Articles, Essays, Volume 5

Development of Diegetic Practices in Iranian Indigenous Performances: A Historical View

Development of Diegetic Practices in Iranian Indigenous Performances: a Historical View
By Mohammad J. Yousefian Kenari and Parastoo Mohebbi
Arab Stages, Volume 5, Number 1 (Fall, 2016)
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publication

Performance Traditions and Narrative Practices in Ancient Persia 

Persian performance dates back to the centuries before the rise of Islam. It is assumed that ritual ceremonies are the right starting point to discuss on the roots of performance in Iran. Popular rituals such as Soug-e Siavash (Mourning for Siavash, a mythic Prince) and Kin-e Iradj (Revenge of Iradj, a mythic King), the oral epics collected and remained from antique literary texts like Shah-Name (Book of The Kings), are generally recognized as the historical bases from which developed the earliest arrangements of regular social gatherings later called Majles (A Meeting of the Folks). These took place each year at a given time and place. Due to Islamic restrictions for portraying atheistic icons and demonic figures, these meetings disappeared and were at last totally transformed into a type of religious assembly, particularly after the dominance of Shiite sectarianism in the settled territories, approximately between 600 and 800 A.D.

There are different views about the beginnings of the Ta’ziyeh. Some scholars and orientalists believe that the preliminary experiences which today may be a called religious performances happened after the first centuries of establishing the Shiite faith in Iran, during the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736 AD) as an official instrument of the State to promote the spirit of commemorating and mourning for the heroes who sacrificed by the evils at the Holy Day of Ashura.

In spite of all changes in the styles and the performative strategies of showing Ta’ziyeh, through its long journey from ancient Persia to the current time, new trends of Iranian theatre remain deeply connected to the tradition of telling stories and doing actions simultaneously before popular audiences. These are mostly inspired by the Muslims’ interests in getting together to celebrate their myths and epics. In this respect, Iranian believers are known as the most interested people of the region attracted to gathering around and reciting the oral narratives again and again. Ta’ziyeh was hence a kind of materializing of the communal unconsciousness to make ideal imaginary associations with the relatives of the Prophet Muhammad. Repeating the seasonal ceremonies and imitating the heroic actions were, in fact, a shared intention to be totally engaged in—an initiation, the ritual of becoming mature.  In this respect, Ta’ziyeh might be connected to the anthropological approach of performance theory.

Among those non-religious performances in Iran of which we may follow the vague traces, Naghali is the most influential in its use of narrative practices. We don’t know much about the origin of Naghali in the pre-Islamic world. A few indications in Iranian literature and historical books suggest that there were many popular storytellers in ancient Persia who recounted lyric and epic stories for the people and this is the oral tradition which came into Islamic communities. The poems of Ferdowsi (Shahname, 1010 AD ), Nizami’s Haft Peykar (which literally means seven stages of transcendence, 1200 AD) and the book History of Sistan (1460 AD) or Ibn Nadim’s Al-Fehrest (987 A.D.) were the most reliable texts in which the narrative practices of doing a performance in ancient Persia could found.

After the advent of Islam, however, there were numerous folklore and literary texts that might inform us how these—not yet perhaps called theatrical—ceremonies evolved through the different periods of the Islamic empire. Several picaresque-style narratives of local rulers, their battles and romances still popular with the Iranian people were prevalent all around the territory. The story of Samak-e Ayyar (1275 AD), Firouz Shah Epic (1250 AD), Darab Nameh (1300 AD) and Amir Arsalan (1400 AD) are the major texts from that time. The common aspect of these stories was the domination of narrative instead of doing action or showing and representing a certain act. These types of provoking audiences by means of reporting techniques and language-based strategies later developed a unique pattern of exchanging the facts and images between actor-narrator and spectator-receiver that may be also found in Ta’ziyeh.

In general, Naghali is a method of reciting, reading or recounting epic events and romances. In ancient Persia, it was often accompanied by musical instruments that were rarely seen after the rise of Islam, due to their illegal possible abuses. All musical and choral effects were gradually removed from the performative structure of Naghali, but the oriental techniques of narrating stories, in the meantime, continued to develop in the Islamic periods. In the first three centuries of Islam, the mission of Naghalan (Naghali Performers) was promoting the nationalist spirit of Iranians, but since around 1000 AD they were engaged in making their own myths and idols for ordinary people. Mythopoeia therefore flourished with the assistance of unorganized performative traditions, which had not yet any theatrical identity or established terminology. That is in fact a turning point in Iranian performance history, when the myths and epics were manipulated to benefit business or for political purposes, to control public opinion. A fabricated history of superstitions was developed later by traditional performers, who were commissioned to encourage folks to be more involved in religious and official ceremonies.

