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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. I, No. 2
September, 1977



When I arrived in Tehran in the fall of ‘56 as a Smith-Mundt lecturer on American drama at the University, I was asked to present lectures on the leading U.S. playwrights, as well as organize a dramatic club. For the latter I suggested a production of Sidney Howard’s Yellow Jack since American doctors were at the time involved In fighting certain contagious diseases. However, Dr. Siassi, the distinguished head of the School of Letters, doubted that a Persian audience could accept a play dealing with disease as dramatic; so we substituted Billy Budd, recently a success in the U.S., on which Louis Coxe, my colleague in the Bowdoin English Department, had collaborated and which had the advantage of requiring an entirely male cast. (Actresses in Iran at that time were suspect!)

The play was shown with some success early in ‘57, but the University authorities were embarrassed when the press hailed it as an attack on authority. I was considered politically subversive! For a second production Dr. Siassi accepted Behrman’s Second Man, a high comedy requiring a cast of two men and two women. I was fortunate in having four skilled actors who fitted the parts and took it to Isphahan for a tryout during the No Ruz (New Year) vacation, starting the 21st of March. It was enthusiastically received, and the local theatre director congratulated me on having introduced kissing on his stage. When we returned to Tehran, I was asked to redirect the play to cover the kisses and to remove the ingenue from an actor’s lap to the arm of his chair. Not wishing to be considered sexually subversive, I did so, despite the public objection of the company.

Meanwhile, my lectures had proceeded from Uncle Tom’s Cabin through contemporary plays, among which those of O’Neill were most popular. I was asked, following the tryout of Second Man in Isphahan, to lecture on O’Neill at Abadan. Two young Iranians approached me after the lecture for permission to use it as an introduction to their translation of the S.S. Glencairn one-acts into Farsi.

When I returned to Tehran as a Fulbright lecturer in ‘62, I was delighted to see a performance at the Armenian theatre of O’Neill’s Ile, with excellent design by Arbe Ovanessian. I’d been reading the Arthur and Barbara Gelb biography of O’Neill and proposed directing three of his autobiographical plays: Ah, Wilderness! with a cast of University students, supplemented by older actors from my earlier visit, at the University’s Fine Arts Theatre; Long Day’s Journey into Night with a cast of American and English actors in English, alternating with a cast of my former students in Farsi, at the newly completed Iran-America Theatre; followed by The Straw with a cast of young professionals from Dr. Vala’s theatre school, also at the Iran-America building at Jalallabad, halfway up the hill to Shimran.

Ah, Wilderness! is of course the boyhood Eugene wished he’d had, but it is laid at his boyhood home, as is Long Day’s Journey. My former interpreter Bijan Mofid translated the play into Farsi and played the father, and one of my less inhibited former actresses the prostitute. For scenery, we used screens which could be reversed for the barroom scene, and we actually located a player piano. I switched from lobsters to chickens after finding what it would cost to fly the former from Istanbul, and an overturned rowboat in a blue spot did nicely for the beach scene.

On the day of the scheduled opening, to which many notables had been invited, I dropped in on my friend and strong supporter, Dean Ali Kani, to make sure that all was ready. While talking with him, I saw a battalion of rod-carrying men, dressed as peasants, invading the campus. The University students had recently demonstrated against the Shah, and this group hunted down every student in sight. Our opening had to be postponed but eventually was well received for several performances.

For Long Day’s Journey, which we hoped to troupe outside of Tehran, Arbe Ovanessian designed a splendid setting which could be folded for touring. The translation into Farsi was done, by a young poet, after a competition judged by three previous translators of O’Neill. The English-speaking cast were all amateurs. Many of the audience--especially Iranians wishing to test their English--came to the alternating English performances during the week’s run. With identically cut texts, the English version ran three hours--the Farsi four hours! Iranian actors love to milk a script for all that’s in it.

For The Straw, which I’d tried to do in ‘57 but had had to abandon when my two leading actors came down with the Asiatic flu, I had former student Gorgin in the lead role and was offered the actress originally in the opposite part in ‘57, but she had rounded out so lushly (perhaps as a result of becoming a movie star) that she couldn’t play a dying consumptive. We found another girl, used the translation originally done by Dr. Vala, and three fine sets were supplied by his designer. In the final week of rehearsal, I stepped in front of a car on the main street of Tehran and broke an arm. Dr. Vala refused to finish the rehearsals, to my great sorrow, and the play wasn’t shown.

The actors very much enjoyed rehearsing the three shows. They were a bit troubled at the humor of Ah, Wilderness! They had so different an attitude toward their parents that it was difficult for them to understand the basic father-son relationship or to appreciate the father’s attempt to explain the “facts of life” to his son. But they enjoyed the drunken uncle fully, as well as the references to the father’s considering food he’d been eating for some years poisonous. So far as I could see, the attitudes of small sisters to older brothers are universal. They were completely mystified by Richard’s inability to make the most of the prostitute in the bar, but the love scene on the beach appeared to ring a bell.

In Long Day’s Journey, the mother’s retirement into a drug-induced world of fantasy (or earlier happiness) was readily understood, but they never got used to the steady drinking of the three men, though they accepted and seemed to enjoy, rather than be shocked by, the older brother’s return from the whorehouse. I could never be sure that his admission of wanting to bring his kid brother down to his level had the same force that it has for most of us.

The Straw was more difficult in casting and blocking, but they played it at a better pace and (since the Iranians’ favorite show is Camille) followed the tubercular tragedy to the heroine’s death with complete understanding. The love scene at the crossroads--in some ways reminiscent of the shore scene in Ah, Wilderness!--reached a splendid climax.

Since I can’t read Farsi, I’ve little knowledge of what Iranian critics thought of my productions of O’Neill. From what I could learn, they treated the two that were shown with considerable respect, placing most of their attention on performers and productions rather than on the scripts. In ‘57, when my lecture on O’Neill had been picked up for the introduction to their translation of the early one-acts, they were uncertain of his reputation. (Of course, those sea-going plays were quite foreign to Iranians, who have only recently developed a Navy and merchant marine.) By ‘63 O’Neill had become a great name there.

--George H. Quinby



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