Articles, Current Issue, Volume 14

“Indigenous Avant-Gardes”: The Shiraz Arts Festival and Ritual Performance Theory in 1970s Iran

By Matthew Randle-Bent

The Shiraz Arts Festival (1967-77) exerted a significant, yet under-appreciated, influence over the development of performance theory within the US academy. In a sense, the program presented annually in Iran exhibited the “broad spectrum” described by performance theorist Richard Schechner: a city-wide frame placed over not just all manner of performing arts, but rituals, public debates, spectacles, cultural diplomacy, service labor, and performances of everyday life.[1] Yet each year artists and intellectuals participated in symposia organized around themes that would become cornerstones of performance studies discourse. Undoubtedly the most resonant and enduring of these was the recurrent focus on ritual; a scholarly category that in the context of Shiraz became synonymous with ta’ziyeh. Ta’ziyeh-as-ritual was the product of a sustained encounter between a section of the pre-revolution intelligentsia in Iran that privileged nationalist visions of indigeneity and authenticity, and the tendencies of an international cohort of theatrical theorists and anthropologists utilizing a structured, dramaturgical concept of ritual in such a way that would shape performance studies as an emergent discipline, as well as the anthologizing field of world theatre. The understanding of ta’ziyeh propagated in this transnational intellectual environment continues to exert an influence on contemporary performance theory, and understandings of Iranian theatre in the Western academy.

The commonly reiterated framing of ta’ziyeh-as-ritual can be traced back to a symposium on ta’ziyeh held at the 1976 Shiraz Arts Festival. Hosted by Polish-born, Tehran-educated, New York-based academic Peter Chelkowski, the publication of proceedings from this symposium, Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran, has been a touchstone in surveys and glosses of performance in Iran for over forty years.[2] In Chelkowski’s lead essay, he refers to ta’ziyeh as Iran’s “indigenous avant-garde,” and joins the likes of anthropologist William Beeman and theatre scholar Andrzej Wirth in interpreting ta’ziyeh through a distinctly Turnerian ritual discourse. Chelkowski’s formulation encapsulates the particular coincidence of nationalist, Orientalist, and experimental theatre interests in ta’ziyeh during the 1970s. The emergence of a symbolic-anthropological knowledge system highly amenable to ta’ziyeh as a form happened to coincide with a period of generous patronage by institutions of the Pahlavi state towards projects foregrounding an essentialist, nationalist cultural politics—and international avant-garde theatre makers. My intention here is to return to the 1976 Chelkowski symposium and the publication it spawned to reevaluate the place of the Shiraz Arts Festival in the history of performance theory.

Commonly translated as “mourning” or “condolence,” ta’ziyeh events commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, at the battle of Karbala. For many years there has been a broad scholarly consensus—upheld and significantly extended by the Chelkowski collection discussed here—about the origins of ta’ziyeh in urban Muharram processions, evolving over the centuries from these foundations to take its contemporary forms. The form is often said to have originated during the Safavid Empire, when Shi’a Islam was established as the state religion. That historiography subtly affirms ta’ziyeh as a form connected to state power and patronage. Yet recent historical research by E. Lucy Deacon suggests a simultaneous emergence of reenactments of the battle of Karbala by “common people,” beyond the Safavid urban centers.[3] Deacon’s work offers a through-line to subsequent articulations of ta’ziyeh as a populist form. During the nineteenth century Naser al-Din Shah patronized the takyeh dowlat, a vast theatre space in Tehran where ta’ziyeh performances would be presented for audiences of thousands, including foreign travelers and diplomats. Yet ta’ziyeh would increasingly become associated with popular political speech and, oftentimes, resistance to authority, to the extent that it was banned, and the takyeh dowlat destroyed, by the militant “modernizer” Reza Shah Pahlavi as he proclaimed an end to the Qajar dynasty. Lindsay Goss writes: “Because of [ta’ziyeh’s] religious character and, more importantly, its history of use in the context of political protest, the practice of ta’ziyeh had been outlawed by the Pahlavi regime since the 1930s.”[4] Furthermore, as Hamid Dabashi has described, during the revolutionary period (1978-79), Ruhollah Khomeini came to be popularly identified with the figure of Hussein, while the Shah “was identified with Yazid, a usurper of power, corrupt, tyrannical, banal, and demonic.”[5] Dabashi’s writing vividly demonstrates the uses of ta’ziyeh as a living, present-day practice to transformative ends during that era.[6] Given this particular history, ta’ziyeh’s placement into nascent discourses of “traditional” performance under the rehabilitative patronage of late-Pahlavi state institutions has a particular politics.

By contextualizing and reevaluating some of the arguments presented during the Chelkowski symposium I hope to offer the following historiographical clarification: performance theory as it is commonly understood in the US academy[7] was always-already a transnational intellectual project, inflected by the politics of certain neocolonial sites of emergence.[8] In its universalist broad spectrum mode, it was born in the friction of encounters between intellectuals, artists and “objects” of study in myriad global sites during the 1960s and 1970s. One of these key sites was Shiraz, Iran, and one of its rhetorical figures, ta’ziyeh-as-ritual, emerged from a Shi’a Islamic form that was deeply contested in twentieth-century Iran. The Chelkowski symposium under consideration in this paper reflects the same overlapping understanding of “ritual,” “theatre,” “performance,” and “culture” that informed the work of Victor Turner and Richard Schechner, the latter being a colleague of Chelkowski’s at New York University, and a founder of performance studies. As I chart how nascent discourses of ritual and performance circulated through pre-revolution Iran and coalesced around discussions of ta’ziyeh, I can trace the imbrication of performance theory—much like its sibling fields, world theatre and world literature—in a much longer history of nationalism and Orientalism.

The Cultural Politics of the Shiraz Arts Festival

Much of the literature on the Shiraz Arts Festival tends to emphasize the remarkable scope of the performance program in such a way that amplifies the original Pahlavi vision of the event as a meeting place of “East” and “West.”  Herein Iran—and specifically the city of Shiraz, with its proximity to the ancient ruins the Persepolis and its association with the great Persian poets Hafez and Sa’di—is posited as a cradle of civilization and culture. This narrative presents the festival as a site in which the great artists of the time—Shuji Terayama, Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Arby Ovanessian—could create their most ambitious work with minimal restraints. It tends to be forgotten that the festival had relatively modest origins: during the late-1960s the “international” festival was dominated by artists from Iran, largely presenting “traditional” works.[9] The emphasis on a “meeting” of contemporary and historical forms—an influential framing, of course, on subsequent discussions of intercultural theatre during the 1980s—would become predominant at the height of the festival’s international profile during the early 1970s, when experimental artists shared the spotlight with the likes of Ravi Shankar and Mohamad-Reza Shajarian, as well as exhibitions of traditional arts and handicrafts.

