Lies, Fame, Memory, Illness, and the Theater of Reza Abdoh

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Salar Abdoh’s essay, “Lies, Fame, Memory, Illness, and the Theater of Reza Abdoh,” first appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review‘s Spring 2019 Special Issue on Iran.

My brother, Reza, was always pissed off at me, as he often had to bail me out of tough situations. One time, before I stopped going to, or got thrown out of (I don’t remember which), Fairfax High School in West Hollywood, I
called him from a pay phone on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and
Holloway Drive to tell him I was being tailed and needed him to pick me
up. He cursed and swore, but he came. An hour earlier I’d gotten into a fight in class and hit a vicious tenth grader with a metal chain and run off. I was on foot now and thought I was being followed in a car by him and his gang.

The point is, despite being pissed off, Reza did come to my rescue—just like the time, a few months later, when I had to be taken to the emergency room to have my stomach pumped because of another foolish act I’d just pulled. Reza didn’t curse or scream at me after the hospital. He took me to a burger joint instead, and, despite my pumped stomach, he ordered food and even tried to smile.

I think by then he was genuinely worried that I might not survive long
in this world.

Years later our roles were reversed: at the height of my brother’s fame,
but also at the beginning of his illness from AIDS entering its serious, last
phase, I came back from a two-year stay in Tehran to live with him and his
partner, Brendan, in New York. We would soon become collaborators, Reza
and I. He wanted me to co-write his plays with him, and I wanted him,
desperately, not to die.

When he did, I wasn’t thrown into the abyss right away. Rather, it took
a while, one small step at a time down the ladder of depression into the inevitable dark. An all-encompassing malaise would enfold and take over much of my waking hours for the next several years—even after I had published my first book, received a modicum of passing recognition in New York’s cutthroat literary world, and managed to secure a respected academic post because of my writing.

Grief can take on different forms. Sometimes it is as if you have walked
into a cave; the farther in you go, the less light there is to see your way.
Eventually you hit a place of total darkness. For me that happened on a
specific night; I went to sleep, and when I woke up, it was as if a switch had
been turned off.

On the night of my mentor and writing professor’s sixtieth birthday
I found myself a fish-out-of-water guest in a house full of luminaries ofNew York’s literary and art world. One of those guests was Susan Sontag,
who had been devoted to Reza’s theater. Sontag offered a brief, genuine
hug when I told her whom I was. Then we parted and did not speak again.
While I wasn’t necessarily a fan of Sontag’s epigrammatic style of writing,
I’d wanted to believe that in this case a concise insight about Reza’s passing from a thinker of her caliber might lend me some kind of emotional leverage—an irrational hope, born of anguish.

The next morning, I opened my eyes but could not get out of bed. It
was as if a limb had been cut off. That limb, I now know, was Reza. The
meager encounter with Sontag, Reza’s eminent supporter, had cemented a
reality that I hadn’t quite come to terms with for the past year: Reza, my
brother, was irrevocably gone. I had lost my principal anchor to this life. I
was on my own.

I am not convinced of the old adage that time heals; what time does is
blunt the pain, which is something different—as if you are looking at an old photograph, faded and distant, but still very much present. The last year of Reza’s life was unbearable. For him. For me. For his partner. There are few things more heartbreaking in life than watching a terminally ill person have a “good” day, a glimmer of health and hope. Because when sickness comes again—and it invariably does—you feel that the universe has played a cruel joke. I have seen many more deaths since Reza’s, including the sudden, violent death of men on the battlefield, yet for me, nothing compares to the slow diminishing of a loved one in front of you, watching the life force leave slowly, one day at a time, until there is barely anything left to fight for.

Reza’s swift rise in the world of theater from nowhere made people
want to better understand whom he was and what his influences were. His
plays left audiences reeling. Whether the scenes he directed covered several city blocks or were confined to tight, claustrophobic spaces, he was able to cull images and extract performances from his actors that were on the magnitude of self-immolation. This was angry theater at fever pitch. It was punishing and left one hooked on its energy. After having watched, for instance, Reza do a jaw-dropping, three-hour long production of King Lear when he was only twenty-one with a next-to-nothing budget, it was a chore for me to watch other renderings of Shakespeare. Those of us whom were with him understood, perhaps unconsciously, that something extraordinary was taking place here. These rehearsals, these performances would never again be repeated in the history of theater, not in this way, not with such force and vitality. Others might come along who would do equally great works, but the theater that Reza Abdoh was bringing to the world stage was his and his alone; once he was gone (and we all knew he would be), no one would be able to replace it.

