Abstract: Over time, the culture of play in Azerbaijan has been built on a ritual basis. Many religious-mystical ceremonies, plays related to nature events, and comic folk performances, were performed outdoors; and despite the fact that this phenomenon did not turn into a professional theatre tradition nor was it formed into an identifiable aesthetics, it is still a source of inspiration for many local artists. Following a brief historical survey of Azerbaijani theatre, this paper places its emphasis on the current situation, its repertoire, its artists, venues and funding system in order to provide a more inclusive picture of the forces that shape its contemporary character.
Keywords: Adil Isgenderov, Tofig Kazimov, Young Spectators Theatre, Academic National Drama Theatre, Azerbaijan State Academic Opera
The history of acting in Azerbaijan has its roots in primitive society. Johan Huizinga identifies the game phenomenon as a core of culture. Gobustan rock paintings belonging to the Azerbaijani culture of the Mesolithic period reflect various game verses. Still, these rites were the carrier of a very powerful “theatrical energy”. Over time, the culture of play in Azerbaijan has been built on a ritual basis. Many religious-mystical ceremonies, plays related to nature events, and comic folk performances were the basis of this culture. As examples we can consider “godu-godu”, “kavsaj”, “yel baba”, “gudul”, “yugh”, “lal oyunu” (mute play), “garavelli”, “laghlaghi”, “shabih” religious-mystical plays, etc. Most of these plays were street performances with narrative structures and performed in open spaces.
The phenomenon of “performances without a stage” in Azerbaijan continued until the second half of the 19th century. But the poetics of this phenomenon did not turn into a professional theatre tradition, and did not create its own theory, nor was it formed into an identifiable aesthetics. Rather, it transformed very easily into a European aesthetics and turned itself into an archetype. Nevertheless, even today, the Azerbaijani theatre takes inspiration from this archetype and perceives it as its “subconscious”.
In the second half of 19th century, some amateur theatres and theatre troupes were created and, most importantly, the six comedies of Mirza Fatali Akhundzadeh were laid as a basis for professional drama in the Turkic and Muslim world. As a result of all this activity, in March 1873, the professional Azerbaijani theatre began its history with the play Vizier of Lenkaran khan by M. Akhundzadeh. The theatre began to breathe within the aesthetic of the classical theatre stage.
Since the 1920s there were signs of the emergence of professional directors in Azerbaijani theatre. The activity of Adil Isgenderov as a director in the National Drama Theatre marked the beginning of both aesthetic principles and philosophical concepts within the performing arts. Isgenderov’s directing combined several aesthetic concepts. His directing, which was based upon Russian theatre traditions, reconciled both the monumentality of Greek theatre and the Eastern theatre tradition, which is characterized by both narrative and conventionality. This synthesis initiated a very interesting theatre aesthetics, tradition and process.
With the philosophical monumentalism of director Mehdi Mammadov, the tone of psychology and romance in the theatre grew stronger. The theoretical provisions of the Russian theatre, particularly the Stanislavsky “system”, were approved and consolidated as theoretical-aesthetic principles. Tofig Kazimov’s “lyrical-psychological” directing breathed new life into both theatre and playwriting. Kazimov single-handedly broke the materialism of the performing arts in Azerbaijan; the subjects of theatre came from the pathos and monumentalism of Soviet ideology and of real human experience. In particular, Kazimov’s new ideas for theatre gave a powerful impetus to the theatre process itself and became a cornerstone of modern Azerbaijani theatre. In addition, we can name outstanding theatre directors of the twentieth century, such as Shamsy Badalbeyli, Zafar Nematov, Ashraf Guliyev, Alasgar Sharifov, Ismail Hidayatzadeh, among others.
“The adventures of independence” of the Azerbaijan theatre
At the end of the 20th century, revolutionary changes took place in both political and cultural life in Azerbaijan. With the liberation of the Azerbaijan Republic from the USSR, Azerbaijani theatre passed from a closed system to an open one. With that came a new, more open approach to both subject matter and ideas. The emerging new theatre thought has already sought to engage in dialogue with world civilization and to locate itself within the avant-garde. Vagif Ibrahimoglu, Huseynaga Atakishiyev, Jannat Salimova, Azer Pasha Nematov, Bahram Osmanov and others became the pioneers of this new period.
Ibrahimoglu’s YUĞ theatre, created in 1989, could be regarded as a striking example of post-dramatic theatre thinking. The YUĞ State Theatre, which still operates today, was able to join the world theatre process with its “psychosophic” theatrical poetry. Ibrahimoglu’s work promoted such ideas as: the deconstruction of the text; a psychoanalytical approach to acting; the denial of Aristotelian drama and formal logic; Eastern philosophy; and an aesthetics which draws upon the philosophy of Sufism. By so doing it opened new doors for the performing arts, not only in Azerbaijan, but all over the world. At the same time, in YUĞ Theatre all philosophical-aesthetic principles of poetics created by the late director Ibrahimoglu are protected and developed by his students, and YUĞ plays an important role in the theatre life of Azerbaijan. Today’s repertoire of the YUĞ Theatre includes: Anton Chekhov’s Proposal (directed by Gunay Sattar); A.B.Kasares’s Graving Method (directed by Gumrah Omar); Medeya: Sequence 001, based on Vladimir Klimenko’s Medeya Theatre (directed by Mikayil Mikayilov); and Three Versions of a Mysterious Murder based on R. Akutagawa’s story (directed by Mehriban Alakbarzadeh).
Huseynaga Atakishiyev’s Youth Theatre and Jannat Salimova’s Baku Chamber Theatre began their activities in 1989 and 1991 respectively. Atakishiyev, who based his own theatrical attitude upon the concepts of Brecht’s Epic Theatre, has, arguably, built the most spectacular productions (such as The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui) of the modern Azerbaijani theatre.
Salimova’s Chamber Theatre also staged very successful productions, including such classics of world drama as Othello, Aesop, and Hamlet. Salimova also staged work by such Azerbaijani national playwrights as Sabit Rahman, Elchin, Anar, Ali Amirli and Rovshan Aghayev. In 2009, the Baku Chamber Theatre and the Youth Theatre joined the Azerbaijan State Theatre of Young Spectators.
Today, the Young Spectators Theatre, which has an ensemble of actors which is 96 – strong, tries to respond to the demands of young and teenage spectators. This theatre dramatizes the most serious and difficult works of world drama within the frame of its own aesthetics. The repertoire of the theatre includes: Lars Norén’s War (directed by Bahram Osmanov); The Leenane Trilogy by Martin McDonagh (directed by British director Jan Willem Van Den Bosch); Don Quixote by Cervantes (directed by Bahram Osmanov); Fuzuli’s Leyli and Majnun (directed by Nijat Kazimov); and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Richard III (directed by Jannat Salimova).
A few years ago there were a number of failed experimental productions at the Academic National Drama Theatre. Consequently, following the appointment of a new artistic director, Azer Pasha Nematov, the theatre returned to the classical path. Today, the repertoire includes: Dead People by Jalil Mammadguluzadeh; J. Jabbarli’s Almaz (directed by A. Nematov); Gogol’s The Government Inspector (directed by Mikayil Mikayilov); Ali Amirli’s Shah Gajar (directed by A. Nematov); and Yuri Polyakov’s Classmates (directed by A. Nematov).
At the Azerbaijan State Musical Theatre there are new trends. In the repertoire of the theatre, along with light comedies, you can see such works as: 999th Night (directed by Irada Sayya) based on the stories of The 1001 Nights; Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (directed by Yunis Valipur); and Ali Amirli’s Nuri-Didem Jeyhun (directed by Mehriban Alakbarzadeh), which is written in musical style dedicated to the history of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
It should be noted that, for the first time the production of Waiting for Godot was accompanied by symphonic music. Written by the People’s Artist of Azerbaijan, Professor Faraj Garayev, this work has become an important event in the history Azerbaijan theatre.
In addition, musical comedies like Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s Arshin mal alan (directed by Elvin Mirzoyev) and Not This, Then That(directed by Jannat Salimova), in the repertoire of the Azerbaijan State Musical Theatre, add colour to the life of Azerbaijanis.
The Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre is one of the major art centres for the Azerbaijani theatre elite. The audience can enjoy such operas as: Love Potion by G. Donizetti; Asli and Karam by U. Hajibeyli; The Year Tabarro by G. Puccini, among others.
At present, there are 27 state theatres in the country, and 11 of them are drama theatres. The theatres for national minorities, (like the Gakh State Georgian Drama Theatre, the Gusar State Lezghin Drama Theatre and the State Russian Drama Theatre) are in line with Azerbaijan’s tolerant and multicultural principles. The theatrical life of Baku also includes such companies as the State Puppet Theatre, the State Pantomime Theatre and the Marionette Theatre.
Towards a “theatre without spectacle”
The idea of the “stage without spectacle” was inspired by Derrida’s theoretical work Grammatology. This expression connects to the idea of post-dramatic theatre. In the modern period, the theatre has stopped pretending that it is a tribune. It demolishes the asymmetry, inherent in classical theatre, between “I” and “you”, as well as the teacher-pupil, father-son, priest-congregation hierarchy of author and spectator relationships. Communication between the actor and the viewer moves from the vertical plane to the horizontal space and the spectator becomes a co-author of performances. The theatrical performance is restored to its original, often celebratory and humorous, nature as carnival.
Derrida expresses this process as “theatre without spectacle.” Recently the Azerbaijani theatre has turned away from magnificent theatre buildings to cellars and smaller rooms. This has resulted, in the last few years, in the formation of the private theatre sector in Azerbaijan, with very important results. The independent ESA Theatre, founded in 2015, was the first inclusive theatre in Azerbaijan. During their first two years of activity they successfully performed Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and M. F. Akhundzadeh’s The Story of Monsieur Jordan and Dervish Mastali Shah. The group of actors with disabilities is currently working on new projects.
Another theatre engaged in independent activity is the “Human Theatre” of People’s Artist Parviz Mammadrzayev. The theatre started with the performance of The Third (directed by Parviz Mammadrzayev), based on the work of Sławomir Mrożek’s Karol.
The private theatre industry is not financed by the government, but rather tries to form its own production system. It is continually seeking new means of expanding, implements projecting and operating on the principle of self-financing. Independent theatres in Azerbaijan include: “Ado”, “Rebus”, “dOM”, “Chikish” and“Ol” puppet theatre.
The series of events (international festivals, conferences, etc.) carried out within the framework of the State Program “Azerbaijan Theatre in 2009-2019”, approved by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan on 18th of May, 2009, included the integration of state theatres into the world theatre circuit and had a positive impact on communication with the world theatre culture.
In the middle of the last century in Azerbaijan, professional theatre science, which was founded by the theatrical writer Jafar Jafarov, achieved a new stage of development. The discipline of theatrical studies in our country, which attempts to perceive itself as part of the contemporary arts and humanities culture, have been able to “diagnose” precisely the current theatre process. There are a number of excellent works, such as: The Tragedy: Genre Mutations (by Aydin Talibzadeh); Eastern Theatre History (textbook, by Aydin Talibzade ); Theatre Criticism Workshops (by Maryam Alizade, Aydin Talibzadeh); and Theatre: Watching and Magic”(by Maryam Alizade).
Today, leading figures in Azerbaijani theatre studies include: Israfil Israfilov, Ilham Rahimli, Vidadi Gafarov, Elchin Jafarov, Aliya Dadashova, and Konul Jafarova.
Dear reader, we have made together a virtual trip around the theatre of Azerbaijan. The idea of theatre is a universal notion, and one which unites us. In this idea, we are always together. Borders are a product of politics; arts do not recognize any boundaries. So, see you in theatre!
 “Psychosophic” (“psycho” – soul, spirit, sophic, from the word ‘sophia’= knowledge, wisdom) – that’s how the late master named his thought system which he had followed in his works
*Daglar Yusif was born in Ismailly, Azerbaijan in 1996. He graduated from the Azerbaijan State Culture and Arts University in 2018 where he now pursues his Master of Arts. He is currently working as a specialist at the Arts Department of the Azerbaijan Union of Theatre Workers.