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Interview with Tony Charles.

Tony Charles taught Literature at the Wellington School, and, from the sound of it, may have been Reza’s closest friend there. Having heard from some other people in the school administration that I was trying to get information about Reza, Charles phoned me from England one morning in September, 1998.

CHARLES: Reza and I were very closely associated while he was at Wellington.

MUFSON: Oh, yes. He passed away in ’95.

CHARLES: What happened?

MUFSON: He had AIDS.

CHARLES: Oh, gee. Well, I’m terribly sorry to hear that.

MUFSON: Yes.

CHARLES: I haven’t heard from him in a long time as he [inaudible] from this, but I was a young teacher at Wellington, a young teacher. I had recently to Wellington School when Reza came there.  In, it must have been, the beginning of ’78, January ’78.  He came to, his father was something of a  [inaudible]. I never met him, but I heard a lot about him.

Reza had been in a college in London, [inaudible] college in London, and his father moved him because he felt he was spending far too much time going to the theater and hardly little time studying for examinations. He sent him to a boarding school really as a punishment because, you know, that will teach him a lesson kind of thing. That will make him get his head down and study.

Reza deeply resented the sort of petty disciplines of a boarding school and things like the fact that he couldn’t just study on his own, there were always other people in the room in the evenings, and his freedom was restricted and so on.
We hit it off quite early because: A) he was a poet and he has a deep interest in poetry, and B) because I have a theater background and he was interested in theater.

I was one of his teachers, and he became quite a frequent houseguest. We would invite him for meals on Sunday and he used to baby sit for my children sometimes. We would often talk about poetry, theater, and so on. He always came whenever I, I used to very frequently organize trips to the theater; and in fact in the third term of that year, the autumn of that year, I did a mammoth production of Peer Gynt up at the school.

MUFSON: Oh, you directed it?

CHARLES: And I invited Reza to co-direct or to assistant direct at least.  Because that was where his interest lay. He did that extremely well. He proved to be very innovative. He had a lot of great ideas, great theatric [inaudible]. He studied the text very closely.

MUFSON: Was that the first shot Reza had at directing or co-directing?

CHARLES: That’s right. He hadn’t done any before, but he had been to see a lot of theater. He had a lot of ideas about theater. They say he also had a very close interest in text. That would have been the autumn of ’78. It must have gone on in December I guess. We spent the whole term rehearsing and working with it. It went on right to the end of town. In fact what happened was that initially he sat in on rehearsals and then we would sort of talk after rehearsals, consulted on ideas, and he would come up with ideas; and I gave certain scenes over to him. I said, “Well, I haven’t decided what to do with this scene yet. Let’s see what you can do with it, and I’ll go and work with somebody else.” He proved to be very inventive. He would come up with very good visual ideas and ways of highlighting particular aspects of important lines in a scene and so on. So that was a very interesting time together.

He was always very highly individual. I remember that a sort of trademark of his the whole time he was at Wellington, which must have been five terms–he left [inaudible]. He kind of lived in a raincoat, a black raincoat with sleeves that were too long. That was a kind of trademark you know. It’s his way of subverting the school uniform.
On the rare occasion that he took it off, he would wear a black sweater with sleeves that were too long. Yes, we saw a great deal of… I say we were quite close in that sense at that time; and then after he left, I believe he went to London initially. He was [inaudible] to try his work in the theater.

Then his book came out, The Sound of a Poet Breathing in an Imprisoned Air. He came down to see me and brought me a copy, which I still have. Then it must have been about that time, he went to the States, and I think as memory serves, I think it was probably something to do with the Ayatollah.

MUFSON: Yes.

CHARLES: Because around that time, of course, Reza’s family had belonged to that sort of class of Persians who were associated with the Shah and Capitalism and so on—privileged families. We had had quite a number of Persian students in the school; and most of them at that time either, you know, within quite a short time left the school. They were withdrawing. A lot of families went to America. They got their money out of Persia if they could, or what they could get out of it, and they went to States.

I think that’s what happened to Reza. The family actually moved to the States, although I wouldn’t swear to that. That’s just a sort of [unintelligible 045]. I lost touch with him because he moved a couple of times fairly quickly.

There’s always things where you know peoples addresses change and then suddenly you don’t get a letter, and then I moved. We simply lost touch. So I had heard nothing at all of him or about him for many years, but occasionally would remember him from time to time. I’ve still got a couple of tapes of Persian music he gave me in fact.

MUFSON: Well he went on to do a lot of directorial work and some playwriting work. He would direct his own productions in LA and New York on the avant-garde end of the spectrum. And definitely made a name for himself even though he died at such a young age.

CHARLES: Yes, I’m so sad for all those little lost opportunities. I imagined being able to come and see some of his work or something you know. I’m sad that he died so young, ’95. He must have been what, no more than 37 or something like that?

MUFSON: No, I think he was younger.

CHARLES: Thirty-six or something like that, yes.

MUFSON: So you didn’t seem surprised that his material was more on the avant-garde side of the spectrum. Was that the kind of tendency that or an interest of his?

