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From NY's 'Die Walküre' to Tehran's 'Antigone': Survival within Death

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in New York and Tehran

29 May 2011 17:14Comments


Hailing the army of the fallen.

[ theater ] In the last week of April, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi spoke at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and discussed her latest book, The Golden Cage. Her description of the current political situation in Iran, addressed to the students in attendance, was a basic summary of political events following the 2009 presidential election and offered no new perspective on Iran.

Afterward, I bought her book, which opens with a prologue that alludes to some of the darkest acts of the Iranian regime: During the summer of 1988, in the desert of Khavaran, thousands of mothers, wives, and sisters look for the corpses of their sons, brothers, and husbands.

Thousands of political prisoners have been buried there, one on top of the other, like mowed hay. Deemed zedd-e enghelab, counterrevolutionaries, they were denied funerals and internment in Muslim cemeteries. "No memorial services. If you're lucky, we'll let you know where you can find the body" -- that's all the families of the condemned were told. The dead, considered traitors by the government, were discovered only after weeks, even months, of silence and uncertainty. The women who sought their remains were violently attacked by pro-government forces. What was this if not a catastrophic vision of inhumanity? Even if these so-called counterrevolutionaries were evil, how could one refuse a mother, a wife, a sister the right to bury her beloved?

In certain ways, things have changed. More than 20 years have passed and our current government has become fearful of death, as if it considers opposition figures more dangerous once they depart this realm. Even the funeral of Naser Hejazi, the legendary football player, was overseen by innumerable police and Basijis. The Islamic Republic of Iran, training its Shia population to venerate martyrs and saints, had fallen into its own trap. Figures like the reformist Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the martyr Neda Agha Soltan, and Hejazi himself have become icons of the Green Movement, their funerals transformed into symbolic sites of protest and rebellion.

Two days after Ebadi's speech, a new production of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre, staged by the Canadian Robert Lepage, premiered at New York's Metropolitan Opera. In the story's mythical realm, whoever bears the magic ring forged by Alberich the Nibelung has the power to rule the world. But to attain this, one must first renounce love. In this second opera of the Ring cycle, Wotan, ruler of the gods, is warned by Erda, the earth goddess, to give up the cursed ring. Her prophesy makes him realize that the end of the gods is near. Married to the goddess Fricka, he also has nine daughters from his union to Erda. His daughters, the Valkyries, have a specific function, which is to protect his power against Alberich, the ring's creator.

These warrior women choose heroes who have fallen in battle and conduct the souls of the deceased champions to afterlife in Valhalla, Wotan's majestic hall, where they form an eternal army. The immortal, divine Valkyries are tough and proud, virginal and maternal, and they remain faithful to Wotan's patriarchal authority.

Among them, Brunhilde is Wotan's favorite. Besides her primal role, she also has to protect her brother Siegmund, Wotan's son by a mortal mother. When Fricka, Wotan's wife and guardian of morality and marriage, convinces him to let his son die because he has fallen in love with his twin sister, Sieglinde, Brunhilde disobeys her father and tries to save him. Wotan interferes and Siegmund is killed. But Brunhilde saves his pregnant wife (she will die soon after, giving birth to a son). Wotan's punishment is inflexible: for defying his authority, the rebel Brunhilde is made mortal and imprisoned by a ring of magic fire that can be crossed only by a hero ignorant of fear.

At the end of Die Walküre, as the result of his own law, Wotan has lost three children. What did Brunhilde do if not the right thing? To put the question another way, What could she do except save her siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde? Confronting such an extreme situation, how can one even believe in authority? Since when are matters of the heart ruled by patriarchal laws?

Ebadi's new book, her apocalyptic description of the Khavaran desert, the Valkyries bringing fallen heroes to an afterlife in Valhalla, Brunhilde defying her father -- this shower of images brought my memory back to the last Fajr International Theater Festival that took place this February.

I first remembered a conversation. "This Homayoon Ghanizadeh loves scandal. This is all he is looking for. And because of him, we are all going to be subjected to more restrictions." Hearing these understandable but unfaithful words, I had remained quiet. It was right after the opening of the play Antigone, based on Sophocles' tragedy, and rewritten and directed by Ghanizadeh (whose production of Camus's Caligula I analyzed in "Caligula in Tehran"). The performance -- at the end of which Ghanizadeh came onstage to loudly denounce censorship -- provoked such a scandal at the Tehran City Theater that other artists competing in the festival feared for their own projects.

The man accusing Ghanizadeh knew that the act of one individual would impact on the whole system. Playwrights, directors, actors, stage and costume designers, assistants -- all were exhausted and depressed by the unceasing morality inspections and censorship, and it was obvious they couldn't handle more interdictions.

Frankly, I couldn't imagine how censorship could get more severe than what it had been during the last weeks before the festival. Instead of facing a single inspector from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, as before, artists had to confront three hardliners directly nominated by the parliament.

The establishment of this new executive committee of moral guidance was a major development in the Iranian theater world. In contrast to the film production system, Iran's theater scene used to enjoy a greater measure of freedom. Even if shows were regularly shut down, the system as a whole continued to operate with relative liberty.

But times have changed and the new government attitude toward the performing arts has made theater people's lives extremely difficult -- not only do they have to fight for each artistic project as a whole, but now every line, every word, every action must be keenly defended.

