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What do Ta’ziyeh and Hip-Hop Have in Common?

Ethnicity, Nationality, and the Identity of an Author

But it is clear that Persian poetry was not only a textual and thematic touchstone for Abdoh, but a structural one as well. Háfiz’s writing offers a clue into Abdoh’s use of “multi-layered reality.”

—John Bell[1]

People are afraid to face their identity in ways other than ethnic or cultural, but I think there is a spiritual identity and a social identity that somehow are closer to who we are.

—Reza Abdoh[2]

These influences come through without your consciously even trying, because it’s your past. Somehow it will show itself.

—Assurbanipal Babilla[3]

Just because Reza brings a couple of Persian calligraphies in one of his plays and displays them? That’s means he’s been influenced by áfiz? He hasn’t been influenced by Hafiz. He’s been influenced by Shakespeare more than anybody. He’s been influenced by Proust. He’s been influenced by Gertrude Stein. He’s been influenced by William Burroughs. Me and him, we didn’t agree on literature a lot. He loved William Burroughs and I hated him. But we both loved Shakespeare. He was much, much more influenced by the western tradition¾besides the classics of English literature, by America itself. Far, far more than anything Iranian. People just emphasized that aspect of him. Because they always do that with artists from other parts of the world. Just the thing to do.

—Salar Abdoh[4]

Reza Abdoh was cannily aware of critics’ fascination with the question of influence. The broader the influence, the better, with a premium placed on precocious exoticism. Aware of this critical disposition, Abdoh manipulated it, fabricating the story of a childhood role in KA MOUNTAIN GUARDenia TERRACE and inventing a trip to India to study Kathakali at age 16. He almost certainly lied about having directed Timon of Athens, Brecht’s Mother Courage, and a staged reading of Noh plays translated by Ezra Pound. Reza propagated these falsehoods until the year he died. As Salar Abdoh has pointed out, people tend to come to an artist with a desire for a certain narrative to explain that artist’s development. What right does an artist have to disappoint them? And Reza, he said, thought it would be a “good idea” to be influenced by such a multitude of sources. If you’re a writer of drama, why not be influenced by Shakespeare? “Why not be influenced by Rumi or áfiz?” Salar asks, “It just adds more layers, more texture to your body of work.”[5]

One should never condone a lie, but Reza’s creative adaptation of his own history and identity puts him in the company of any number of artists in various fields who have manipulated the public’s and the critics’ approach to their work. The impulse to interpret Abdoh’s work using nationality as a starting  point is particularly paradoxical given that so much of Abdoh’s work was devoted to the elusiveness of identity. “I’m going home,” Blaster says repeatedly in Tight Right White, to which the answer repeatedly comes, “You are home.” And where was Reza Abdoh at home? Was he Iranian, and what did it mean for Reza Abdoh to be an Iranian, the grandson of a diplomat, the son of a millionaire businessman and crony of the Shah? His father had dual citizenship in Iran and the United States, and fought in the American Army during the Korean War. Was Abdoh’s family typically Iranian? Traveling to England every summer? Or were they Western, speaking Farsi with varying degrees of fluency, aware of Persian cultural history, Islam, an entire civilization which to most Europeans and Americans remains a dim apparition?

In some ways, Reza’s manipulation serves nicely to highlight the fetishization of a large or exotic breadth of influences, and, having been duly manipulated, the critical community can reflect about some of its prejudices. When “Westerners” use Eastern performance techniques, the issue of cultural tourism often comes up. Reza Abdoh, who spent little time in Iran after the age of 13 or so, was what one might call “Eastern enough” so that his interest in claiming Kathakali, Ta’ziyeh, or áfiz as his own was never considered exploitative or shallow. Should the criticism have been made of Abdoh? Or has the criticism been overly exercised against others? Such questions are too broad to be dealt with in the confines of this chapter or in a dissertation limited to the works of Reza Abdoh, but with this question in the background, I would like to consider the validity of what some critics¾mainly John Bell, in his essay on Abdoh in TDR¾have written about the influence of Persian culture on Abdoh’s work.

I will discuss three potential influences: áfiz, Ta’ziyeh, and what another Iranian-American director has called the Shi’ite “fascination with death and blood and dying.”[6] Before I even begin, however, I should again emphasize the dubiousness of talking about áfiz and Ta’ziyeh as direct influences on Abdoh. As his brother Salar has pointed out, Reza’s ability to read áfiz in the original Farsi was limited and, if Reza ever actually saw a live performance of Ta’ziyeh, which would have been possible but unlikely, he would have seen it before he was thirteen years old and never again thereafter. Critics such as Bell and Gautam Dasgupta would be on safer ground if they shied away from the question of influence and instead compared artists and art forms more for the sake of noticing interesting similarities that may in fact be purely coincidental. Sometimes, however, even alleged similarities disappear upon careful examination¾for example, as in the case in which critics simply took Abdoh’s word that Law of Remains’s structure derived from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a book that, as has already been pointed out, has no structure. As I shall argue, the comparison of Abdoh to áfiz has not much more merit to it than the comparison of Law to the Book of the Dead. On the other hand, the similarities and contrasts that arise in discussing Abdoh and Ta’ziyeh¾and, more broadly, the Shi’ite culture of mourning¾are provocative and conducive to a more thorough understanding of Abdoh’s work, regardless of how direct the influence of Ta’ziyeh or the Shi’ite culture of mourning actually was.

