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Welcome to my blog! True to my name, Shiva the Spy, I will be your eyes and ears in Iran, bringing you detailed accounts of everyday life from my perspective. You'll have a window into the social, cultural, political, and historical aspects of the country. I will bring you the stuff that American media can't...or won't. So, check back regularly for stories, photos, commentary, and anything else your curiosity calls for.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Les Justes" = Le Mockery

Last night, I watched director Ghotbedin Sadeghi’s interpretation of Albert Camus’s play, “Les Justes,” at Tehran’s grand City Theater. We got in free, through the efforts of another director belonging to the International Theater for College Students. Although we arrived a bit late, the story had just begun to crystallize.

Les Justes (The Just) is set in Moscow, early 1900s, at a time when Russia was struggling under a centralized system of tyrannical rule. The play’s main characters—four socialist revolutionaries, one of them a woman—represent a group disgruntled with the Grand Duke’s oppressive treatment of the lower classes as well as political and social dissidents. They carry out an attack on the Duke’s carriage, blowing the ruler’s head off with a homemade explosive.

Overall, the characters of the drama seem engaged in a constant struggle over conflicting ideas, such as fighting for justice vs. committing acts of terror, collective vs. individual interests, religious belief vs. socialist ideology, and others. At the story’s close, the four insurgents renounce their terrorist ways, and surrender themselves to the glory of the Catholic faith.

At several instances throughout the performance, I had to draw on every ounce of strength to keep from bursting into uproarious laughter. First of all, what was up with Dora, the female bomb expert? Her overemotional portrayal of a socialist revolutionary was inherently disingenuous—especially since her natural voice assumed a fluctuating soprano tone, dripping with exaggerated sentiment, much like a hysterical mother that dotes on her spoiled son who’s heading off to the army, or who's stubbed his toe.

The woman ran to and fro onstage in an amateurishly dainty style, convincing me less that she was a Russian rebel whose physical agility is essential for a swift escape, and more of her life as a middle-aged soccer mom of three, who sings like a lark, organizes neighborhood block parties, and hosts the annual ladies’ luncheon. Furthermore, she approached the dialogue between her and Kaliayev, which involved the topic of love, in a gushingly romantic and dreamy, damsel-in-distress-type manner that made me want to hurl all over the stage.

Then there’s the Chief of Police, a gangly fellow who visits Kaliayev, the rebel responsible for the bombing of the Grand Duke, in prison for the purpose of striking a deal with him, in a futile attempt at capturing the rest of his entourage. Undoubtedly, the actor’s motivation for this character—who sways erratically between the complementary roles of ‘good cop’/‘bad cop’—was the typical imbecilic British official, whose frivolous antics and blissfully haughty air make him an indispensable prop to any political satire. He expertly carried out the 'bumbling Brit' technique—lurching back and forth like a drunkard, constantly twirling around the prisoner, dropping to his knees, and delivering his lines in a relentlessly facetious style that seemed to mock the intended mood of the scene.

Also, the guy was far too extravagant, and often irrelevant, in his body language, jumping abruptly into a fencing stance, pretending to lean on a cane, holding his hands up in feigned surrender at Kaliayev’s angry outburst—the kind of behavior that seemed inconsistent with his character's purpose, which I think was to appear to be an intimidating, yet patronizing, high-ranking officer, rather than a loony court jester.

But the most amusing parts of the play were when 1) Kaliayev professed his love to Dora, while rolling across the stage, outstretched, and screaming “Yea-yea-yea!” and 2) at the start of the last act, a gigantic wooden cross depicting the crucified Jesus, and spanning about 11ft x 3ft, descended from the sky, landing gently onto the dinner table, between two ornate candelabras; suspended center stage, in all its glory, for the remainder of the performance, as the characters contemplated their faith. Firstly, Jesus’s legs looked disturbingly girly and stout, and second, what kind of crude symbolism was this maneuver? Moreover, no rebel group would use sleek and slender candelabras on an average-sized dinner table, especially ones without candles, probably because elegant decor does not constitute a priority.

Undoubtedly, the director was obsessed with this sort of lavishly meaningless symbolism. Strewn across the entire stage floor—i.e., the rebels’ headquarters—were worn out shoes and handbags that had been smashed to look as flat as possible. Also perplexing were the overemphasized body gestures that often didn't correspond with the actors' lines. For instance, is it necessary to continuously drop to the ground and flap your arms frantically, while grappling with the question of love, and other concepts arising in the script? Or for Stepan, the hate-filled rebel of the pack, to throw himself at Dora's feet, bawling and ripping open his shirt to show the scars resulting from the torture he endured while in the Tsar's custody?

