also serve to cue a singer by establishing the particular dastgah, or mode, in which he is about to perform. He will then sing the scene a Capella.

According to many scholars of music, it is thanks to the ta'ziyeh that much of the classical Persian repertoire has survived. But just as Western influences are evident in ta'ziyeh costumes, they are also prominent in the musical elements of the drama. During the zenith of the ta'ziyeh in the latter part of the 19th century, the first Polytechnic College, Darul-funun, was founded in Iran and staffed by foreign instructors. The curriculum consisted largely of military subjects, including band music. Eventually, quite a number of these marches found their way into the repertory of the takiyeh theaters.

It is the responsibility of the ta'ziyeh director to supervise the music and assemble an orchestra. In addition, he acts as the producer, stage manager, prompter, PR man, and financial director. He is truly a "Renaissance man" of the theater, supervising not only the drama itself, but also making the necessary arrangements with the local authorities and accounting for the financial returns. Always onstage during a performance, the director makes sure that the production runs smoothly and oversees the interaction of actors, musicians, and audience. His ubiquitous presence is not distracting to the spectators as he is seen as an integral part of the ta'ziyeh drama. In his role as prompter, he cues actors and helps children and inexperienced players with their lines. In the past, actors used to read their lines from crib sheets held in their palms, indicating that they were merely role-carriers with no personal connections to the characters they portrayed. Today most performers learn their roles by heart (if they don't, they refrain from conspicuously referring to their notes). While traditionally, the director was responsible for eliciting strong emotions of grief and sadness from the audience by the manner in which the production was staged, it is today more incumbent on the actors to provide a cathartic experience for the spectators. Influenced heavily by the realistic acting of modern film and television, ta'ziyeh actors no longer distance themselves from the characters that they are playing, but throw themselves wholeheartedly into their roles. Often the performers identify so strongly with their parts that they are swept away by their situations. In turn, the audience is caught up in an atmosphere of potent and sincere emotions.

The plays devoted to the tragedy at Karbala and its surrounding events form the core of the ta'ziyeh repertory. Although the massacre of Hussein and his followers historically took place in one day on the tenth of Muharram, the battle is divided into many different episodes performed on separate days. The only fixed day and play in the Muharram repertory is the martyrdom of Hussein on the tenth, or Ashura; others can be performed in varying sequence. Usually, the cycle begins on the first day of Muharram with a play commemorating the death of Hussein's emissary to Kufa, Muslim b. Akil. This is followed by a daily progression of plays, each devoted to the martyrdom of various members of Hussein's family or his companions. In these dramas, a hero takes on the entire enemy force unassisted while the remaining protagonists gather on the central stage to reflect on their fate and deliver comments of philosophical and religious nature. Each play contributes to the gradually increasing emotional build-up anticipating the supreme sacrifice of Hussein, the "Prince of Martyrs." Hussein's death does not always conclude the essential ta'ziyeh repertory. Performances may continue after Ashura to depict the sorrowful destiny of the female members of Hussein's family who were taken as captives to Damascus.

New plays that depicted the sacrifices of Shiite martyrs before and after Karbala were added to the ta'ziyeh fold over time. Based on the Koran, hadith, legends, and current events, these productions provided an excuse to extend ta'ziyeh dramas throughout the year. Even these non-Muharram plays, however, retain a connection to the tragedy at Karbala through a dramatic device known as guriz, or digression. Within a particular play, the guriz may be a direct verbal reference to Hussein's martyrdom or a brief scene depicting an aspect of his tragedy, or both. Through the guriz, all ta'ziyeh drama expands beyond spatial and time constraints to merge the past and present into one unifying moment of intensity which allows the spectators to be simultaneously in the performance space and at Karbala.

The number of ta'ziyeh works is vast with new productions and local variations of established dramas constantly being added to the canon. The Cerulli collection at the Vatican Library contains over 1055 ta'ziyeh manuscripts. It is important to note that ta'ziyeh scripts are rarely intended for reading, but solely for performing. Each part is written out on loose narrow sheets of paper which the actor can hold in the palm of his hand. The theatrical context of the script, in conjunction with setting, costumes, action, and musical and verbal elements, provides a standard for judging its value.

There is an amateur Muharram ta'ziyeh tradition which exists alongside that of the professional ta'ziyeh dramatic companies. Typically, a production of this kind is organized by a former professional ta'ziyeh actor who brings together the residents of a district to perform for purely religious reasons. The dramatization of the death of Hussein gives the participants an opportunity to exhibit their own sorrows and desires as an expression of their faith within an archetypal setting. Professional ta'ziyeh productions today are usually commercial enterprises -- fundamental social and political changes in Iran during the 20th century abolished the practice of artistic patronage on the individual and communal level that had flourished in the past. In the 1930s, restrictions imposed by the government forced ta'ziyeh performances to move from towns to rural areas. At present, professional troupes are often family-run businesses that move from place to place every two weeks performing a different play every day and occasionally giving performances both in the afternoon and evening.

In the last 50 years or so, Europeans and Americans have traveled to Asia to experience the bond between actor and audience that is one of the hallmarks of the Eastern dramatic tradition. The most common destinations were India and the Far East, but in the late 1960s, Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, and Tadeuz Kantor discovered ta'ziyeh. Brook, in particular was profoundly impacted by the dramatic possibilities of the Persian form. He explained:

I saw in a remote Iranian village one of the strongest things I have ever seen in theatre: a group of 400 villagers, the entire population of the place, sitting under the tree and passing from roars of laughter to outright sobbing -- although they knew perfectly well the end of the story -- as they saw Hussein in danger of being killed, and then fooling his enemies, and then being martyred. And when he was martyred, the theatre form became truth. (Parabola, 1979)

Brook proved that Iranian dramatic conventions and cultural themes could be effectively transposed to the Western stage with his successful adaptation of a 12th-century mystical tract, The Conference of the Birds, into a theatrical play.

Jerzy Grotowski also borrowed from the ta'ziyeh tradition to fuse dramatic action with ritual as a means of uniting actor and audience. However, his productions for the Laboratory Theater carefully controlled the dynamic between the players and the spectators by imposing limits on space, audience size, and seating placement. ta'ziyeh, in contrast, actively retains a fundamental principle of intimacy without placing any constraints on the size of the performance space or the number of spectators. This is le theatre total. In the words of Benjamin, the first American envoy to Iran, "ta'ziyeh is an interesting exhibition of the dramatic genius of the Persian race."