Reza died at the age of thirty-two, and then the questions started. They
had in fact started long before that. Had Reza really studied Kathakali dance in India? No. Had Reza participated as a nine-year-old child actor in one of Robert Wilson’s epic plays at the Shiraz Arts Festival in Iran?Improbable. But at the very top of the question list for researchers, acquaintances, and general theater hands was the notion that we had an Italian mother. Our mother was 100 percent Persian in fact, not an ounce of Italian in her. The psychology behind why at the very outset of his career Reza had uttered this particular fabrication and why people were so fixated on the probability of our mother being Italian is interesting. Reza’s lie came from a place of fear. Fear of not succeeding in an environment where anti-Iranian feelings were running especially high. These were barely the mid-1980s. Iran’s revolution was still fresh, and it was at war with Iraq, and the memory of the recent hostage crisis was acutely on America’s mind. I know that Reza forever regretted having ever said that his mother was Italian. But back then, when he was just into his twenties and still struggling, telling people he had an Italian mother gave him some latitude and made him more exotic rather than dreaded.

But why this fascination by others for our supposed Italian heritage?

For many years I felt myself seething whenever someone asked me if my
mother was Italian. Goddammit, No! I wanted to scream each time, even
though I didn’t quite understand the source of my own rage. It took time
and careful reading into the more insidious, subconscious effects of cultural chauvinism before I finally understood: having an Italian mother explained Reza’s genius for a lot of people. It was impossible to accept the fact that an Iranian, not even thirty, had rewritten the rules of international theater and put the art form on its head. It must be the half Italian in him that had achieved this, that special European blood coursing in his veins—the blood of Dante, Verdi, Pirandello, and Fellini. It is a form of condescension that I have encountered in my own life again and again; not a year passes without someone expressing surprise that I hold a post in the English literature department of a major American university system, and in New York at that.

It does not dawn on strangers that just as an American, British, or French man or woman can be a professor of Persian or Arabic, the vice-versa can
also be true. In this, I am reminded of an interview in which the late Edward Said tells of the surprise someone expresses about how he, an Arab, was able to play the piano and play it well.

Reza’s white lies and occasional exaggerations haunted me for a long
time—particularly the one in which he stressed he had suffered physical
abuse by our father. Our father was a tough Middle Eastern man, prone
to casual acts of violence toward anyone, with ancestors from the Lorestan
region of Iran where being warlike and loyal to a fault define a people. For
Reza, who had suffered endlessly to unpack for himself a frank homosexual identity out of this background of extreme machismo, the notion of abuse, so readymade for Western ears, was simply another piece of the larger myth, not unlike having studied Kathakali in India or having been a child actor for Robert Wilson in Iran. It worked. It gave his persona a complexity that complemented his theater.

In time, however, I put those white lies away and tried to forget them.
Reza’s death had knocked the wind out of me. We had been working on the
next play, which was to be named A Story of Infamy. At some point, going
through our library in the apartment that we’d shared in Times Square, I
found a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy, a slender
book from which I right away figured Reza probably took the title. It was a good title, even though Borges himself always thought of the stories in this
early work as a juvenile effort.

By now Reza and I had found our rhythm. He would give me a visual
or a theme and allow me to run with it. My job was to come up with blocks
of text, in completely free form—far different from my natural inclination
to write tightly structured novels and essays. It was liberating working with
Reza; it was poetry, something I have never been able to do. The main idea
of A Story of Infamy had to do with two people on death row, one literally
and one figuratively; one man was, like Reza, dying of a terminal illness,
and the other was in jail waiting for his execution. I recall that during that
period our apartment was filled with books treating two subjects: capital
punishment and the plight of black men in America. Despite the play Tight,
Right, White
, Reza’s ferocious assault on the blight of racist America, he
still was not done with the topic and meant to return to it through the back
door with A Story of Infamy. The statistics speak for themselves: the black population of the United States is around 12 percent, whereas black death-row inmates make up a staggering 42 percent.

A Story of Infamy was the kind of “rage against the dying of the light”
that to some extent we’d already visited in our last piece, Quotations from a
Ruined City
, a play that addressed sickness, death, and the genocide then
happening in the former Yugoslavia. I would search for books for Reza to
look at for the new play, and one that seemed very apt at the time, having
come across it at Strand bookstore, was Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by
My Illness
, a passionate little volume that the New York Times critic had
written before finally succumbing to cancer. Reza’s health was failing by the day. Nevertheless, he was inspired by Broyard’s sentences and seemed lifted by them. Meanwhile we talked, and I kept on writing, for him. I do not
recall the context, but one day I gave him a specific line for our play: What
if disembarkation is a lonely word.
He was immediately taken by this notion of disembarking, which denotes both an arrival and an end of a journey. A disembarking is double-edged, in that it is a finish and a beginning at the same time; it is leaving a vessel such as a ship to land at some port. But the emphasis of the line was on the intrinsic loneliness of the occasion—what if the place one arrives at, death, is final and irrevocable loneliness? For days Reza swam in this idea. He kept asking me how and why I had come up with that sentence. I did not say, “Because my mind is racing against your death, Reza. The two of them, my mind and your death, will not leave me alone.”