The most prominent voice in this contemporary discussion of Shiraz is arguably the curator Vali Mahlouji. For Mahlouji, Shiraz represents “perhaps the most radical multi-disciplinary crucible of any commissioning festival in history”[10] While it is certainly true that Shiraz represents a cultural project of remarkable scale and ambition, in which artists from across the world were afforded handsome budgets to create new work, Mahlouji’s writings on the festival apply a series of concepts that ascribe to the festival a broader, emancipatory politics: “a utopian stage,” “a panoramic view of world culture,” “temporary autonomous zone,” “universalizing heterotopia,” and, perhaps most provocatively, a “radical Third World rewriting.”[11] In this way Mahlouji’s work is in step with late-Pahlavi political rhetoric. During the mid-late 1970s state-aligned intellectuals like Parviz Nikkhah and Mahmud Jafarian would adopt the language of Third Worldism to defend the Shah, using anti-imperialist rhetoric as cover for the consolidation of one-party rule and unswervingly close ties to the United States.[12] Furthermore, the originator of the “temporary autonomous zone” concept, anarchist Hakim Bey (otherwise known as Peter Lamborn Wilson), was a highly influential cultural commentator in Tehran throughout the 1970s—offering praise for the Shah’s cultural projects through the language of political radicalism.

Goss has recently debunked the discourses of “freedom” afforded to, and supposedly expressed by, the avant-garde artists favored by the Pahlavi state cultural apparatus. “‘Freedom,’” Goss writes, “is a decidedly vague term, though perhaps less so when speaking of overtly repressive regimes.”  As she observes, Mahlouji is typical of much extant scholarship on Shiraz in “acknowledg[ing] elements of the political context… but without discussing what this might have meant for the work presented.”[13] Such scholarship elides both the cultural politics of co-opting formalist avant-garde work by a state that crushed political opposition in the name of “freedom,” and the notable dissent against the festival that occurred in Shiraz annually. While emphasizing the supposedly radical, utopian politics of Shiraz, Mahlouji elides the politics of dissent against the festival and the omnipresence of secret police surveillance.[14]

Arguments for the “utopian stage” of Shiraz are undermined by abundant examples of heckling and insubordinate audiences at the festival.[15] Reporters in the Tehran Journal recounted how a performance like Robert Wilson’s seven-day, continuous piece KA MOUNTAIN, oft cited to exemplify the sheer scale of projects commissioned by the festival, was interrupted by heckles of “chi kar mikonan…charlatani!” (What are they doing… they are charlatans!)[16] Works like Wilson’s were often spread out across the city of Shiraz, with performances taking place with little formal framing or context for passersby. As Zhand Shakibi has described, by 1975 (the year in which single-party rule was formally established under the Shah’s Rastakhiz Party) there was serious concern in the upper echelons of the state that the ire provoked annually at Shiraz would ultimately be damaging to its political authority.[17] While it was difficult for the party to directly criticize Shiraz directly—the festival was a personal project of the Shah’s wife, Farah—the party began a moral crusade arguing that Shiraz and other festivals in Iran give greater attention to traditional, national values. This is one context for the renewed interest in ta’ziyeh in 1976.

International dissent against the festival and its participants came to a head in the year of the Chelkowski Symposium on ta’ziyeh. As Goss recounts, the exiled Iranian poet Reza Baraheni issued a call for Western businesses, artists, and tourists to boycott the regime, while singling out Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski by name for their participation in the festival.[18] This call was amplified by a solidarity network of human rights organizations; the prominent dramatic theorist Eric Bentley, for example, used his position on the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in Iran as a platform to call out the festival.[19] As Goss notes, the year 1976 saw a heated debate in the United States on the politics of Shiraz, with advocates of a boycott publishing pieces in the New York Times, The Drama Review, and The Village Voice. The arguments made offer divergent conceptions of theatre’s politics. These often concerned the idea of “exchange”—favored by avant-garde artists like Merce Cunningham—and the capacity of a visiting artist to engage directly with the politics of a host country in such a venue as an international festival. As Schechner has written: “It is no accident that when nations wish to improve their relations they most often begin by exchanging performing artists.”[20] It had become apparent that the enthusiasm for “exchange” in the Pahlavi state was due to a perception that performing arts and artists were easy to render politically neutral, while offering the outward impression of a liberal social order. Of the politics of the boycott, Goss writes:

“What [it] proposes… is the refusal of one kind of exchange—that which occurs between performers and audiences, but which happens on the terms and in the interests of the Pahlavi government—and its replacement with another: the expression of solidarity with Iranian dissidents, which requires the artistic act (because it must be enacted by artists in order to function as a boycott) of not making art.”[21]

According to Goss, those that boycotted the 1976 festival, such as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company which voted to not attend, framed the decision as a solidaristic engagement with Iranian dissidents rather than a disengagement from politics in Iran. By contrast, Gross critiques the arguments of artists like Cunningham himself—who had argued in favor of attending the festival but ultimately respected the decision of his company.

Alongside the history of disruption and dissent surrounding Shiraz that in many ways anticipated the revolutionary uprisings of 1978-79, Houchang Chehabi points to the place of Shiraz in another aspect of Iran’s revolutionary mythology: its contributions to intellectual discourses of authenticity, indigeneity, and spirituality. He writes:

“Until the late 1960s [the] desire to be taken seriously by the West was accompanied in official circles… by a feeling that, deep-down, Iranians were Europeans, given their ‘Aryan’ heritage that allegedly distinguished them from their Semitic and Turkic neighbors. By the 1970s, however, the disenchantment with Western cultural influence (‘Westoxification’) that many anti-regime intellectuals had begun articulating in the 1960s crept into the official discourse of the Pahlavi state. The notion that Iranians could draw on the resources of their ‘Eastern spirituality’ to resist the negative aspects of Western civilization, i.e., its ‘materialism,’ came to cohabit with the older notion that…Iranians and Europeans belonged to the same civilization.”[22]

The concept of Eastern spirituality alluded to by Chehabi was a common refrain for intellectuals supportive of the Shah throughout the 1970s.[23] Towards the end of the decade Shiraz had become synonymous with “Westoxification”[24] in the popular imaginary, largely due to its lavish patronage of international avant-garde artists. Yet throughout the decade its intellectual organs actively contributed to those virtues of spirituality, indigeneity, and authenticity that were supposedly embodied by the Shah. Program essays explored spiritual themes and public lectures by scholars like Dariush Safvat explored topics like the relationship between Islamic mysticism and traditional music.

