Asian Theatre Journal 20.2 (2003) 256-259
[Access article in PDF]
Bravo to Lincoln Center, all the foundations, scholars, and performers who made this U.S. premiere of the Iranian Passion Play a reality. Three plays from the cycle were presented under a large tent in Damrosch Park from July 12 through July 21. Raised as a Sunni in Afghanistan, I was totally ignorant of this unique dramatic tradition within Islam until I began searching for a dissertation topic in 1976. Although I have been studying the tradition ever since, my focus has been on the texts. This was my first opportunity to witness the "recipes for performance" (the texts) transformed into living performance.
I knew that the heroes would sing and the villains would shout their lines. I knew that the separation between the two sides would be carried out visually with the heroes wearing green or white and the villains scarlet. I knew that the stage would consist of a circular platform surrounded by a ground-level ring with minimal props. I expected the all-male performers to carry their scripts as a way of reminding the audience of the strictly presentational style of the production. I knew that instrumental music would be part of the production, too, but wasn't quite sure what it would sound like or how it would be used.
I also knew that we would not be the ideal audience since the ta'ziyehin Iran is a ritual of religious and cultural renewal during which the performers and audience work together to achieve the cathartic effect. The slaughter of Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, in 680 resulted from a power struggle during the early years of the theocracy. This event consolidated a loosely [End Page 256] bound group of separatists into the Shi'i sect. Dramatic recreation of this event helps the Shi'i community commemorate the martyrdom of their hero, thereby renewing their faith and reaffirming the value system they share. The performers do their part by presenting this story of good versus evil; audiences do their part by becoming active mourners via weeping and beating of the breast. Although I am neither Iranian nor Shi'i, I was fully prepared to relax and open myself to what we were seeing and hearing.
I was especially moved by what we were hearing, most particularly the instrumental accompaniment. At times it sounded like a cross between circus music and military marches with a very insistent beat; at other times it was melancholy and poignant. Battles were accompanied by harsh, jarring sounds while the score under segments of great tension made me feel apprehensive. At all times, therefore, the music produced by three trumpets and two drums (occasionally augmented by cymbals) paved the emotional path. The music told me where I should be and helped me to get there.
The heroes sang with rich, melodious voices that involved a great many trills and decorations. Although I knew that the songs would alternate with the instruments rather than being accompanied by the instruments, the actual experience felt rather odd. As I had feared, the trilling of the vowel sounds, coupled with the Iranian accent, made it almost impossible for me to understand the words. (In the case of the villains, the curious phrasing while shouting the lines made understanding difficult.) It really did not matter. Even if I had had the text available, I would have used my eyes for watching the action on the stage rather than gluing them to the words on a page.
The four live horses provided the most exciting visual element. Trim and elegant, they galloped fiercely around the circular raised stage and then stood perfectly still at the lightest touch. The performers made the feat of singing while galloping look effortless. In addition to the horses, the piece called The Play of Hor used two small camels. The sheep in The Play of the Children of Moslem were surprisingly tame. Despite their good behavior, however...