Introduction Iran’s disastrous wars with Russia and the British Empire and the constant threats of colonial intrusion during the nineteenth century led to the emergence of several patterns of resistance against colonialism in nineteenth-century Iran. Being primarily formed around a linear idea of top-down development, these discourses encouraged a systematic emulation of European nation-states to transform Iran into a powerful country. They thus extended from sending Iranian students abroad to improve the military, administrative and educational institutions of the country to paving the city roads, improving the hygiene of public baths and publishing newspapers to enhance the image of the government.1 At the heart of this project, and at times contrary to its imitative origins, however, was the intelligentsia’s desire for cultural renovation. This intense desire for modernity drove the intelligentsia to refashion the Persian language and literature to produce a modern ‘national’ self, inspired by revisionist studies of indigenous and European concepts of man, society and law. It also encouraged proto-nationalists such as Fathali Akhundzadeh (1812-78), Jalaleddin Mirza Qajar (1826-72) and Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani (1853-96) to attempt to recreate a sense of pride for Iranians by extracting and reproducing the records of the glories of ancient Persian empires from Iranian and European historical works. These revisionist nationalist histories played a significant role in the formation of a multiplicity of modern Iranian identities. They resonated with the glorification of ancient Iran in the epics of the eleventh century, which had recreated the idea of being Iranian after Islam, and with the reconstructed Zoroastrian historiography, which still had a hold on the minds of some educated Iranians.2 During the late nineteenth century, therefore, Iranian writers began to explore cultural and political issues in plays, novels, essays and poems, creating a literary atmosphere that led to the birth of modern Iranian literature and theatre. Though the historians of Persian literature paid little attention to the emerging form, drama was the first to show the signs of absorbing and enhancing the new discourses on modernity. The plays that Akhundzadeh and Mirza Aqa Tabrizi (1825?–1900?) wrote between 1850 and 1871 were the first cultural products that replaced the image of mythical or allegorical humans with individuals
involved in everyday conflicts of socio-political significance. Iranians had the experience of taʿziyeh passion plays and taqlid comic pieces, and had already begun to use the forms for secular subjects.3 However, the level of historical realism reflected in Tabrizi’s plays transcended these forms and heralded the cultural products of the early twentieth century, which promoted new discourses on tradition, modernity, education, patriotism, liberty, law, colonialism, citizenship, women and minorities. Nevertheless, Akhundzadeh, the pioneer of Western-style drama in Iran, spent most of his life in the Russian-ruled Tbilisi of the nineteenth century and learned his craft by watching French and Russian plays. From one perspective, therefore, he was the first of many expatriate Iranian and Caucasian cultural activists who initiated a new form of intercultural translation that facilitated the literary and dramatic reconstruction of Iranian identity by exposing it to cultural products and ideas from its northern neighbour. The purpose of this chapter is to put the history of this theatrical and intellectual encounter in perspective and examine the role this northern contact played in the success and failure of Abdolhosein Nushin (1906-71). The chapter begins with an overview of the impact of this northern contact on the early development of Western-style theatre in Iran. It then proceeds to examine how Nushin, a member of the Tudeh Party, translated the socialist side of European modernity into Iranian performances and reformed Iranian theatre by a systematic approach to training, rehearsals and mise-en-scène.