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The Arts | War in the Iranian Theater

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT

22 Jul 2012 18:00Comments
ivanov2.jpgA terrified stupor in the realm of the absurd.

[ society ] Three years have passed since the last presidential election and its violent aftermath. Three years are nothing. But strangely, most of the Iranians I know don't talk about those events anymore. No significant tribute has been paid even on Facebook, though the occurrences of June 2009 were instrumental in establishing it as the virtual theater of political protest.

Could anyone not recall what happened? It is difficult to forget such traumatic violence and humiliation. But memory is a strange thing, it changes over time, and the artistic expression of painful events transforms as well. I have in mind a play I saw in February, during the 30th Fajr International Theater Festival: Two Liters by Two Liters of Peace, written and directed by Hamid Reza Azarang.

During the first two years after June 2009, most of the performing arts events I attended in Tehran evoked desperation and depression. Emblematic of this post-Green Movement era was Ivanov (pictured at right), an adaptation of Chekhov's play rewritten and directed by Amir Reza Koohestani. In his version, Ivanov is a disenchanted young Iranian man, whose profound melancholy embodies not only a lost generation but all Iranians who aspired to social, politic, and economic change in the summer of 2009.

The play's astonishing success can be attributed to the fact that spectators immediately identified with the protagonist's passive state of mind. To a certain degree, all were Ivanov, a man who no longer believed in anything, fully aware of the political situation but capable only of waiting for time to pass, an empty time that would bring nothing, not so much as hope, let alone a better future. Chekhov's original Ivanov commits suicide; Koohestani's lacks even the strength for that.

Between November last year, when I attended Ivanov, to this February, it seemed to me that the vision of Iranian theater had somehow become even more deeply despairing. And what was being gleaned in the abyss was the utter absurdity of life. Two Liters by Two Liters of Peace, an abstract treatment of the subject of war inspired by Beckett's and Ionesco's theater of the absurd, was the most striking example I encountered at the Fajr festival.

On an empty white stage, two couples, each representing a nation, were separated by a large, sinuous blue strip sketched on the floor -- the strip evoked a border, such as that between Iran and Iraq or, given its color, the Strait of Hormuz. All four wore dark sunglasses and orange miner's costumes. A live band played insistently rhythmic funk-rock to which the actors moved like robots.

An offstage voice gave the command to go to war, but none of the characters could interpret the directive. Who was to start, and how?

The offstage voice declared the war over, but the two couples disagreed. Though entirely unclear how to engage in the mandated conflict, they didn't want to renounce it. After a brief, ludicrous debate, they decided to check on the rules of the war. A manual on the topic was handy. But which page should they read? No one had a clue.

Banners unfurled declaring victory. But who was the winner? Who the loser? None could say.

The pointed absurdity of the narrative became clear: these four people were the only survivors of a never-ending war for which the cause had long since been forgotten and the notion of victory rendered meaningless.

Without question, Two Liters by Two Liters of Peace was expressing not only war's universal absurdity but also the very immediate fears of its own social context. Over the winter, the threat of an Israeli attack and the mounting disaster of the domestic economic situation provoked a queer combination of panic and lassitude among the Iranian population. Insecurity had reached such a point that people acted paradoxically calm. Their passive demeanor was certainly a mask, and one could only wonder when it would fall and what would happen then.

In fact, one particular pattern of extreme behavior was already devolving out of the suffocating fear: people were emptying out supermarkets and stocking as many goods as possible. "Prices get higher and higher," said an old woman. "And you know what the most important is for me? Beyond even food? It is washing powder."

A wealthy philanthropist who lives in north Tehran told me that if things continued as they were, the working class, the regime's primary base of popular support, would invade the capital's wealthier neighborhoods and their luxurious residences in the coming months.

"Right now," he said, "they receive some cash provided by the government, but once this is used up, they will have serious problems feeding their families. So what else can they do if not come rob houses on the north side?"

"Aren't you afraid?" I asked.

"Afraid? Why would I be afraid? If another revolution is about to come, it will come from the social base again. A starving stomach always has more power than an indignant awareness. In other words, if intellectuals open the mental doors for change, poor people literally break them down.

"Let's see what happens. I have the means neither to leave the country nor to fight against my people. Whatever happens will decide our collective destiny."

I asked a well-known intellectual if he had no intention to fill his fridge with food. "Not at all," he replied. "You see, the only thing that matters to me is to have a large stock of Kleenex packs. I wouldn't like to go without tissues. That is all that matters to me."

Rather than his stomach, this man's paramount concern was his dignity. He too was expecting to be robbed soon; I am sure that when the time comes, he will elegantly light a cigarette and await his fate.

Observing certain people grieve as if the end of the world approaches while others patiently anticipate the pillaging of their homes or some other, even greater disaster, I realized that everyone was dealing in very personal ways with the fear of an attack, which in turn was exposing the deeper truths of their characters. Beyond depression and despair, there is a point where the immersed observer experiences reality as fundamentally meaningless and illogical. And what realistic choice is left to Iranians other than to become characters in a theater of the absurd?

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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