Imprisoned Airs

A conversation with Salar Abdoh

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Stills from The Blind Owl, 1991

In life, Reza Abdoh inspired all manner of fantastical tales. He’d been a child actor at the Shiraz Arts Festival, delivering flowers to the great American theater director Robert Wilson. He made a movie at the age of eleven; directed a play at the National Youth Theatre in London at fifteen; published a book of poetry at sixteen. He graduated from college; he never graduated from college. He was deeply influenced by Persian literature; he read Farsi at a grade-school level. He sold his body for money to eat. His father owned a bowling alley. His father was friends with the Shah. His father used to beat him. Oh, and his mother was Italian.

Some of these things are true.

What seems never to have been in doubt is that Abdoh, who was born in Tehran in 1963, was a prodigy. He was already one of the most compelling figures in American avant-garde theater when he died of AIDS in 1995 at the age of thirty-two.

“The confrontational theater and operatic director whose casts mooned audiences, became slaves under torture, and hung nude and upside down in fish tanks, died Thursday,” began his obituary in the LA Times. Over the years his detractors (and some of his fans) have had trouble getting past the dark spectacle.“There are moments of complete mayhem,” Abdoh once admitted. “Unforgiving and relentless violence, passions that are like excrement.” But there were other moments, memorably evoked by a reviewer of Bogeyman (1991): the play “is de Sade and Hieronymous Bosch meet the Frog Prince and American popular song in a massive effort to knock the window out of a complacent society.” Another reviewer of his last play, Quotations from a Ruined City, described that work as an “apocalyptic follies.” There were almost always dance sequences — folk dances, like Brazilian Capoeira, the Viennese waltz, the Jewish wedding dance — and songs and advertising catchphrases and jokes, racist and otherwise. (“Why did Jeffrey Dahmer come out the way he did? When he was young his mother gave him the cold shoulder.”)

His aesthetic language borrowed from BDSM, raves, talk shows, and the history of avant-garde theater. It was all about borrowing, actually, about cutting up and recombining, à la Burroughs, but it had to engage the senses. “I think of my work as popular entertainment,” he told one interviewer. “I believe in completely physicalizing difficult.” His model, he said, was popular music, in which “you can drown yourself in sound, like a trance. In ancient cultures, they didn’t practice theory in their dances; they wanted to arrive at a state of trance, and I think that’s an appropriate approach for the arts: to create a work that is entrancing.”

In 1991, after more than a decade in Los Angeles, Abdoh moved to New York. He reunited with his brother Salar, who had studied Persian literature at Berkeley, and together they wrote the script for Quotations from a Ruined City, which premiered in New York in 1994. They had finished another play, A Story of Infamy, which was due to begin rehearsals the day Reza was placed on life support. It was never produced.

Daniel Mufson, a writer and translator now based in Berlin, wrote a PhD dissertation on Abdoh. He spoke to Salar Abdoh twice as part of his research. We at Bidoun found the interviews with Salar, an accomplished novelist who teaches at CUNY, especially poignant as we considered the vicissitudes of life in diaspora — catastrophic loss, identity politics, and the opportunity for self-reinvention.

We also found ourselves falling in love with the idea of Reza Abdoh, some decades too late.

What follows is a slightly cut up and recombined and considerably abridged version of those two conversations from 1998. For more, please see “The Abdoh Files” at www.danielmufson.com and the Rezah Abdoh page on BubuWeb.

— The Editors


Daniel Mufson: I thought I would ask you a little bit about the importance of Iranian literature and performance traditions. John Bell wrote an essay where he talked about the influence of Ta’ziyeh and talked about Háfiz and Rumi. Because I don’t really see the Iranian influence much.

Salar Abdoh: Well, I think you’re on the right track. I mean, even when he was alive people were talking about Persian literature and all that. Reza didn’t dissuade people from thinking that way. To be honest with you, I wish I could say Persian literature or even Persian tradition had a lot of influence on his work. But I knew him too well. I knew his knowledge of Persian literature… I got a degree in Persian literature. But Reza could hardly read Persian literature. He couldn’t read Háfiz. But like any artist, he thought it would be a good idea to be influenced by it.

DM: What do you mean, it would be a good idea?

