- Eternal Performance: Ta’ziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals Edited by Peter Chelkowski
This is a set of essays related to ta’ziyeh, the Shiite passion play mourning the death of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and a focal figure in Shi’a Islam. Many of the works were prepared for a 2002 conference at the Asia Society in New York, in conjunction with a performance of the play by Iranian actors at Lincoln Center. Essays were first published in a 2005 issue of TDR. Six additional selections were added that widen the scope of the book.
This is a text that anyone interested in drama of the Muslim world will seek out. The essays as a whole prove especially useful in that the book shows how the death of Hussein is celebrated not only in Iran but also in Pakistan, India, Lebanon, the United States, and Trinidad. The foci of the individual essays vary: history, artistic considerations, gender implications, the performance as a political tool/statement, difficulties of adaptation for Western audiences, and so on. The reader comes away feeling she has received a rather comprehensive overview of the current thinking on the art by authors whose disciplines range from performance to anthropology, medieval studies, and Middle Eastern studies. While the range of viewpoints is a definite plus, the reader finds introductions covering some of the same ground in a number of the works.
Editor Peter Chelkowski bookends the volume with his thoughts. He begins with a short overview of the history that led to the death of Hussein and development of mourning rites in the Shi’a world, showing that, by the eighteenth century, they had evolved from processional and mortification activities to dramatizations in Persia, where the majority of Muslims from the sixteenth century were Shi’a. Chelkowski details the efflorescence of the genre in the nineteenth century, discussing acting, music, stage, and other details clearly. Rebecca Pettys translates a script (The Martyrdom of Hussein) that combines parts of a script from the city of Khor but, due to length, has combined it with a version of Jung-I Sahadat collected by Alexander Chodzko in Persia the 1830s. One appreciates access to an actual text in English, but wishes for more clarity of what parts were taken from which source.
Kamran Scot Aghaie, in “Origins of the Sunnite-Shiite Divide and the Emergence of the Ta’ziyeh Tradition,” provides an expansive historical overview. Jean and Jacqueline Calmard, by contrast, concentrate on the reports of one Russian Orientalist, Nicolas Berezin, to show the nature of the Tehran flagellations undertaken by men during the Muharram (the mourning month) processions in 1843 when the rites and drama were at a high point of court patronage. William Beeman and Mohammad Gaffari (“Acting Styles and Actor Training”) discuss the relatively low status of actors (as the art has never attained full approval of conservative Islam) and point out the need for singing, riding, fighting, and evoking pathos in the actors’ skill set. This essay, with information on casting, changing roles as the actor ages, and so on, has interesting specifics for theatre researchers. Mohammed Reza Khaki’s essay [End Page 340] details the use of design elements and stage space. Iraj Anvar’s paper argues that the theatre had all the elements that would have allowed it to generate a full Iranian secular or comic theatre had its course not been interrupted by Pahlavi dynasty bans after 1926. He carefully details the guriz, which are digressions or embellishments on the main story, showing how they, in urban areas, generated comic and other materials. He gives the example of plays that dealt with other stories—for example, the death of the early Sufi mystic Mansur Hallaj, who is then reborn as Shams of Tabriz and links to Rumi’s story. Anvar also discusses The Dervish of the Desert, which recounts the tale of an encounter between Moses and a wanderer who protests God’s creation of hell until Moses shows him a vision of Hussein’s death, whereupon...