From here on memory becomes a blur. I do not know if it was days and
weeks before Reza dies, or weeks and months. What becomes certain is
that there will not be another play. We are done. So, what happened to the
script of A Story of Infamy? The passage of time convinces me that we never finished it; in fact, I make myself believe that we never really got started.

Maybe a line here or there, a few random blocks of text, nothing more. It is
an idea I can live with because it lessens the torment of having been on the
cusp of doing another play and then not being able to. Then some time in
2012, seventeen years after Reza’s death, I happen to catch a reissue of an
interview I had given in 1998 to the writer Daniel Mufson. A portion of our
exchange goes like this:

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.

Which one is true? My memory—perhaps failed memory—of 2012 and
after that we never finished A Story of Infamy? Or my assertion in 1998,
a date far closer to Reza’s death, that the script for the play was complete?

Why this discrepancy? Was I telling an untruth back then, in the way
that Reza was inclined to do now and then? Or is it that the wreckage of
time has helped me erase something precious from one of the most painful
extended periods of my life? For all I know, a bout of self-directed fury—
fury at Reza’s death—could have driven me to flush what I’d written for
that play down the toilet. I do not know what is real anymore. And I am
made uncomfortable, even humiliated, by this not knowing. It is said that
forgetting is a defense mechanism. How important was it for me to forget
A Story of Infamy? I’ll never know. As far as our unfinished script, what I
have carried with me for the longest time is just that one single line—What
if disembarkation is a lonely word
—and only because Reza was so gripped by its implication that he kept repeating it out loud.

In one of several memorials that were held in various cities around
the world for Reza shortly after his death—this particular one in Los
Angeles—someone came up to our mother and suddenly broke into Italian,
obviously wanting to speak to Reza’s mother in her supposed native tongue.

Mortified, but not skipping a beat, our mother, who spoke fluent French
and English (but not Italian) and had finally obtained a visa to come to the
United States so she could be with Reza during his last days, assumed an
utterly theatrical look of agony, like a veteran actress, and said, “Please! This language only brings me bad memories. I refuse to speak it.” The person believed her, or pretended to, and they did not speak in Italian, her native tongue, again.

I only mention this because it would have been a proper ending, the
place where I could leave the falsehoods and the vague memories behind.
But life is never so clean. It was not until the spring of 2018, as New York’s
Museum of Modern Art at PS1 and Bidoun journal were making their final
preparations for a major season-long retrospective of Reza’s career, that the desire to know the truth returned to me—I’d been in ongoing communication with the curators regarding the chronology of Reza’s life and some of his mementos.

The archives for Reza Abdoh are housed in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, an impressive storehouse of riches for researchers that I had never, ever visited in so many years of passing by it several times a week. Why had I never gone there to find out more about A Story of Infamy? This was the first question I asked myself. Answer: “Because you’ve been scared of what you’d find. Because you haven’t been ready.”

In the middle of the month of May, on a bright, warm day when recent
college graduates had come to Lincoln Center in their caps and gowns to
take pictures of one another, I finally made that journey. The library faces
a large metallic Alexander Calder sculpture in the back of the extensive
complex also housing the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera,
Julliard School, and the American Ballet Theater—some of the most prized
real estate on the planet. While I waited for the librarian to bring me “box
6” of the Reza Abdoh archives (the box that specifically houses projects
the two of us had worked on together), I took a brief tour of the place and saw in glass displays precious objects for any collector—Arturo Toscanini’s shoes, Clara Schumann’s pencils, Franz Liszt’s handkerchief. . . .

