Troupes and ensembles

The Red Lion and Sun was not a municipal theatre; and it neither had a permanently employed ensemble nor an appointed director. At the beginning, it remained under the umbrella of the Red Lion and Sun organization that rented out the stage to financially independent troupes from Tabriz, sometimes also to groups from outside who were on tour or invited from other cities. After 1942 foreign theatre companies came increasingly from the Soviet Union, and after 1946 also from Turkey. In later years, especially in the 1940s, the stage was managed independently by its own foundation or bongah, which controlled access to the stage and made reservations for the different ensembles. Quite often actors and directors competed with each other, especially if they wanted to rent the stage and were performing for their own benefit. This sometimes led to rivalries and angry exchanges: In 1944 the Company for Film Production Iran (Sherkat-e sahami-ye filmbardari-ye Iran) wrote to the Association of Actors (Hey’at-e modireh-ye aktural-e Iran) that since the viewing of The Unknown Murderer (Qatel-e gomnam) was to be shown for the benefit of the earthquake victims on 15 Ordibehesht, Mr. Roshdi and Ms. Mazduri would not be permitted to use the stage for training.38

The theatre scene in Tabriz appears to have been quite open and very flexible. Since the main stage, the Sahneh-ye Shir-o Khorshid was not related to only one group of actors, alternative venues were always an option. Actors moved from one troupe to the other, sometimes they were able to establish a troupe of their own, exchanging the role of actor with that of director or manager. Still, at certain periods, one or two troupes tended to dominate the scene - due to an excellent leader, a harmonious set of actors or a good program - and then became almost synonymous with the theatre. For our period, this is without question the troupe Aryan, active from 1923 to 1941. However, without striving to present a complete picture and discuss all the individuals who were active on stage in Tabriz, other troupes shall be introduced as well.

The earliest attempts to produce western-style theatrical performances in Tabriz, with translations of Othello, for example, can be dated back as early as the 1880s and were initiated by the strong Armenian community. Contacts with Baku and the Caucasus brought further impulses, especially in the wake of the Constitutional period and following the war years 1914-17. The Jam‘iyat-e Kheyriyeh (Welfare society), founded in 1291/1912, has been mentioned as the first theatre troupe of Tabriz, although we know very little about their members and activities.39 It is safe to assume that we are still dealing primarily with lay actors and irregular programs. More professionalism came with directors trained in Tiflis who settled in Tabriz. The troupe Azariyan was founded in 1917 by Reza Khan Qolizadeh, who had a degree in dramatic arts. Sometimes they were also called Aktural-e Tabriz or appear under the name of Deram-e Sanaye‘. Active at least up to 1931, Qolizadeh was simultaneously director (rezhisor), the person in charge of costumes and props, and also translator and author of plays. One of his plays was called The Bus Killed a Man (Otobus adam kosht); he also translated pieces from Armenian, such as the very popular Baraye sharaf, originally a work by Alexander Shirvanzadeh (1858-1935). Still, the ensemble of around twenty members was not permanent, some plays were staged by other directors as well and ticket sales were not bound to one particular office.40 The troupe used the Sahneh-ye Aramiyan at the beginning, but shifted to the Red Lion and Sun immediately after its completion.

Another equally well-known troupe from Tabriz at that time was the Jam‘iyat-e A’ineh-ye ‘Ebrat, formed in 1921 by Mehdi Zahiri, also a graduate of the Dramatic Arts School in Tiflis. An early member of this group was Yahya Aryanpur (1897-1983), known to us nowadays primarily from his famous work on modern literary history, Az Saba ta Nima. He contributed also as translator.41 The career of Jabbar Baghcheh-ban also began with this troupe. He was born in Erivan in 1885, fled to Iran after the War and began to make a living as a teacher in Marand, before settling in Tabriz in 1920. Together with Aryanpur he was part of an informal group of intellectuals actively involved in the field of education; he also wrote several plays. For us, it is important to realize that participation in theatre groups was for many young men of Tabriz a quite honourable activity which socialized them in a modernist and pedagogical context, shaped their literary taste and helped them to develop an independent style. In other words, what did one do in Tabriz as a young man with literary ambitions, eager to contribute to the development of a modern society? You joined a drama troupe.

Theatre was indeed closely associated with other modern and social pastimes, such as sports and arts. The Jam‘iyat-e eslah va taraqqi-ye ma’aref-e Azarbayjan (Society for reform and progress of knowledge in Azerbaijan) was founded in 1921 by Mohammad Rumi Majir al-Saltaneh as an association to improve the public morale (akhlaq-e ‘omumi) and to raise the Iranian nation to new heights. The society was active in the fields of literature, arts, sports and theatre, declaring itself to be apolitical and completely neutral. This umbrella organization had different branches, a sports club, a cooperative with economic aims, a literature club that aimed at strengthening Persian literature, together with a dar al-tarjomeh (translation house) that assigned and promoted translations, and, of course, a theatre troupe with almost forty members called Aryan.42