SA: Well, why not? Why not be influenced by Rumi or Háfiz, you know? It just adds more layers, texture to your work. I would’ve done the same thing. But I’ve always thought people, especially Americans, just unconsciously read these things into somebody’s body of work without realizing they do that. And one reason they’re doing it wrong, I think, is because they don’t know Persian tradition at all. What do they know of Rumi — some translations? The translations of Rumi have nothing to do with the original. Not even one million-millionth of it. And I just always thought that whole aspect of reading Persian influences into Reza’s work was bogus. At one of the memorial services, a couple of people were elaborating on that and I even thought about writing something about it, for future critics or whoever. But you know, you should be careful about reading too much into these things. Just because Reza brings a couple of Persian calligraphies in one of his plays and displays them? That’s means he’s influenced by Háfiz? He hasn’t been influenced by Háfiz. He’s been influenced by Shakespeare more than anybody. He’s been influenced by Proust. He’s been influenced by Gertrude Stein. He’s been influenced by William Burroughs. Me and him, we didn’t agree on literature a lot. He loved William Burroughs and I hated him. But we both loved Shakespeare.

Anyway he was much, much more influenced by the Western tradition. And, besides the classics of English literature — by America itself. Far, far more than anything Iranian. All these vastly different people coming here and living together and racism and generosity and ugliness and crime. It was all here. And that’s why he was so attracted to the idea of America and to American folk culture. I never saw anybody watch television as much as Reza. But he didn’t just watch it like a couch potato; he was absorbing that huge culture. He was trying to see what it’s all about and how it can help him in his theater.

But people just emphasized that Persian aspect of him because they always do that with artists from other parts of the world. It’s just the thing to do. Why should he stand up and say, “Oh, no, that’s not true.” Let them say what they want to say.

DM: When I saw A Taste of Cherry, it did remind me a little bit of The Blind Owl. Not that is seemed particularly Persian, I don’t think, but rather in the terms of the way it was cut, how it drew attention to itself as a film. Did you see the movie?

SA: Of course, yes. This is a good example. Here’s another case of people reading into things, reading something into something that doesn’t exist. The Blind Owl, as you may know, is the title of quite an awful Persian novel written around the midcentury which for some reason is taken to be on the caliber of the best modern Persian novel. Anyway — Reza took the name The Blind Owl because he liked that title. It had nothing to do with that book. It was just a good title to his ear. The same way when he did “Rusty Sat on a something-or-other.”

DM: Rusty Sat on a Hill One Dawn and Watched the Moon Go Down.

SA: One of the Persian actresses in that play recited a Rumi poem in Persian. So does that mean Reza was influenced by Rumi? No. He just chose a Rumi poem and recited it because it felt like the right thing to do, an interesting thing to do, at that particular point in the play. You know what I mean? This aspect of Reza’s work — it’s not that it’s nonexistent, but I think people, critics, should really be more careful about reading too much into something. We left Iran at an early age. Reza had maybe the reading abilities of an eighth grader, seventh grader, in Persian.

DM: I would like to know a little bit more about the family and how much time you spent in Iran and how many kids there were.

SA: It was three brothers and one sister. I was the second. He was the oldest. Yeah. And then we came here and our mother was divorced. People seem to think our mother was Italian. I don’t know why, our mother is not Italian. You know, at the time of the hostage crisis, we were very young. I was about fifteen. Reza and I were already in England when the revolution happened.

DM: How did you end up coming to America, then? If you were already in the UK? What difference does it make whether you’re in England or the US if there’s a revolution…

SA: First of all, our father was an American citizen. And so obviously he had a lot more opportunities here. Especially because he had just lost all his wealth in Iran. So we knew America much better. We knew England, too, but why stay in England when you can come to America?

DM: And what was the age difference between you and Reza?

SA: Two years and ten months. He might have been seventeen. But there was a lot of anti-Iranian feeling. Especially in California where there are so many Persians. So he just… he just tried to soften the image of the Iranian by saying our mother was Italian. Which — I don’t know why he chose Italian. I mean our mother… . You know, she grew up in Switzerland. Her first language is French. He should’ve said French at least, you know? Why did he choose Italian, a language she can’t even speak? Later on, as the years wore on, I had people saying, “Oh, so your mother’s Italian? Ah, that’s great.” As if, you know, that would have made his work more interesting because he had a European in his blood. Very strange. But anyway, so we came here with our father.