Central to the institutionalization of this spiritual politics was the Iranian Imperial Academy of Philosophy (IIAP), led by perennialist scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Founded in 1974, the IIAP quickly became a locus for intellectuals committed to the cosmopolitan notion of Eastern spiritual thought, grounded in Iranian Sufi traditions. Such figures as Ivan Illich, Nader Khalili, Toshihiko Izutsu, Elémire Zolla, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Peter Russell, and Henry Corbin passed through the IIAP during the mid-late 1970s.[25] Through seminars and the publications of the academy’s journal, Sophia Perennis, Nasr and his colleagues established an institutional basis for traditionalist thought that ideologically supported the Pahlavi state. These scholars sought a “philosophical inquiry into Iran’s development, its future”: the application of esoteric thought to the problems of late-twentieth-century society, from education, to infrastructure, to statecraft.[26] Nasr would become so important to the upper echelons of the state that he was drafted to help write speeches for the Shah as he tried in vain to halt the revolutionary uprisings of 1978-79.[27]

While the IIAP did not explicitly concern itself with the arts, its interest in cultivating a new national identity grounded in a specifically Iranian spiritual essence at odds with the rapid technological transformation of society, was shared by many contemporary Iranian artists.[28] With regards to the Shiraz Festival, regular IIAP contributor Peter Lamborn Wilson was the most prominent champion of the perennialist-inflected Pahlavi cultural nationalism. For Wilson and other elitists and hippie Orientalists, projects like the Shiraz Festival offered the promise of a pseudo-spiritual-anarchist “culture without bureaucracy”: the benevolent state offering rich patronage for artists and intellectuals to explore their personal proclivities in exchange for ideological legitimation.[29] Wilson was an Orientalist intellectual ensconced in a nationalist institution, and his writing connects the cultural politics of Shiraz to the mysticism of the IIAP to the autocratic politics of the state.[30] His 1976 program essay on ta’ziyeh forms part of a traditional worldview that the Pahlavi state had championed against the engineers, bureaucrats, and technologists of the modern world.[31] In the same year, Chelkowski’s framing of ta’ziyeh as Iran’s indigenous avant-garde furthered a similar cultural nationalist agenda, connecting the form to the nascent scholarly discourse of ritual performance theory.

1976: Ritual Performance Theory in Iran

It is unclear exactly how many, if any, of the dozens of scholars invited to participate in the symposium on ta’ziyeh during the 1976 Shiraz Festival decided to join the international boycott that year. There is no mention of it, nor the unfurling revolution, in the 1979 publication of the symposium’s proceedings. Those answering Reza Baraheni’s call were labelled the “radical chic set” by Wilson, who wrote a thoroughgoing defense of the Shah and the festival in its daily bulletin.[32] Yet as the symposium kicked off, the Iranian press was reporting that only half of the invited lecturers were in attendance, with the rest “either on their way, or not coming.”[33] To follow the newspaper reports on the symposium lends contextual insight into the Chelkowski collection, given the particular way in which the state sponsorship of ta’ziyeh was critiqued in the press.

By the time of the symposium, Chelkowski was well known in Tehran and Shiraz: he had studied for his Ph.D. at Tehran University, and his work had been published in Iran. This included a pamphlet version of his “indigenous avant-garde” article, published a year before the symposium. Therefore, it is interesting the tone taken towards Chelkowski and his fellow scholars by journalists like Lazarian when reporting on the symposium, which often tilts towards exasperation with the manner in which the event was conducted, and the scholarly and aesthetic framing of ta’ziyeh. Reflecting the “Aryan heritage” politics of his spiritual-nationalist intellectual colleagues, Chelkowski used his opening remarks to focus on the nineteenth-century European interest in ta’ziyeh—reflected in the contemporary fascination of modern experimental theatre makers—citing the French white supremacist Arthur de Gobineau, who wrote about ta’ziyeh during his time as a diplomat in Persia. Responding to this introduction, Lazarian reported that the festival had got off to a “shallow start.”[34]

State-supported literature on ta’ziyeh commonly used European intercultural encounters or European cultural forms as points of comparison in the 1970s. An edition of the Review of National Literatures entitled “Iran: In Celebration of the 2500th Anniversary of the Founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great” exemplifies the desire to place Iran within a European institutional frame. The celebration referred to in the title of the special edition was a vanity project of the Shah: an extravagant folly inviting world leaders to the ruins of Persepolis to celebrate the history of monarchy in Iran/Persia, hosted by the “Shah of Shahs” himself. Hito Steyerl reminds us that to build a nation there should be print capitalism and a museum to “narrate a nation’s history and design its identity.”[35] In 1971, the Pahlavi monarchy was clearly attempting to retell Iran’s history to design a national identity with itself at the center. The Spring issue of Review of National Literatures was guest edited by Javad Haidari, formerly of the United States Information Agency and who in 1971 recently had returned to Iran as Director-General of the Pahlavi Ministry of Information.[36] Haidari did not contribute an essay to the collection; rather, his contribution seemed to be the ministry’s stamp of approval.

A contribution by Chelkowski was notable. Writing five years before the Shiraz symposium, Chelkowski warned that the “Iranian Passion Play,” is on the verge of being lost altogether.[37] Highlighting the specifically national character of this “indigenous” form, Chelkowski writes that the language of ta’ziyeh is “hardly touched by local dialects,” and assures the reader that ta’ziyeh texts written in other languages such as Turkish, Azerbaijani, Arabic and Urdu are “mere echoes” of those in Persian.[38] Consistent with Benedict Anderson’s thesis on print capitalism, Chelkowski writes:

“During the nineteenth century ta’zieh khani played the same part that radio does today in establishing a standard language. I have met many old people in different parts of Iran who could communicate with me in standard Persian, thanks to the ta’zieh.”[39]

Whether one takes Chelkowski’s claim at face value or not, the implication of his text is clear. Much like the history of literature in Persian, ta’ziyeh is framed as an example of a uniquely national performance tradition, taken to be the specific genius of the Persian people and their language. Next to the literary achievements of Hafez and Ferdowsi, ta’ziyeh is positioned as Iran’s theatrical contribution to the assemblage of world national literature.