áfiz

Khwája Shams ud-Dín Muhammad áfiz-I Shírází, usually referred to as áfiz, lived in the fourteenth century and wrote a form of poetry known as the ghazal, which could be roughly compared with the Western sonnet. A ghazal may have between five and twelve lines (bayts), each of which consists of two hemistitches (miîra), which end in rhyme. A bayt can have anywhere from twenty-four to thirty-two syllables, and the last bayt usually contains the poet’s name. The term ghazal can be used broadly to refer to a genre of lyric poetry concerned with love. Although its origins are unclear, by the tenth century the ghazal almost always handled themes such as love, wine, separation and sorrow, roses, nightingales, deserts, and departing caravans. Part of áfiz’ great accomplishment was developing the ghazal and adapting its traditional symbols to express a mystical, personal, intuitive relationship with God, all the while maintaining the form’s historically erotic tone and imagery.

In “aids, Avantgarde, & Abdoh,” John Bell does not limit his discussion of influences to the Persian, but he does make a point of discussing the fourteenth century poet and also the religious theatrical form known as Ta’ziyeh. Persian poetry, according to Bell, is “not only a textual and thematic touchstone for Abdoh, but a structural one as well.” áfiz, Bell explains,  “offers a clue into Abdoh’s use of ‘multilayered reality.’”[7] And already a problem arises, namely, what Bell and Abdoh mean by the phrase “multilayered reality.” They don’t, in fact, seem to be referring to the same thing.

Bell takes the phrase from comments that Abdoh himself made. But Abdoh used the phrase in discussing his admiration for MGM musicals such as 42nd Street, not áfiz. Those movies, Abdoh said, “really understood how to create realities that were multilayered.” When he tried to explain himself further, he only made the remark more confusing: “In an MGM musical they’ll have a dinner scene and suddenly you have a hundred elephants passing through, and they break into a song and dance.”[8] But this sounds more like a description of surprising juxtapositions that defy the expectation that a narrative flow will resemble the flow of events in real life.

When Bell speaks of multilayered realities in afiz, he speaks of a “symbol system” that operates on “at least three levels of signification, working simultaneously.” As explained by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., the “I” and “Thou” in a ghazal “may be lover and beloved, poet and patron, mystic and God, or the poet may intend a bayt or ghazal to suggest all of these relationships.”[9] áfiz speaks often of the tavern, and he may mean it literally, but it may also represent the entire universe full of the intoxicating mercy of God. The ghazals are full of such double and triple layers of meaning, so much that it is impossible for a foreigner to fully appreciate them without a host of footnotes to explain the allusions and the rich significance of characters such as the Imposter, the True Lover, the Rend, and so forth. Abdoh, grounded in a chaotic and splintered American culture, has no comparable tradition of established symbols to exploit. At best, he can create images that are suggestive, or sometimes he takes a symbol and twists it. In neither case, though, are the symbols multilayered in the manner of áfiz.

The multiplicity of signification in áfiz is made possible in part by the lack of narrative progression in the ghazal. As Gray put it, “The poems do not seem to go anywhere: there is no opening, no action, no ultimate resolution or answer. Sometimes the lines seem unrelated to one another.”[10] Rather than appealing to the reader by progressing along a traceable arc from one thought or feeling to another, the ghazal presents two or three themes dropped like pebbles into a pool, and the “concentric rings of images… expand, intersect, and create patterns of resonance.”[11] Consider the following ghazal, which has a typical structure but is relatively easy to understand because it has fewer double meanings than most:

In these times the only untainted companion left

is a cup of clear wine and a book of ghazals.

Go alone, the pass of salvation is narrow.

Take up your glass, there is no substitute for this dear life.

I’m not the only one in the world afflicted with idleness;

the theologians also make no use of their knowledge.

On this turmoil-filled road the eye of reason

knows the world and its handiwork are fleeting and worthless.

My heart longed to see your face

but on life’s road death plunders the caravans of hope.

Grasp the curl of a moon-faced one and don’t claim

that good luck and bad are the work of Venus and Saturn.

Our áfiz is so drunk on the wine of pre-eternity

that in no epoch will you ever find him sober.[12]

As is clear in the example above, the order of the bayts appears somewhat arbitrary. The only real constraint on structure is the self-reference in the final bayt. Otherwise, the single thing one can definitively say is that, regardless of whether the topic is solitary travel or the vanity of earthly endeavor or failed rendezvous, the bayts all feed into a complex but recognizable tone that actually gives the reader a clear and unified idea of the speaker’s experience¾encompassing loss, reconciliation with loss, an idleness resulting from the vanity of worldly existence that confronts us when we experience profound loss.

Obviously, the discussion of áfiz is cursory and doesn’t do justice to the depth and complexity of his work. But it should suffice for the purpose of how one could possibly look at the ghazals of áfiz and end up concluding that they serve as a thematic, textual, and structural touchstone for the plays of Reza Abdoh. First of all, Abdoh’s plays vary in structure, but they certainly have a structure. There is an emotional and intellectual arc that is traveled by both the audience and the characters on stage. If one were to rearrange the order of bayts, one would change the dynamic ebb and flow of intensity, but the essence of the ghazal, for the most part, would remain intact. It would, however, almost always be destructive to change the order of scenes in an Abdoh play. Moishe Pipik at the beginning of Tight Right White is not at all the same person as at the beginning; the same may be said of almost all of the characters in all of the plays discussed in this dissertation. If it were possible to model the structure of a play on a ghazal, the result would not look like any of Abdoh’s work.