DM: When was that?

SA: That was like very early 1980. But then our father died right away. He’d basically lost everything he had in Iran, and he had a lot. From then on we were on our own. It was a rough few years. Reza was at USC at that time, he had just started USC in the literature department.

DM: So you guys had no guardian.

SA: No. We lived on the streets, basically. Not Reza, Reza had an apartment in West Hollywood.

DM: What do you mean, you lived on the streets?

SA: We didn’t have a place to stay, my younger brother and me. I was on my own since I was fifteen. I literally had nowhere to stay. I lived in abandoned houses. I had a very interesting life. Sometimes I stayed with Reza. But Reza had to really labor to make it. He was ambitious. But he busted his butt to make it in the world of theater. He scrounged his way up.

He basically did everything to make a living. I remember he was like a night manager in a hotel for a while. I think he was a manager in a restaurant for a while. And I don’t know — I hate to sound sensational, but he’s passed away now and we’re just talking — but I think he sold his body for a while, too, to make a living. And I think he might’ve contracted HIV at that point. At a very early time. He was very heavily involved in the whole West Hollywood gay scene. He was very active sexually. And he just… . He did whatever he had to. It was very hard for all of us to just get by, you know.

DM: Did he have a scholarship to USC?

SA: Yeah. He was a very good student. He got a scholarship.

DM: Did he finish?

SA: Yes, he did.

DM: He did? Because I called USC and they said that he’d only been there for a semester.

SA: I’m pretty sure he finished college at USC. I’m pretty sure about that. He wouldn’t have just gone for one semester. Because I would come visit him from the Bay area years later and I remember his still doing stuff at USC. Doing plays there and things like that.

DM: Do you think it could’ve been possible that he attended classes and directed shows there, but without registering?

SA: I don’t know. Anything is possible with Reza. That’s something I really don’t know. But he was a very, very well-respected student.

He was a poet before he was a playwright. In England he published a book of poems, The Sound of a Poet Breathing in an Imprisoned Air. And nobody has seen it. It’s a weighty poem, but he was barely fifteen when he published it. He was a great poet. I always thought that he should have stuck to poetry. He just stopped doing it.

Anyway, I lost contact with him for many years because I started roaming the country, and then I went to school at Berkeley. I would see him once in a while. It was only the last three or four years of his life, after I moved to New York, that we saw a lot of each other. I worked with him on a couple of last plays. But his Los Angeles years are foreign to me. I’d just see him once in a while. I can’t help you much about what he did there.

DM: So another thing that gets said very often is that Bogeyman is a fairly autobiographical work.

SA: I’m sure it’s autobiographical. But then again, every time I talk to Diane [White, Reza’s producer], she’s like “Oh, that’s your mother. That’s your father.” You know, whatever. That’s reading too much into things. Okay, it is autobiographical. Something is either autobiographical or it isn’t, so I guess it was, it is, autobiographical. But to say, “Oh, that’s his cathartic crying out of the soul about his mother and father and family,” it’s too much. Okay? It’s autobiographical, but it’s only one aspect of the family. He was a maker of images. He orchestrated emotions, feelings, sins. And he used many different pieces of his life and the world outside of him to do that. No one particular thing in any of his plays should take priority.

DM: Well, it does seem like the figure of the authoritarian father, the concern about the patriarchy and the oppressiveness of the patriarchy — that does seem recurrent. Or do you think that was more of an intellectual concern?

SA: No. I think Reza was a very strong character. If you met him, you would know he had an amazing command of himself and other people. And then our father. He was a total man’s man, you know. Ex-boxer. Macho. Really big. Always fighting people, beating them up. Even into his fifties. I mean the guy was machismo incarnate. And Reza was his eldest son who was gay, you know.

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Bogeyman, 1990. Produced by Diane White. Photo by Jan Deen

DM: So your father knew that before he died?

