Acting the Part: The Theatricality of Resistance in Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS

Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis is a text about revolution told revolutionarily. The character of Marji lives through the Iranian Revolution and, throughout the text, revolts against status quos in Iran and Austria and from the West. Persepolis is a revolutionary text in that itambitiously combats stereotypes Westerners have about Iran. Telling a biased, personal story about the lives of ordinary Iranians not represented by the Iranian hemegeny and Western media is revolutionary, and made more so by how Marjane Satrapi uses comic elements and techniques in non-traditional ways. Satrapi uses comic techniques that resemble the theatrical stage. Though most likely unintentional, Persepolis exemplifies how graphic narratives adapt or mirror theatrical elements to tell narratives and inspire revolutionary change or resistance in the spirit of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

The theatre stage and the comic page are not the same. Theatre and comics are different media: theatre techniques as comic elements are not equivalent. They can, however, be analogous. That is the intent of this argument. To make such an argument, however, requires an establishing of foundational vocabulary, assumptions, and conceits.

  • graphic narrative: In essence a graphic novel, but the decision of narrative concedes that some works are not solely fictious novels, but non-fictional accounts (453). “A graphic narrative is [any] book-length work in the medium of comics” (453).
    • Aside from coinging “graphic narrative,” Chute also articulated the built-in ethicacy of the genre. She sees “[a]n awareness of the limits of representation[…] is integrated into comics through its framed, self-conscious, bimodal form; yet it is precisely in its insistent, affective, urgent visualizing of historical circumstance that comics aspires to ethical engagement” (457). Persepolis, as a graphic narrative, aspires ethical engagement. It does so in the same way Augusto Boal’s “The Theatre of the Oppressed” does.
  • The Theatre of the Oppressed
    • Inspired by Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which sought to transform the teacer-student relationship to that of a student/teacher-teacher/student process in a “quest for mutual humanization” (Freire 75). 
    • “Theatre pedagogy: The use of theatre to develop language and social awareness; Theatre of the Oppressed is a form of theatre pedagogy.”
    • Theatre of the Oppressed: A system of theatrical games and techniques that examine and dismantle dynamics of oppression.”
  • audience = reader; character = actor; Satrapi = playwright, art director, director, and chorus/narrator (breaking the fourth wall)
  • I am following in an academic tradition of appropriating terms and ideas from other disciplines and applying or proving their application on the comics page. Joseph Darda did this, using Judith Butler’s concepts of “precariousness” and “precarity” in his analysis of Persepolis. Jennifer Brock also did this when quoting Iranian film critic Hamid Naficy and how he “contextualizes the history of the presence of Iranian women and the politicization of their gaze in the context of post-Islamic Revolution filmmaking” (229-30). I am, in a way, swapping theatre for cinema in comparing that medium to comics. 
  • Persepolis: conceits

    • My limitations/biases as ignorant American
      • Western perspective
      • Page limit
      • Lack of expansive or extensive research
      • Going on a fermented thought, and my conviction that it is worthwhile.
    • My conviction comes from seeing Darda and Brock both do this.
  • Technique 1 – Persepolis
    • Aristotle’s Poetics and catharsis, which is Greek for “laxative.” : As a bildungsroman, Perspeolis follows the Airstolean model of forward, linear plot momentum using scenes that build upon each other, in how panels in a deliberate sequence build upon each other to denote forward temporal and spatial momentum in narrative.
      • Examples: catharsis – humorous catharsis and 301 (“Don’t look at my ass!”) or sad release, page 153 (Marji is pressed against the airport glass, physically and emotionally diivided by her passed out mother and equally grief-stricken father.
      • Emersion in the text.
    • Narration as Brecht’s “distancing effect,” defined by Encyclopædia Britannica as “the use of techniques designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica).
      • p. narration jolts from submergence in scene: 3, 142
      • repetition as consciousness
      • McCloud’s closure: “ “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (63).
    • Brecht used “distancing effect” in his plays to engage in conscious political engagement. Satrapi elicits this too: think critically and recognize hypocrisy of within the story. Ebi and Taji’s Marxist views and privilege/wealth; the hypocrisy of Marji in “The Make Up” chapter and at other times. Oppressive nature of what Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “danger of a single story,” or in this case, the dangr of a single storytelling, is a tool of fighting oppression (Adichie). The Iranian Revolution created a single story; the West created a single Iranian. The danger of a single story is “It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar” (Adichie).
  • Technique 2
    • Kabuki theatre make-up and masks of noh and Greek theatres — movement, musicality, words (implied multi-sensory in comics – motion and emotion lines p. 207; 218)
    • While make-up is also seen and used in Persepolis, such as in narrative propulsion 274, 318, characterization in 259, and both, such as in “The Makeup” chapter, a more accurate and meaningful comparison can be found in the faces, made up or others, of the Persepolis characters.
    • Darda’s Levinisian face and role of the face in Persepolis. Darda summarizes Levinias’ notion of the face in his own words: “The face positions the other not as alien but as a neighbor incomprehensible in her complexity[…]The face tempts us with murder at the same time that
      it prohibits us from committing it. The face is neither the same nor different.”