CHARLES: Oh, yes. I mean in the sense that, you know he was very interested in classical theater, very interested in classical literature. He was interested in any text and its theatrical possibilities, but he was always particularly interested in the experimental, in new angles on things. He was an original thinker. As I say, he had high iconoclastic tendencies which he expressed in whatever way he could within the confines of having been shoved into a boarding school without actually getting himself thrown out.

MUFSON: Was the boarding school very strict?

CHARLES: Well, I guess it wasn’t very strict by the standards. I mean it wasn’t sort of like [unintelligible 074 with all sort of cold showers and compulsory Rugby and what have you. I mean, compared to the life he led it was very irksome, shall we say. There were freedoms possible in the sense that, well, for example, that he was in a boarding house only because he was [inaudible]. It was easy enough for me to say, “Well, would you like to come over and have lunch on Sunday,” and that was okay. He could do that, whereas perhaps if he had been in a younger year he wouldn’t have been able to do that. Nevertheless, you know, there were a lot of rules and we had to be in bed by a certain time and all this kind of thing.

MUFSON: Okay.

CHARLES: [Inaudible] certain conditions and you could only make so many phone calls a night.

MUFSON: Okay.

CHARLES: I know he found that irksome. Of course he did. You know he had been used to… he had been living very much the life he liked in London before that.

MUFSON: You taught him literature for several years or just for —

CHARLES: Well he was only there for five terms. I taught him literature during those five terms. He would have left in July of ’79.

MUFSON: He arrived when?

CHARLES: January ’78. So he was there for those five terms [inaudible]. He won the literature prize while he was there.

MUFSON: He won the literature prize?

CHARLES: Yes. For his… really for his work and you know his innovative work generally, for writing things, for his work in helping to do direct production. I mean as well as the [inaudible] I did a production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party the following year which Reza didn’t have very much to do with because he was in the middle of revising for his [inaudible]. But he did have some influence into those and he was certainly very interested in what I was doing with it.

MUFSON: Okay. So he definitely seemed pretty bright?

CHARLES: Oh yes. It was no question about that. I mean I was always aware of his unusualness and his talent as well as he was a pretty nice guy. I would never have been surprised to have heard at any stage that he had done something excellent.

MUFSON: Did he show you his poems while he was writing them, the ones that eventually got published?

CHARLES: Oh yes, I mean we often talked about poetry, you know; I’m a poet. So we did workshop stuff together. I don’t think he had written very much poetry before that, but he had an interest, and moving from analysis to actually writing is something he found he wanted to do and was interested in doing. So we did quite a lot of that together.

MUFSON: What were the readings like in the school? Would they tend to go into Baudelaire and such authors, or were they more —

CHARLES: Well, I mean at school the syllabus, the English literature syllabus was just that, it was English writers. But I remember discussing Eliot with Reza on one occasion and pointing out to him the influence of Baudelaire on Elliot, and I think I lent at one stage one of my parallel translation editions of Baudelaire, in French and in English. He did read French well, I remember that. Yes.

CHARLES: I just said I don’t know what else I could tell you really, something new, sort of a general sense of him certainly.

MUFSON: Any anecdotes?

CHARLES: Oh yes actually. I do remember losing him as it were.

I frequently used to take students off to theaters at the drop of a hat, you know, whenever I got the chance. And just sometimes organize coach trips, but more often just bung [phonetic] ten of them into a minibus and go off various places to see various things. I took a trip up to London to see something. I can’t remember what it was now. You know it must have been when Colin Blake he did Death of a Salesman, something like that. Anyway we went up to London for some reason to see something or other, and the minibuses were parked a few hundred yards away from the theater. So we got back to the minibus and Reza disappeared. I was sure that he had gone wondering off in SoHo you know. I spent some time wandering around looking for him and eventually found him. I pointed out to him that —

MUFSON: That wasn’t such a great thing to do.

CHARLES: — that [inaudible] and would he please come back to the bus. We had to go back to Wellington. We actually arrived quite late that night, and we got back at 4 o’clock in the morning really.

MUFSON: He seemed to get along pretty well with the other students?

CHARLES: Well, within limits. He was very friendly to us, but also quite reserved, if you see what I mean. I mean, he had all the social graces. But he was very much is own person, and he… and most of his peers at Wellington were people that he had very little interest in, if you see what I mean. He had already had quite a sophisticated life before he was sent there. He had a social polish and sort of artistic experience that was not matched by the lot of people he was surrounded with. He had no interest in the kind of sporting culture and the people, the boys of his own age being these boys who kind of lived for Rugby practices or swimming or whatever. So he was regarded with a kind of friendly curiosity. People didn’t dislike him at all. He was quite liked, but he didn’t really make close friends. He didn’t really feel he belonged, quite simply, which I guess is why he attached himself to me as a teacher rather than to other students. We spent quite a lot of time together in the sense that, you know, we still had other things to do. But as far as was appropriate within the relationship between teacher and student we were friends.

