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A Midsummer Night’s Dream In Teheran

Written/Narrated By Iranian Poet/Playwright Maahnood KarimiHakak

A Midsummer Night’s Dream or A Midwinter Nightmare

The story of Shakespeare’s comedy in Tehran

In 1992, a Latvian theater troupe I met in Edinburgh, invited me to Kiev to teach a workshop. I had already received a small grant from Towson University to visit Iran in order to research the Iranian theatre after the Islamic Revolution, and to visit my aging mother.  So, I decided to combine the two opportunities and make a ten-day stop in Iran on my way to Kiev. While in Iran, I was asked to give a talk in one of my ex-professor’s classes. During my lecture I, arrogantly, scolded students for being lazy in comparison to those in my generation. A brave young woman stood up and spoke. With a combination of pity, anger, and envy apparent in her voice she cried out, “You are here bragging about how hard you studied, and we do not. How much you knew when you were our age, and how much we do not know. What you fail to understand is that it was your generation that created this revolution. I was just a small child at that time. And as soon as your generation realized that this was not what you had expected, you left, leaving us to deal with the aftermath of what you had started. We did not ask for this, nor did we have the means to leave like you did.” After a short pause, she continued “For all these years not many worthwhile books have been published. Our progressive artists and intellectuals, those who could not leave, are either dead or in jail, or as Forough Farrokhzad wrote ‘swamps of alcohol and opium have dragged them down to their depths.’ We are being taught by those who, in most cases, are chosen not because of their knowledge in the field but because of their loyalty to a certain ideology, or so they pretend. What many of us struggle with, dear Sir, is trying not to sell our bodies to pay for our tuition. I cannot believe that you have the nerve to come here and chastise us!” Adding with a sigh “And then of course you will leave too.” Her words pierced my heart. I sat down and cried.  She cried too. The entire class cried. What she said transformed my decision about leaving Iran. I promised her, the other students, my ex-professor, and myself, that I would not leave.

Well, at first it looked like I could work. I was invited to have lunch with some theater authorities and was promised all kinds of assistance and cooperation. But soon I learned that I, too, would be expected to prove my loyalty before I received any help. I was asked to write an article or have an interview where I declare that Western theater is sinful and corrupt, or theater is purer, healthier, and more artistically viable with present administration. Obviously, I couldn’t say that. So, I was politely asked to submit production proposals and await their approval. Well, I did propose. And I did wait. Months after months and years after years, my proposals faced a wall of silence. Meanwhile, I met and taught many young artists and students who threw their emotional support behind me, constantly encouraging me to keep the proposals going, even if there was no response from the authorities. Finally, in 1998, when Mr. Khatami won the presidency, my 125th proposal was approved, and I began working on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

While my proposals were left unanswered, many young actors and students criticized theatrical authorities by publishing articles and interviews with me, where they would ask about the fate of my latest proposal, and whether I have received a response, thus keeping the matter alive. When Mr. Khatami was elected President, I was called into the Center for Performing Arts’ office, where performance permissions are issued. There I was told in so many words that “now is the time to propose a play for production.” And asked to submit a proposal for what play I would like to stage! I refused to write another proposal. Sighting the previous 124 proposals, I said “chose any of the plays I proposed before, or even another from theater history canon that you like, and I will direct it.” After a brief exchange, the new official presenting himself in opposition to the ones who occupied that office before, suggested Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream “because,” he said, “this is a comedy with no relevance to present day Iran,” adding “so pluted  minds searching for a ‘footstep of sin’ cannot find anything to object to.” I happily accepted the suggestion, especially since I had staged this play ten years earlier in the U.S. and was well familiar with it. However, that also proved not to be smooth sailing, and I faced a variety of kinds of resistance and obstacles in casting, rehearsals, and performance from the very first day.

To begin with, I was promised a reasonable budget (all plays were produced by the government those days) and signed a contract, but the money was never released. Nor were we assigned a rehearsal space. So, again with the support of my young friends, we chipped in from our own pockets and rehearsed in my mother’s living room, an open space about 250 square feet. Then, there was the constant flow of “inspectors sent by the Center of Performing Arts with constant suggestions about how to improve the text that ranged from very silly and to stupid. Here is an example: An “inspector,” bragging that he held an MA in theater, suggested that in order to avoid un-Islamic relationship between man and woman, I should have Lysander and Hermia marry each other before they escape into the woods! Imagine! The entire play happens because these two young lovers are not allowed to marry each other.  That is why they run into the woods to escape to where “the sharp Athenian law / Cannot pursue” them. Another censor objected to the proximity of a male and female characters on stage. “From where I am sitting” he said, “they seemed to touch each other!” I pointed out to him that, “You can actually see that there’s a distance of two feet between these two actors, and that they did not touch.” He responded, “Yes, ‘I’ know they did not touch. But some people in the audience may think they touched.” There was no use explaining to this gentleman that theater is the art of make-believe, so I moved the two actors farther apart from one another.

The performances were completely sold out during the 1999 Tehran Fajr Theater Festival, where it received the Critic’s Choice Award. Following the festival, a permission was issued for 45 public presentations of the play.

However, the troubles did not stop. The first night, the theater’s doors were unlocked only a half hour before the curtain, leaving 35 actors and support staff only 30 minutes to change into their costumes, put on make-up, and check the lighting and sound. The audience were told that the play was canceled due to technical difficulties.  But they did not believe this and waited patiently. Actors hurriedly warmed up, technicians rushed through the cues, and the play opened as scheduled to a cheering sold-out house. The second night, the Box Office keys were mysteriously lost, and no one could buy tickets or pick up the ones reserved. Again, the audience, by now used to these games, waited in the freezing February Tehran weather for almost an hour, when our brave house manager (one of those who had supported my cause all throughout the production) opened the theater doors letting all in regardless of who had tickets and who did not. Finally, on its third night some thugs from the Revolutionary Guard raided our production disrupting the performance, cursing the actors, the audience and me, and then they closed the production.

Following the closure of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was accused of the crime of Raping the Public’s Innocence and summoned to court of Islamic Guidance.  However, the court proceedings remained inconclusive. But treats against my family and I did not stop, rather they grew more serious and violent by the day. Finally, when we received a voice message threatening to “run over my twin daughter’s stroller,” I decided leave Iran with my family in June 1999.


Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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