During the Mongolian period (1284-1335 AD), Naghali favored the narrating of pseudo-epic and religious myths. Due to state sponsorship, it especially flourished in Safavid dynasty, and it hence divided into some minor but innovative branches of folklore performance in Iran. The Hamle khani (Attack Play), Shah Name Khani (Epic Play), Rawze Khani (Threnody Play) and Sokhan vari (Declamatory Play) are amongst the popular minor performances propagated during the Islamic dynasties. Naghali as an established style of performance moved during the Qadjar periods (1794-1925 AD) to the Ghahve Khane, a traditional location for serving tea and hookah. Remembering the myths and the saints through the exotic experience of watching a rhythmic show, particularly along with flavored tobacco smoked from an Arabic or Turkish hookah, made this narrative practice an inseparable part of Iranian traditional performance.

Naghali (Minstrelsy): The Narrative Foundation of Iranian Performance

Not only as a form of oral storytelling but also as a style of individual (solo) performance, Naghali can be considered today as a performance mediated by the presence of a narrator-performer that appeals to actions and body gestures for recounting a story. What is the subject of focus is that in the given tradition of performance, (which is a significant source for the emergence of successive traditions of performance in Iran), diegetic and narrative elements outweigh mimetic and performative elements. In fact, events are told rather than being performed; in other words, “telling” dominates “showing.”

A Naghal sometimes implies the presence of another character by a specific way of looking ahead, and specifies the dimensions of this presence by an extension of the look, or the actions and motions of the imagined person can be suggested by retreats or sudden attacks. This narrator-performer turns from one character to another through actions like whispering, sudden calling or screaming, changing the tone of speech, incorporation of prose and poetry, or sitting and standing. In another variation, assembling all the characters, he acts as a general narrator who recounts an episode, tells short jokes or admonishes. It can be said that in Naghali, the presence of characters is more verbal than physical; therefore, movement from one character to another takes place by each statement of a Naghal who narrates the characters rather than performing (imitating) them. Even when a Naghal performs the actions and manner of a character and imitates his/her intonation (first-person presentation), he refers to the character as a third-person (combination of narration and imitation). In fact, the Naghal always remains fundamentally a narrator.

For the presentation and definition of the space, a Naghal might visualize a variety of times and places, utilizing only a cane and without the help of any other property. The fact is that space is merely a mental image that is imagined via the speech or movements of a Naghal and the movement of the cane. The cane might function as a symbol for sword, spear, bow or a horse, and its movement may visualize walking in the plains, climbing a mountain or riding a horse. In some cases, also, a merely verbal description makes the image. For instance, a Naghal might say: “What a verdant valley and a high mountain! It is better to sit down under this tree!” then sitting under the imagined tree and leaning back on it. Beside the cane, in a Sokhan-vari (oratory / Declamatory) show, the wares of Sárdam (a symbolic façade conventionally used to hang the guru’s belongings) were often also added to the scene. With no performative or narrative functions, these objects are simply exchanged during a conversational debate of two orators. Since the theatrical atmosphere is purely represented by speech and action here, there is no need of moving the props for changing the scene. Time and space are constantly changing in this performance, but the narrator can easily pass from a given time to another by using a short hint or articulation, a tiny gestural mime, a tonal variation of words.

It needs to be noted that a Naghal never imitates the role of a character in the manner that an actor might put himself into a character’s skin. Although a Naghal performs the role of a character with actions and speech tone, he keeps distant in speech and presents the character in the third person. Furthermore, in contrast to the use of present tense in drama, a Naghal narrates the verbs in past tense indicating distance from a performed role (as is suggested in Brecht’s epic theatre).  The distance between narrating (telling) a story and performing (imitating) it is especially clear when a Naghal might refer to a scroll script while performing. A great number of Naghals held a scroll that included the text and sometimes read from that. The presence of the scroll served as a barrier for Naghals moving from a narrator role to the actor role.

Persian Diegesis vs. Western Mimesis: An Aesthetic Approach

Diegesis has been commonly described by exploiting its contrast with the concept of mimesis. The distinction between performative presentation that imitates words and actions (Mimesis) and fictional presentation that narrates actions and events (Diegesis) dates back to Plato’s Republic. In the third book of this work, Plato discusses the methods of storytelling and makes a distinction between two kinds of narration: Diegesis, through which a narrator (author) directly speaks to us without pretending that the speaker is a different person and mimesis, in which an author indirectly, i.e. via different characters, speaks to us. From another perspective, mimesis refers to the direct representation of the events without mediation of a narrator while diegesis is an indirect medium of representation, i.e. it requires a narrator.

Aristotle extends the concept of mimesis in his Poetics in a way that has made it a key term in the realm of performative arts. He does not assume mimesis to be exclusively bound to theatre and considers different types of poetry (from tragedy to epic) as the various forms of imitation differentiated by three elements, namely means of imitation, the subjects of imitation and the methods of imitation. From his point of view, what differentiates the various arts is the method of imitation; thus, imitation in tragedy operates by action and in epic by narration.