The closest parallel one could draw between the ghazals of áfiz and Abdoh’s plays is in the way many of Abdoh’s monologues and much of the dialogue wanders thematically but preserves an overall tone, but in this respect a more obvious comparison would be between Abdoh and William S. Burroughs. The textual shifts in Abdoh jolt with a violence far more reminiscent of Burroughs’ so-called cut-up technique; the shifts in áfiz are gentler and less shocking, particularly when one is familiar with the network of symbols áfiz inherited from his forbears. Setting aside the question of influence and replacing it with an interest in coincidental kinship, Abdoh’s textual shifts probably have the greatest resemblance to certain plays by Heiner Müller, such as Hamletmachine, though Abdoh had never read anything by Müller as late as 1990 and never mentioned him in any interview as an influence or artist worthy of emulating.[13]

That áfiz featured prominently in Abdoh’s literary upbringing¾even if he had difficulty reading áfiz in Farsi, as his brother Salar maintains¾is beyond doubt. The name of Reza’s sister, Negar, comes from the name of the woman who always gives wine to the Sufis. Reza has said, and other texts discussing áfiz concur, that every Persian knows the work of áfiz; the poet’s place in the Persian literary landscape seems to be on the order of Shakespeare’s in English. “Every Persian has a private bond with áfiz,” writes Daryush Shayegan,

Every Persian finds in him a part of himself, discovers in him an unexplored niche in his own memory…. [E]very listener seems to find in it an answer to his question, every reader thinks he is discovering an allusion to his desire…. Thus, the understanding of [áfiz’] hearers varies according to their knowledge, their sensibility, but each receives his or her due and no one goes away empty.[14]

Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, when Western critics turn to áfiz seeking precedents for Reza Abdoh and discover an allusion to their desire. If there are connections to be made between Abdoh and Persian culture, however, one can look elsewhere in order to make ties that are less tenuous than the ones with áfiz.

Abdoh and the Death of Hussayn

As has already been mentioned, Reza Abdoh was born to a Shi’ite family, albeit not particularly observant. Nevertheless, they lived in a predominantly Shi’ite country and, although the Shah had tried to steer Iran in the secular direction of Atatürk’s Turkey, religious life in Iran was still active and vibrant and ubiquitous in the years that young Reza was still in the country. As Salar Abdoh has pointed out, they were not too young to see the rituals and events that mark the Moslem month of MuÊarram, whose tenth day (Ashñrª) bears great significance for Shi’ites.

The division between Shi’ite and Sunni Moslems stems from an argument over succession. The Shi’ites believe that the position of Caliph (which means “Successor”) should have stayed restricted to family members after the death of Mohammed, starting with his son, Ali, and then passing on to Mohammed’s grandson, Hussayn. When Mohammed was on his deathbed, though, he instructed Abu Bakr, who had been his first adult male convert, to lead prayers, and there was strong community sentiment that the leadership should be held by one of the “elders.” Ali waited through numerous tumultuous events to become Caliph, but someone always managed to prevent him from doing so, until finally he was stabbed to death in the mosque at Kufa by one of his former soldiers. In the three days it took Ali to die, he gave his assassin safe harbor, ordering that the would-be murderer should be spared if he lived or killed with one stroke if he died.

Ali’s saintly death would eventually be mirrored by the death of his son, Hussayn. Hussayn’s older brother, Hassan, had already been poisoned, at which point the Sunni governor of Syria took over the caliphate and moved its capital to Damascus. Hussayn persisted in making his familial claim, and, in the year 680 A.D., he was eventually asked by the Shi’ite community at Kufa to join them as their head. Hussayn, who was in Mecca when he received the offer, embarked for Kufa with his family and about seventy followers. En route, they were ambushed at Kerbela by the Sunni caliph, Yazid, and, as the story goes, they were butchered brutally. First, there was a standoff between the two parties; Hussayn and his followers were forced to endure ten days without water. Yazid’s army then proceeded to hack Hussayn, some of his male children, and all of his male followers to bits. The women and remaining children were taken as captives to Damascus. Before they left, Yazid’s army set fire to the camp and the bodies were trampled by the horses.

These stories contribute to a historical persecution complex on the part of the Shi’ites, a preoccupation with what they perceive as a history of suffering, persecution, and martyrdom. The so-called festivities of Ashñrª comprise a massive outpouring of people into the streets for a collective display of self-inflicted suffering, chest-beating, self-flagellation. The physical harm that people can inflict upon themselves is not negligible. All of this is perpetrated in order to demonstrate sympathy and anguish for the wrongs suffered by Hussayn.