In this context, Ghanizadeh's Antigone was problematic. In Sophocles' version, Antigone returns to Thebes, her native city, after her father's death at Colonus. In Thebes, she rebels against the patriarchal law imposed by her uncle Creon, the new Theban king, who forbids the mourning of Polyneices, Antigone's sibling, who is considered a traitor. Attempting to bury her brother's corpse, Antigone is sentenced to death by her uncle, and she hangs herself.

In truth, the Greek princess Antigone, Oedipus's daughter, is the champion in defying authority. She brings not only the collective memory of dead prisoners condemned to the common grave -- and this without a single funeral oration -- but she also revives, in Ghanizadeh's version, people's furor over recent dramatic events.

Some words in Ghanizadeh's adaptation of the play were unacceptable to the censors. Antigone, as she expresses her indignation over her brother's death, affirms that he has been killed on the pavement -- a clear allusion to Neda Agha Soltan's murder during the postelection protests and to the two students, Mohammad Mokhtari and Saneh Jaleh, who were killed during the 25 Bahman demonstrations, just a few days before the opening.

Another situation also created conflicts. Creon has a son who is in love with Antigone. During a confrontation with his father, he tries to strangle him and yells, "I want the power now! I want to become a king right away!" Beyond doubt, the vision of a son trying to kill his father was equally unacceptable to the authorities.

The play was written in Estonian, and both Farsi and English subtitles were planned. Ghanizadeh was working with the remarkably talented Estonian actors who belong to the RAAAM theater group -- Elina Reinold, who played Antigone, won the festival's best actress award. After the opening, censors decided that some "immoral" phrases in the subtitles would be replaced by a stream of dots. I was told that Ghanizadeh finally accepted their wishes but trained his actors to pronounce the prohibited words in Farsi during the performances.

Spectators who were supposed to attend the first scheduled performance, which was cancelled, joined those standing in line for the second performance. There was an hour-long delay. The audience, waiting outside the theater, grew bigger and bigger. People became nervous and impatient. They started pushing one another, some even fought, and it seemed that attending this play had become a matter of life or death. Finally, the theater doors opened and people ran inside as if racing to find a hidden trunk of gold.

I have seen many performances in different countries, but I had never experienced such a primal, aggressive enthusiasm. Coming from every region of Iran, from every social class and field of employment, those spectators would have done anything to see this play. I am sure only a few knew about Antigone's story, but it didn't matter. Most of them appreciated Ganizadeh's cruel vision of life, and the play gave them a way to escape from their asphyxiated reality.

The set, conceived by Inga Vares was, save for a few black elements, totally painted in bright red. Red were the walls, the stairs, the floor, the roof, the ceiling light, the chairs, and the bed. This color, embodying blood, murder, and revenge, announced the tragic fate of the characters. Suicide, parricide, and fratricide featured in this Greek tragedy, suggesting that some fatal destinies were implacable.

antigone2.jpgA dining table onstage symbolized the tragic fate of Antigone's family: she and her sister Ismene were the only survivors of a royal dynasty. Her father, Oedipus, had left Thebes and died at Colonus. Her mother had committed suicide. Her twin brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, had fought for the crown of Thebes and killed one another.

Haemon, Creon's son, was depicted as an irresponsible and immature man, concerned only with eating. Tiresias, the famous forecaster, had become the family's servant and cook. Antigone was a fragile but determined creature. Eurydice, Creon's wife, had suicidal tendencies and wore a straitjacket. Creon himself was an absolute dictator.

Dinners Ghanizadeh staged throughout the play were haunted by death's memory. Creon was surrounded by members of his family. A terrible smell, coming from Polyneices' rotten body, embarrassed them. The only dish they ate was rotten eggs. This dismembered family focused on little else than their meals and the invisible flies they constantly chased.

There were long, unsettling moments of silence. Time passed slowly. Conversations were rare. The nervous tick-tock of a pendulum underlined the fatal unfolding of the tragic plot: very soon, Antigone, disobeying her uncle's order, would cover her brother's corpse with a thin coat of dust, and die. Haemon would commit suicide as would his mother, leaping out of a window.

The whole play focused on Creon's cruelty. He beat his wife every time she rose from her bed intending to kill herself. Those sequences of violence were very long and almost unbearable. He would first accuse her of giving birth to a son who was eating rotten eggs like pork. Then he would whip her furiously and drag her down a stairway.

The characters looked unreal. Pale as ghosts, wearing white pajamas, they moved in a formalist manner, each with a specific gait and gesture -- Antigone, for instance, frenetically shook her hands; Tiresias shuffled his shoes as he walked, while the coquette Ismene jumped lightly. Though they behaved like insensitive automatons, the scenes of torture, of a husband violently beating his wife, were very realistic. Ironically, those sequences were not censored at all.

Creon repeatedly has a dream, which he relates to Tiresias: He is naked in front of unknown spectators; he tries to take a shower but there is no water. At the end of the play, after Antigone is assassinated by Creon, and Haemon and his mother kill themselves, he goes to the shower cabin for real and enjoys the unexpected arrival of water.

At this concluding moment, Gloria Gaynor's famous song "I Will Survive" suddenly invaded the stage. And the reaction of the audience, which knew the song perfectly, was immediate: they stood up and cheered, loudly expressing their approval. Yes, our deaths are still alive and here is our revenge. Like the deceased warriors in Wagner's Die Walküre, our fallen heroes have built an invisible army, and their ghostly presence is more powerful than ever. Strangely, despite the fact that the censors insisted Creon not take off his pants in the shower cabin, they didn't forbid this final scene, whose message was far more provocative than any fat naked legs.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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