During the primary stages of modern Western discussions of narratology, diegesis was gradually associated with a fictional narrative through which actions and events are narrated verbally and mediated by a narrator; on the other hand, mimesis was associated with a dramatic world where the words and actions were directly imitated or performed without the presence of a narrator.  In more recent years, some Western scholars tried to make a connection between drama and narrative, regardless of their historical struggle for being diegetic or mimetic media.  Some investigated diegetic aspects of performance and attempted to recognize the voice of a “narrator” and the methods of “telling” instead of “showing” in drama, through which they referred to the components like prologue, epilogue, asides, soliloquies, parabasis, messengers’ reports and choric speeches in drama and likewise to some particular types like memory play and monodrama.

In his epic theatre, Brecht attempted to modify theatre into a sort of storytelling. He not only made efforts to revive narrator types in classical theatre and, consequently, turned back to chorus, messenger reports and direct audience addresses for mediating the transmission of a story and third-person recounting, but also characters in his theatre appear as “narrators” of the roles and “messengers” of the story rather than sheer representational roles and parts of the story. He even used to ask actors to rehearse using expressions like “that man said” or “that woman said.” As a result, apart from using the past tense (exclusive to storytelling) instead of present tense in drama, the dialogic and first-person speech of characters were replaced with a narratorial and third-person report. In fact, characters read the explanation of a text in each scene instead of performing it, by the help of which the distance and difference between “written” story and “performed” one decreased to their least amount.

Ta’ziyeh: a Diegetic Performance

The combination of mourning rituals and narrating traditions of Naghali prepared the way for an Iranian performance called Ta’ziyeh or Shabih-khani , a kind of epic performance rather than a performative art with its conventional Western connotations. In other words, Ta’ziyeh comes between narrative and performance. Emphasizing the concept of verfremdung or alienation, numerous researchers have investigated the similarity between Ta’ziyeh and the epic theatre advocated by Brecht. It is important to stress however that that Ta’ziyeh was created long before the bringing of strategies of narrativizing a performance into theory and practice by Western artists like Piscator and Brecht. Verfremdung in the Brechtian theatre was a transition from performance to narrative in addition to its socio-political aims. In point of fact, the characters, by creating distance, constantly intended to signify that they were not characters but narrators. In Ta’ziyeh, similarly, presenters mostly narrate the story rather than depict or perform the roles and events. The application of the term “Shabih-khan” instead of the equivalent terms in Farsi or Arabic for actor or performer can be an indicator of the aforementioned situation. This is the reason that presenters of Ta’ziyeh, for example Imam-Khan, conventionally held a scroll script in their hands to indicate that they were not Imams or caliphs but ordinary people who were reading these these words. Since in this kind of performance, it is emphasized that the presenters do not embody and play the roles of characters but are merely like those characters of “Shabih” and are there to narrate roles but not be a character, it is possible for the presenters easily to leave their roles and join the chest-beating audience members, or to drink a cup of tea in the intervals, or even after martyrdom stand up and present another role. The concepts of time and space in Ta’ziyeh also bear more diegetic features than mimetic. In contract to the exact and estimated time in drama, Ta’ziyeh can simultaneously encompass present, past and future.  Possible times can be altered with only a single sentence or turn of a presenter. Contrary to the Aristotelian principle of three unities, we encounter a multiple presentation of variable times and places.

Similarly, the visual aspects of space are not restricted but unstable and uncertain. As an example, if a water bowl is held by a character, it may represent a drinking container, but leaving it on the ground might signify the Euphrates River. Sometimes a cane connotes the prominence of a character and at another time it betokens a war instrument. Because of the limited visual effects, space in Ta’ziyeh is mainly represented by characters’ elucidations. As a mimetic factor by which the fictional nature of narrative might be transformed to a performative mode, dialogue has not any dramatic effect in Ta’ziyeh. On the contrary, it resembles to a type of recounting a given text, or of delivering a long monologue, a kind of open expression of thoughts or feelings with no clear addressee. The characters in Ta’ziyeh have no conversations together, but each starts and finishes the reading of their scripts signaled by the beckoning of director’s cane.