SA: I think he found out just before he died. But even if he didn’t suspect it, Reza did not satisfy any ideas he had about how the oldest son should be. When Reza was a child, he wanted to learn how to play the violin. Our mom supported that. But of course, tell a macho Middle Eastern man that your oldest son wants to play the violin… . Well, he almost gave Reza a good whacking just for that. So there was a lot of tension between them. That was definitely a love/hate relationship.

DM: But your father allowed Reza to go off to England at a fairly early age.

SA: Well, to go to boarding school.

DM: At the National Youth Theatre?

SA: No, Reza was never at the National Youth Theatre.

DM: Where’d that come from?

SA: He just made it up. Reza made some things up. But his Peer Gynt, he did that in our boarding school. Wellington. The nearest town is called Taunton. It’s in Somerset County. One thing about Reza that’s amazing is… he was an incredible creative artist. He didn’t need to exaggerate his accomplishments. And I don’t know why he did. Even in boarding school, he was only sixteen when he graduated, and he won the English literature prize in this very tough English prep school amongst all these upper class English kids. He won the highest prize. And when he left Iran three years before he could barely speak English, right? He could’ve gone to Oxford or Cambridge on a full scholarship. He could’ve done anything. Why do you need to exaggerate your accomplishments? I never understood that. He was totally respected by all his teachers from a very young age. Treated like a god, almost. I remember. I think in the beginning of his career in LA, he was really afraid of not making it. Of drifting in this ocean, in this American continent, without family, without money. We really didn’t have any money. Reza couldn’t even afford food to eat a lot of times. I think, psychologically, he was really afraid of not making it. And he wanted to climb up the ladder of success in theater and he did what everybody else does — he fattened the résumé. And who could check on it? I didn’t find out he’d done these things until the last couple of years of his life. And to me it was just funny. And I didn’t understand why people bothered to keep this lie going. What is this bullshit about the National Youth Theatre? The guy was amazing as it was. But it was like the thing about our Italian mom.

DM: Did he study Kathakali in India?

SA: No.

DM: Was the street show, Vazz Pazz, a fiction?

SA: The what?

DM: I thought he did a Kathakali show called Vazz Pazz, or something to that effect.

SA: Reza never went to India. This is the first time I heard about that. I mean, I read some French article about how Reza was the kid who was present to give Bob Wilson his bouquet of flowers when Wilson came to Iran for the Shiraz Festival in the 1970s. That’s bullshit.

DM: So he wasn’t in the Wilson show either.

SA: He was too young to be there. He was this tall! [Gestures] What would he be doing there? It’s so crazy. And the thing is, as he became more and more successful — and my God, had he lived, he would’ve been massively successful. People are already beginning to treat him like some sort of a prophet. But they came to haunt him, these little lies. Lies just compound themselves. You can never get away from them. And our poor mom — when she came for his funeral here, and the memorial in LA, she didn’t know what to do. People tried to speak Italian with her and… it was like a joke. I felt sorry for her. I think in a way he… I mean it didn’t bother him that much, but he kind of regretted having said that. At a very, very early part of his life he said these things and then he couldn’t take them back. Things like that, how can you take it back? How could he come back when he’s thirty, thirty-one, thirty-three and say, “Oh, by the way, my mother’s not Italian. She still lives in Iran.” Little stuff like that. It always made me uncomfortable.

DM: Do you think he saw — was he in London in 1970 to see the Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? He said that he saw that show when he was seven and that had a very large impact on him.

SA: Now that could’ve been possible, because our family, my mother’s side of the family, was very deeply involved in the arts in Iran. And they did all go to the festivals and things like that, the Shiraz Festival. It’s possible that my mother took him. But whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. Reza had a definitely melodramatic fantasy when he wanted to. But from my own experience — when I was six, seven years old, my cousin, Kami [YZ Kami, now a painter represented by the Gagosian Gallery] took me to a production of The Cherry Orchard in London. I didn’t know what the hell it was, but I went. And it’s very possible that Reza went, too. Our family was like that. The elders, especially our mom, would go to these things and take us. So it’s possible, but whether it’s verifiable? It’s not verifiable.

DM: It does seem like his interest in theater started from a very early age.