Finally, in a predictably melodramatic display, the insurgents, having come to the conclusion that they were indeed a bunch of terrorists, remove their black leather trench coats, holding them straight out in front of their bodies, and with a shared sense of impassioned resolve, simulataneously release their grip on the coats, allowing them to fall gracefully to the floor.

What’s even more bizarre is that the audience responded to the play with a standing ovation, to which I was loathe to conform, but eventually folded under the pressure of social norms. During the undeserved applause, as if to further the mockery, herds of people dashed up to the foot of the stage with massive, multicolored bouquets of exotic flowers, wrapped artfully in brightly hued paper; there had to be at least 50 of these expensive arrays, all of which surely came from the director’s sychophantic students and family members.

Anyway, I met Dr. Sadeghi, the director, who appeared quite content with what he’d probably deem “art”. I lied and said, “Thanks for allowing us to watch such a wonderful play.” I meant to say, “Please leave this industry, you fool.” The man was extremely enamored with himself, appearing smug, and trying to dazzle us with his fluency in French. How about dazzling us with some well-researched insight into the thought processes and behavior of socialist revolutionaries? How about not turning what could’ve been subtle symbolism into a frightfully gigantic crucified Jesus, dangling smack-dab, center stage? But no, Iranians do not tolerate criticism. Everything is personal, so let's plaster an artificial smile on our faces, and shower people with vacuous compliments and feigned deference. Then, after they've left the vicinity, let's talk about what we really think. Yes, that is the Iranian way. And this may have just been my first rant...the first of many, I'm sure.

Lesson learned? There exists a thin line between creativity and outright absurdity.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Shiva,

What you say about Iranians not tolerating criticism is true. Digge mayim. But don't you think we can start by ourselves and tell what we really think instead of wearing the fake smile? This is how cultures evolves.

I live in Holland and I can tell you the Dutch can be worse. They are very blunt you know, when they want to be - but at the same -for the sake of peace and harmony, as my dutch friend explained- they can be so hypocritcal (I'm sure they don't think this way). Then they would talk behind backs: to release pressure and frustration. This is very normal. Very amusing people and culture. Holland is a small country but it never fails to suprise me.

Thanks for the nice blog ...


3:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Shiva joon
So you went and saw a play. good experience ha? I agree with the first commentator how come you did not mention how you really felt about the play to the director?

3:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bitz and Persia,

I'm all about telling it like it is, but what I forgot to mention was that nobody actually asked for my opinion in a straightforward manner, so I didn't volunteer it. It was more like, "Wasn't that wonderful? Amazing, right?" To which I could only reply with a blank stare, a smile, and 'thank you'. Plus, I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings, or be looked at as a "porru" (rude) American, a label I've already been plastered with a few times (just for being frank--polite, yet frank). I want to tell the truth, I really do; but who'll want to hear it????

Thanks for your comments; you both made points I agree with, but it seems a bit daunting to me to initiate behavior that goes against a society's norms. Yep, I'm kind of a chicken. And Bitz, I appreciate the insight on the Dutch; I guess cultural hypocrisy exists across borders. At least there's one positive aspect in lying to people--maintenance of relationships.


9:18 PM  
Blogger Winston said...


4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello. You don't know me, but I came across your blog while looking for some information on this play.

You might be interested to know that this director took great liberty with the script. In the original, after Kaliayev's execution, the terrorists remain atheist revolutionaries, but Dora becomes the most radical of them all. Wikipedia has a good summary of the plot.

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Neil K.,

Thanks for visiting. Yea, I figured it was strange for revolutionaries, of all people, to suddenly stop and decide they're convictions were wholly wrong. It's just not realistic. I appreciate your insight on what, for me, was a troubling matter that still plagues me weeks after the play. I am not being sarcastic.

On another note, while rummaging around your site, I read that you, a computer programmer, wear a lot of red. Coincidentally, my cousin in Iran, also a computer guy (8 MCSEs), happens to wear a disproportionately higher amount of red clothing. Isn't that weird??

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice work but there are more better things to say al d best

11:18 AM  

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