Yet the Pahlavi conception of Iranian cultural nationalism contained in the journal is significantly indebted to the projections of European bourgeois Orientalists. Half of the articles featured in the special edition of Review of National Literatures focus on the influence of Persian poetry (specifically of Ferdowsi, Omar Khayyam, and Hafez) on nineteenth-century European poets. This editorial organization suggests national literature that privileges the extent to which the works in question might act as a source of inspiration for Western literature: an absorption into an extant Eurocentric canon of world literature. Chelkowski’s essay, and to an even greater extent the 1976 symposium, attempted to introduce ta’ziyeh into a nascent institution of world performance. With its simultaneous appropriation as a form of national culture, these Pahlavi-era projects see a nationalist fulfillment of a nineteenth-century Orientalist fascination.

In the World Literature debate, Aamir Mufti offers an anti-essentialist critique of Orientalism, cultural indigeneity and universal “planes of equivalence.”[40] For Mufti, institutionalized notions of universality and cultural indigeneity are essentializing products of the twin faces of Orientalism, figured as “the cultural logic of bourgeois modernity in its outward expression,” and nationalism. World literature, as a contemporary reiteration of a historical anthologizing project with its roots in nineteenth-century European Romanticism, draws heavily upon Marx and Engels’s notion of the “world market” and the “cosmopolitan character” of production. Yet such notions of world literature often owe little to the socialist, anti-imperialist literary internationalism of the twentieth century—that other world literature that might be exemplified under the banner of Bandung, and which intellectuals loyal to the Shah sought to co-opt.[41] Rather, the liberal image of world literature speaks more directly to what Mufti calls the bourgeois “institution of literature,” the development of national traditions in colonial and metropolitan capitals, requiring “the destruction of varied and sometimes ancient cultures of reading, writing, and performing” toward the “vernacularization of language and culture” along national lines.[42] Tellingly, to make these myriad historical practices of writing available for classification and analysis, they must first be rendered legible “as literature.”[43] For Mufti, literature is a historically-produced category which serves a historical purpose: in the modern academic field of world literature, the practices of nineteenth and twentieth-century institutions of literature serve to make a universal spectrum of writing practices available for translation and analysis as literature. In this way, he suggests, a “genealogy of world literature leads to Orientalism.”[44] In Shiraz, a nascent institution of performance was emergent. Scholarship produced about ta’ziyeh, among other “national” performance traditions of Iran, would become rapidly absorbed into the broad spectrum of performance theory, as well as anthologized in institutional discourses of world theatre. Ta’ziyeh would be figured as Iran’s national performance tradition par excellence, institutionalized and celebrated through the cultural diplomatic venue of the international festival. Ta’ziyeh was comprehended “as performance,” using the vanishing mediator on the cusp of intellectual institutionalization in the United States that would expand the scope of theatre studies and adjacent fields to embrace so-called non-Western practices.[45]

The Pahlavi interest in supporting ta’ziyeh as a form of apolitical national culture coincided neatly with the neo-Orientalist revival among Western artists and theatre-anthropologists seeking sources for the renewal of their theatrical practice. It is well known that Peter Brook is among the European theatre makers to have traveled to Iran several times during this period, and that he took a particular interest in ta’ziyeh as a form. Brook’s notebook from his 1969 trip to Iran makes for a remarkable account of the relationship between experimental theatre artists and the Pahlavi state. His writing is imbued with the breathy excitement of the travel author’s mock-ordeal:

“When I was told that something called a ta’ziyeh was being performed, the word had meant nothing to me, when they said that it was officially forbidden and foreigners were told such performances did not exist, it became interesting, when they said that we could only find our way because a young actor whose home was in the region had offered to be our guide, it became fascinating…”[46]

For the most part Brook’s account of the ta’ziyeh reads like a Geertzian thick description. Brook spends many pages describing the space, the “villagers” around him, the musicians, and the gestures of those performing. He fixates on the circular layout of the space—a “ring of humanity”—and the way this meant his small group of outsiders were brought “close to the heart of an event of an alien culture.” Having recounted his experience of the ta’ziyeh at length, the director describes how a subsequent presentation was interrupted by a police officer, who accused Brook and others of being spies, and arrested several residents of the village. Brook claims he was flown to Tehran and taken to see the Shah personally, to whom the director protested directly about the sorry state of ta’ziyeh in Iran:

“The Shah frowned. ‘But I don’t understand,’ he said ‘The Ta’zieh is not banned.’ I was accompanied by Iranians who had difficulty in concealing their joy. Of course, they explained, the Shah was lying through his teeth. But as the Shah cannot lie, by the time he had finished his sentence history was already rewritten… The Ta’zieh was free.”[47]

Brook narrates himself as the benevolent architect of ta’ziyeh’s late-Pahlavi revival. The British director pictures himself speaking truth to an authoritarian ruler, who sets the tradition “free” out of a seeming sense of social embarrassment, while anonymous locals gleefully look on from the background. “Thereafter,” the decision was made to include ta’ziyeh in the 1970 Shiraz festival, a decision Brook decries for the way it would sully the authenticity of the tradition.[48] While Brook’s diary is illuminating for its description of this embrace of ta’ziyeh, equally interesting is the particular stance of the director-anthropologist: at once imbued with an imperial savior mentality toward tradition, a magpie-like proclivity towards formal particularities (the “ring of humanity” that would become a recurring trope in his work), and a haughty disregard for so many of the Iranian people he encounters. In Chelkowski’s and Brook’s accounts I see a nascent iteration of the framing of ta’ziyeh as the traditional, national art of Iran within a “world republic of performance” by those versed in the language of theatre anthropology. By proclaiming ta’ziyeh—alongside forms like naqqali and ru-howzi — to be the Pahlavi national forms of cultural expression, they could be understood legibly as forms of world theatre and thus part of a bourgeois-cosmopolitan family of nations.

The year after Brook’s visit, the theme of the 1970 Shiraz Festival was indeed “Ritual and Theatre.” A debate was held on the subject of “Eastern and Western” theatre through the prism of ritual, involving Farrokh Ghaffary, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Nuria Espert, Arby Ovanessian and the critics Raymonde Temkine and Erika Munk, who recently had spent a year as editor of The Drama Review after succeeding Richard Schechner. The lead catalogue essay was contributed by the scholar, playwright and film maker Bahram Beyzai, whose Namayesh dar Iran (Theatre in Iran), published in 1965, would become a cornerstone of Persian-language scholarship on theatre. In his Shiraz essay, Beyzai sets up a dichotomy between what is understood as “ritual” (A’yin; the religious, ritual) and the theatre of speech, dialogue, the everyday. While not making recourse to a particular historical context, he thinks of ritual as a premodern phenomenon—as an expression of “the entire ideology of the tribe”—with modern drama set up as its other.[49] The aim of ritual was “limitless [metaphysical] expression,” and a “spiritual elevation” through its aesthetic deployment of repetition, in particular. Beyzaie implies that with the European Enlightenment and the “development of man as the center of the universe,” theatre as a single form or offshoot of ritual practices came to occupy a narrowly analytic social function. This narrative suggests a Euro-centric, centre-periphery emanation; however, as Beyzai’s history approaches the present he posits a joint analytic field between West and East. He writes: “The desire to transcend one’s own being, the desire for sublimation through something beyond oneself is a hopeless struggle that constitutes the life of modern man.” Here Beyzai writes in the mode of Nasr, seeing an existential alienation in “modern man,” to be remedied through a return to the spirit. That desire for a transcendent shared experience took a particular form in Shiraz through the embrace of ta’ziyeh-as-ritual.

