Better Than Art, Better Than Theater: The Divine Magic of Ta’ziyeh

I can’t imagine a more significant or touching time at the theater than the three nights I’ve just spent in the modest, hypnotic company of the Iranian performers who were our guests at the Lincoln Center Festival 2002. It is, firstly, a wonderful achievement by the steadfast festival organizers to have gotten them here in the first place. Ten members of the Iranian troupe of 28 were denied visas to enter the United States. On what grounds? There was a risk, apparently, of these artists becoming economic refugees. It was feared they might defect! My, my. I never thought I’d live to see the day when the stability of the U.S. would be threatened by a troupe of actors.

Even at the height of the Cold War in the 50′s, Russian artists were made welcome in this country. (And a handful did defect, Nureyev and Baryshnikov among them. Aren’t you glad?) Great art has no borders, as the nucleus of the Iranian performers showed to all hearts open enough to receive them. But “art” is the wrong word here. The performances of the eternal ritual stories known as Ta’ziyeh of Hor are something better than “art” or even “theater.” If you will, it is an artless art, which for me is unpretentiously the best thing of all.

Small wonder the Ta’ziyeh has influenced the likes of Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski in the West. They saw in its transparent simplicity a near-unattainable magic that could transform our understanding of the possibilities of theater. Ta’ziyeh , which means “mourning,” tells the story of one of the most sacred events in the history of the Shiite Muslim religion-the Battle of Kerbala, in which Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, and his followers were massacred in A.D. 680. It’s a sacred ritual of martyrdom in the sense that the Passion plays re-create the biblical story of Christ.

When the Times critic derides the singing in Ta’ziyeh for seeming like the drone of “an endless bar mitzvah,” has he a clue what an insult this is? The blinkered provinciality of our proud American culture takes the breath away. I know that I was far from alone in going to see the Iranian troupe more than once because their plaintive prayers and songs are so beautiful, haunting and divine. They are eternal laments. At the same time, the ritual of Ta’ziyeh , whose roots can be traced back to the 16th century, is a form of popular theater. Part pageant, part spectacle (and even broad comedy), it traditionally takes place in the village squares of Iran before huge, animated crowds who laugh and weep with the well-known Farsi legends, and even join in the songs.

Clearly, we mostly secular Westerners aren’t able to do that, and the sacred aspects of the ritual could only be sensed. Though some among the packed audiences under the tent at Damrosch Park would have liked a simultaneous translation-supertitles, perhaps-to help us understand the linguistic nuances, I’m not sure. Regardless of language, it remains a powerful truth of theater that emotion always speaks to emotion. In such timeless ways-and unearthly timelessness is the miracle of Ta’ziyeh -elemental truths about humanity can be universally shared.

It might help to know in advance that the heroes always sing, whereas the villains are confined to mere words, and that all female roles are performed by men in veils. Foreigners are usually dressed quaintly in Napoleonic hats and 19th-century court attire with comic sunglasses. (Coincidentally, in popular African theater, foreigners are dressed as British buffoons in ludicrously stiff colonial outfits.) But I found that I had little difficulty following these epic legends of war and fate, of families and terrible suffering, for the surprise of Ta’ziyeh is that it appears to be as innocent as children’s theater.

Shortly before Brecht died, the great innovator told Peter Brook: “You know what my ideal term for the theater would be? It would be ‘Theater of Naivety.’” Ta’ziyeh possesses the secret. Its apparent naïveté disarms sophisticated Western eyes schooled in “Art” with a capital A. There is no polished, expert performance. We are thrust into another world from the first sight of the troupe entering the tent to play on the circular stage.

On they came! The adults and children in their robes, walking in a line without pomp or vanity around the stage as if out for a stroll. They seem less like actors than citizens. There are dentists, taxi drivers and merchants among them. To my untutored ears, the musicians-percussionists and trumpet-players-that greet them had the discordant blare of an early street band. A couple of indifferent camels, and a few goats, might join the action like lost souls. How, then, does the magic happen?

All props-swords, shields and cups, along with little piles of straw (straw, we learn, can signal mourning)-are revealed for all to see at the edges of the stage. This is a theater, then, without secrets. A man-we take him to be Hussein-sleeps on a pillow surrounded by his family. Two warriors on horseback gallop round the path surrounding the stage. (The Ta’ziyeh actors are excellent equestrians.) The musicians bring the warriors on; one of them signals the musicians to stop; he challenges Hussein to a deathly dual. The women and the children panic. How to convey it, this sudden vision of inevitable death? The straw! The women and children, whirling round, throw it over themselves until it becomes a blizzard of tears.

Later, a young child will be killed. The youngster playing him flutters his hand on his heart like a crushed butterfly-a shattering metaphor in a fluttering spasm of death. Hussein will battle his enemies on horseback. All theater directors dread fight scenes. (Movie directors don’t; movie directors are dopes.) But how to stage a fight scene? Ta’ziyeh doesn’t think this way. Nothing it does owes anything to reality, least of all to the realism of films. Ta’ziyeh is the purest form of epic theater, because everything it does is a show. The actual battle scene is token. What is shown is the blood.

Hussein’s white shirt and the neck of the horse become spattered with blood. The actor playing an enemy warrior has swiftly thrown a cup of fake blood at them as they passed him on the battlefield. We’re meant to see it thrown.

There are no secrets in Ta’ziyeh , as I say-no special effects, no lighting tricks, no “great acting.” Brecht’s alienation theories of theater were unself-consciously in place in Ta’ziyeh a few hundred years before he thought of them. A baby will be killed by an arrow. Hussein holds the baby high so all can see. (Public theater requires public display.) The baby itself is a symbolic doll wrapped in cloth. An archer takes aim. But his arrow is fired nowhere near the baby. The arrow isn’t the point. An arrow shot through the heart of a baby would be too fearfully real. No, the imagined death of the baby is the point, like the lament that follows with the symbolic burial.

In Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s memorable angel with the vast white wings famously crashes into the action through the ceiling as the heavens split open to welcome the celestial arrival. (” Very Steven Spielberg!” goes the welcoming line.) In Ta’ziyeh, there’s also an angel. He wears a golden crown. But the Iranian actor playing the angel is seen jogging onto the circular stage from the surrounding darkness, where he remains an actor-a mere human–until he sings. Then he sings like an angel.

All I know is, if you can achieve such simple, open honesty in theater, you go to heaven.