In Ta’ziyeh, the narrative layers are constantly interwoven by presenters-narrators (Shabih-khan) and directors (Shabih-gardan). The director can step into a running performance and change the flow of a performance or remind presenters of the roles. Moreover, Shabih-khans sometimes leave the roles they are presenting to become a narrator or a commentator. For instance, Movafegh-khan (protagonists) sometimes praise the roles they are presenting; while Mokhalef-khan (antagonists) may curse Imam Hussein’s enemies, including themselves, and recant the roles they are presenting. Moreover, the actors are suspended in a threshold between performance time and real time. Sometimes an actor leaves his role and directly speaks to the audience or reads a long text outside the story line or dialogues. Amid the performance, actors and audiences frequently act like a chorus and start singing or join in chest-beating, comment on the events being shown or predict the coming incidents. Ta’ziyeh also provides an interesting exemplar of the play within a play. The main events are constantly combined with Pish-Vaghe’e-Khani-Ha (prologues), Hashiye-Khani-Ha (digressions) and Mozhek-Ha (ridiculous interludes). A wedding may be held amidst the Kerbala events, folk tales are incorporated into the event of Muharram and even Iranian literary figures like Layla and Majnun may appear in religious stories. In Brecht’s epic theater, at the beginning of each scene a brief review of the scene in narrative form is sometimes presented, an already performed scene may be “told” once more, or a scene thoroughly reported, instead of being performed. In Ta’ziyeh, sometimes the opponents introduce themselves to the audience at the beginning of play, and verbally present their story. To sum up, it can be asserted while Ta’ziyeh involves a strong tendency towards telling and narrating instead of imitation and representation.  Its difference from the operations of standard Western theatre is summed up in the following table:

Table 1- A Comparative Presentation of Diegetic World of Ta’ziyeh with Mimetic World of Theatre

Diegetic World of Ta’ziyeh Mimetic World of Theatre
Narration of events Theatrical actions
Narration of roles Imitation of roles
Use of the term “Shabih-Khan” for performers Use of the terms “actor” or “performer”
Verbal description of space Visual presentation of space
Verbal visualization of entities and limited use of stage equipment Unlimited and visual use of stage equipment
Script reading Dialogic interaction
Shifts in infinite time and space Confined in a specific time and space
Individuals as narrators Individuals as roles
Monologue of “Shabih-Khan” Dialogue between actors
Reporting events in past tense Performing events in present tense

Finally, it is worth mentioning that a highly notable example of incorporating storytelling into performance is Ta’ziyeh-e Doreh or Ta’ziyeh-e Sayyar (mobile Ta’ziyeh). In this kind of Ta’ziyeh, ten groups of ‘Shabih-Ha’ successively perform ten events of Kerbala in an open space. First, a single group performs the first event and proceeds to perform for the next audience while the second group occupies their place to perform the second event, and in this procedure, ten groups sequentially pass the audience and perform a specific part of a story. This method of performance can be investigated as a particular way of presenting a story in performance. It can be a significant solution for incorporating chain narratives of Iranian storytelling traditions into the frame of Iranian native performance. Western theatre scholars may be struck by the similarity of organization between this method of presentation and that of the medieval cycle plays in England and elsewhere, Europe’s own most outstanding example of religious-based drama.

Mohammad Jafar Yousefian Kenari, PhD is a current associate professor of Drama and Performance Studies at Faculty of Arts and Architecture at the University of Tehran in Iran. 

Parastoo Mohebbi is a PhD Scholar in Theatre Studies, University of Tehran in Iran.



Arab Stages
Volume 5, Number 1 (Fall 2016)
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Hazem Azmy, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Jennie G. Youssef

Assistant Managing Editor: Ash Marinaccio

Table of Contents

  • The Development of Diegetic Practices in Iranian Indigenous Performances: a Historical View by Mohammad J. Yousefian Kenari and Parastoo Mohebbi
  • Abū-l-ʿIlā al-Salāmūnī: the Rewriting of History in Egyptian Theatre by Tiran Manucharyan
  • The Interwoven History of Moroccan Theatre by Jaouad Radouani
  • Heather Raffo on Noura by Heather Denyer
  • The Third Identity: An Interview with Tareq Abu Kwaik by George Potter
  • Chasing the Gaze of the Killer: Rabih Mroué’s The Pixelated Revolution by Mara Valderrama
  • Conducting a Theatre Workshop for Syrian Refugees at Berlin’s Tempelhof Center by Fadi Fayad Skeiker
  • The Village of Tishreen by Ahmad Mahfouz


  • Tangier International Conference for 2016, “The Narrative Turn in Contemporary Theatre,” by Marvin Carlson



  • Mohammad al Attar’s While I was Waiting at Avignon by Philippa Wehle
  • World Premiere of Arabic Drama at Cornell by Marvin Carlson\
  • Cairo in the ‘60’s: Review of This Time by the Rising Circle Theater Collective New York City, May 19, 2016 by Michael Malek Najjar

Short Plays

  • A Crime on Restaurant Street by Wajdi al-Adal, Trans. Katherine Hennessy
  • Firestarter by Hassan Abdulrazzak
  • Before Dinner by Yasser Abu Shaqra, Trans. by Faisal Hamadah

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

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