The question of an intellectual frame for ta’ziyeh was cause for debate during the 1976 symposium. Two colleagues from Tehran University, Mohammad Jafar Mahjub and Parviz Mamnun, publicly disagreed over the extent of European influence on the historical development of ta’ziyeh.[50] There was disagreement between members of the public and Farrokh Ghaffari, one of the festival organizers, about whether it was even appropriate for the work to be presented in a festival context, given the way in which it had largely become a rural form during the twentieth century.[51] Simmering tensions over the uses of ta’ziyeh in the festival context erupted during and after a final Q&A, held “by popular demand” several days after the symposium.[52] Brechtian critic Andrzej Wirth of the City University of New York proposed that ta’ziyeh should be secularized, so as to be more useful to contemporary theatre makers. Wirth attempted a secularizing semiotic analysis of ta’ziyeh’s “symbolic,” “stereotyped iconic,” and “stereotyped index signs” in his essay, declaring: “a ta’ziyeh event is a paradise for a semiologist.”[53] A Tehran Journal critic shot back at Wirth’s reading, labelling such interpretations condescending, and asserting: “Must [ta’ziyeh] be made contemporary for [it] to be considered as viable art?”[54] In a further dig at both scholars like Wirth and the director Shuji Terayama, whose work Ship of Fools was presented at the festival that year and who had similarly expressed hope for a secularization of ta’ziyeh, the critic wrote: “While serious scholars [those other than Wirth] studying the ta’zieh must examine it within the context of the host culture, artists continue to blissfully defy scholarship with their entrancing whims…”[55] The secular co-optation of ta’ziyeh by avant-garde artists and Western scholars raised serious questions about whether the festival contributed to the abstraction of the form from its social roots.

Wirth’s semiotic approach to ta’ziyeh derives primarily from linguistics, and it seem to me that this interpretive mode is a cousin of the linguistic turn in symbolic anthropology of the period. Clifford Geertz wrote of culture as a “text” or “document,” full of symbols and signifiers to be “read” by ethnographers deploying the same toolkit as they traverse the globe.[56] Geertz’s study of religion-as-culture, a “system of symbols”[57] that could be interpreted by an outsider, clearly had an influence on the understanding of ta’ziyeh put forth by Wirth, Beeman, and Chelkowski. A “religious” “ritual” — two modalities of “culture”—could be analyzed according to secular anthropological criteria, like a text, and then compared with other forms of “performance.” Through such a process, ta’ziyeh could be naturalized as a cultural performance comparable to contemporary theatre.

The ritual frame was predominant among scholars of ta’ziyeh based in the United States. Chelkowski, Wirth, William Beeman, Enrico Fulchigoni, and William Hannaway all use the ritual concept in their contributions to the collection, whether or not they explicitly cite Turner. Such conceptual contributions largely contrasted with the historically-grounded contributions by numerous scholars based in Iran, including Mayel Baktash and Mohammad Jafar Mahjub. Those cultural forms identified as ritual in the particular discourses of theatre studies and cultural anthropology during this decade were understood through a chain of associations with notions of authenticity, indigeneity and tradition via academic keywords like “communitas” and “liminality.” These terms are inextricably associated with the writing of British anthropologist Victor Turner, and correlated forms of scholarship that reify a primordial, ahistorical image of “non-western” cultural production. In the context described here, it is clear that the concept of ritual acted as a bridge to the proposed secularization of ta’ziyeh through their mutual association with the discourse of performance, grounded in avant-garde artistic production. If ta’ziyeh was considered a ritual, and thus a form of performance, it was just as suitable a source of inspiration for artists as any other form on the broad spectrum.

William Beeman offers the most extensive engagement with Turner in his essay for the Chelkowski publication. Beeman explicitly brackets historical readings of ta’ziyeh in prior scholarship, in favor of a “cultural performance” frame. A common methodological problem of performance analysis, the approach Beeman favors places higher value on “patterns of cultural symbolism” and “presentational conventions” than social context, material circumstances, or historical change. Using Turner, he frames ta’ziyeh as a “social drama” that “achieve[s] a change in a state of affairs through specific performance.”[58] This leads to a familiar semiotic taxonomy of representational conventions: times, spaces, symbols that together produce ritual efficacy. Reading Beeman and Wirth’s use of the ritual frame, it is hard not to see heterogenous histories and experiences translated into a mis en scene of “things” for easy consumption by a European readership.

Chelkowski’s own contribution to the 1979 collection, framing ta’ziyeh as the “Indigenous Avant-Garde Theatre of Iran,” has certainly been the most widely-cited in subsequent English-language studies[59] The piece was published several times before and after 1979, including as a pamphlet produced to announce the ta’ziyeh focus of the 1976 Shiraz Festival.[60] Most of this brief essay is quite straight-forward. Like his colleague Farrokh Ghaffary, Chelkowski was interested in raising public awareness about ta’ziyeh, and thus took several pages to recount the history of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom and its commemoration. In the final pages of Chelkowski’s analysis there is an explicit gesture towards a Western readership interested in a possible link between “indigenous” Iranian performance (the nationalist and Orientalist scholarly focus of attention) and the contemporary avant-garde—assumed by Chelkowski to be a Euro-American phenomenon.