SA: Absolutely. A couple of years ago, I was looking through my younger brother’s picture book and I ran into these images. I remember the occasion, we were in London, Reza must’ve been eleven years old. We always brought one of the maids with us to London, to do the cooking and stuff — this poor villager from somewhere in Iran. And Reza would create these weird costumes and put them on the servant and then take pictures of her. And then give it some title, “The Wandering Spirit” or something. I think he was really destined to do this. And then when he realized by the time he was, let’s say, eighteen, nineteen: “No, I can’t write the next great novel of the twentieth century.” He’d tried to write a novel a couple of times but he just didn’t have it in him. And slowly he gravitated toward the theater. He’d always loved it. And then he zoomed in on what he could do, what he was really good at.

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Photograph by Jan Deen

DM: Your collaboration with him was most intense on Quotations from a Ruined City, right?

SA: Yeah. It was beginning to look like from that point on I was going to write all his plays. And I wrote the last play, I actually finished it. But then he got sick.

DM: A Story of Infamy?

SA: Yeah. For me, writing for that sort of theater, I would’ve only done it for Reza. It’s not like something I’d pursue. But I knew Reza had a very keen eye, and especially an ear, for text and images. He wouldn’t ask me for a story, but for words. And he had a very high sense of detection of crap.

DM: Detection of…

SA: Bullshit. You know, text and framework. He would look at it and say, “This is crap. Take it out.” So I knew I was in good hands. That’s why I agreed to work with him and write plays. I’m not used or even inclined to writing things that have no plot. But I did it for him and I did it very willingly because I knew I was in good hands.

DM: So he would give you a framework?

SA: He would give me an idea.

DM: Because there’s a trajectory to Quotations.

SA: Oh, absolutely. The way Quotations came about is, many years ago, when I was very young, I had written this novel that I threw away, called Quotations from a Ruined City. He had read that manuscript and he remembered certain things from it, so he said, “I want to use that text to do this play.” I’d taken the idea of the title from an old ancient Chinese poem called “The Ruined City.” A beautiful poem from, I guess, about two thousand years ago. So I had taken that title and I had written this free-floating idea on what ruins are all about. With Iran in mind, and all the ruins around the world. That’s at the same time Bosnia was happening. And the whole Bosnia part of Quotations is Reza’s thing, most of it. So he took that idea of ruins and some of the text I had and expanded on it and mixed it with ideas about Bosnia and the killings and all that and created Quotations from—

DM: What about the puritan figures?

SA: The puritan figures?

DM: The entrepreneurial pilgrims.

SA: It wasn’t necessarily integral to the whole thing. However, it was an image of grossness, of capitalism gone to its greediest. And it was synthesizing and putting it all together with the idea of death and all that stuff you know. It was a parallel theme moving along. For Reza, I think, if you look at all his plays, the theme of power is so important. And powerlessness. And justice and injustice. Whether it was Quotations or Tight Right White.

DM: That’s always been a concern of his?

SA: Absolutely. I think his suffering from such a young age, being here, being on his own and having to really scrounge a living from scratch with no support at all.

DM: This scrounging started, though, in ’79 after the revolution?

SA: In 1980, yeah. I think it created a huge undercurrent of rage. You have to remember, he’d been raised in a very wealthy atmosphere. Just a year prior to the revolution he would be chauffeured around town in a Rolls Royce in London if he wanted to. And now he didn’t have anything. There was a lot of rage in Reza and it manifested itself in his plays. His creative output was the manifestation of that rage. But as the years passed and he was in America — he read a lot, he studied people a lot. And he saw that injustice exists and there are those who have power and those who don’t have power. It just became a very important issue with him. It became the central issue of his theater in many ways. Injustice just destroyed him. He would watch TV and see and hear about another atrocity in Bosnia and it would just drive him insane. He felt like he wanted to say something about it, and he did through his art.

And the last play, I’ll tell you what it was all about. It was about capital punishment and illness. “A story of infamy.” He was moving toward these topics more and more. And he would’ve continued to do so. Now and then people have asked me what that play was all about. While I was writing, Reza would continually remind me to keep these things in mind: death, redemption, illness, and capital punishment. The last year of his life, he read every book he could get his hands on capital punishment. He wanted to go inside the mind of the guy or woman condemned to die. He wanted to do a play about that. At the same time, he wanted to do a play about a sick man who was also condemned to death. So that was what A Story of Infamy was all about, these two individuals condemned to death.

