Mohammad Reza Aliakbari
1 September 2019
Life in the metropolis of Tehran is characterized by a combination of overcrowding, rushing, pollution, and general public unrest. Iranian society is made up of different ethnicities, languages, and beliefs — and all together, the people are impatient. This goes for audiences too. The audience members prefer short dramas and quick spectacles. Anything lasting longer than a typical football game runs the serious risk of losing the interest and patronage of its spectators. And so, when in July and August 2019, The Angel of History (Fereshteye Tarikh), a wordy and conceptual drama, ran for approximately three hours (with no intermission) in Tehran’s City Theater Complex’s Charsu Hall, a lot of the audience members ﬂed before the end of the play. But of course, I remained, for the director, Mohammad Rezaei Rad is a greatly important Iranian ﬁgure, and the philosophical subject matter of the play is relevant today.
For the director of The Angel of History, Mohammad Rezaei Rad, the theatre has always been inseparable from political turmoil. He was among the directors and playwrights signiﬁcantly affected by the horrible wave of prohibitions imposed on artists in Iran before 2010. Some artists chose to leave their homes during this dark period in the hope of receiving US or Canadian citizenship (both countries had, at the time, opened their gates to them). But many decided to stay, among them Rezaei Rad. He committed himself to research, writing plays and essays on Iranian theatre history and educating younger generations. He eventually found his way into Iran’s underground theatre scene, where plays were put on in a select number of private apartments to guests that were “by invitation only”.
Reza Behbudi, Milad Rahimi and ensemble in Gestus position of the painting “Death of Socrates”. Photo credit: Mehdi Ashna.
Rezaei Rad sees the staging of The Angel of History as a politically signiﬁcant message for Iranian intellectuals today. The play centres on Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher, writer, and essayist who is perhaps best known in the west for his book The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitaiter seiner technischen Reprocluzierborkeit). Philosopher Hannah Arendt, Benjamin’s friend, reported in her book Men in Dark Times (1968) that Bertolt Brecht said that Benjamin was the ﬁrst real loss Hitler inﬂicted on German literature due to his politically-motivated suicide; the play The Angel of History takes place over the course of a few hours, entirely in Benjamin’s mind, on that fateful night when he took his own life to avoid being handed over to the Gestapo on the French-Spanish border. It is a simple “black box” set that features the painting by Paul Klee named “Angelus Novus” that Benjamin owned and called “The Angel of History. While Benjamin waits for the overdose of morphine tablets to take effect, he brings the audience on a journey that recapitulates his multiple thoughts and visions: he encounters his friend Bertolt Brecht playing chess, and they discuss epic and Aristotelian drama; he reunites with his lover; he argues with Professor Otto over his doctoral dissertation; he learns of the fate of his friends after the war; he even addresses us, here and now.
Milad Rahimi; a young and skilled actor, who was on stage for over three hours, embodied Benjamin without a single pause or lapse of attention. He maintained perfect control over his voice and body, both of which seemed truly honed to the character of Waiter Benjamin. As an actor, I would consider Rahimi’s performance a singular achievement in Iranian theatre in recent years.
Rahimi was particularly enthralling when he addressed the audience directly with this question: “Why a play about Walter Benjamin now?” This essential question is also in the director’s notes, and I was prompted to ask myself the same question during the performance. It receives its validity and weight from the concept of the Angel of History which, according to Benjamin kept its penetrating eyes on history and gazed from the past to the future. Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus” (in reference to which Benjamin articulated his understandings), thus casts its shadow over the play both metaphorically and actually.
Milad Shajareh and Milad Rahimi with Klee’s painting “The Angel of History” in background. Photo credit: Mehdi Ashna.
Klee’s is not the only painting used in staging Rezaei Rad’s drama – Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates” is another. But it is not used as a backdrop, as one might think. In fact, incorporating Brecht’s concept of the Gestus or gesture, Benjamin assumes the exact body position of the ﬁgure of Socrates in David’s painting in this tableau at the moment when he is choosing to commit suicide, which is the play’s dramatic climax — the moment of his suicidal ingestion of tablets. Behind Benjamin, hanging on the rear wall of the set and serving as a backdrop, is the second painting; it is of the harbour and countryside of Portbou, Spain where indeed he committed suicide in 1940.
Instead of being surrounded by weeping pupils as was Socrates for the artist David, in this staged scene Benjamin is surrounded by the police and staff (the chorus) in the Portbou border control where he was caught trying to escape to freedom, and they too are part; of the tableau, each exactly positioned in respect to one another as are the ﬁgures in the David painting, and each assuming the identical Gestus that the pupils assumed in David’s painting. This tableau greatly contributes to the play’s intention of establishing a bridge between martyred ﬁgures in history, in this case equating Socrates and Benjamin.