MUFSON: Where did he study prior to Wellington, do you recall?

CHARLES: I don’t know. I don’t know. It was some six form college in London.

MUFSON: I’m sorry, a what? A six form college?

CHARLES: It was a six form college. It’s one of these places, basically it’s sort of an education college. It’s a college where after the compulsory school age leaving age in England which is sixteen, people can elect to stay on, and sometimes they’ll stay on and do what’s called six form at their own school if there is that facility and go onto advanced studies, or sometimes they will go to a college which is very different in the sense that it’s subject to sort of college rules, college [inaudible].

That was the sort of place he had been to but where it was I can’t say. I can’t remember if I ever knew, but that was where he was. I think he was living… I believe he was living at the flat of a relative, an aunt or somebody. This is when he was actually spending more time going to the theater and libraries and art galleries than actually turning up at the college. This is why his father was going on about it. He started to send him to boarding school.

MUFSON: So how old was he when he actually was at Wellington do you figure?

CHARLES: Well, he must have been I guess 17 when he came.

Or maybe 18. I mean it was unusual for him to come… I think he had probably done a year at the six form college. Or a year and a term. It was unusual for him to come to the school in January because the school year in England starts in September and ends in July, which is when all the major examinations take place. So the three terms are fall, spring and summer. If I remember rightly, he had, I think he had done four terms in London.

Basically he hadn’t been doing any work and his father found out. I think probably he had done his mock exams or something, and they predicted disaster. This is when his father hit the roof and sent him to boarding school. He was taken on the basis that there was no real problem about his having missed a term because he had obviously got a grounding. He had been doing A levels already, but he was put into the lower sixth, and I do remember that now. That’s right. So he would have been about 18 because he was put into the lower sixth form the first year of the course rather than the second year because it was felt that he wouldn’t be able to do himself justice in the exams in the remaining two terms.

So I think that was another cause of resentment that he was in fact put in with people who were not any less sophisticated than himself. He had every experience in the world if you like, but also a year younger. He was having to sort of restart. And a lot of the stuff that was done was standard course work, you know, he could do standing on his head. He really found it rather boring. So I used to give him extra things to do, other texts to look at to challenge him.

MUFSON: Interesting. Did he talk much about his family life? You know his father was basically against his pursing the arts.

CHARLES: Yes.

MUFSON: His brothers were at Wellington?

CHARLES: It wasn’t something I ever pried into because he kind of signaled without actually saying so that this wasn’t something that he preferred to talk about.

MUFSON: All right, but didn’t his brothers also study at Wellington? Do you know Salar?

CHARLES: Yes. I remember Salar quite well. I can’t remember the name of the other brother. If you tell me, I shall remember. I can picture him.

MUFSON: I haven’t met the other brother. I’ve spoken to Salar a bit.

CHARLES: He found them something of an embarrassment. They were sent to Wellington, and they were both quite disruptive and quite the opposite to Reza. I mean, where he was somewhat introverted and artistic and quite intense, they were both quite sort of, well, particularly Salar, was quite loud and was always getting himself into trouble for doing stupid things like throwing food around in the dining hall and things like this. So Reza found him a bit of an embarrassment, to be honest. [Inaudible] associated with if he could avoid it. He was called upon to perform a sort of elder brother role from time to time. That’s how they totally ignored him.

So as I say, he really didn’t associate himself with his family. He didn’t talk about them much. You know he preferred to think of himself in some ways as being separate. I mean he quite liked the idea of himself as a loner. He identified with people like Baudelaire. He liked to be the image of the poet or somebody who was in some ways outside authority. He liked Camus. I remember he was very impressed when he read the XXX and the XXX as well. I think I lent him that. As is not untypical of somebody that age, of course, I mean of that kind of artistic disposition to become romantically attracted to the idea of the isolation of the artist is quite normal. I think I was probably very similar when I was 18.

MUFSON: Well if you think of anything else, please call.

CHARLES: Sure. I mean I would also be very interested to see the results of what you’re thinking about, a monograph on him?

MUFSON: I just finished editing an anthology of him for Johns Hopkins, and I’m also writing my doctoral dissertation on him.

CHARLES: All right, fine. Well I’d be very interested in seeing it cause I remember him with great affection. I have a sadness also that I missed all that aspect of his life.

MUFSON: Well, some of the performances, a lot of the performances are on video. So you could, it’s certainly not inconceivable that you could get your hands on that. Maybe I’ll make a copy of something for you and send it.

CHARLES: Oh that would be fantastic. Yes, that’s very interesting. It’s quite strange. It’s a quite strange feeling to find myself talking about somebody that I haven’t seen for 20 years or so. He’s very fresh in the memory in fact. Very fresh in the memory. He was a person who stood out. And a friend is a friend.

MUFSON: Okay, well I’m sorry to have had to give you bad news.

CHARLES: Yes, well of course. It would appear to be old news, but it’s so quite suddenly.

MUFSON: Yes.

CHARLES: Anyway very nice to talk to you.

MUFSON: Nice to talk to you. Thanks very much.

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