IRAN: Police descend on Tehran theater, suspend classic play ‘Hedda Gabler’


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Police descended on a Tehran theater earlier this week and halted performances of the play ‘Hedda Gabler’ by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen after an Iranian news agency blasted the classic drama in a review.

Coincinding with the incident, media reports surfaced about the creation of a new body to regulate cultural affairs in the Islamic Republic, signaling that a wider crackdown on artists might be underway.


Theatergoers had flocked to Tehran’s City Theater on Tuesday night to watch the drama, which had been playing since Jan 5. But when they arrived they were met by a crowd of police officers and informed that the play had been suspended.

Ibsen’s 1890 drama follows the complex relationships among the newly married Hedda, her husband and a third man. Some critics consider Hedda’s character to be one of the best dramatic roles in theater -- referring to her as the ‘female Hamlet’ -- and there have been a number of controversial portrayals over the years. Some have interpreted the character as heroine while others have portrayed Hedda as a victim and even a manic villain.

All artistic activities in Iran are controlled and regulated by the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, which regulates moral and religious standard, and the Iranian version of ‘Hedda Gabler’ had apparently passed vetting procedures and censors after its adaption from the original.

For example, one of the play’s seven characters is a recovered alcoholic, but in the Iranian production there is no mention of alcoholism and the male and female characters were careful to not get too close to each other on stage.

Fine-tuning plays and artistic projects so that they comply with the standards of the Islamic Republic has become an art in itself for Iranian directors and actors, who have learned to master the practice over the years, according to one actor in the banned play.

‘Iranian directors are skillful in self-censorship,’ the actor, who asked that his name not be published, told Babylon & Beyond.’ Even before the text is submitted to the authorities we try to adapt it to Islamic values as perceived by the officials.’


The precautions could apparently not save ‘Hedda Gabler’ from being taken off the stage. After the semi-official Iranian Fars News Agency scorned the play in a review (link in Persian) accusing it of promoting ‘vulgarity’ and ‘nihilism,’ the clampdown was imminent.

‘Since Jan. 5, the ‘Hedda Gabler’ play has been on stage in the City Theater center to promote normalization of nihilism, licentiousness and vulgarism, which are the main points of the play,’ said the report. ‘This play ... has nothing to do with national and Islamic precepts and is based on western nihilistic philosophy.’

The review was accompanied by a series of photos of the production which, among other things, appear to depict a man and woman about to kiss, a scene that would probably be given a thumbs down by the Iranian censors. The news agency even attributed the play’s suspension to its review.

But critics have claimed, in a bid to upset religious conservatives, that the news agency digitally manipulated the photos so that it would appear as if the the actors and actresses were closer to each other on stage than they actually were.

One Iranian director said the play is one in a series of dramas that have been taken off stage in recent years.

‘It is not the first time this happens in our theater and it will not be the last time,’ the director who asked that his name not be published, told Babylon & Beyond. ‘Last year, ‘Othello the Moor of Venice’ was banned after a few days’ performance. This year, it’s ‘Hedda Gabler’.’


According to Fars, Tehran’s chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, summoned members from the theater group on Wednesday to explain themselves and said that a new office to regulate cultural affairs had been established.

-- Ramin Mostagim in Tehran and Alexandra Sandels in Beirut