Chelkowski describes a historical split in the practice of ta’ziyeh between professionals and amateurs. The latter, arguably the social group responsible for ensuring ta’ziyeh’s survival during its years out of favor under Reza Shah, are dismissed as practitioners of a “village tradition,” a “primitive ceremony.”[61] Yet Chelkowski offers a parallel between the work of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski and ta’ziyeh, when he describes ta’ziyeh as the “unconscious avant-garde of the ‘poor theatre.’”[62] Like his performance theorist colleagues, Chelkowski focuses in on the actor-spectator relationship as the heart of the “ritual,” the locus of a “common humanity” that contemporary theatre practitioners were also striving toward:

“The actor-spectator confrontation in ta’ziyeh and its archetypal themes induce self-analysis in all who participate and create in them an inner harmony. Ta’ziyeh is such a personal and serious drama that it captures the very essence of thought and emotions embracing life, death, the Supreme Being, and fellow men. To students of the history of theatre and to those who are engaged in experimental theatre, ta’ziyeh holds the promise of stimulating new theatrical ideas and experiences.”[63]

Chelkowski positions this indigenous avant-garde in a cyclical, empty spiritual time in a manner reminiscent of Turner’s and Beyzai’s accounts of ritual. However, for those outside of the ritual form it holds the promise of a historical inspiration: commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein becomes a site for “stimulating ideas”—with the only example of contemporary practice cited being the familiar intercultural practitioner, Grotowski. Chelkowski states: “[Poor theatre] is only possible by reinvesting dramatic action with ritual and establishing a common denominator or archetype, such as, in Ta’ziyeh, the redemptive martyrdom of Hussein at Kerbela. Grotowski seems to be striving for what have always been the fundamental principles of Ta’ziyeh.”[64]

In this interpretive turn, Chelkowski situates ta’ziyeh as indigenous ritual and as avant-garde performance, with material consequences. This encounter between intellectual formations—nationalist sentiment seeking to connect “traditional” and “spiritual” forms to the state, Orientalists seeking a ritual essence in human communitas, and avant-garde artists hungry for formal inspiration—clearly focused the minds of some close to power. As the main presentation closed in 1976, it was announced that a new “Center for Indigenous Iranian Art” would be established, with Farah’s patronage and directed by Farrokh Ghaffary.[65]

By the time of the 1977 festival, the last that would be held, this new institution was already functional, with plans for a rapid expansion. William Beeman was leading the nascent institute on research trips, and planning an event on traditional improvisatory theatre in Asia for Shiraz. Under a revised name, the “Institute for Traditional Performance and Ritual” was founded with a remit to “protect, encourage, and do research on” forms like ta’ziyeh and naqqali both in an Iranian context and through their international manifestations.[66] Considerable resources were mobilized to build the institution, with a suggestion that the organization’s scope might expand to include traditional performance forms of “Iran, Asia, African, and Latin American countries.” Such an expansive scope raised the prospect of an extraordinary counter-Third World cultural project, framed by the politics of late-Pahlavi Iran.

A five-point plan for institution-building included the construction of a library, a museum, a broad range of publications and the somewhat disquieting aim to “financially and morally encourage artists and groups in order to enable them to break through the limitations encumbering them.”[67] While there is more research to be done on this short-lived venture pre-revolution, perhaps the most thorough taxonomy of the institution’s research platform can be found in an article by its eventual director, Farrokh Ghaffary. Ghaffary published “Evolution of Rituals of Theater in Iran” after he had left the country for France.[68] Ghaffary gives a brief history of all manner of theatre, pageants, puppet forms, religious rites, that would have fallen under the remit of the Institute. Yet the major Institute publication before the revolution was in a sense its founding document: the collection of 1976 conference proceedings edited by Chelkowski.

The Chelkowski symposium and its publication of proceedings was the high-water mark of a collaboration between spiritualists, historians of Iran, theatre anthropologists, and avant-garde artists facilitated by the Pahlavi state, via the Shiraz Arts Festival. Whether deliberately or not, the scholars and artists who contributed to the institutionalization of ta’ziyeh-as-ritual—most of whom worked, or subsequently worked, in the US academy—amplified an apolitical reading that reiterated patterns of nationalist and Orientalist thought. In subsequent decades, as the broad spectrum of performance studies became enshrined in the US academy, Shiraz would take on an almost-mythical character, tinged with a certain nostalgia for Pahlavi patronage. Ta’ziyeh would retain its central place in this imaginary, with its institutionally-endorsed status as Iran’s “national” performance form repeated by several generations of scholars.[69]

Ritual performance theory was always a transnational intellectual formation. It emerged where artists, intellectuals, and institutions shared an interest in concepts of indigeneity, cultural performance, and a sense of lost communitas. By returning to examples like Shiraz scholars may trace the origins of a scholarly category assumed to be “natural,” recognizing it as the product of particular historical conditions. As a discipline long conceived as an intellectual avant-garde in itself, performance studies owes much to the debates happening in Shiraz during the 1970s, where the “traditional” and “avant-garde” were often connected through the discourse of ritual.

[1] Richard Schechner, “Performance Studies: The Broad Spectrum Approach,” TDR, 32.2 (1988), 4-6; 4

[2] For a sample of texts demonstrating the particular influence of Chelkowski’s work, see: EJ Westlake, World Theatre: The Basics (London: Routledge, 2017), William O. Beeman, Iranian Performance Traditions (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2011), Hamid Dabashi, Shiism: A Religion of Protest (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1987)

[3] E. Lucy Deacon, “Remembering through Re-Enacting: Revisiting the Emergence of the Iranian Ta’zia Tradition,” Medieval English Literature, 41 (2020), 58-83; 59

[4] For an extended account of these historical circumstances, See: Kamran Scot Aghaie, The Martyrs of Karbala: Shii Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 48-58. While it is commonly asserted that a full “ban” on ta’ziyeh was enforced from the time of Reza Shah until it was again championed by his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, there is evidence of ta’ziyeh’s continued presence in both rural and, occasionally, city spaces. See: Farrokh Ghaffary, “The Ta’zieh,” in Chaharomin Jashn-e Honar-e Shiraz, Takht-e Jamshid/Fourth Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis (Tehran/Shiraz: Soroush Press/National Iranian Radio and Television, 1970) [unpaginated]

[5] Hamid Dabashi, “Ta’ziyeh as Theatre of Protest,” in TDR, 49.4 (2005) 91-99; 96

[6] For a fuller account of this intellectual and revolutionary history, see the following, extraordinary work: Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution After the Enlightenment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

[7] Scholars in the United States have over the last twenty years begun documenting histories of performance studies as a discipline: the most far-reaching examples of which would be Shannon Jackson, Professing Performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philology to Performativity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004) and James M. Harding and Cindy Rosenthal, eds., The Rise of Performance Studies: Rethinking Richard Schechner’s Broad Spectrum (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Those histories have considered the origins of performance theory beyond the US (and, to a lesser extent, the UK), outside the scope of their study. This is a significant, if understandable, oversight. One of the intentions in the present essay is to begin to offer a corrective: highlighting the ways in which conversations considered foundational to this institutionalized discourse of performance were the product of transnational encounters at international festivals.