The man behind Aryan, on their announcements and in official correspondence Hey'at-e aktural-e Aryan, the most important theatre troupe of Tabriz in the 1920s and 1930s, was the already mentioned Buyuk Khan Nakhjavani. He was the director of the patriotic play shown for the inauguration of the new theatre hall of Tabriz, and his ideological proximity to the Pahlavi regime can be gleaned from the commemorative medal he received on the occasion of Reza Shah’s coronation from the court minister Teymurtash.43 Like Qoli- zadeh and Zahiri, he was a graduate of the Dramatic Arts School in Tiflis; like many others, he had come to Tabriz after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The troupe Aryan with Buyuk Khan as managing director was formally established in 1923. It was to become the troupe that dominated the stage of the Shir-o Khorshid for the next twenty years, set new standards and formed the basis for any further theatrical developments. It also incorporated and integrated most of the other troupes, directors and actors: the aforementioned Reza Qolizadeh was associated with the troupe Aryan, as was Yahya Aryanpur.44 As the documents prove, this was not a group of laymen anymore: it was run - certainly also for political reasons - as a well-organized association. In fact, the German term Verein would capture the idea behind this organization most adequately, symbolically expressed also through the badges worn on their Pahlavi hats. Altogether the troupe featured at least forty regular members. One had to apply for membership with the recommendation of another member and was duly informed of acceptance or refusal within a week. Registration required a picture and a copy of the identity card, and everybody had to adhere to the internal statutes. Those not heeding the rules were expelled. Women could become members as well: in January 1931 Liza Navidi applied for membership and was accepted.45 An undated poster with pictures of the troupe’s members shows two further women: Arshalus Ariyan and Liza Shah-Goldiyan.

Looking through the biographies of other major protagonists of theatre in Tabriz of this time - mention should also be made of ‘Abbas‘ali As‘adi (born 1888 in Tabriz, emigrated 1946 to Soviet Azerbaijan) and of Hoseyn Omid (1902-72)46 - we understand that the members of Aryan and the theatre scene of Tabriz formed a very closely knit community. Most of them belonged to the emerging bourgeoisie in Tabriz (Bildungsburgertum, to use yet another German term) and many were involved in the management of schools and public education, which was important, because the new high schools provided additional venues and were points of both social interaction and modernist commitment. Interesting to note, is the choice of names for these troupes, which refer either to a program of moral education (“Mirror of Good Example” - A’ineh-ye ‘ebrat) or to nationalist identifications, in the case of Azariyan (as members of the “old Iranian” Azeris) or Aryan (reminiscent of the Aryans).

Theatre directors were regularly involved in writing, translating and publishing activities as well: they had journals, wrote plays, translated and adapted dramas, wrote books on didactics and pedagogics. We can surmise from the circumstances that theatre was not a full-time profession for many of Aryan’s members, unless they were trained dancers or comedians. This is certainly true for Javad Shafi‘zadeh, born 1902 in Tabriz, who started his theatre career with Aryan: an early theatre aficionado, he was originally a graduate from the teacher’s training college (Dar al-mo‘allemin) and continued in the statistics department of the Ministry of the Interior. He made his first appearances on stage with Reza Khan Qolizadeh and the Armenian Tashchiyans. In 1928 he was sent to Khoy as the director of the Statistics Office (ra’is-e Edareh-ye Amar) of this province - but immediately began to stage the first plays in Khoy and later on in other smaller cities of Azerbaijan, such as Marand and Salmas. He became a regular member of Aryan after his return to Tabriz in 1934.47

The troupe Aryan dissolved in 1941 due to the changing political situation and the occupation of Tabriz by the Russians, for whom the troupe Aryan, as an organization clearly recognizable as loyally Pahlavi, was not acceptable. Its members, however, remained visible and active until the end of the War and the Azerbaijan crisis of 1946. Among the smaller groups that were active at the same time as Aryan in the 1930s was the Goruh-e namayesh-e Azarbayjan under its director Baqer Hajjizadeh. This troupe, usually announced as Aktural-e Azarbayjan, was especially known for its elaborate productions of operettas and exemplifies a trend towards more professionalism, larger and more costly productions and the important role of music. The Aktural-e Azarbayjan cooperated closely with the Armenian artists of Tabriz who, because of the Pahlavi language restrictions, could not stage performances in Armenian or Azeri anymore.48 As for the director Hajji-zadeh, he was perhaps the most political among the theatre directors of Tabriz. Originally from Tiflis, he had studied medicine and Russian before turning to a theatre career. He spent time in prison during the Reza Shah period; after 1941 he became a fervent Azeri nationalist who worked for the Russian occupation forces and issued the journal Azarbayjan. As a member of the Ferqeh-ye Demokrat (the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan), he was to become the managing director of the nationalized Azeri theatre from 1945-46.49

With the dissolution of Aryan a number of new groups emerged, such as the Society of Drama and Operetta Artists of Tabriz (Honarpishegan-e Deram-o Operet-e Tabriz), the Goruh-e Namayesh-e Ferdowsi/Deram-o Operet-e Ferdowsi and the Goruh-e Namayesh-e Iran. Of note is that the new freedom from censorship did not lead immediately to political or critical forms of theatre. Instead, the dominant form of entertainment, operettas and burlesques, was now explicitly advertised in several of the troupes’ names. Actors and performers moved frequently between these new groups. With a set repertoire and clear expectations from the audience, the competition was strong and the main point of distinction was the opulence of decoration and stage shows, as well as the quality of the music and the orchestras.50 This plurality lasted only a couple of years. In 1944, under the pressure of the Soviet occupation forces, all theatre troupes were dissolved and their members had to join the new theatre group of the Association of Cultural Relations between Iran and the Soviet Union (Anjoman-e ravabet-e farhangi-ye Iran va Showravi). As part of the Azeri nationalization politics of the Ferqeh-ye Demokrat, only a year later, this troupe was officially transformed into a “State Theatre” and renamed as Te’atr-e dowlati-ye Ferqeh-ye Demokrat-e Azarbayjan.51 These political interventions had a lasting effect on the theatre scene of Tabriz, which had to reorganize completely after 1946.

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