Mirror of the Invisible World: "Sumptuous, Incessantly Seductive" Epic Play
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The last date listed for Mirror of the Invisible World was Sunday July 29, 2007 / 2:00pm.
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Quotes & Highlights
“Sumptuous” and “Incessantly Seductive” —Variety
“Fantastically Exotic”_ —Chicago Sun Times_
In the spring of 1997, Mary Zimmerman, who had already received acclaim for such signature theater pieces as The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and Journey to the West, created at the time one of her most poetic and eloquent plays, in the confines of the tiny Goodman Studio: Mirror of the Invisible World, a shimmering musing on love and honor, couched in a series of stories told to a Persian prince by each of his seven wives. Based on a poem unknown to most contemporary audiences (the 12th century Persian epic Haft Paykar), Mirror of the Invisible World was an enchanting experience, offering a timeless perspective on such issues as the nature of romance, the many facets of beauty and the incredible grace of the Middle East. It was a significant addition to Mary’s already distinguished body of work and an experience remembered with affection by all who experienced it.
In the ensuing decade, Mary has received deserved fame nationally and internationally for such subsequent triumphs as The Odyssey and Metamorphoses; but Mary has often mentioned her desire to re-explore the words and ideas of Nizami, the legendary poet and creator of Haft Paykar. The political events of the past few years have further fueled that desire, as the beauty of Middle Eastern culture has increasingly become buried by the rhetoric of wartime. So it was only fitting that Mary would return to this piece, this time reconceiving it for the larger stage of the Albert Theatre. This bigger canvas can only enhance those elements of Mirror of the Invisible Worldthat were so distinctive the first time around: its sometimes hilarious, often moving depiction of romantic love in all of its guises; its belief in the ultimate goodness of men and women; and its delicate rendering of the unseen forces which deftly, subtly guide us through our lives to our ultimate destinies.
Mary Zimmerman’s Mirror of the Invisible World is adapted from a portion of a much longer work, called in Persian Haft Paykar, variously translated as “Seven Beauties,” “Seven Portraits,” or “Seven Princesses.” In the Haft Paykar, the poet Nizami tells the story of a legendary king of Persia from seven centuries before the author’s time. Bahram Gur. Born to an aged king, Bahram is sent as a young prince to the court of an Arab king. There he is trained in all the arts of a prince and a palace is built for him. On returning one day from a hunt, Bahram discovers an unknown room in his palace. On its walls are portraits of beautiful princesses from the seven climes of the world: China, India, Russia, Africa, Turkistan, Byzantium and Persia. He learns that he is destined to make these beauties his brides. After further adventures and the death of his infamously cruel father, Bahram returns to Iran to claim his throne. He orders his messenger to travel the world and bring back the seven princesses from the portraits, and he commands his architect to build a palace with seven domes, each a different color, one for each of the princesses. The central portion of the poem shows Bahram visiting a princess each day of the week to feast, love and hear a story, starting on Saturday in the black dome and ending on Friday, the holy day, in the white dome. (This is the section Zimmerman has adapted into Mirror of the Invisible World.)
After his sojourn among the princesses, Bahram finds that his viziers have abused his kingdom in his absence. After restoring order, he sets out to hunt his favorite quarry, a beautiful onager, or wild ass. The chase leads to a deep cave into which Bahram and his horse disappear forever. His mourning family is consoled by a voice from heaven.
With the Muslim invasion of the seventh century, the language of the Iranians was infused with Arabic words, Arabic script was adopted and Arabic literary styles were imitated by writers. The result was what is now known as classical Persian literature, a remarkable flowering of poetry, fiction and history. Only a few of these writers, such as the hedonistic Omar Khayyam (who was as important a scientist as he was a poet) and the Sufi mystic poet Rumi, have become widely known in the West.
In Nizami’s Azerbaijan, northwest of the centers of Persian culture, classical Persian influence did not arrive until the 11thcentury, with the advance of the Seljuk Turks from the east. A distinctive poetic style arose in Azerbaijan, which differed from the eastern Persian style in its use of allusive imagery. Nizami’s hometown, Ganja, became a center for poets and scholars.
When Nizami wrote the Haft Paykar he used the mathnavi form, rhyming couplets long used by the Persians for epic poetry as well as for shorter idylls and didactic poetry. The style of his poetry was characterized by rich patterns of metaphor, allusive language and a delight in puns. Famously, Bahram Gur’s name is itself a pun. The animal Bahram hunts is the onager, called “gur” in Persian. “Gur” can also mean “grave.” So when Bahram goes out hunting an onager, he is also hunting himself as well as traveling the path to death.
Nizami’s most important influence was undoubtedly the poet Firdausi, born a century before Nizami, and Firdausi’s masterpiece Shahnama (“Book of Kings”). This 60,000 line poem ambitiously reached back 1,000 years to trace the history of Persia’s great kings and their relationship to their subjects. Firdausi delineates the virtues of the just ruler and the evils of the tyrant. In the face of the Arab notion that anything before the birth of Mohammed belonged to the dark ages, Firdausi proudly and audaciously asserted the values and vitality of pre-Islamic Persian history and culture.
Nizami follows Firdausi’s lead in the Haft Paykar, but does it in close-up, by focusing on the history of a single king, Bahram Gur, and describing his moral education and evolution into the ideal, just king. By extension, Nizami implies, the education Bahram undergoes and the wisdom he absorbs from his seven princesses may be pursued by any human being wishing to rule and master, if not a kingdom, the unruly territory of the human heart.