Pick one play we’ve read, or performance we’ve watched, and explain how catharsis functioned in the work. If the work did not strive to produce a catharsis, what did it do instead? Please offer an opinion as to why your choice of work did or didn’t utilize catharsis. You are welcome to refer to Aristotle’s Poetics, or to any of the authors assigned for this week’s set of readings.
To me, the obvious choice as to which work produced catharsis is ta’ziyeh. Aristotle refers to catharsis as a “purge” of certain emotions, pity and fear among them, brought about by performance. While many of the works we have discussed so far have included elements of catharsis, ta’ziyeh brings catharsis to a whole new level. In the articles we have read about ta’ziyeh as well as the performances we have watched, one element remains steady and clear: the audience. Audience reaction is critical to ta’ziyeh, as it helps co-create the world of the performance and achieve its central goal: to unify the Shiite communities of Iran and the world around a common tragedy, and to reaffirm their belief and devotion to God. This is much more difficult without catharsis.
Sabrina M. Guerrieri, in her article “Taziyeh in Motion: The Traveling Culture of Iranian Muharram Theater,” talks extensively about the audience effects produced in traditional (Iranian) performances of ta’ziyeh, and whether ta’ziyeh can be truly “authentic” if performed for a non-traditional (non-Iranian/Shiite) audience. There must be some amount of audience buy-in, Guerrieri argues, for ta’ziyeh’s goal to be accomplished and catharsis to occur. This buy-in takes the form of high emotional stakes and engrossment, as Guerrieri describes: “When an actor playing the role of Hussein mounts his horse and fights a losing battle in the reenactment of the Imam’s martyrdom, physical displacements are made on stage. When the audience assumes an active role in enhancing the emotional fervour through collective mourning, a spiritual transcendence towards repentance takes place.”
This “spiritual transcendence” takes the form of open weeping and yelling, shouting and mourning from the audience, as seen in the many filmed performances we’ve watched in and outside of class. These emotions are precisely what Aristotle talks about in Poetics–the performance of the story and the actors who put it on cause this catharsis, which then unifies the group with a common feeling and reaffirms their faith. As shown in many of our readings as well, ta’ziyeh’s catharsis can be used for other purposes, too: the strengthening of belief that comes with ta’ziyeh’s catharsis can also strengthen the resolve of the Iranian people during times of war or hardship. Catharsis can be a powerful tool, and the tradition of ta’ziyeh has harnessed it to keep its community together for centuries.