Children’s Plays in Iran: Iranian Culture or Homogenous Society?
Bahee Hadaegh* and Zeinab Karimi**
Children’s theatre in Iran reflects two distinct categories: performances in schools or community centres and plays in private theatre spaces. Hasan Dolatabadi is the most prominent Iranian children’s playwright whose plays are the main representatives of the first category. The second category has a longer history and provides us with popular plays which can be analysed to see what features have contributed to their success. As this study scrutinizes Dolatabadi’s plays for similar features, it becomes clear that they lack aesthetic value and concern for the public. However, because they reinforce beliefs that further the ideological causes, they are well supported and publicized. Their increasing popularity coincides with the marginalization of unfunded plays, which may ultimately damage Iranian children’s theatre as well as Iranian culture.
Keywords: Iran, children’s theatre, Dolatabadi, ideology, culture, education.
From the time when Iranian theatre started producing plays for children about a century ago, the tendency has been always towards hosting these productions in schools. However, this dream was only partially fulfilled prior to the Iranian revolution. Recently, a playwright has devoted himself to writing scripts which can be easily performed in schools. With more than thirty plays for children, Hasan Dolatabadi has established himself as the most prolific children’s playwright in Iran.
This 63-year-old award-winning playwright—who holds a BA and an MA in Theatre Arts and a PhD in Directing—has reached such canonical status that his plays are performed at major national events. He directs plays in schools and organizes workshops on drama and creative writing in different regions of Iran to train storytellers, directors and performers. But is he really the saviour that Iranian theatre has been waiting for? A comparison between his plays and the most popular ones in the history of Iranian children’s theatre suggests that the answer may not be yes.
Iranian children’s theatre is on the verge of having its dream fulfilled but at the expense of its essence. In other words, as this study shows, Dolatabadi’s works barely respect children’s dreamlike world views and do not allow the audience to identify with their characters, because they merely focus on education—Dolatabadi himself offers nurturing good citizens as his main concern.[i] The instructions included in Dolatabadi’s plays serve the interests of the educational agencies—to create good citizens. His works reach a wide audience because they have the support of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance (Moosavi 69), which issues permissions for performances.
To confirm that Dolatabadi is being officially supported, it should be emphasized that in Iran, an artist’s acquisition of these legal permissions, on such a large scale, hinges on his cooperation or compromises to some establishments (Mohamad Karimi-Hakak 47). Having performances in schools is even more complicated and requires additional permissions from the Ministry of Education. Such regulatory entities are mainly concerned with morals rather than the aesthetics of the plays: they tend to manipulate rather than supervise (Agah 11). The plays that get to be staged, like Dolatabadi’s, are the ones that have pass[ed] through some filtering (Moosavi 71), and children’s massive exposure to them can lead to a distrust of theatre in general.
In contrast to Dolatabadi’s plays that speak at children, other popular stage productions have gained longevity and popularity by reflecting social realities and speaking for children. By incorporating contemporary cultural issues, they help children understand themselves and their society better. They even undermine the ideologies that rule the educational system. These popular plays that originate from people’s lives and folktales are generally performed in private theatre spaces. They face two circumscribing factors: first, most producers cannot afford to rent such spaces, and many plays fail to be staged accordingly (Lazgee 15); and second, a limited number of people can see the productions because they are either staged in metropolitan areas or are too expensive for an average family.
Once these plays targeting children are analysed according to their venues, budgets and administrative agents, it becomes clear that they fall into two categories: public productions and private ones. The present study shows that these two categories are further distinguishable by their motives and implications.
The need to differentiate between these two categories and analyse them comparatively lies in the unique social context of recent years. Iranian theatre is just emerging in schools and the criteria for its evaluation are being defined. Dolatabadi influences the future of children’s theatre through the unique opportunities that the educational system provides for him. He is turning into a role model for future artists through his profusion of guidebooks on education that target parents and teachers. His published plays and reviews on existing children’s literature actually exceed 150.[ii]
This is especially worrying considering the severe financial problems which are currently afflicting other producers, and therefore further limiting the reception and production of privately financed plays. Consequently, children’s experience of theatre is likely to be confined to school productions. Thus, it becomes crucial to analyse the plays that schools stage and compare them with popular children’s plays to see if they include those features that have led to their success. This study, then, uses popular plays as the touchstone for evaluating Dolatabadi’s works.