      (36).

      • The comic face is similar to make-up or a mask because representation of actual, lived people. Non-fiction story, but the character of Marji does not present Marjane Satrapi’s life anymore than Satrapi presents the Iranian Revolution. That is to say, Persepolis is a history, but not the history of Marjane Satrapi and the Iranian Revolution. All of the characters in Persepolis are static, painted tools and metaphors — in essence, masks — of lived people and larger ideas. The comic face and theatrical mask/make-up are tools of mimesis, or representation.
    • Comic face is made of color (black and white: unifying principle of characters), linework, (smooth and not jagged lines; body lines curved and never straight; thinner line) and cartoon as “amplification through simplification.” EXAMPLE: 233, 191,
    • Face is never in statis — can move in meaning and metaphor from scene to scene on both the stage and the page. EXAMPLES: Marji – as her face ages between different periods, correlates to different emotional registers and possibilities.
    • Lack of emotional control an act of resistance against Iranian government, seeks to control the spiritual, meaning psychological, lives of the Iranians and do this through controling the physical. How do collegiate girls within story resist: make-up and clothing and parties. Reader is made to feel resistance in how they interpret the face: are not allowed to control the face of the women in Persepolis. Not all just women in black chador, indistinguishable from one another.

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  • Technique 3 – Persepolis p. 194; 290, 336
    • stage blocking: deliberate positioning of bodies for the benefit of the viewer.
      • (1) Visibility of actors in scene
      • (2) Communicate relations
      • (3) Communicate atmosphere
      • (4) Stage and comics, always fourth wall. Can be broken to great effect, or not. Regardless, that wall is the audience or reader. Establish meaning from viewing.
      • Dismantles oppressiveness theatre can have on audience. Theater as dialogical performance, coined and defined by Dwight Conquergood as “self and other together so that they can question, debate, and challenge one another” (qtd. in Thompson 17). Theatre is not the answer, but the conversant. Story does not hold unchecked power over spectator/reader. It is all about dialogue, cmmunication — mutual betterment. That is the purpose of Theatre of the Oppressed.
  • Conclusion – Theatre of the Oppressed and Persepolis

Works Cited

Adichie, Chiamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en.

Brock, Jennifer. “Chapter Twelve: ‘One Should Never Forget’: The Tangling of History and Memory in Persepolis.” Graphic History: Essays on Graphic Novels And/As History, edited by Richard Iadonisi, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, pp. 223-41.

Chute, Hillary. “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 2, 2008, pp. 452-65.

Darda, Joseph. “Graphic Ethics: Theorizing the Face in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.College Literature, vol. 40, no. 2, 2013, pp. 31-51.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Alienation effect.” Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/art/alienation-effect.

Freire, Paulo. “Chapter Two.” Pedagogy of the Oppressed. <INFO NEEDED>, pp. 71-86.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1994.

Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed. “Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed: A Theatre of the Oppressed Glossary.” Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed, http://tophiladelphia.blogspot.com/2011/12/theatre-of-oppressed-glossary.html.

Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Pantheon Books, 2003.

Thompson, Ayanna. “Practicing a Theory/Theorizing a Practice: An Introduction to Shakespearean Colorblind Casting.” Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance, edited by Ayanna Thompson, Routledge, 2006, pp. 1-26.

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