Theatre in Tabriz and the building of the Red Lion and Sun

As in other areas of modernization and spread of western culture, Tabriz had taken a pioneering role in the introduction of theatre in Iran. The presence of religious and linguistic minorities created a multicultural atmosphere that proved to be particularly stimulating. A cosmopolitan audience that was able to move between Armenian, Azeri-Turkish and Persian early on produced multiple translations and adaptations. Among the first to arrange performances of western-style theatre in Azerbaijan were Assyrians and Armenians who, because of the missionary schools established in the nineteenth century and their trans-national networks, were exposed to western culture much earlier than the Muslim majority. In Tabriz it was the Armenian community who arranged regular performances already in the 1890s with their own theatre, the Sahneh-ye Arameneh, built in 1895. At the beginning, plays and announcements were only in Armenian, but they soon targeted a wider public.17 The closeness of Azerbaijan to the Caucasus also played a major role. Many of the directors and actors at the beginning of the twentieth century were trained in Baku or Tiflis and the early history of Persian drama in Tabriz is closely connected with Azerbaijan through the work of the reformist Fath‘ali Akhundzadeh and the first plays written in Persian by Mirza Aqa Tabrizi.18

My personal interest in theatre in Tabriz goes back to 1996 when I had the great pleasure to make the acquaintance of the late Jamil Roshdi (1932-98) and admire his wonderful collection of theatre advertisements and posters from Tabriz.19 He had donated this collection to the local branch of the National Archives and worked on it as an associated researcher. Only recently parts of this collection were published by Mohammad Ranjbar-Fakhri, drawing heavily on Roshdi’s previous work.20 Roshdi’s private collection grew out of the memorabilia inherited from his father Mohammad ‘Ali Roshdi, the dominant figure of theatre in Tabriz from 1919, when he first performed on stage, up to the year 1969. Through most of this time he led his own troupe and worked as an actor and rezhisor (director). Most of the information in this chapter is based on this collection, which includes theatre announcements and archival material from the Pahlavi period. Like most editions of primary documents on the Reza Shah period, published recently in Iran, there is little interpretation, commentary or any wider context. Quite a lot needs to be added to earlier characterizations of the situation in Tabriz for the years 1925-41, as this overall sketch by Willem Floor demonstrates:

According to Shafi‘ Javadi, there was very little theatre activity in Tabriz until 1941. ... The problem was the actors were not fluent in Persian and therefore they mostly played comedy pieces. Also, because most of the people did not yet appreciate the value of theatre and many considered it a joke.21

What was exceptional for the theatre scene in Tabriz? Or why should Tabriz serve as a showcase for the close interaction between politics and theatre in the Pahlavi period? In addition to the above because the cultural life in provincial cities has been overshadowed by Tehran, in particular through the ample use made of memoirs and later developments in the capital. However, in contrast to Tehran, the history of theatre in Tabriz from 1927 onwards can be tied to one specific place and venue. It can be written as the history of one particular building and only Tabriz is able to boast such a location and such a long continuity.

With the rise of theatre in Tabriz, its growing popularity and the increasing number of active ensembles, the need for appropriate venues became more and more pressing. Smaller stages existed in Tabriz, such as the Armenian theatre, the Cinema Suli, which was also used as a theatre stage, and a hall built by Monsieur Armaniyan in 1915. But none of these was large enough for a big audience, nor were they equipped with advanced stage technology.

The initiative to build a modern theatre in Tabriz, actually the first of its kind in Iran, came from local notables under the leadership of the local garrison’s commander. Already in 1925 the chief commander of the north-eastern army, the Amir Lashkar, had invited officials, merchants, notables and guild representatives to a reception, celebrating the inauguration of the new officers’ casino in Tabriz with a play.22 The new officer corps around Reza Shah obviously had a liking for theatre, one of them was even active as a playwright. Mohammad Hoseyn Khan, the head of the north-western division, wrote the play The Conquest of Khuzestan, a piece to celebrate the victory over Sheykh Khaz’al that had taken place a year earlier and has been considered as a major step in the career of Reza Khan. This play, announced as a “historical play, most exciting and based on official documents and records”, was also performed in Tabriz in February 1926 after its initial showing in Rasht. It shows how much theatre very early on was used as a propaganda tool of the Pahlavi state.23

A year later, the building of the Sahneh-ye Shir-o Khorshid-e Sorkh, the stage of the Red Lion and Sun was begun. The name might be irritating at first, since it suggests to the outsider a British country pub rather than an Iranian theatre.24 But the name is not as exotic as it might seem. It refers to the Iranian “Red Cross” society that since its inception and in opposition to the Ottoman “Red Crescent” carried the Iranian insignia of “Lion and Sun” - at least in theory it remains a valid logo of the International Red Cross Society up to the present day. The Iranian “Red Lion and Sun” saw its task in these early years much more broadly defined than it is today, covering cultural and educational activities, in addition to healthcare and hospitals. Not only in Tabriz, but also in other cities, for example in Mashhad, the “Red Lion and Sun” constructed conference halls that were also used as theatres.25

The Amir Lashkar of Tabriz, Amir Ahmadi, was also the head of the local section of the “Red Lion and Sun” that as an organization of general welfare had also arranged the creation of a large park around the Ark of Tabriz, the ruins of the Masjed-e ‘Ali Shah. This Bagh-e Melli was very popular among the general public of Tabriz as a place of leisure and for taking strolls, despite the entrance fee of one qeran. This was also the location for the new theatre. Based on architectural plans from St Petersburg, it included an audience hall, 30 meters long and 10 meters wide, with a stage of 12 meters that could be extended if necessary to allow even the entry of a horse-drawn coach. Columns placed at an interval of five metres carried a ceiling of wooden beams that guaranteed excellent acoustics. On both sides two floors of balconies were placed with a total of sixteen loges, every box designed for six spectators. The walls were covered with mauve pastel wallpaper and the seats were covered with red velvet. The spacious entrance was decorated with a huge crystal chandelier. Altogether the theatre could accommodate an audience of up to 800 persons.

The Red Lion and Sun must have been a very impressive place that was unique in Iran at that time. It was double the size of the Talar-e Zartoshtiyan-e

Sirus, with about 400 places, re-built in Tehran around the same time, and easily surpassed all other venues of that time in the capital.26 Erected almost forty years before the Rudaki Hall (or Talar-e Vahdat) in Tehran it was the pride of the city of Tabriz and an expression of its aspirations. It continued to be the most attractive venue in Tabriz until the building was torn down in 1980 - to make place ultimately for the large mosallah in the city centre, what bitter irony of history.27

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