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Orghast at Persepolis


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Title: Orghast at Persepolis
Author: A.C.H.Smith
Genre: Theatre
Written: 1972
Length: 264 pages
Availability: Orghast at Persepolis - US
Orghast at Persepolis - UK
Orghast at Persepolis - Canada
  • An Account of the Experiment in Theatre Directed by Peter Brook and Written by Ted Hughes
  • With twenty photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : decent account of an interesting theatrical experiment

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The performance of Orghast at the 1971 Shiraz-Persepolis Festival is a part of theatre history. A.C.H.Smith's account of it, Orghast at Persepolis, is pretty much all that is left of it.
       Peter Brook directed it, and poet Ted Hughes wrote it. Brook's troupe, the International Centre for Theatre Research, with some local additions, put it on.
       The play, Orghast, is of particular interest because it was written entirely in an invented language (also referred to as 'Orghast'). In it Hughes tried to create a language "purged of the haphazard associations of English". Smith quotes Tom Stoppard (who wrote about the undertaking in the TLS):

Orghast aims to be a leveller of audiences by appealing not to semantic athleticism but to the instinctive recognition of a "mental state" within a sound. One can hardly imagine a bolder challenge to the limits of narrative.
       Smith reports that "the whole turn-over in vocabulary, by the end amounted to some two thousand words; of them, Hughes reckoned only about fifty as 'real' Orghast." Still, it was good enough for the multi-national group of participants to sometimes communicate in amongst themselves when there was no other shared language.
       Smith gives a few examples of the language in the text, but presumably it is much more a spoken language than one to be read. (Smith writes in his Preface that "the texts of Orghast, annotated by Hughes and introduced by him and Brook, are published in a limited edition (1972) by the Rainbow Press", but most scholars seem unaware of the existence of such a volume (and we haven't been able to find much evidence of it either).)
       The play itself is a big, primal epic, based largely on the Prometheus story. Performance and text evolved together, Brook consciously taking "a piece of unformed, half-finished material and a group of actors" to this foreign land and adapting it there to the needs and possibilities he found.
       Smith does a fine job of describing the play, and the evolution of how it became what was then performed. There is also a chapter of useful summaries of critical reaction, and a conversation with Brook looking back on what had taken place almost a year after the historic performances. Those interested in theatre-history (and theory) should find much of interest; others, not quite as convinced of Brook's approaches to drama, might find much of this simply baffling. (Smith writes: "Brook described Hughes's structure as 'the most labyrinthine work since Ulysses'" -- which should give readers some perspective as to what an unusual piece this was (if Brook says something is labyrinthine ...). And that's just the structure ... the damn thing was written in an invented language too.)
       Fortunately, Smith also describes much of the peripheral goings-on -- the bureaucratic difficulties faced in mounting the production, the clash of cultures, the major and minor problems. The actors were in Iran for an extended period of time, and there were quite a few mis-adventures along the way. From the amusing -- "the laundry service regularly sent back trousers shrunk to half-size until, after complaints and demands for compensation, they began to come back larger than when they were sent" -- to the intimidating (the Shah's Iran not being the most pleasant of places in many respects at that time), Smith's account is also an interesting travelogue of a theatre experience in an unusual setting.
       An interesting account of a wild project.

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Ted Hughes: Persepolis: A.C.H. Smith: Other books of interest under review:
  • Index of Drama and books about theatre under review

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About the Author:

       Anthony Charles H.Smith was born in 1935. He has written works of fiction, drama, poetry, and non-fiction.

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