According to one piece of folklore, Ali once refused to recognize certain visitors as Shi’ites because they lacked didn’t look as if they had spent their entire life in misery and deprivation. As the renowned Hungarian scholar of Islam, Ignaz Goldziher, once wrote, “The true Shi’i is persecuted and wretched, like the family whose rights he maintains and for whose cause he suffers.”[15] This is not merely a critique of Shi’ite culture rendered by outsiders. Goldziher sites an Indian Shi’ite academic, A.F. Badshah Husain, who wrote,

To weep for Husayn is the glory of our lives and souls, or else we would be the most ungrateful of creatures. In Paradise we will still mourn for Husayn, It is the condition of Muslim existence…. Mourning for Husayn is the token of Islam. It is impossible for a Shi’i not to weep. His heart is a living tomb, the true tomb for the head of the beheaded martyr.[16]

This is clearly what the Iranian-American director, Assurbanipal Babilla, was referring to when he commented, “this mourning and love for blood and torture and murder, I think this was a very Shi’ite thing in [Abdoh’s] work.”[17]

Here is where culturally-rooted criticism merges with the vagaries of armchair psychology: The mournful aspect of Abdoh’s work and the fascination with torture and murder could have come from any number of places. The British playwright, Sarah Kane, who also died recently at a young age, wrote plays equally committed to the same dark themes that Abdoh dealt with, in spite of not having been a Shi’ite. There is no shortage of Western theater artists who deal with similar themes¾Charles Mee, Jan Fabre, Ron Athey, to name just a few. The sense of loss that pervades Abdoh’s work could well come from his own experience, from his early separation from his mother, his riches to rags story, the circumstances of his father’s death, or the diagnosis that he was infected with HIV. As has already been mentioned, the sado-masochistic elements of Bogeyman and Law of Remains came from Abdoh’s exposure to Club FUCK! and the gay club scene in L.A. Indeed, when Bell asked Abdoh what the main influences on his work have been, Abdoh replied, “Life, more than anything else.”  Of course, religious background is a part of life, and a religion’s cultural dispositions can seep into families that have grown more secular, as Abdoh’s had grown; it is one of a number of factors that needs to be discussed in order to gain as full a picture as possible of the world contained in Abdoh’s work. Where the discussion of Shi’ite history and culture becomes most interesting, vis-à-vis Abdoh, is in the ties between his work and the tradition of Ta’ziyeh.

Ashñrª and the Tradition of Ta’ziyeh

If the success of drama is to be measured by the effects which it produces upon the people for whom it is composed, or upon the audiences before whom it is represented, no play has ever surpassed the tragedy known in the Mussulman world as that of Hasan and Husain.

¾Sir Lewis Pelly, The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain, 1879.

We must not forget that on the day when the Ta’ziyeh costumes are brand new and historically accurate; that day on which, God forbid, imaginative stets are used; that day on which realistic artists under the Ta’ziyeh and natural acting replaces the present “artificial” gestures; hat day on which the performance is removed from the platforms of the takiyeh [theaters], from the bare fields of the villages, from the asphalt pavements of small towns, and is transferred to the boxlike stages of the modern theatre where a velvet curtain will be hung that will open at the beginning of the performance to the accompaniment of the usual mysterious dramatic music; that day, the day when Ta’ziyeh becomes realistic, will witness its death.

¾Parviz Mamnoun, “Ta’ziyeh from the Viewpoint of the Western Theatre,” 1979.

The siege that led to Hussayn’s death began on the first day of the Muslim month of MuÊarram and ended on the tenth day. The tenth day is known as Ashñrª¾for Shi’ites, a day to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussayn and the tragedy at Kerbela. Broadly, part of the day’s events consists of the population pouring into the streets for demonstrations of grief and self-flagellation. The mourning rituals have grown, over the years, to include pageantry and, eventually, the genre of theatre known as Ta’ziyeh.

The word ta’ziyeh literally means “expressions of sympathy, mourning, and consolation.” The form developed out of MuÊÊarram processions, similar to Europe’s medieval Stations of the Cross

, and grew increasingly lavish in the sixteenth century, when Shi’ite Islam became Persia’s state religion. Peter J. Chelkowski, a professor of Persian and Iranian Studies, described the processions as “living tableaux of butchered martyrs stained with blood, their bodies showing simulated amputations… moved along on wheeled platforms.”[18] Sometime in the mid-18th century, the MuÊarram processions converged with stationary Ashñrª plays that were being performed in gardens; there is also some question as to the degree of European influence exerted on the form by Persians who had traveled to Europe and described what they saw upon returning to the East. All of the Ta’ziyeh plays relate to the events at Kerbela.

The stage conventions of Ta’ziyeh resonate not only with Abdoh but also with several other avant-garde, Western theater directors. Andrzej Wirth, a theater academic and critic closely associated with Robert Wilson, has compared elements of Ta’ziyeh to dramaturgical aspects of Wilson, André Serban, and Richard Foreman. In Wirth’s view, the way language in Ta’ziyeh articulates “an attitude but not the particular meaning” is “not unlike the use of verbal material” by Wilson or Serban. The use of music in Ta’ziyeh lacks “illustrative value” and instead bridges sequences of a play, which Wirth compares to Foreman’s use of a buzzer. The list need not stop there. For example, the director of a Ta’ziyeh play is always present. Always on stage, he conducts the movements of the actors, musicians, and audience. He can cue the actors, handle props, or help children or inexperienced actors. The involvement of the director sounds not dissimilar to the activities of Tadeusz Kantor during performances by Cricot 2. Other conventions of Ta’ziyeh have been compared and contrasted to Brecht and Grotowski.

At numerous times during a Ta’ziyeh performance, the audience assumes an active role in intensifying the emotional fervor of a scene. Almost like a congregation in a black Baptist church, or like Koreans at a performance of P’ansori, people frequently shout rejoinders to the actors on stage, “Ya Hussayn!” or “Salavat!” At a certain point, the director starts beating his chest in order to signal the actors to do the same; gradually, the chest-beating is taken over by the audience, so much so that the rhythmic noise of the beating fills the theater and becomes a powerful influence on the stage action itself and the way the stage action is received by the audience.

Ta’ziyeh’s power comes in no small part from the audience’s willingness to engage the plays with as much feverish emotion as they can muster. This explains in part the attraction to Ta’ziyeh felt by most of the theater artists, academics, or, for that matter, tourists who have ever witnessed one of its performances. The religious nature of the plays combined with its ability to create a sense of communitas, to use a shibboleth of theater anthropologists such as Victor Turner or Richard Schechner, appeals to nostalgia for a perhaps mythical time when Western audiences were equally engaged in and brought into unified spirit by the experience of theater. This is part of the similarity that John Bell saw between Ta’ziyeh and Abdoh’s work. Certainly, Abdoh wanted to get under his audience’s skin, to destroy the protected, detached position with which Western audience’s enter a theater.

Bell overstated the similarity when he wrote, “Abdoh’s desire here¾to persuade an audience to participate in a transformative ritual process¾parallels the function of Ta’ziyeh for Muslim audiences in Iran.” Abdoh’s engagement of the audience, so often perceived as obscene in the traditional sense and as Bataille defined it, may have been transformative, but there was nothing ritualistic about it. Indeed, in the mostly secular West, the notion of “ritual” intrinsically rules out the possibility of transformation because it implies activities carried out by rote, out of a sense of duty. Wittgenstein captured this in a beautiful note in Culture and Value:

Everything ritualistic (everything that, as it were, smacks of the high priest) must be strictly avoided, because it immediately turns rotten.

Of course a kiss is a ritual too and it isn’t rotten, but ritual is permissible only to the extent that it is as genuine as a kiss.[19]

In a way, part of what made Abdoh’s theater so engaging was that it felt as genuine as a kiss, a cry, a laugh, or a shout¾none of which feels like a ritual, though each may be in its own way¾and aside from the myriad techniques he used to break the audience out of its own ritualistic detachment as spectators, essential to the endeavor was the sense of genuine vulnerability. The sense of watching something risky and raw brought Abdoh’s audiences to a level of engagement higher than that experienced in most other theaters. In the West, the ritual of theater¾insofar as one can call theater a ritual¾transforms its participants most effectively when it shows a willingness to transform itself.

Abdoh may have looked at the means by which Ta’ziyeh provoked communitas, many of which Westerners would identify as Verfremdungseffekte, and figured out how to use the techniques to provoke the opposite of Verfremdung. That is, Ta’ziyeh’s alienation effects aim not to alienate but rather to enthrall its viewers. A fundamental aspect of Brechtian acting theory is the separation of the actor from his or her role, the idea that, as Brecht wrote in reference to Charles Laughton’s performance in The Life of Galileo,

This principle¾that the actor appears on stage in a double role, as Laughton and as Galileo; that the showman Laughton does not disappear in the Galileo whom he is showing; from which this way of acting gets its name of ‘epic’¾comes to mean simply that the tangible, matter-of-fact process is no longer hidden behind a veil.[20]

Similarly, in Ta’ziyeh, any number of things prevent the actors from disappearing behind their role. Above all, the actors carry their scripts with them while acting, and the costumes they wear are contemporary. The texts themselves are usually in verse, and the performers declaim their lines turned outwards to the audience. As was already mentioned, the director moves amongst the performers on stage. The movements of the actors are exaggerated, and many gestures and costume details take traditional, symbolic form. Hussayn’s party is usually dressed in green, while the villains associated with Yazid wear red. Sorrow is expressed by throwing straw on one’s head. A character may wear a white shroud to signify his impending death.

Fundamentally, a Ta’ziyeh actor cannot “drop character” because the character is always “dropped.” Wirth cites a story common among Iranologists about a village police officer who was playing the a lion. The officer notices his captain in one of the seats and, while on all fours, salutes the captain with his lion’s paw.[21] In the context of a Ta’ziyeh play, the salute does not break the illusion of the performance but is instead a natural part of its aversion to illusion. Nor is there any notion of unity of time or space in a Ta’ziyeh play. Alexander the Great could appear beside Hussayn who could be standing next to Judas Iscariot.

Critics were torn between comparing Abdoh’s Verfremdungseffekte to Brecht or to Ta’ziyeh. In part, this tension stems from conflicting impulses: to locate Abdoh’s influences in familiar, Western sources, or to assume that an Iranian must inevitably draw from his Persian heritage. But a comparison of Brecht to Ta’ziyeh actually helps locate a paradox consistent in Abdoh’s oeuvre. The devices that Brecht invented serve to encourage a critical distance on the part of the audience. Ta’ziyeh uses similar techniques to increase the involvement of the spectators. On some occasions, Abdoh said he wanted his plays to encourage people to think critically and act differently; other times, he spoke of wanting to entrance the audience. Perhaps he did not think the two mutually exclusive. The push-and-pull between enthralling and distancing the audience may be one of the most interesting dialectics in Abdoh’s work, and the heart of it lies in the intersecting methods of two theatrical models that move in opposite directions.

With Ta’ziyeh, the development of non-illusionistic techniques were almost certainly not authored by one individual but grew gradually out of a mix of indigenous performance traditions (and perhaps descriptions of European Passion Plays). There are several reasons why the acting in Ta’ziyeh is alienated, almost all of them broadly rooted in Ta’ziyeh’s cultural context. Foremost in importance is the Muslim proscription against representation. Indeed, other Islamic sects find Ta’ziyeh, even with all its anti-illusionary measures, thoroughly at odds with Islamic tradition. According to Muhammad Ja’far Mahjub, Shi’ite scholars frown on Ta’ziyeh, but, recognizing how the plays “enhance the faith and interest of the people in the saints, and heighten their feelings toward the family of the Prophet, they enjoin a patient forbearance and indulgence” of the performances.[22] Another observer has gone so far as to say it would be “blasphemy” if a Ta’ziyeh player were ever to permit himself to “become” the Imam Hussayn on stage; as for playing villains, the distance between actor and character is unavoidable both because of the actor’s “inherent loathing and repulsion” for the villain and because Ta’ziyeh’s villains are so inhuman and monstrous that it would be impossible for them to be portrayed realistically.[23]

Abdoh maintains the same rigorous distinction between actor and character; in fact, he spoke to his actors of personae rather than characters.[24] In the scripts themselves, Abdoh usually uses the actors’ real names in assigning the lines, not the names of the characters. When delivering their lines, the actors are almost always turned out, facing the audience, and the musicality of the actors’ spoken voice is as exaggerated, almost operatic, as the gestures. The idea that the magnitude of the characters, the extremity of their traits, of what they represent, can obstruct actors from realistically portraying them actually impinges on Abdoh’s theater. Abdoh’s patriarchal figures are grandiose enough to approach the iconic status attained in Ta’ziyeh by Yazid: the Vampire in Rusty, the Captain in Hip-Hop, the fathers in Bogeyman and Father Was a Peculiar Man. In Tight Right White, every character is a type, the embodiment of a racial or ethnic juggernaut before which communities and an entire culture have thrown themselves.

As in Ta’ziyeh, Abdoh rejects unity of time or space. In almost all of his plays, the dead mingle with the living; there is no locus or setting for any of the plays discussed in this dissertation. One cannot ask where Tight Right White takes place, unless one is prepared to hear an answer such as “the American psyche.” Further disrupting any unified notion of time of space,  the central stage area in Ta’ziyeh will host the main plot while playing areas on the circumference will host sub-plots, and actors from the two sections can defy time and place by communicating with one another. This is exactly what happens in Bogeyman and Tight Right White, where actors in the Mandingo scenes converse with Moishe Pipik and Blaster or, in Tom Fitzpatrick’s case, assume roles in both universes. In Bogeyman, the dialogues and speeches emanating from the various cubicles and playing areas interact with each other, overlap with one another, jeopardizing the separation that Abdoh establishes with his grid-like set.

The aspects of Ta’ziyeh that manifest themselves in Reza Abdoh’s work do so in a way that is anything but organic or “naïve,” in Schiller’s sense of the word. In that sense alone¾the fact that Abdoh’s style is a formulated strategy as opposed to an improvised but gradual evolution of popular performance traditions¾Abdoh’s techniques are intrinsically more alienating to his audience than Ta’ziyeh’s are to its own, because the techniques are noticed qua techniques, i.e., as authorial gestures and not as a natural, familiar way of expressing a collective cultural animus. When Josette Féral, in her interview with Abdoh, began to discuss his acting technique as alienating, Abdoh’s reaction was notably tentative:

féral: Is that your Brechtian influence?

abdoh: Probably…

féral: Because it creates an alienation effect, it keeps the audience at a distance.

abdoh: Yes, maybe…[25]

To be mystical, yet communicative. Entrancing, yet critical. Influenced by Ta’ziyeh, yet also by Brecht.

As extensive as the similarities between Abdoh and Ta’ziyeh may be, fundamental differences bring Abdoh closer to Brecht. As the actors take on personae, the actor behind the role does in fact disappear. When actors in Minamata or Father Was a Peculiar Man drop their characters, it is clear that they are doing so, and the effect is jarring. At the end of the twentieth century, critic Parviz Mamnoun’s suggestion that a Ta’ziyeh character could be impossible to portray realistically as a result of being too monstrous sounds sadly inappropriate to Western culture, saturated as it is with news of egregious deeds perpetrated by all too human, all to “normal” people. In Law of Remains, Jeffrey Dahmer is both an other-worldly figure and a human being known to us from our own newspapers, our own television sets; his victims had names and faces and families, though the perversity and sheer cruelty he exhibited could hardly be surpassed by any act perpetrated by Yazid before, after, or during Kerbela. And Tom Pearl filled his portrayal of Dahmer with a hauntingly pedestrian evil that never diminished the magnitude of Dahmer’s crimes.

The Dar A Luz acting style was neither Stanislavski nor Brecht nor Ta’ziyeh, but rather a fluctuating mix of all three. As Abdoh shifted between the impulse to entrance an audience and to make an audience view things critically, he would maneuver and manipulate the numerous tools he had at his command. To entrance, he would use folk and popular dance and music; he would technically overwhelm the audience with light and sound; he would create spectacular images on stage; and he would grant the actors a certain amount of identification with their “personae.” To break the trance, he would use abrupt and jarring transitions; he would have the actors say and do shocking things that repelled the audience; he would draw more attention to the distance between the actors and the personae they played. The acting style, the outward turn of the actors, the exaggerated vocal intonations and physical gestures, actually proved flexible enough to entrance or to alienate: whatever other tools he was using to provoke empathy or distance, the acting style was capable of intensifying the experience in either direction. This balancing act may have been one of Abdoh’s most distinguishing achievements as a director.

Whether or not Abdoh realized the flexibility of this acting style because of his dual knowledge of Brechtian and Ta’ziyeh stagecraft is not altogether clear. Obviously, Abdoh had some knowledge or awareness of Ta’ziyeh. On the other hand, if he ever did see a Ta’ziyeh performance, it would have been from before he was thirteen years old¾he never returned to Iran after he was sent to England for schooling. Abdoh and Bell discussed Ta’ziyeh briefly in their interview together, but they never spoke much of specifics.

Rather than exploring the performative similarities and differences between Ta’ziyeh and Abdoh, John Bell explored the themes and social objectives allegedly common to both. “The way death is treated in Ta’ziyeh,” Bell wrote,

has important ramifications for the contemporary theatre of death which aids has engendered, and of which Abdoh’s post-hiv+ plays are an important part. In Ta’ziyeh, death is an inevitable end and the details of its process are the center of dramatic focus¾even more so than in Greek tragedy. Death is the central action of Ta’ziyeh, and its complications, its details, its outrages, and its ability to arouse deep emotions of love are all important elements in the theatre of death Abdoh has created…. But Ta’ziyeh… focuses on the act of death, pauses over its minutiae, ponders its meaning, and, as Abdoh has said, finds redemption and significance in it…. The deaths in Ta’ziyeh are martyrs’ deaths; this is also an important link to Abdoh’s theatre. Martyrdom raises the importance of death to a higher level; unjust, yet not unexpected, the martyr’s death immediately assumes significance in a greater context, becomes meaningful on a different, higher plane. Abdoh transferred Ta’ziyeh’s method of making great sense of death from an environment (Iran) and religion (Islam) no longer hospitable to him, to a new context in a society struggling over the meaning of aids.

The problems with the above analysis are deep but straightforward. The death of Hussayn signified a cruel act of human injustice against a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, and his martyrdom¾regardless of the existence of Ta’ziyeh¾is significant in bonding the Shi’ite community together. The occasion of Hussayn’s martyrdom captures the evil of all those who have denied the Caliphate to the familial descendants of Mohammed, and, conversely, the virtue of those who recognize his descendants. Ta’ziyeh and Ashñrª foster not only love but hostility. They foster a sense of disenfranchisement, of having suffered a wrong, of being persecuted. The bravery, selflessness, and grace shown by Hussayn and his family is meant to inspire the Shi’ites to withstand the persecution of non-Shi’ite sects, which is exactly what many Shi’ite communities have had to endure.

People who die of aids are not martyrs to a cause. Their deaths may be devastating, but they prove nothing not already demonstrated by others’ deaths from other diseases, namely, that humans are mortal and fate, unjust. The murder of Imam Hussayn at the hands of the evil Yazid rallies a community with the story of an affront deliberately perpetrated against their community. But aids is not a deliberate creation, nor is it perpetrated against a single community. One cannot make “sense” of aids, because there is no sense to it. Abdoh, wisely, never tries to make sense of or find significance in death or human suffering¾above all, not aids, which in point of fact is never even mentioned once in any of his plays. One of the paradoxes that Abdoh captures in his portrayal of death and suffering is that it is all too often, so to speak, “inevitably chosen.” That is, people have free will, and yet they almost inevitably choose a course of behavior that leads to suffering and death. But this kind of inevitability is of a whole different breed from that of Hussayn’s martyrdom, which, akin to Christ’s Passion, had an element of divine fate and purpose. Abdoh, in essence, was more of a humanist than a Shi’ite; he had no need to represent queers or any other particular community as capturing a monopoly on the virtuousness of victimhood. Indeed, he considered himself not to be a victim, and he didn’t recognize any automatic correlation between being a victim and having virtue.

To carry the ruined city under your skin is to carry the seeds of your own destruction. Even in Tight Right White, racial and ethnic groups are shown to be complicit in the formation of oppressive stereotypes. The complexity of Abdoh’s world view is anathema to organized religion’s project, part of which is the tidy and understandable division of the just and the unjust, the saved and the damned. This, if anything, is what he had in common with elements of Sufism and of the philosophy embedded in áfiz’ poetry: a disregard for orthodox Islam’s rigorous division into sects of divinity and evil. As áfiz wrote,

What is it to you whether I am virtuous or a sinner? Busy yourself with yourself!

Each in the end will reap the seed he himself has sown.

Every man longs for the Friend, the drunkard as much as the awakened.

Every place is the House of Love, the Synagogue as much as the Mosque.

What else underlies the anger of the plays, if not a revulsion towards man’s inhumanity to man? What else underlies the repeated cry in Quotations, to “Be civil, will you?” For Abdoh, however, every place is not just the House of Love, but the House of Love and Hate; the House of Justice and Injustice; the House of Oppression and Freedom; of Sex and the Absence of Sex; of Life and Death. The relentless fusing of opposites and contradictions renders it close to impossible for Abdoh to end his work in a tidy package of “redemption and significance.”

The Hip-Hop Waltz of Hussayn?

expert witness: Genghis Khan. There was a method, a clearly thought-out method. They would fracture the enemy and set the factions against each other. Then, after the mayhem, they would arrive to claim their right to build a new civilization on the rubble of history. Just like vultures. Vultures are the most evolved birds. Models of efficiency… Waste? Nonexistent in their vocabulary. Now, all systems are provisional at best. We must find ways of speeding up the evolutionary process of purification. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition. Most contrary to our natural inclinations. We all burn with the desire to find solid ground and whereon to build a foundation for a tower reaching to the infinite.