[8] This formulation is undeniably informed by the work of James Harding in “From Cutting Edge to Rough Edges: On the Transnational Foundations of Avant-Garde Performance,” in Harding and John Rouse, eds., Not the Other Avant-Garde: The Transnational Foundations of Avant-Garde Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006) 18-40

[9] There is significant debate over the political dimensions of “traditional” arts and folklore in Iran — as is true, of course, across much of the post-imperial and post-colonial world during the 1950s-1970s. For a fuller account of these politics, see: Nematollah Fazeli, Politics of Culture in Iran: Anthropology, Politics, and Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Routledge, 2006)

[10] Vali Mahlouji, “Perspectives on the Shiraz Arts Festival: A Radical Third World Rewriting,” in Iran Modern, ed. by Fereshteh Daftari and Layla Diba (New York: Asia Society, 2013) 87–91; 87

[11] To read Mahlouji’s expansion on these topics, see the text “The Utopian Stage: The Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis (1967-1977),” available at <> [Last accessed 4.14.23]

[12] Afshin Matin-Asgari, Both Eastern and Western: An Intellectual History of Iranian Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) 196-198. Both Nikkhah and Jafarian were ex-communists, expediently undertaking the necessary rhetorical contortions to reframe monarchy as a politics of liberation.

[13] Lindsay Goss, ”You Are Invited Not to Attend: Answering the Call for a Cultural Boycott of the Shiraz Arts Festival,” Performance Paradigm, 14 (2018), 10-27; 21

[14] One can see this evidenced at Shiraz in the accounts given by the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds members in Laurence Shyer, Robert Wilson and His Collaborators (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1989)

[15] To offer a couple of examples from 1976: Mari Harouni, “Catcalls for Shabat,” The Tehran Journal (August, 29, 1976); and as Janet Lazarian would recall of a performance by Stockhausen: “Women in chadors screeched with laughter from under their veils as the bangs and yowls echoed round the old walls and roofs of the old bazaar. Stockhausen didn’t seem to notice, he’s not that kind of man.” Janet Lazarian, “Enthusiasm Among Shirazis,” The Tehran Journal (August 25, 1976), 2

[16] James Underwood, “The Shiraz Affair,” The Tehran Journal (September 10, 1972), 6

[17] Zhand Shakibi, Pahlavi Iran and the Politics of Occidentalism: The Shah and the Rastakhiz Party (London: IB Tauris, 2020), 284

[18] Goss, “You Are Invited Not to Attend,” 15

[19] Eric Bentley, “For Intellectual Freedom in Iran,” Theatre Quarterly, 24.6 (1976) 93-94

[20] Schechner, “The Broad Spectrum Approach,” 5

[21] Goss, “You Are Invited Not to Attend,” 24

[22] H. E. Chehabi, “The Shiraz Festival and its Place in Iran’s Revolutionary Mythology,” in Roham Alvandi, ed., The Age of Aryamehr: Late Pahlavi Iran and its Global Entanglements (London: Gingko Library, 2018), 168-201; 195-196

[23] See the extensive work of Ali Mirsepassi, for example his account of the intellectual foundations of this spirituality in Transnationalism in Iranian Political Thought: The Life and Times of Ahmad Fardid (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017)

[24] The critique of Western “materialism” – its obsession with consumer goods and technological view of society – would be leveled from myriad political directions during the 1970s. The idea of “Westoxification” or “Occidentosis” (Persian: gharbzadegi) was coined by the Heideggerian public intellectual Ahmad Fardid, but popularized by the anti-colonial critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad. See the excellent film: The Fabulous Life and Thought of Ahmad Fardid (Hamed Yousefi and Ali Mirsepassi, 2015)

[25] My thanks to William Chittick for his insight into this range of IIAP participants.

[26] Peter Lamborn Wilson, “Engineers and Mystics: Chances for a Postindustrial Iran,” Worldview (December 1976), 18

[27] Andrew Scott Cooper, The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran (New York: Picador, 2016), 446-447

[28] Most clearly those of the saqqakhaneh movement in the visual arts. See Hossein Zenderoudi’s description of his “spiritual quest” in: Hossein Zenderoudi, “Arab-Islamic Calligraphy in My Body of Work,” in Arabic Hurufiyya, ed. by Sharbal Daghir and Samir Mahmoud (1982; Milan: Skira, 2016), 142. My thanks to Hamed Yousefi for sharing this text with me. For a sense of connectedness of the Pahlavi state to the IIAP, see, among many other articles: “Empress Underlines Task Ahead for Philosophical Society,” Tehran Journal (Monday May 10, 1976), 1

[29] On “hippie orientalists,” see Brian Edwards, Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, From Casablanca to the Marrakech Express (Duham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); on culture without bureaucracy see Wilson, “Engineers and Mystics,” 18; for the definitive account of the true violence of Wilson’s cosmology, see Michael Muhammad Knight, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an (Berkeley: Soft Skull, 2012)

[30] Wilson’s byline for the above cited Worldview article is simply: “Peter Lamborn Wilson is on the staff of the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy in Tehran.” For a representative sample of his work — including under the pseudonym Peter Cranston — see: Peter Lamborn Wilson, “The Saqqakhaneh,” in Saqqakhaneh (Tehran: Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, 1977); Peter Cranston, “[Robert] Wilson’s Quest for the ‘Spirit,’” Tehran Journal (September 18, 1972), 7; Nasrollah Pourjaverdy and Peter Lamborn Wilson, Kings of Love: the poetry and history of the Ni’matullahi Sufi Order (Tehran: Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, 1978). The “Cranston” pseudonym first came to my attention via the bibliography of Lloyd Miller’s The Music and Song of Persia: The Art of Avaz (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[31] Peter Lamborn Wilson, “Ta’zieh,” in Dahomin jashn-e honar-e Shiraz, takht-e jamshid (Tehran: Soroush Press, 1976), 119-123. Of course, the Pahlavi state was hiring multitudes of such bureaucrats and technical experts for government projects during the 1960s and 1970s—including many from the United States. In Shiraz, Pahlavi University (now Shiraz University) formed a close partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, with scholars and administrators from the American institution regularly traveling to Iran to assist in the transformation of its academic and administrative structures into a US-style system.

