Wednesday, October 26, 2011

43. Silver Plate Showing Shaipur II (Iran, AD 309-379)

As Meryl Streep the rabbi says at the beginning of Angels in America, “Eric? This a Jewish name?” I have to say “Zoroastrianism? This a major religion?” I thought he was going to talk about Judaism at this point. But I think he chose this object and this religion because it’s less familiar, and thus we’ll learn a little more. And he can use it to talk about Judaism obliquely, since Zoroastrianism lies behind all three of the big modern Western religions (he’s done Buddhism and Hinduism, so today it was time to go west, young man).

He starts by playing a couple chords of the great “Mountain Sunrise” from Richard Strauss, and then asks, “Just what did Zarathrustra spake, anyway?” ‘Cause not many people know. Although Zoroastrianism is still a legitimate religion, today, particularly in its homeland of Iran, it doesn’t have the numbers of the other main religions. The reason seems to be a political one, illustrating the intense need for a church/state division whenever possible—Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Sassanian empire, in Iran after the Persian empire, and as such when Islam spread to Iran they got rid of the Sassanian regime and their religion along with them. (Caveat: apparently there are currently dedicated seats, in the Iranian parliament, for representatives of Iran’s Christian, Jewish, and surviving Zoroastrian communities.) With Christianity, even if an entire Christian kingdom got conquered, another survived to keep the faith.

Anyways, Zoroastrianism preceded the big three; its legacy to them includes the ideas that (unlike in Buddhism and Hinduism) time is linear and will end someday; that the universe is a big battlefield between good and evil; and the importance of old, wild-eyed prophets with scraggly beards. Fond as I am of the latter (Sir Ian McKellen knows I have a crush on him as Gandalf), I’m not so sure that I buy the teachings of these prophets, or the ideas of these good and evil really exist in the universe, or are those just concepts in human minds, defined entirely by humans? For instance, this plate, showing the Zoroastrian Sassanian King, the Shah of Shahs, slaying the ritual stag. Apparently that’s a metaphor for the victory of divine human kingship in league with the gods, overcoming the animalistic forces of darkness, etc. But how can a stag possibly be evil? Today, they’ve become synonymous with environmentalism and goodness. Sure, the king of an agricultural people will probably want to keep marauding animals at bay...but describing them as evil seems overstated to me.

We recently produced Mozart’s Magic Flute where I work at Seattle Opera, and we ran into an odd storytelling conundrum. The bass sings the role of Sarastro, a Zoroaster-like figure of wisdom and virtue, first introduced—Gozzi-like—as the enemy of the virtuous, potent, wholesome, suffering-mother type. We’re set up not to like Sarastro, and then this guy comes in and in a long recitative tells us we’re dumb, that Sarastro is really the quintessence of virtue; and that’s how the opera ends, with sunlight (Sarastro) triumphing over night (the Queen), good banishing evil for all time. (She’s evil, you see, because she cares more for trinkets/symbols of power than she does her own daughter.) And so the story doesn’t work, today. In the text, Sarastro is alarmingly a creature of the 18th century. He’s Thomas Jefferson to a longer acceptable as a hero, in a bold, cartoony, bust-of-Rameses kind of way, because we know he held slaves. I’m going out on a limb here but at the time, I bet everything he stood for was the right direction, and it may have been possible to be a slave-holder and a good person. But we’ve since lost that subtlety, and, much as I love our chief-storyteller for Magic Flute, I found the direction problematic. We allowed the audience to see what was dated and objectionable about the 18th century Zoroaster—fearsome misogyny, slave holding, and a fascistic need for complete devotion and obedience from the mindless sheep in his cult. (Prospero in The Tempest poses the exact same problems for modern theaters.) And then at the end, when the prince and princess are supposed to join his holy order, our director had them refuse and go off in a different direction. Now, a) there was much debate over whether the audience even figured out that that was the story we were telling, since it was done entirely in stage direction, not in the text, and if you were looking away or couldn’t see you wouldn’t know that that was happening. But b) for me, even though, of course, that’s the appropriate modern response for the prince and the princess, it made the whole plot kind of pointless...why did we bother to work so hard, through all Act 2, to get accepted by the order, only to decline the honor?
Of all the religions I’ve heard about, only Buddhism doesn’t present this kind of conundrum. Silence, it seems, never gets old.

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