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Will the Sons Kill the Father?

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Paris and Tehran

23 Apr 2011 17:12Comments
Thoughts about generational conflict in Iranian drama.

[ comment ] A few days ago, the City Theater of Paris featured a dance/theater production choreographed and directed by the Flemish artist Jan Fabre: Prometheus-Landscape II refers to Prometheus, the Greek mythical hero, who steals fire from Zeus, paramount god of Olympus, and gives it to humanity. Zeus punishes Prometheus by binding him to a rock where, day after day, an eagle eats away at his regenerating liver.

In Aeschylus's tragedy Prometheus Bound, he is depicted as a savior of mankind and Zeus as a tyrant who seeks to keep mortals in shadow and ignorance. The Promethean gift of the sacred fire brings not only light and warmth but also enlightenment, knowledge, and all the arts of civilization.

Fabre is an exceptional multidisciplinary artist and troublemaker whose unconventional productions tend to unsettle his audiences. He unveils the astonishing violence of our postmodern society; he stages hysterical, naked bodies, all victim of uncontrolled sexual desires; he expresses our deepest fears and most perverse fantasies; he denounces our immorality and inhuman ambitions; and he believes our feelings of insecurity have made us alienated, weak, and opportunistic.

Here, bluntly, is Fabre's message: You, who watch, have lost your inner flames. You are nothing but shadows, and no light is to be found in your souls. Perhaps needless to say, his work provoked the departure of many spectators who couldn't tolerate Fabre's dire mirror and the image it reflected of themselves.

A dancer takes a microphone and asks the audience, "Where is the new Prometheus of our times? Where are the new heroes who will be brave enough to steal the sacred flame from our new despotic gods and give it to humanity? We need heroes now.

"We need someone who will bring us a new vision from a single spark. A spark can make a hero but we're living in a world without lights. While we fear losing our jobs, fear losing our social lives and status, fear punishment, imprisonment, and death, all the fire in our souls has been put out."

After a brief moment of silence, another dancer proclaims, "In order to bring back the light, we need to destroy our world. And to destroy our world, we need to kill the father figure. Otherwise, the father will kill the son."

In this radical context, one must understand that to kill the father means to bring down those authoritarian figures, whether Western or Eastern, who rule over our daily lives.

"Will the son kill the father?" asks another dancer. "Or will the father kill the son and eternally reign?"

In this light, I pose the following question: Will the Iranian youth have the strength to destroy the existing patriarchal order so that a new one, based on freedom and justice, can eventually emerge?

Will our sons kill the father? Or will the father kill our sons?

Since the last presidential election two years ago, our young Iranian heroes have been deeply traumatized. Their protests over their missing votes have been severely punished, and the persistent nightmare in which they have been caught has produced a profound depression.

Attending the Fajr International Theater Festival in Tehran two months ago, I observed that the father-son relationship had become an obsessive theme in contemporary Iranian drama. Tiki Taka, Attila Pesyani's new play; the adaptation of Sophocles's Antigone by Homayoon Ghanizadeh (whose production of Camus's Caligula I analyzed in "Caligula in Tehran"); Letters to Thebes, written by Mohammad Charmshir, based on Sophocles's Oedipus in Colonus -- many Iranian dramas clearly refer to the generational conflict taking place within the country.

Since the Islamic Revolution, especially during the era of Mohammad Khatami's presidency, a new generation of daring playwrights has emerged in defiance of all expectations. The official policy toward the new wave of Western-influenced Iranian drama has been consistent in its ambivalence. Recognizing the opportunity provided by the scene for its own propaganda interests, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance supported -- to some extent -- playwrights so that they could develop their own fictional worlds. However, the censorship rules remained severe and writers progressively elaborated coded languages and metaphoric spaces through which they could refer to the current political situation. In particular, the rewriting of ancient Greek plays has become a useful means by which to critique modern Iranian politics.

Letters to Thebes, like the Sophocles play that inspired it, takes place in Colonus, a village near Athens, close to the sea. Oedipus, the king of Thebes, after realizing that he has murdered his father and married his mother, has put out his own eyes. In Oedipus in Colonus he has wandered in exile for 20 years until his arrival in Colonus, accompanied by his eldest daughter, Antigone; they are joined there by his other daughter, Ismene. Meanwhile, his sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, vie for the Theban throne.

What matters to me is not Oedipus's complex and tragic personal destiny, but his relationship with his children. In Greek tragedies, and I am thinking in particular of the royal Atriedes family, children, generation after generation, murder their parents or other kin -- deaths that (among other things) are metaphors for the spring of a new world.

But nothing of the kind happens in Letters to Thebes. In this Iranian version of the Greek tragedy, Oedipus the blind king is surrounded by all his children except Ismene, who has remained in Thebes and to whom the letters are addressed.

Director and designer Siamak Ehsaei has conceived an interesting set. Colonus is represented by a stage covered by sand. Around it, shelves bear piles of ancient letters. Observing these epistolary mounds, I had the sad impression that they contained endless laments, expressions of the grief of exile, loneliness, and nostalgia for a glorious past.

Colonus, which also comes to refer to the family circle, is a suffocating nightmare -- "a nightmare inside another nightmare," says one of Oedipus's sons. It is a place where it eternally rains, and this rain weighs down the spirit and imprisons the soul.

The village is quiet and its silence is full of anxiety. The characters write constantly -- on the sand, on sheets of paper, even on the wall. They all feel the need to write down their desperation so that nothing will be forgotten, so that all their sufferings may be read by generations to come.

But this is pure illusion. A wind, activated by huge fans, scatters all the letters that have been kept like treasures. Their words are lost in the wind and the ones written in sand are slowly worn away, even as the characters desperately try to save their painful memories.

Oedipus is an imposing figure. He wears a long red dress, symbol of his criminal past. His blindness is expressed by a mask that nearly envelops his head. He has been devastated by his tragic fate, and the children don't even dare to look at their monstrous father.

Oedipus says nothing. But his cries are terrible. He moves slowly, very slowly, around the stage and stops wherever he feels a ray of light piercing the dark clouds above. Each time he comes to a halt, two female characters quickly bring over his grand red armchair, the last vestige of his old power and authority.

Consumed by his crimes and overwhelmed by guilt, Oedipus is dying by the moment. And his children, fearful of him, don't know what to do.

Oedipus finally lies down in his tomb and his children light candles around it. I expected these flames to announce the birth of a new world; I deeply hoped these fragile lights were signifying the rise of new Promethean figures. But strangely, the flames looked cold and powerless. Rather than the spark of native rebellion, the evanescent flickers around Oedipus's corpse revealed the extreme lassitude of a generation that may have become disenchanted again. I imagined the reaction of one of Fabre's declamatory dancers: "Once there were heroes. We have lost them."

Yes, this is it: even though the father passes away, his children no longer stand up. They place patches over their eyes, and ignoring the fire, these anti-Prometheans lie beside their patriarch as a profound darkness slowly invades the stage.

And I ask again: Will our sons kill the father? Or will our father kill the sons? If I were to respond to my own question, I would say that, in Iran, the father is killing all the sons, one after another.

There is no need to go to the streets, no need even to talk to my people. I had only to watch the plays presented at the Fajr International Theater Festival to witness this tragedy.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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