As such, three of Dolatabadi’s plays—When Fish Drowns, Friendship Among Roosters and Foxes and Moon’s Guests, all published in 2013—are juxtaposed with two unfunded plays that have met great public acclaim: Mitra Bayat and Seyed Mohamad Taherirad’s Sara and the Moon (2019) and Abas Janfada’s Hasan the Bald (2015). It must be noted that the two latter plays are only the most recent and most successful adaptations of two ancient folktales, The Moon-marked Forehead and Hasan the Bald, the exact dates and origins of which are unclear. There have been innumerable, often less professional theatrical adaptations of them in local as well as leading theatre spaces all over Iran.
Finally, one should bear in mind that only limited academic research exists to support the critical views this study offers. The main reason is that in Iran criticizing children’s theatre, whose purpose is basically educational and therefore ideological, actually means opposing presupposed ideologies. Criticism in this field is therefore extremely rare and scholars avoid criticizing artists (Dolatabadi and Barsghiyan 33).
When Fish Drowns features a bear family with two children, Punda and Panda. Punda hurts himself while helping his father. Panda is reproached for not helping Punda as his father has asked him to and is sent away to help someone else. Panda causes trouble in the jungle as he does not know how to help. His father, who has been following him, lets him return home.
In The Project of Expanding Drama in Schools All Over the World, Dolatabadi has set instructing audiences as his main objective (41). One cannot expect his plays to have the highly dreamlike quality of most children’s plays, but since they are targeting a sensitive audience, his characters might be expected to be handled sensitively. On the contrary, the language used in addressing the young characters in this play damages the addressee’s sense of self. It is filled with utterances which attribute certain qualities to the addressee and force him to act within the boundaries of that presupposition. More importantly, the play concentrates on Panda, the character it reproves, instead of adopting a positive attitude and acclaiming Punda’s helpfulness.
Panda is not only portrayed as an inept and useless character. but he is also repeatedly belittled by his father and the other animals in the forest. So, even if the educational function of theatre is to be prioritized, the method applied in this play is flawed. It overwhelms the audience in scenes where the performer is being denounced for his/her fault. It is as if the audience is being warned of the consequences of the performer’s probable deviation from the traditional Iranian code of conduct. Accordingly, superiority of adults and dismissal of children’s fantasies characterize the play.
The play’s purpose is further overshadowed by the father’s desire to be obeyed. As the father finally admits, he genuinely believes that the best way to learn helpfulness is being useful to one’s family. Paradoxically, what he asks for at the beginning of the play goes against this belief. The play focuses on the father’s idea to send Panda out to help strangers and welcome him back when he has witnessed Panda’s obedience, not his helpfulness. The play seems to be advocating the necessity of children’s obedience. The feeling it creates in the audience is the young pandas’ helplessness. The panda brothers’ body language is suggestive of their lack of confidence: their arms are held close to their bodies in front of them, shoulders are stooped, heads are leaning to the side or downward and feet are awkwardly held close to one another.
In Friendship Among Roosters and Foxes, which gives instructions on friendship,Dolatabadi’s pedagogical attitude is further evident. These instructions are uttered by a rooster who believes that one must have as many friends as possible. A fox approaches and tries to dupe the rooster into descending from the tree where he is perched. The fox claims that the forest king has ordered that all animals be friends. But as soon as the rooster pretends to see a dog coming, the fox escapes out of fear.
This play is included in the first volume of Dolatabadi’s Easy Play Scripts to Be Performed in Class and on Stage. In its introduction, it cautions its readers on the excess of having even “one enemy” (Dolatabadi 82). However, the rooster shows no willingness to mitigate the fox’s enmity and rejects his call for peace. Even this contradiction is not as questionable as the error that is evident in these words from the play: “a bad friend is the one who lies and befriends your enemy” (82). In real life, it is not hard to imagine situations where a child may miss the opportunity of knowing good people if he avoids people who communicate with his enemies. Besides, a child’s identification of his enemies is not always reliable. In general, adherence to this instruction can lead a child to rejecting most of his peers.
The play solves this problem by insisting that sameness determines relations. Consequently, it distances itself from all notions of unity which are characteristic of plays that offer at least a hint of children’s dreamlike world views and fantasies. In fact, it makes the fox’s claim that “all animals have to be friends and no one is allowed to harm the other” (85) sound comical. What may justify this is the author’s intention of promoting national ideologies. As Shadi Shajiee contends, patriotism and conformity are the main motifs in Dolatabadi’s plays (13). It is easy to notice the parallels between the rooster and Iran, the fox and the West, the Other.
Dolatabadi seems to have felt the necessity of carving out an exception to his lesson on friendship. He implicitly suggests that some agents, like Western countries, are not capable of purifying themselves of ill intentions; thus, no matter how amicably they approach you (Iranians), they must be repelled. Accordingly, this play fails to be objective and leaves no room for its audience’s own fantasies. Dolatabadi has no interest in originality and individual fantasies. In all his articles, including The Project of Expanding Drama in Schools All Over the World (41), he emphasizes only the necessity of training children to respect their own culture.
Moon’s Guests features friendship between a fox, a monkey and a rabbit, and its main theme is kindness. A lonely old man living on the moon sees the three friends and envies their friendship. He descends to ask the kindest one to live with him. To choose his companion, he disguises himself as a pauper and seeks food at the friends’ door. Each animal fetches something except the rabbit, who brings nothing. She asks her friends to roast her for the man. The rabbit is acknowledged to be the kindest, and the man takes all three friends to the moon.
Moon’s Guests examines how animals seek to satisfy one another’s needs and rely on their apparent free will. But free choice is actually an empty gesture: the animals’ decision is based on an internalization of the idea that pleasing guests can be an opportunity to please God. What is most disturbing is the rabbit’s honest belief that her existence is meaningless unless it meets the expectations of the others. In addition, in the scene where Rabbit insists on having some food to offer the man as a gift (while there is already enough food for the man to satiate his hunger), signs of commodity fetishism are reflected. In other words, food is important as long as one needs it; once the need is satisfied, the excess is worthless. So, besides being a sign of respecting the guest and ideology, food gains new significance: it is a measure of one’s capabilities.
Ideological views are areas where this author finds himself at ease. When dealing with doctrines, Dolatabadi does not feel the need for emphasis and persuasion, for he approaches them as matters of fact. However, an edginess emerges when he flavours his work with fantasy; for example, when he metaphorically extends the audience’s astronomical knowledge with regard to animals’ lives and actions on the moon, or when he introduces a friendship between animals that are generally known for their mutual animosity in real life. This edginess is evident in the repetitions and persuasive language that Dolatabadi uses only in those scenes, but not in the other two, purely instructional plays addressed here.
What all these three plays have in common is the reinforcement of power relationships and hierarchies. In the first play, the superiority of the father is maintained. In the second one, the rooster is not only superior to the fox, but also wiser and better than his friends, the pigeon and the crow. In his relationship with these friends, the fox stands in the position of a preacher and saviour rather than an equal friend, while a real fox is less threatening to a pigeon or crow. In the last play, the idea of hierarchies is repeated several times. The old man has the right to observe earthly creatures’ lives from his high position in the sky and has the authority to choose and take someone to the moon purely for his own benefit. Finally, no identification is encouraged between the audience and the earthly characters when they get to live on the moon and take the superior position.
Generally, these plays attempt to normalize the rift between educational agencies and people. They try to familiarize children with the fact that there are always superior agencies you cannot question; one must be obedient—like Panda, Pigeon, Crow and the three unlikely friends—if one wants to survive.
It may also be argued that Dolatabadi seems to have failed as a writer for children, because children do not often perform his plays. Figure 2 from Moon’s Guests, performed in Yazd’s The Art Hall in 2016, supports this claim.
Sara and the Moon is based on an ancient legend, The Moon-marked Forehead (Maah Pishooni), which tells the story of a little girl named Sara. Living with her cruel stepmother and stepsister Soraya, Sara is put to work where fiends are thought to live. When the fiends find her to be very kind, they show her a magical spring, the water of which gives Sara matchless beauty. This excites her stepsister’s jealousy and causes many troubles for Sara. But a heavenly horseman comes from the land of dreams to rescue her. He takes Sara to the skies.
In 2019, Mitra Bayat and Seyed Mohamad Taherirad produced The Moon-marked Forehead in a local theatre space in Tehran. In this version, Sara’s stepmother accepts Sara as her own loving daughter in the end. So, Sara is projected to live a happy life with her stepmother and stepsister. It can be argued that this version underlines the ideological superiority of grown-ups to children because Sara, who used to be treated as an inferior, is finally praised and asked for forgiveness by her adult stepmother.
In the original version, the traditional view of a royal marriage as a happy ending is subverted. Soraya, who has also sought the fiends, turns into a hideous creature because of her selfishness. But her mother manages to trick the foolish prince into marrying Soraya. This marriage is presented as a punishment for the couple since the prince will soon see Soraya’s repulsive appearance. Moreover, Soraya will be trapped in a loveless marriage because the prince has been looking for the most beautiful girl in town. Soraya’s misery can also be seen as a punishment for her mother. In the absence of both girls, the stepmother has had to do the household chores which she considered as menial and degrading.
On the other hand, in Sara and the Moon, supreme beauty and endless happiness in the land of dreams are bestowed upon Sara, who has been belittled by her family. In the adaptation, the stepmother, as the person in charge of the family and capable of giving orders, finally accepts Sara and admits her fault (see figure above). The final reconciliation between Sara and the stepmother shows how powerful a child can be to change such a stubborn person as her stepmother. It also demonstrates that adults are not exempt from making mistakes. A child’s abilities are further emphasized in both versions as Sara can change the harsh attitude of the fiends with her nice behaviour. Also, in the 2017 performance, the fiend befriends Sara when it finds her to be helpful and kind.
While in Iranian traditional belief, age determines value and older people are regarded as superior to children, Taherirad shows that he believes in children’s capabilities. He shows this trust by choosing child performers for the second adaptation. Sara and the Moon provides a context for valuing individuals’ inner worth, regardless of their age or social and ideological status.
The second version of the play has improved on the original because it incorporates contemporary cultural issues. As Taherirad mentions in his interview with Tiwal, the play deals with the growing number of children who are separated from their biological mothers and have to live with their stepmothers. It gives hope to children dealing with such problems and lets them see the possibility of living a good life with one’s stepmother. Overall, as Taherirad emphasizes, this production was motivated by a deep concern for those who have to cope with the growing rate of divorce in Iran. Taherirad further contends that his desire to serve the public made him ignore the fact that the play’s revenue would only pay for 10% of the production cost, that no state subsidy would be forthcoming, and he would only be able to rent a performance space in a low-income, marginalized area. A marked contrast is evident between Sara and the Moon and Dolatabadi’s plays.
Hasan the Bald (Hasan Kachal) is another ancient folktale which has been repeatedly adapted for the stage. The version chosen for this study was directed by Mansoor Jahanbakhsh in 2015 for Red Crescent Theatre Hall in Mashhad. The play is an adaptation of Ali Hatami’s 1970 screenplay. The protagonist, Hasan, is a youngster who falls in love with Chelgis, a girl imprisoned by a fiend. A djinn meets him and gratifies his desires in return for control of his life. With the help of the djinn, he saves Chelgis and marries her. The djinn frees him because he believes Hasan’s life belongs to his wife.
As in the previous play, the same reversal of power relationships is evident here. First, Chelgis (a name which means “forty braids”) represents wisdom and stands in sharp contrast to Hasan’s baldness, symbolizing immaturity (Ghasem Badirkhani). Patriarchal beliefs regarding the rationality of men and their superiority over women are undermined (Zaven Ghoukasian). Second, while a djinn, in common Iranian belief, is superior to mankind, in this play he wishes to win Hasan’s life to become a human. His final retreat suggests that the power of man’s love exceeds all magic. His respect for Chelgis is also a display of gallantry that is less common in Persian children’s plays. Third, the fiend who has imprisoned Chelgis yields to Hasan because he is touched by the power of kindness. His superiority is nullified as he decides to end his demonic life and live like a lamb.
