O’NEILL IN IRAN
When I arrived in
Tehran in the fall of ‘56 as a Smith-Mundt lecturer on American
drama at the University, I was asked to present lectures on the
leading U.S. playwrights, as well as organize a dramatic club. For
the latter I suggested a production of Sidney Howard’s Yellow
Jack since American doctors were at the time involved In
fighting certain contagious diseases. However, Dr. Siassi, the
distinguished head of the School of Letters, doubted that a Persian
audience could accept a play dealing with disease as dramatic; so we
substituted Billy Budd, recently a success in the U.S., on
which Louis Coxe, my colleague in the Bowdoin English Department,
had collaborated and which had the advantage of requiring an
entirely male cast. (Actresses in Iran at that time were suspect!)
The play was shown
with some success early in ‘57, but the University authorities
were embarrassed when the press hailed it as an attack on authority.
I was considered politically subversive! For a second production Dr.
Siassi accepted Behrman’s Second Man, a high comedy
requiring a cast of two men and two women. I was fortunate in having
four skilled actors who fitted the parts and took it to Isphahan for
a tryout during the No Ruz (New Year) vacation, starting the 21st of
March. It was enthusiastically received, and the local theatre
director congratulated me on having introduced kissing on his stage.
When we returned to Tehran, I was asked to redirect the play to
cover the kisses and to remove the
ingenue from an actor’s lap to the arm of his chair. Not wishing
to be considered sexually subversive, I did so, despite the public
objection of the company.
lectures had proceeded from Uncle Tom’s Cabin through
contemporary plays, among which those of O’Neill were most
popular. I was asked, following the tryout of Second Man in
Isphahan, to lecture on O’Neill at Abadan. Two young Iranians
approached me after the lecture for permission to use it as an
introduction to their translation of the S.S. Glencairn
one-acts into Farsi.
When I returned to
Tehran as a Fulbright lecturer in ‘62, I was delighted to see a
performance at the Armenian theatre of O’Neill’s Ile,
with excellent design by Arbe Ovanessian. I’d been reading the
Arthur and Barbara Gelb biography of O’Neill and proposed
directing three of his autobiographical plays: Ah, Wilderness!
with a cast of University students, supplemented by older actors
from my earlier visit, at the University’s Fine Arts Theatre; Long
Day’s Journey into Night with a cast of American and English
actors in English, alternating with a cast of my former students in
Farsi, at the newly completed Iran-America Theatre; followed by The
Straw with a cast of young professionals from Dr. Vala’s
theatre school, also at the Iran-America building at Jalallabad,
halfway up the hill to Shimran.
is of course the boyhood Eugene wished he’d had, but it is laid at
his boyhood home, as is Long Day’s Journey. My former
interpreter Bijan Mofid translated the play into Farsi and played
the father, and one of my less inhibited former actresses the
prostitute. For scenery, we used screens which could be reversed for
the barroom scene, and we actually located a player piano. I
switched from lobsters to chickens after finding what it would cost
to fly the former from Istanbul, and an overturned rowboat in a blue
spot did nicely for the beach scene.
On the day of the
scheduled opening, to which many notables had been invited, I
dropped in on my friend and strong supporter, Dean Ali Kani, to make
sure that all was ready. While talking with him, I saw a battalion
of rod-carrying men, dressed as peasants, invading the campus. The
University students had recently demonstrated against the Shah, and
this group hunted down every student in sight. Our opening had to be
postponed but eventually was well received for several performances.
For Long Day’s Journey, which we hoped to troupe outside of Tehran, Arbe Ovanessian designed a splendid setting which could be folded for touring. The translation into Farsi was done, by a young poet, after a competition judged by three previous translators of O’Neill. The English-speaking cast were all amateurs. Many of the audience--especially Iranians wishing to test their English--came to the alternating English performances during the week’s run. With identically cut texts, the English version ran three hours--the Farsi four hours! Iranian actors love to milk a script for all that’s in it.
For The Straw,
which I’d tried to do in ‘57 but had had to abandon when my two
leading actors came down with the Asiatic flu, I had former student
Gorgin in the lead role and was offered the actress originally in the
opposite part in ‘57, but she had rounded out so lushly (perhaps as
a result of becoming a movie star) that she couldn’t play a dying
consumptive. We found another girl, used the translation originally
done by Dr. Vala, and three fine sets were supplied by his designer.
In the final week of rehearsal, I stepped in front of a car on the
main street of Tehran and broke an arm. Dr. Vala refused to finish the
rehearsals, to my great sorrow, and the play wasn’t shown.
The actors very much
enjoyed rehearsing the three shows. They were a bit troubled at the
humor of Ah, Wilderness! They had so different an attitude
toward their parents that it was difficult for them to understand the
basic father-son relationship or to appreciate the father’s attempt
to explain the “facts of life” to his son. But they enjoyed the
drunken uncle fully, as well as the references to the father’s
considering food he’d been eating for some years poisonous. So far
as I could see, the attitudes of small sisters to older brothers are
universal. They were completely mystified by Richard’s inability to
make the most of the prostitute in the bar, but the love scene on the
beach appeared to ring a bell.
In Long Day’s
Journey, the mother’s retirement into a drug-induced world of
fantasy (or earlier happiness) was readily understood, but they never
got used to the steady drinking of the three men, though they accepted
and seemed to enjoy, rather than be shocked by, the older brother’s
return from the whorehouse. I could never be sure that his admission
of wanting to bring his kid brother down to his level had the same
force that it has for most of us.
The Straw was
more difficult in casting and blocking, but they played it at a better
pace and (since the Iranians’ favorite show is Camille)
followed the tubercular tragedy to the heroine’s death with complete
understanding. The love scene at the crossroads--in some ways
reminiscent of the shore scene in Ah, Wilderness!--reached a
Since I can’t read
Farsi, I’ve little knowledge of what Iranian critics thought of my
productions of O’Neill. From what I could learn, they treated the
two that were shown with considerable respect, placing most of their
attention on performers and productions rather than on the scripts. In
‘57, when my lecture on O’Neill had been picked up for the
introduction to their translation of the early one-acts, they were
uncertain of his reputation. (Of course, those sea-going plays were
quite foreign to Iranians, who have only recently developed a Navy and
merchant marine.) By ‘63 O’Neill had become a great name there.
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