Leili could not have imagined that arriving late to Islamic morals class would change the course of her life. But her arrival catches the eye of a young man, and a chance meeting soon draws Leili into a new circle of friends and artists. Gathering in the cafes of Tehran, these young college students come together to create an underground play that will wake up their generation. They play with fire, literally and figuratively, igniting a drama both personal and political to perform their play—just once.
From the wealthy suburbs and chic coffee shops of Tehran to subterranean spaces teeming with drugs and prostitution to spiritual lodges and saints' tombs in the mountains high above the city, Last Scene Underground presents an Iran rarely seen. Young Tehranis navigate their way through politics, art, and the meaning of home and in the process learn hard lessons about censorship, creativity, and love. Their dangerous discoveries ultimately lead to finding themselves.
Written in the hopeful wake of Iran's Green Movement and against the long shadow of the Iran-Iraq war, this unique novel deepens our understanding of an elusive country that is full of misunderstood contradictions and wonder.
An Ethnographic Novel of Iran
About the author
Roxanne Varzi is a professor of anthropology and visual studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Warring Souls: Media, Martyrdom, and Youth in Post-Revolution Iran (2006). Her award-winning short stories have been published in a number of anthologies and magazines, including the New York Press. Her film, Plastic Flowers Never Die, has been shown in festivals around the world from Bosnia to Boston, and her sound installation, Whole World Blind, has been exhibited in galleries in San Francisco and Berlin and is featured on Public Books. Varzi was born in Tehran and left with her family shortly after the Revolution. In 2000, she was awarded the first Fulbright fellowship since the Islamic Revolution for research in Iran.
From the Preface
If stories have ancestors, or ghosts, then this one’s would be the legacy of the Shiraz Theater Festival in the late 1960s in the Iranian city of wine, poetry and nightingales. The festival was the brainchild of the Queen of Iran who gave the opportunity to cutting-edge international theater directors to do anything they desired, with an endless budget. They showed naked bodies and blew-up mini mountains and some were commissioned to make what became the plays of their careers, like Peter Brooks and Tom Hughes whose experimental play Orghast became a major international success. The Queen’s tastes ran toward the modern and Western, the avant- garde which in those days meant a theater of protest. While her husband’s regime was busy imprisoning outspoken critics, she was inadvertently supporting and training them, giving them invaluable exposure to the best possible mentors in the world of political theater: Tadeusz Kantor, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brooks, August Wilson and Eugene Ionesco.
Iranian theater has other even more powerful, homegrown ghosts wandering around the villages and plains of Iran.
Film and theater had been vital to the creation of a martyrdom culture since the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 making it important for the government to continue to support film schools and drama departments. In Tehran, The Farabi Film Center and the City Theater operated throughout the Revolution and shortly after the end of the war various congresses on drama from War Theater to Ta’ziyeh and children’s theater, puppet-theater and the famous Fajr Theater Festival were formed to especially highlight the works of those film and theater producers who had been active in the war and who continued to make government propaganda. Immediately after the Revolution, a number of cutting edge playwrights and directors who had made anti-Shah theater (but were not necessarily pro-Islamic Republic) continued to work in the theater and to teach. They made use of traditional methods and acceptable forms of narratives such as pardeh khani – a storyteller who in the old days would ride into town on a donkey with a large sheep skin sheet embellished with the most fantastical scenes from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Book of Kings which he’d prop up behind him while he recited his mythic tales about the Arab invasion of Persia. At first the Shahnameh was considered too monarchial, too anti-Islam until it was re-interpreted in 1989 in Hamid-Reza A'zam’s play The Last Technique where the storyteller read tales rewritten with heroic young martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War. Aside from war-themed or moral stories, through most of the nineties, public performance consisted of imported Chinese opera (with only male actors invited on the stage), classical Persian music concerts with again...only male musicians and religious plays like Ta’ziyeh (where all the roles, including female roles are played by men).
As a result of all the government support for the performance arts, there was an entire generation of filmmakers and actors coming of age by the time of Khatami’s election who had skill and talent but not the freedom to perform anything that wasn’t sanctioned by the state. With film, it was easier, producers could trick the censors by submitting a script for production, get the money and a trusted crew and permission, and then make a different film in the editing room, which could then be exported and featured in international film festivals.
Theater was more difficult. It was hard enough to get approval to stage a play in Iran. All plays had to be approved by the government and granted permission to begin rehearsals. And then government censors often crashed the rehearsals. Once a radical performance was premiered it might get shut down immediately meaning that all the rehearsals and work might only be for one performance. The theater’s only exportable product were live performances and getting government permission for individuals to perform abroad was not easy. International festivals had to agree that there would be no touching and that Iranian women would veil. The Iranian government would collect the performers’ passports and government handlers accompanied the groups. Yet, some performers still defected.
Post-Revolution Iranian theater inspired me to think about ways that I too, as an anthropologist could push through boundaries -- disciplinary, genre, political, personal and write about resistance, creativity and hope. To that end I spent the next decade researching and writing and re-writing this novel about a group of young Iranian college students who form an underground avant-garde theater group and attempt against censorship and other forms of social resistance to put on a play. Though this book is inspired by the plays that took place in Tehran primarily at the turn of the last century, it is not a retelling of those performances. Nor is it a political commentary about a specific movement, which is why I further fictionalized the action by placing it in 2009 when a similar protest to the Dormitory protests of 1999 occurred and a political tug of war ensued between the people and the government and masses of Iranians of all ages took to the streets. Writing fiction allows me to stay away from political specificities that might link a particular theater moment or individual to a particular political moment in time, be it 1999 or 2009. But writing a fictional ethnography allows me to keep to the ethnographic specificities at the heart of this theater movement.
Ultimately this book is all about collaboration: between fact and fiction, between art and ethnography, science and human experience, the anthropologist and the people. It is about coming above ground and not placing our opinions and insights in the dark but rather moving toward the light.
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