Religiosity and Emotionality in Iranian Theatre: (Re)presentations and Interventions

By Marjan Moosavi
Submitted to Session P4985 (Visual Engagement: Between the Self and the Nation, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Iranian religiosity whether practiced in real life or (re)presented in theatricalized life is intertwined with emotionality. Since 1979 Revolution and particularly after Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), state authorities require that the Shi’i sacred virtues (martyrdom, spirituality and contented self) need to be experienced as invested in the theatrical experience, and its embodiment, and space. Hence, a unique dramaturgy and scenic language, known as value-based (arzeshi) theatrical modality, emerged. In addition to religious values, this modality relies on Iranians’ performance traditions (Ta’ziyeh and Naq?li), and their myths and embodied emotional patterns. The surrealistic theatricalization of religious stories and figures offers strong affective engagement with audiences, and as a result, provide spaces for collective grievance and catharsis.
To the new generation of artists, however, the Shi’i religiosity and its emotional narratives and representations can barely provide a legitimate, suitable answer to their existential doubts and rationalized viewpoints. They are aware that emotion and religion are constructed, institutionalised and politicized, thus try to probe into the forces behind this institutionalisation and politicization. Their counter-value-based theatre offers an alternative narrative of Iranianness and different modes of embodied religiosity and emotionality through confrontational techniques of realism, fantasy, grotesque, or parody. By focusing on the realities of the corporeal and emotional aftermath of social and intercultural crises (war and domestic violence), this new interventionist modality makes visible the systems of control, plays around with established values, and offers alternative visions.
This paper investigates the triangulated correspondence between the religious values, emotional practices, and dramaturgical traditions that have been created and contested in Iranian theatre. It also traces the shift in the aesthetics, themes, scenic language, and various modes of emotionality and corporeality in these two theatrical modalities during the last three decades. By bridging recent scholarship in a number of fields, including body studies, religious studies, emotion studies, and semiotics and contextualizing them in the Iranian religio-political circumstances, this research aims at providing a localized critical and analytical methodology that recognizes the autonomy of Iranian indigenous epistemic and artistic experiences. It, therefore, proceeds through a survey of theatre reviewing in Iranian journals, blogosphere, and archives, interviewing with artists, and formal and textual analysis of three case studies. One of the methodological advantages of this localized method is to develop a model of analysis applicable to studying the theatre of the Middle East that has remained heavily under-researched.