[32] Wilson, “Engineers and Mystics,” 18; Knight, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qu’ran, 86

[33] Janet Lazarian, “A light start to the symposium,” Tehran Journal (18 August, 1976), 3

[34] Lazarian, “A light start,” 3

[35] Hito Steyerl, “Duty Free Art,” e-flux, 63 (2015) <> [Last accessed 2.14.23] She is explicitly referring to the arguments contained in Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991)

[36] “Contributors,” in Review of National Literatures, ed. by Javad Haidari, 2.1 (1971), 7

[37] Peter Chelkowski, “Dramatic and Literary Aspects of Ta’zieh-Khani – Iranian Passion Play,” Review of National Literatures (1971), 121

[38] Chelkowski, “Dramatic and Literary Aspects,” 121, 133

[39] Chelkowski, “Dramatic and Literary Aspects,” 134

[40] Aamir R. Mufti, Forget English: Orientalisms and World Literatures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 24-27; 11

[41] Mufti, Forget English, 91

[42] Mufti, Forget English, 98

[43] Mufti, Forget English, 11

[44] Mufti, Forget English, 19

[45] Schechner, “The Broad Spectrum Approach,” 5

[46] Orange notebook about his trip to Iran, ca.1971. Peter Brook Collection. V&A Theatre and Performance Collections. GB 71 THM/452/12/1/6

[47] Orange notebook about his trip to Iran, Brook Collection

[48] Apparently unbeknownst to Brook, there had been a ta’ziyeh performance at the first Shiraz Arts Festival, in 1967

[49] Bahram Beyzaie, “Darbareh-e Namayesh-e A’yini/Ritual Theatre,” in Chaharomin Jashn-e Honar-e Shiraz (1970) [unpaginated]

[50] Janet Lazarian, “Scholarly debate erupts on ta’ziyeh,” Tehran Journal (August 21, 1976), 2

[51] Janet Lazarian, “Festival Hopes and Failures,” Tehran Journal (August 23, 1976), 2

[52] Bijan Khorsand and Rafiq Keshavjee, eds., Yazdahhomin jashn-e honar-e Shiraz (Tehran: Sorough Press, 1977), 50

[53] Andrzej Wirth, “Semiological Aspects of the Ta’ziyeh” in Chelkowski, ed., Taziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran (New York: NYU Press, 1979), 32-39; 35, 34

[54] Bryan Brumley, “Ta’zieh — the clash of opinions continues,” Tehran Journal (August 30, 1976), 2

[55] Brumley, “Ta’zieh,” 2

[56] Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 3-30; 10

[57] Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, 87-125; 90

[58] William O. Beeman, “Cultural Dimensions of Performance Conventions in Iranian Ta’ziyeh,” in Chelkowski, Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran, 25

[59] Peter Chelkowski, “Ta’ziyeh: Indigenous Avant-garde Theatre of Iran,” in Taziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran, 1-11; 1

[60] Though perhaps more immediately recognizable for scholars of theatre and performance in the Euro-American academy, it appeared in Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta, eds., Interculturalism and Performance: Writings from PAJ (New York: PAJ Publications, 1991) 216-227. For the original Chelkowski pamphlet, see Taziyeh: Indigenous Avant-Garde Theatre of Iran (Tehran: NIRT/Soroush Press, 1975)

[61] Chelkowski, “Ta’ziyeh: Indigenous Avant-Garde,” 10

[62] Chelkowski, “Ta’ziyeh: Indigenous Avant-Garde,” 9

[63] Chelkowski, “Ta’ziyeh: Indigenous Avant-Garde,” 10-11

[64] Chelkowski, “Ta’ziyeh: Indigenous Avant-Garde,” 10-11

[65] “Good Tidings for Ta’zieh,” Tehran Journal (August 24, 1976), 2

[66] Khorsand and Keshavjee, eds., Yazdahhomin jashn-e honar, 50. For clarity, note that this is the title given to the Institute in the Chelkowski collection in 1979, yet in 1977 the same organization was referred to as the “Iranian Center for Traditional Performance” in the Shiraz Festival program of 1977.

[67] Khorsand and Keshavjee, Yazdahhomin jasn-e honar, 50

[68] Farrokh Ghaffary, “Evolution of Rituals and Theater in Iran,” Iranian Studies, 17.4 (1984) 361-389

[69] See the candid admission and critique by Reza Mirsajadi: “[u]pon entering grad school with the intention of working on Iranian theatre and performance, the question always posed to me was: ‘Oh, so you’re interested in taziyeh, right?’ If the Middle East is represented at all in theatre history, especially Iran, it has always been within the context of taziyeh.” Rana Esfandiary, et al, “2020 ATHE Conference Middle Eastern Theatre Focus Group Roundtable: Pedagogy and Absence,” Theatre Topics, 31.1 (2021) 9-16; 10

Matthew Randle-Bent is a scholar and artist from the United Kingdom, based in Chicago. He completed his PhD in Northwestern’s Interdisciplinary program in Theatre and Drama in Spring 2023. His dissertation tells the story of the International Theatre Institute’s Third World committee during the 1970s, as part of a wider revision to the history of late-twentieth century avant-garde theatre, and performance theory. He teaches dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at The Theatre School at DePaul University. In Fall 2022 he was an artist in residence at The Watermill Center. More of his writing can be found in Contemporary Theatre Review, Theatre Journal, and

Arab Stages
Volume 14 (Spring 2023)
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founding Editor: Marvin Carlson

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor: Edward Ziter

Performance Reviews Editor: Katherine Hennessey

Book Reviews Editor: George Potter

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

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo

Table of Contents:

“Indigenous Avant-Gardes”: The Shiraz Arts Festival and Ritual Performance Theory in 1970s Iran by Matthew Randle-Bent

Up There by Wael Kadour, Introduction by Edward Ziter

Baba written by Denmo Ibrahim, directed by Hamid Dehghani, reviewed by Suzi Elnaggar

Decolonizing Sarah: A Hurricane Play written and directed by Samer Al-Saber, reviewed by George Potter

Layalina written by Martin Yousif Zebari, directed by Sivan Battat, reviewed by Sami Ismat

Mother Courage adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price, reviewed by Hassan Hajiyah

Playwright Showcase, New Arab American Theater Works, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Review of MUKHRIJĀT AL-MASRAḤ AL-MIṢRĪ (1990-2010): DIRĀSA SĪMIYŪṬĪQĪYAH [Female Egyptian Directors (1990-2010): A Semiotic Study], written by Hadia Abd El-Fattah, reviewed by Areeg Ibrahim

Review of Theaters of Citizenship: Aesthetics and Politics of Avant-Garde Performance in Egypt written by Sonali Pahwa, reviewed by Suzi Elnaggar

Review of Syrian Refugees, Applied Theater, Workshop Facilitation, and Stories: While They Were Waiting written by Fadi Skeiker, reviewed by Sonja Arsham Kuftinec

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar