The exact time of origination of Theatre in Iran is unclear, but the first theatres were connected deeply to the event of Karbala – the historical event of blockading Imam Hussein and martyring him and his men –and other Islamic events which are are known as Ta’zieh. The modern form of theatre like other symbolic imports from Europe came to Iran at the time of Naser al-din shah Qajar.
Before the trips of Shah to Europe, the modern form of theatre was limited to some sort of street shows such as imitation shows and “Ru-Howzi” – which was a kind of play on the flat surface on the pool (I will tell more later on). Those trips to Europe made the king determined to establish the first theatre for performing modern plays. Primarily, the king had established the government flat (Takiyedolat) for performing Ta’zieh plays. During those times, the first non-religious plays were written and performed. Some plays were about social situations – written by Mirzamalkom khan – and a popular one was the story of bear bomber thief. Furthermore, it was due to order of the king that a theatre was built in “Dar-ol-fonoun” under the supervision of “Mirza Ali akbarmazin al-dowle the painter”. By the rise of constitution in 1906, remarkable changes happened in the area of literature culture, and theatre, like other kinds of art theatre was blessed with this enormous change. Lots of great actors and many theatres had been emerged during those times.
The word ta'ziyeh literally means expressions of sympathy, mourning and consolation.Ta’ziyeh is one of the first kinds of drama plays in Iran which performs in public by normal people who admire their Imam’s endeavors. As a dramatic form it has its origins in the Muharram procession commemorating Hussein's martyrdom and throughout its evolution the representation of the siege and carnage at Kerbela has remained its center point.The show serves as an excellent illustration of the concept that the roots of drama are in funeral songs and commemoration of deceased heroes, and also, that in the development of the theatrical art, the text is one of the last elements to be added.The massacre of Hussain and his followers took place on the tenth of Muharram. But in Ta’ziyeh, the battle is divided into many different episodes and performed on separate days. The only fixed day and play in the Muharram repertory is the martyrdom of Hussain on the tenth day (Ashura), while other episodes can be performed in varying sequences. This is followed by a daily progression of plays, each devoted to the martyrdom of various members of Hussain’s family or his companions. The dramatization of the death of Hussain gives the performers and audiences an opportunity to show their own sorrows and desires as an expression of their faith within an archetypal setting. In the other interpretation, the emotional reaction of audiences is quite similar to the acquisition of compassion and Catharsis after watching the tragedies.
This social satire theater was performed in the yard of a house on a Howz (small pool) which was covered by wood boards. This form had some typical and central character types who are famous with names such as Kachalak, Baghal (grocer), Siah (Black/ the clown). Among them, Siah-Bazi was more well-known because of the popularity of the character of Siah, who is the weakest character but the winner in the theatrical context. The actors had to adopt the female roles in performance because it was culturally intolerable to have women on the real stage. Periodically, however, the women came on the stage and this socio-political theater elaborated.34
Actually, Ru Howzi is a representative of Iranian culture and the characters are shaped according to the structure of society, but an exaggerated ironical exemplar of social and political Iranian life.We could analogize improvisational comic Ru Howzi or Takhte Howzi to the commedia dell’arte because of the existence of typical and central characters, the using of a simple plot line, there is no written script, and applying music and dance in performance.
The Snake charming, tricks and magic, and the like are subtypes of Iranian street performances. This quasi-theatrical entertainment was called Ma’rekeh (show). This term includes some forms of drama which itinerant entertainers performed publicly. A showman had to be a wonderful storyteller, acrobat, magician and musician. Gypsies had important roles in the rise of this drama form in Iran, especially during the pre-Islamic era. Their life style and their dramatic techniques all over the world were summarized in dancing, acting, singing, bull fighting, roping, fortune telling, magic and charms casting spells. They were scattered in many places of Asia and Europe but significant numbers of them were inhabitants of Iran and Eastern Europe. The gypsies were survivors of emigrants who came to the Iranian Plateau during 420-438 CE.The traditions of these itinerant people were one of the most important sources of Iranian dramatic forms. Gypsies, through ongoing migrations and special life conditions, encountered cultures of different Iranian ethnic groups. For a long time, they transferred among those groups some forms of drama as well as some of their artistic features and techniques. Jahangir Nasri classified the effects of gypsies on Iranian drama as follows: «saving some forms of drama from oblivion, preserving some ancient local plays, maintaining and transferring many melodies and dances, aesthetic impacts and adding ethnic features on dances and musical melodies».
Puppetry is considered one of the oldest types of drama in the world, particularly in the East. In Iran, glove and string puppets were more popular than shadow puppetry.Puppetry performances reached their climax in the Qajar era from 1785 to 1925. A person named Kaka Muhammad brought some puppets from China and developed this drama form. Music bands were considered as a main part of the puppetry shows in Iran which usually consisted of a Tombak and Kamancheh.In the Pahlavi era (1925-1979), this traditional dramatic art was neglected because of the advent of new and modern forms of visual media which quickly became prevalent and pervasive.Kheymeh shab bazi, also known as Pardeh bazi (Curtain play) or lo’bat bazi (Marionette play), is an Iranian traditional puppet theater which has continued to the present. Kheymeh means tent; Shab is night, the time when a show is normally performed and Bazi means to play. Therefore, a literal translation is the evening performance in a puppet booth: «A string puppet tradition, the form has been called by this name since the seventeenth century. But it relates to older puppetry that may have developed under international influences with possible Indian and Mongolian impacts». They probably brought some costumes of public performances as shadow puppet shows to Iran.Kheymeh shab bazi, has been a part of Persian culture for a long time, being performed from 1501 BCE to the present. The earliest references tell us briefly about the actual content but they show the philosophical importance of puppetry in Iran. The methods of performance, the characters, and the techniques made it unique in comparison to the other types of puppetry which have persisted for ages.