I think that’s why his theater to me is so poignant. Because he really felt things. He really felt it in his guts, you know. When you saw his plays you felt like: “Here is someone who’s really trying to say something.” I’ve seen a lot of people doing theater that have obviously been influenced by his. And to be honest, to this day, none of them has made any impact on me. I think a lot of people just take certain elements — somebody taking all their clothes off, somebody whipping somebody else, or just being loud or with a certain kind of music. That’s the only part they pick out. And it’s kind of sad. It was so much more than that. It had a core, it had a heart. It was that seed that he built out from and he gathered from everything he could find. Whether it was from watching TV, or from the works of a philosopher, or a poem a friend had written that suited his purpose for that play. He took what he could because the kernel was inside him. And he just built outward.

DM: Did your parents see any of his stuff that he tried to do when he was a kid? Has your mother ever seen any of his productions?

SA: Oh, yeah, absolutely. She would come to Europe. She came to Europe and she saw The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice. I think she saw Quotations. Certainly she saw — actually this will come as another shock to you, but when he was like thirteen, before we left Iran, he directed a film about a boy who had to repeat everything twice. Everything he said, he had to say twice. But I have to call my mom and ask about that. I even remember my dad talking about it.

DM: So then he must have had some kind of technical proficiency with film apparatuses.

SA: No, no. Absolutely not. Even if he did it when he was a young kid, he wouldn’t have been behind the camera or anything like that. He would’ve just been telling people what to do. He had a natural ability to direct. Even as an eleven-year-old. He could’ve stood there and told grown adults three times his age what to do and they would’ve done it without any argument. He just had that bearing about him. He knew what he was doing. And it was the right thing to do. He was that intelligent.

DM: One of the people I spoke with, I can’t remember who it was now, sort of compared the way he directed to the way he cooked. That he sort of had an instinctive, impulsive way of putting things together in the kitchen.

SA: Whoever told you that said a beautiful thing. It is absolutely right. I don’t know where he learned how to cook, but he was one of the best cooks I’ve ever eaten out of the hands from. And he would create this elaborate… Persian food is very difficult to make. Because it’s not spicy, so you can’t hide the taste through pepper and things like that. You have to just do it exactly right. And he knew how to do it. Yeah, exactly! His theater was like that. With cooking, he knew the taste he was trying to get. And with his theater, he knew the feeling he wanted to get, even more than the image. The image was an extension of that feeling.

DM: What was your mom’s reaction to the work then? A lot of people have focused on the degree to which the work is shocking. I guess some people get a little bit more freaked out than others about a certain level of profanity or graphic violence or what have you. Which for me has never really been what the work is about. I thought of that when you said he would never try to conceal the true flavor of things with spice. It seems like you can make an analogy between that and the use of shock and simply being incendiary for the sake of being incendiary, which I don’t think he was doing.

SA: No. No, he didn’t.

DM: So did your mother see past the shock?

SA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. She saw it.

DM: She saw what he was trying to do?

SA: No. I mean… I think she saw the plays and she loved them, because they were Reza’s plays. She really didn’t have it in her to see this play and say, “My God, that is so incredible.” You know what I’m saying? She just loved them. Loved him. And we shouldn’t read into it more than what it was. This mother who loves her oldest son, and he’s doing this play, and he’s kind of famous, and his company is touring through Europe, and she’s come to Paris to see his play. And she sees it and she’s amazed. Not necessarily by just the play, but the whole hullabaloo. It’s “My son, the famous director.” When we were much younger she would take us to museums and such. She was less interested in culture per se than the idea of culture, the idea of going to a museum and seeing a Rembrandt. Because that’s the kind of person she is. She’s like a little girl, you know. “Let’s go to a museum and see a Rembrandt,” or a… whatever.

But of course she loved it. If there’s one thing she’s not, it’s a prude. Three weeks after Reza died, I took her to a male strip show in Times Square. She had just come from Iran and she was bent on seeing a male strip show and I took her to it. With my girlfriend. The three of us sat there and saw these guys strip. And I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was the most beautiful homage we could pay to Reza, to go and do this. You know? I mean, how many people can do that? With their mother, three weeks after one of their brothers is dead.

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