How Chelgis and Hasan meet, decide to get married and inform their parents is the final example of a subversion of ideologies and reversal of power relationships. According to Iranian tradition, a girl is not expected to be in contact with her lover before marriage. Her parents are supposed to meet the suitor first and decide about the marriage, while the girl cannot challenge their decision. But Chelgis and Hasan have several romantic meetings (Figure 7) before Chelgis’ father is asked for his blessing. In this scene, the apple symbolically stands for Chelgis’ love and openness. Another occasion when Chelgis disobeys tradition is when she speaks up when her father does not allow her to her marry Hasan. Finally, her father gives up his superiority and succumbs to his daughter’s will. Therefore, it can be argued that the play challenges Iranian society on its ideological views and restrictions.
Socially esteemed characters are another group whose standing is questioned in the play. The real worth of both an eminent poet and a hero athlete is undermined when Hasan realizes that they are only in pursuit of material self-interest and fame. The figure above shows that the poet, whose wit is traditionally revered, is removed from his position of authority.
In general, the two folk plays advocate equality and sameness between people and the elite, a unity that has no place in Dolatabadi’s plays. Unlike Dolatabadi’s plays, they do not attribute unquestionable superiority to the elderly, the wise, the aristocracy or otherworldly beings. In fact, they reject the superiority of these classes and promote public consciousness, suggesting that life can be comfortable and different for those who defy blind acceptance of ideologies.
The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance and the Centre for the Performing Arts are not focally interested in such consciousness because they are more concerned about specific, ideological values. This situation is rendered rather impossible to change because in a “traditional culture” like that of Iran, “religious practice” and “other social practices” are not normally distinguishable (Woodruff 7). Accordingly, socially acceptable beliefs have the religion’s blessing. Such institutions which benefit from this situation promotes Dolatabadi’s plays because they consecrate traditional practices and the interests of parents, friends and guests, rather than the individual him/herself.
Dolatabadi’s lack of respect for a child’s individuality, as “a human being” rather than “a human becoming,” as Emma Uprichard puts it (304), is evident in the additional guidelines he has written for each of his plays in Easy Play Scripts to Be Performed in Class and on Stage, three of which have been addressed in this study. These three sections include “Pre-performance Discussions,” “Suggested Acting and Directing Procedure,” and “Character Analysis.”
The first explains concepts addressed in the play and gives instructive quotations, mainly from religious figures. This part is to be read to audiences prior to performances, hindering one of the most important functions of children’s theatre, which is “helping young audiences to become more active, reflective, critically self-aware and articulate,” to attain the “ability to reason” instead of depending on others’ reasoning (Reason 101). The two other sections interfere with actors’ identification with their characters and restrict the opportunities drama provides for actors to creatively offer individual insights.
Thus, Dolatabadi’s art proves to originate from the view of children as the ones “threaten[ing] adult structures of authority” through their “power of change and critique” (Faulkner 143), thus taking questionable advantage of drama’s unique potential to render them easy to control.
[i]“The Project of Spreading Theatre in Schools Around the World” (Dolatabadi 41); “Some Educating and Training Qualities of Theatre for Young Audiences” (Dolatabadi 63); “An Interview with Hasan Dolatabadi: Providing Easy Conditions for Easy Performances” (Negin Kohan 19).
[ii]As Mostafa Rahmandoost—an eminent Iranian writer in the field of children’s literature—has argued in “The Opening Ceremony of the Thirty-volume ‘Easy Plays,’’’ without the Art Centre’s support, Dolatabadi’s plays would have never been published in the present economic situation and with publishers’ economically-restricting conditions.
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*Bahee Hadaegh holds a PhD in Transnational Literature and Drama Studies (NSW, Australia, Wollongong University, 2009–10). She is currently working as Assistant Professor at the Department of English Literature, Shiraz University, Iran. Her specialty is Drama and Performance Studies. Recently, she has been involved in an international project on Theatre of Invectivity at TU Dresden/Germany.
**Zeinab Karimi is an MA student and a graduate in English Literature, Shiraz University.
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