This place was a monument to organization and access, unlike anything
I knew back home. And I, who have never lasted in libraries, or museums,
more than five minutes before feeling the onset of boredom and sleep, was
mesmerized and wide awake. This was the Western world’s tribute to itself, its ability to preserve things, to not let the past disappear so lightly, to maintain a sense of continuity and, therefore, respect. When the box arrived, the first thing that caught my attention was a 151-page script of a play I’d written for Reza based on the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, the great national epic of Persia. I had thought this script lost for good, and seeing it again after so long was not unlike seeing a ghost come to life. Originally, it was the Shahnameh that Reza had wanted to do for the Los Angeles festival, and he’d asked me to come up with a self-contained story from the sprawling epic. But for some reason the Shahnameh project was shelved, and we had to quickly come up with something else—that something else ended up being Quotations. At the time Reza told me that the financing for the Shahnameh had been pulled and we needed a less costly performance. It’s true that the budget of the sets and costumes for Quotations was probably a fraction of what the Shahnameh’s would have been. But in retrospect I believe, though I can’t be sure, that the real reason Reza put the Shahnameh aside was that he was too sick by then, too weak, to tackle it. It would have taken a level of exertion that he simply did not have at the time. But more so than that, I also imagine that Quotations had an urgency, in Reza’s personal life and in current history, that was far more apt than the Shahnameh spectacle.

I didn’t remember much from the play except that I’d focused on the
father-son tragedy of the warriors Rustam and Sohrab. Now I saw that
the text was really a mishmash of Shakespearean stock characters such as a “fool,” a chorus in the manner of Greek tragedies, and various personalities from the Shahnameh itself, executed with a postmodern touch to show off the literary acrobatics of a young writer. This affectation and the nonstop chatter of my own script from a quarter century ago was truly painful to read. I could not stomach its immature conceit and after only a few pages put it aside. The text did show some promise but also a lack of humility and inexperience with timing in theater. Reza would have of course known exactly what to do with those lumps of words; he would have cut and cut until the manuscript was more than halved, and then he would have added lines of his own to flavor the work. By the time he was done, the ungainly script would have been razor sharp and ready to go.

The strangeness of sitting in front of the librarian and looking at material I had set down on paper so far in the past, material that had been archived in this building all this time, did not escape me. It was as if I were a thief returning to a house that was no longer mine looking in on someone else’s secrets. These were words that were familiar yet removed, close but also far, far away.

A Story of Infamy turned out to be a much smaller file. Besides some
handwritten sheets by Reza, there were only six typed pages in all! This
was not a finished product. Not even close. Unless, as I had suspected, I’d thrown away large parts of my share of the text at some point. What, however, caught my attention right away were bits and pieces of my own early life in there. On page 1, Segment A, I came across:

The hole in the mirror is getting bigger and bigger.

This sentence was from a book of poetry by a street poet I’d known
when I was a college student in Berkeley. The line did not move me at all
now; I found it neither particularly sophisticated nor interesting, but at age twenty when I’d first run across it I’d thought it special enough to remember. Or, maybe, including it in a Reza Abdoh play had been my way of immortalizing an older homeless woman who had sold her poetry from table to table in the cafés of a famous college town years ago.

Page 3 took me right back to that period in our lives when Reza would
often be mad at me:

You’re sitting there twiddling your thumb on a Sunday afternoon
and the guard says: “You Protestant or Catholic?”

I happened to be in juvenile hall, again. It doesn’t matter what I was in for this time. It was, as the text indicates, a Sunday afternoon—though I
am more inclined to think it was morning—and I had nothing to do in jail.
Sunday was obviously church day, and it did not dawn on the guard that
I might not be Christian at all. When you’re sitting in a single cell all day
long and someone gives you a chance to join human beings for an hour or two, it doesn’t much matter if they send you to a place of worship that is not
yours. I’d answered quickly that I was Protestant. Why Protestant? I don’t
know. It was a split, arbitrary decision. And in a few minutes, I was lined
up with a row of other young “Protestant” hoodlums for church service. So
the text in Segment B of A Story of Infamy was a reference to my hour in
church, in jail, somewhere in greater Los Angeles, California. I recalled that
they’d shown us one of those old Japanese Godzilla movies right after the
service. The absurdity of sitting in a pew watching Godzilla in a jail’s church in America was not lost on my sixteen-year-old brain back then, and not many more years later I would include all of this in Reza’s work-to-be. I
would also include, in a roundabout way, my moment of truth in that house of God: with tears rolling down my face, I vowed to change my delinquent ways from then on. And, to a large degree, I began to do so.

Then near the top of page 4, just a few lines past Godzilla and my
atonement, there it was, the line for which I had really come here, the line
that had sat with Reza until nearly the very end:

TP: What if disembarkation is a lonely word?

The typed script clearly indicates which one of the actors was to have
said this line. TP, Tom Pearl, one of Reza’s mainstay actors in dar a luz, his
theater troupe.

The answer, which is a question—because, really, there is no answer—
comes from another one of Reza’s principal actors, Peter Jacobs:

PJ: What if?