Another such bridge was erected during an imaginary dialogue between Benjamin and the chorus (one of the Brechtian “epic” elements of the play), a bridge connecting Benjamin to the crisis in the Middle East. Talk about this inﬂamed area of the world was contextualized anew through the projection of images of World War Two and its victims, reminding the audience of the fate of the immigrants and refugees now at the European borders.
One work to come out of the secret performances of plays that Mohammad Rezaei Rad directed during the years of prohibition was Stories from the Rains of Love and Death, 1977 (Dastanhayi Az Bareshe Mehr Va Marg), an absurdist drama written by the outstanding ﬁgure in Iran’s avant-garde theatre Abbas Nalbandian that was forbidden. Notably, the prohibitions placed upon his plays led to the playwright’s eventual suicide in 1988. Nalbandian’s fate is still ofﬁcially unacknowledged in Iran and the publication of his works is banned, but copies of his plays continue to circulate amongst theatre students and are available online. This proves his place and importance in the realm of Persian dramatic literature no matter how much the authority and dominant discourse might deny it. Nalbandian in both appearance and in fate: an intellectual commits suicide because of signiﬁcant pressure and imposed limits to freedom enforced by a state authority. So, in effect, the image of the persecuted intellectual who deliberately chooses to die is a familiar one in Iran’s contemporary history. Rezaei Rad has continued this tradition in painting a portrait of the suffering artist through the character of Walter Benjamin. In doing so, he ﬁnds a through-line between those in his land today and those who lived and suffered during Nazi occupation.
But is the theme of suicide as the way out for intellectuals the reason, a sufﬁcient reason, to answer the question “Why a play about Walter Benjamin today?” l think not. In spite of all this symbolism, to me, The Angel of History never felt truly contemporary. Nor does it provide a particularly interesting study of Benjamin’s work and legacy. The play merely recreates Benjamin’s perception of history and his methods of dialectical materialism. One might as well just read Benjamin’s texts for one’s self. There is also the fact that had Benjamin lived longer, his perception of such subjects might have been different (for better or for worse). Instead of considering what his current day’s perception might be, the piece instead worked as a report on Benjamin’s thoughts as they were published.
We were treated to Benjamin’s understanding of history and narration, true, and we were even given a glimpse of Brecht’s views on theatre and dialectical materialism. But the work was nevertheless devoid of theatricality. Without doubt one of the most brilliant and reliable perspectives on Benjamin’s life and work comes from Hannah Arendt. Where Arendt’s narrative in the aforementioned Men in Dark Times has structure and cohesion, The Angel of History has none. One could feel Rezaei Rad’s fascination with his subject (that was not false at all), but the work was rendered monophonic as a result and suffered from a kind of obsolescence. Though many visual elements were employed (videos, documentary photos, and animations) to create atmosphere, they didn’t make the work any more contemporary. During the play, we were frequently treated to the idea that the loss of passion for history and a disinterest in the future drove Benjamin to suicide — but one couldn’t feel such sensation and passion in the performance. Instead, the character of Benjamin was infused with a stern kind of dejection and regret, one which implied a lack of self-awareness.
This created an atmosphere of separation and distance that was dense and unwanted, even annoying. I say “unwanted” not only to express my feelings but also to refer back to the director’s note from the programme. Rezaei Rad believed he was utilizing the principles of Brecht’s epic theatre in his own work, but he did not. There is even a moment in the play when Brecht and Benjamin discuss epic and non-representational theatre, though all the “should-nots” they exchange with one another were simultaneously being committed right there, on the stage.
There is one factor in the production that is important, however. Whether making such comparisons between these two philosophers is possible or not, and leaving aside that if Benjamin witnessed this scene he might not approve of its bourgeois roots (David was a painter commissioned by royalty), the overriding effect of this Gestus scene is that making a bridge between historical events has a storytelling character which is dramatically pleasing. It also is in keeping with Benjamin’s own theory of history which he saw as embodied by The Angel of History. And yet, interestingly, it was Hannah Arendt who understood her friend Benjamin’s approach and brought it to maturity in her own work. She narrated her political philosophy ideas using a story-teller’s method, and to do so was an idea that she developed from Benjamin.
However, there is a gap between the teacher and the pupil. Benjamin saw himself as a flâneur, one who strolls through life without a ﬁxed objective. Arendt saw herself as a pearl diver. It is the image of the pearl diver which is most appropriate for the country of Iran now. Martyrs and flâneurs should be relegated to the past.
The cultural and intellectual climate of Iran presently is an eclectic and confused one. We are suspended between oppositional forces. Ours is a fragmented identity inﬂuenced by the West. Though superstition drives a lot of social behaviour, the country wants to be considered developed and modern. In such an incoherent, distracted, and often-times depressing atmosphere (one compounded by Iran’s current international reputation), in reply to the question “Why a play about Walter Benjamin now?” my reply is: “Perhaps it is to ﬁnd another way out, the pearl diver’s way out, as a path to salvation“. But can that path be found?