¾Abdoh and Oglesby, Minamata

Eli Fuchs and John Bell have both commented on the immense scope of Quotations, the breadth of its ambitions, the breadth of its themes. But Abdoh’s entire career was marked by a desire for breadth and magnitude. Eventually, it becomes pointless to talk of influence, because, directly or indirectly, he was influenced by just about everything. He may not have actually gone to India to study Kathakali, as he alleged, but he did see Mnouchkine’s company when it visited L.A., and Mnouchkine was influenced by Kathakali¾and Abdoh imitated Mnouchkine in his production of Lear. The man was a cultural sponge.

Consider for a moment the number of artists or art forms to which Abdoh’s work¾over the course of a career that in essence lasted a mere ten years¾has at one time or another been compared, or to which Abdoh himself or other critics have attributed influence: Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, Robert Bresson, Robert Wilson, Arianne Mnouchkine, Shakespeare, William Burruoughs, Richard Foreman, Hieronymous Bosch, Marquis de Sade, Antonin Artaud, Rilke, Kabuki, capoeira, Jasper Johns, Karl Marx, Marcel Duchamp, Virgil, Brecht, Jean Cocteau, J.B. Ballard, Grand Guignol, Pina Bausch, Squat Theater, Jan Fabre, vaudeville, the Living Theater, Grotowski, Bread and Puppet Theater, Tadeusz Kantor, Jean Genet, Peter Brook, Rimbaud, Richard Schechner and the Performance Group, Ronconi’s Orlando Furioso, David Wohnarowitz, Guillermo GÜmez-PeÔa, Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, Jarry, Witkiewicz, Fassbinder, Mapplethorpe, Heiner Müller, MGM musicals from the 1930s and 1940s, Anselm Kiefer, Proust, Mallarmé, André Breton, the Wooster Group, áfiz, Rumi, Ta’ziyeh, Aristotle, Wagner, Verdi, Bombay “Bollywood” films, cabaret, Borscht Belt, Dante, Nietzsche, St. Augustine, Rousseau, Bataille, Pasolini, and, that mammoth entity known as “American pop culture.” Just to name a few. If one also imagines that all of the above were in turn influenced by countless other people and traditions, the difficult question ends up being, which artists or art forms had nothing to do with any of Abdoh’s works?

Perhaps the ability of critics to find traces of so many other artists and art forms in Reza Abdoh’s work is itself a sign of his oeuvre’s richness; perhaps it’s simply part of the enthusiastic effort that critics engage in when they first encounter and try to make sense of new work. I would argue that Abdoh was in many ways the ultimate artist for a postmodern culture, a “hip-hop” culture, a culture of sampling. Hip-hop music has integrated into its thumping beats everything from Gregorian chants to “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” from Annie. This ravenous, vulture-like plunge into just about any pocket of cultural history was Reza Abdoh’s hip-hop waltz. A “hip-hop waltz.” The phrase itself captures the contradictions, the humor, the breadth, and finally, the implausibility of what Abdoh achieved. He was one of those seldom artists who leaves us asking, “Where can we possibly go from here?” As Elinor Fuchs wrote in her essay, “Always Staging Lear,” “His was truly theater at the limit.”


[1] John Bell. “AIDS, Avantgarde, & Abdoh,” in TDR, p.33.

[2] Reza Abdoh. Interview from Memorial Service Video.

[3] Interview with the author.

[4] Interview with the author.

[5] Interview with the author.

[6] Assurbanipal Babilla, interview with the author.

[7] John Bell, “aids, Avantgarde, & Abdoh,” TDR, p. 33.

[8] John Bell, “To Reach Divinity through the Act of Performance,” in TDR, p. 50.

[9] Elizabeth T. Gray, “Translator’s Introduction,” in The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty ghazals from the Díwán of áfiz. (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 1995), p. 8.

[10] Ibid., p. 7.

[11] Ibid., p. 11.

[12] Ibid., p. 57.

[13] Richard Stayton was the first to make this comparison, in the program notes for The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice. It has since been repeated cursorily by Gautam Dasgupta in his essay, “Body/Politic: The Ecstasies of Reza Abdoh,” in Performing Arts Journal, no. 48 (1994): 19-27.

[14] Ibid., p. 17.

[15] Ignaz Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, trans. Andras and Ruth Hamori (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 179.

[16] Cited in Goldziher, p. 180.

[17] Interview with the author.

[18] Peter J. Chelkowski, “Ta’ziyeh: Indigenous Avant-Garde Theatre of Iran,” in Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran, ed. by Peter J. Chelkowski (New York: New York University Press, 1979), p. 3.

[19] Ludwig Wittgenstion, Culture and Value (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), p.8e.

[20] Bertolt Brecht, “A Short Organum for the the Theatre,” in Brecht on Theatre, trans. by John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964) p. 194.

[21] Chelkowski, p. 38.

[22] Ibid., p. 151.

[23] Parviz Mamnoun, “Ta’ziyeh from the Viewpoint of the Western Theatre,” Ibid., p. 158.

[24] Interview with Josette Féral, “Theatre is Not about Theory” in TDR (Vol. 39, No. 4, Fall 1995), p. 91

[25] Ibid.

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