Projects Radio TablEpisode 3 •Theater during the Cold War

Conversation between Mohammad Tolouei1 and Shahram Zargar2Writer, Narrator, Sound Recorder and Editor: Farzan Asadian
Composer: Mani Jafarzadeh

The third episode of Tabl Radio is on theater, which in two chapters presents discussions on the conflicts between the eastern and the western forces in Iran, during the cold war, that were served as supporters of theaters for the capital vs. theaters for the public. Thereafter, it reviews the formation of almost independent movements in the free, cultural atmosphere after the 1953 Iranian coup d’état and the destiny of theater artists, until the Islamic Revolution. These discussions continue with reminding a short, but influential era from the Islamic Revolution until the Iran-Iraq war and mentions the fall of the theater in the 80s. These two chapters were recorded continuously.

Part 1 • 19 January 2021 — 39 mins.

The East-West conflict, in Iranian theater, is manifest in the confrontation between capital-based theater and people-based theater; a current that is symbolized, for instance, by Bolshevik theater and Broadway. Unlike Broadway, theater as entertainment for masses was unprecedented. In Russia, however, this tradition existed as agitprop (exciting propaganda). The emergence of theater in Iran was relatively late and concurrent with the constitutional movement, and due to a lack of a scene and the academic knowledge of performance, it practically took even more time before it was established. In this context, the non-material tools of modernity facilitated creativity in playwriting.
There were also plays, such as those of Abdol-Hossein Noushin, that were the result of both science and art of performance. More than an intellectual, one must consider Noushin as a cultural activist. The importers of theater in Iran, namely Akhoondzadeh, instead of considering theater as a form of art, were obsessed with theater as an intellectual movement. Noushin, on the other hand, was the first person to direct a new form of Iranian theater. He would analyze screenplays and encouraged the actors to present an interpretation of the text through analysis, rather than mere straightforward reproduction. In contrast to Noushin, as a representative of socialist theater, in the latter part of the first Pahlavi era, with an authoritarian modernization and the formation of the Organization for Intellectual Development, an opposing conservative movement emerged. The Organization for Intellectual Development led to the formation of a theatrical movement with the ultimate goal of illuminating the morality of the audience.
Other parallel theatrical movements were more formalist and less ideological, namely the movement influenced by the arrival of Americans in Iran, state theater influenced by the leftism, and the movement that was the result of the Theater Workshop. In the 1950s, the influx of American professors at the School of Fine Arts at Tehran University, which still did not have a department for cinema and theater, paved the way for a theater based on national roots and folklore legends. At the same time, the entertaining theater of Lalehzar Avenue had a constant presence and flourished even more after the 1953 coup d’état, with the consequent closure of cultural spaces that ultimately led to the departure of groups that followed more serious theatrical movements, from Lalehzar.

Part 2 • 6 February 2021 — 35 mins.

In the late 1960s theater became a tool for protest, when Leftism, with performing works of Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, took shape in the heart of right-wing institutions, namely the Department of Fine Arts in the Ministry of Art and Culture. The actors of these leftist plays later formed their own theater groups.
The arrival of people who were educated abroad brought with it a flow of Western theater that translated plays of unknown writers, and subsequently, changed the tastes of the audience and highlighted independent artists. These artists did not get along well with the government and even refused to participate in the Shiraz Art Festival, a celebration with unconventional and avant-garde performances that eventually led to its closure and may have even played a role in creating the initial sparks of the Revolution. In the meantime, Molavi Theater, a center for Tehran University’s extracurricular activities, with radical and performances that showed opposition, was where theater enthusiasts had their eyes on.
This process continued until the Revolution. Two or three years after the Revolution it brought along the golden age of theater; because firstly, the relative freedom that lasted until the 80s made it possible to perform works that were previously banned, for example, during this time, Beyzai, Dariush Farhang, and Samandarian brought some of those pieces on the stage; secondly, there were still no restrictions on the presence of actors on stage; and thirdly, the decline of cinema and lack of a cinema that was in line with Islamic ideologies allowed the theater to flourish.
At the beginning of the 1980s, this freedom suddenly came to an end and art became a logistical tool behind the front lines. Social criticism no longer had a place in this atmosphere. The ups and downs of theater continued until the 90s, without any significant thematic or visual achievements, but eventually, a number of respectable performances came on stage.

1 - Mohammad Tolouei - born in 1979, Rasht, is an author, playwriter, and poet.

2 - Shahram Zargar - born in 1965, Tehran, is a university professor, translator, and actor.