Persian theater or Iranian theater (Persian:تئاتر در ایران) goes back to antiquity. The first initiation of theater and phenomena of acting can be traced in ceremonial theaters to glorify national heroes and legends and to humiliate the enemy, as in the classics "Soug Sivash" and "Mogh Koshi" (Megakhouni). Ancient Persian theatre and dance was significantly researched by the Greek historian Herodotus of Halikarnassos, who lived during the Persian rule in Greece. In his work Book IX (Calliope), he describes the history of Asian empires and also the Persian wars until 478 BC.
These are a few of the dramatic performing arts that became popularized in Iran in 7th century AD, long before the advent of cinema. A few examples include:
Naqqāli is one of the oldest forms of the traditional Persian theatre. The Naqqāli is the performer and recounts stories in prose often accompanied by music, dance and decorative, painted scrolls. Both men and women can be Naqqāli performers and can perform with mixed-sex audiences, which is unusual in Iran. The performer often wears simple costumes and a single piece of a historical but related costume, like one old piece of armour. This art was formerly performed in coffeehouses, private houses and historical venues such as ancient caravanserais. A decline in the popularity of coffeehouses in Iran, and with new forms of entertainment, has resulted in diminishing interest in Naqqāli performance. The aging of master performers, (who are called morsheds) and the decreasing popularity among younger generations have caused a steep drop in the number of skilled Naqqāls, threatening the survival of this dramatic art. Naqqāli was included in 2011 to the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in need of urgent safeguarding. Other similar Iranian story-telling and performance traditions include Naghali, Pardeh-dari, Pardeh-khaani, Ghavali (minstrelsy), Shahnameh-khaani, Ta'zieh.
Ta'zieh, also known as Tazieh, is a form of traditional, religious Persian theatre in which the drama is conveyed through music, narration, prose and singing. Ta'zieh dates from before the Islamic era. A common theme is the epic tragedy of Siavash in Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. In Persian tradition, Ta'zieh and Parde-Khani are inspired by historical and religious events, and symbolize epic spirit and resistance. The common theme is hero tales of love, sacrifice, and resistance against evil. Ta'zieh resembles the European opera in many respects.
Kheimeh-shab-bazi is the Persian traditional puppetry which is performed in a small chamber. There are two people involved in the performance: a musical performer and a person telling the story (called a morshed). The dialogue is between morshed and the puppets. The method of performance, its characters and the techniques used in writing the puppet show make it unique and distinguish it from other types of puppetry. A newer genre of Iranian puppetry emerged during Qajar era. Puppetry is still very common in contemporary Iran.
Siah-Bazi, also known as Siyah-Bazi is a type of Iranian folk performing art that features a blackface, mischievous and forthright harlequin that does improvisations to stir laughter. The term Siah-Bazi literally translates to "playing black" and is a sketch in which two men dressed in red turbans, one has black face paint and they engage in a verbal duel which is often witty, political in nature and humorous. The character with the black face takes on a clown-like role and tries to disgrace the master. Outwardly the master appears to be a respectable person but underneath he is immoral and not to be respected. The blackface character is portrayed as a carnivalesque underdog of the working class and the audience can empathize with their struggle through humor. Siah-Bazi has been compared to American minstrel theater and have similar controversy.
Siah-Bazi and Ru Howzi both have a blackface clown character and involve lewd jokes, but Ru Howzi is a social theatre that satirizes domestic life and is often performed at private Iranian residences on a stage over a pool of water that is often found in home courtyards. Siah-Bazi is performed in more public places like theatres or coffee houses because of the political subject matter.
The Iranian Revolution affected the tone and performance of Siah-Bazi, and they edited away the sexual references, dancing and music. The performances continue only because of the acceptance of the standards of the Islamic Iranian Revolution.
The contemporary theatre seen today in Iran is largely derived from Western traditions of performance that developed during the twentieth century. The most influential among these are modernism, theatre of the absurd, the poor theater, and postmodernism. While contemporary Iranian theatre builds off these movements, modern theatre artists have created a unique, culturally-specific style of theatre that blends Western styles with traditional modes of Persian performance.
At the start of the twentieth century, Iran's relationship with industrial nations fundamentally changed. With the global demand for fossil fuels growing rapidly, the 1909 discovery of oil in Abadan, Iran, made the nation's relationship with the West (particularly the United Kingdom, United States, and France) heightened to a state of mutual reliance. These foreign nations developed close alliances with the Iranian monarchies, and cultural exchange flourished between Iran and Europe. Persian translations of plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov were the first taste of a Western theatrical aesthetic for much of the Iranian public, and this style of playwriting was very influential on Iran's earliest native playwrights.
The 1960s was a time of great artistic and literary output in Iran, fueled by a new generation of Iranian writers, artists, and intellectuals. A modern form of Iranian playwriting grew out of this movement, led by the luminaries Bahram Beyzai, Akbar Radi, Ali Nassirian, and Bijan Mofid. These playwrights found inspiration in the works of Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Eugène Ionesco, and their contemporaries, although their work also builds on Persian styles such as puppetry, ru howzi, and naghali.
The first Iranian school of theatre, Madrese-ye Ta'atr-i Shahrdari, was opened in 1939 by a collection of Iranian theatre artists, and other schools soon followed. In 1964, the Faculty of Dramatic Arts was established, which became the first institution of higher education in Iran to offer a diploma equivalent to a Bachelor's Degree. In 1965, the University of Tehran created the Faculty of Theatre, which finally incorporated theatrical pedagogy within already existing Iranian universities. The theatre program at the University of Tehran was particularly successful, and its influence can be seen throughout contemporary Iranian theatre-making. The Faculty of Theatre hired several U.S. drama professors to craft the program, with classes in acting, directing, theatre history, and design, and a focus on the Western dramatic cannon.
The university setting provided increased opportunities for theatrical experimentation, and out of this emerged a strong tradition of Iranian theatre direction. Hamid Samandarian, Ali Rafii, and Pari Saberi are among the most active and influential of this first generation of modern Iranian directors, and their theatre backgrounds all derive from a mixture of both experience and pedagogy within Iran and Europe.
Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the fate of this new modern theatre tradition became uncertain. Theatrical activity dramatically decreased during the devastating Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s, and aside from the occasional production, this burgeoning Iranian theatrical scene did not resurface until the 1990s.
Theatre under the Islamic Republic of Iran is governed by the Dramatic Arts Center and its umbrella organization, the Vizarate Farhang va Irshade Islami (Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance). The government-controlled agency has been criticized for its censorship of artists and ideas that are believed to be "Anti-Islamic" or in opposition to the political loyalties of the Iranian government. Nevertheless, Iranian theatre artists continue to navigate these regulations, and new works are flourishing, particularly in the capital city of Tehran.
Among today's most popular Iranian playwrights and directors are Mohammad Charmshir, Naghmeh Samini, Homayoun Ghanizadeh, and Zahra Sabri.
In modern times, Bahram Beyzai has made the most significant contribution in the historiography of Persian theatre with his seminal book A Study on Iranian Theatre.. Other works include Willem Floor's book, The History of Theater in Iran, and William O. Beeman's Iranian Performance Traditions.