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Unveiling: Persepolis* as Embodied Performance


This paper examines Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels Persepolis 1 and Persepolis 2 as examples of unconventional solo performance, and argues that these personal narratives can be read as a type of embodied performance that might otherwise be denied Satrapi. The traditional novel is regarded as an outlet for women denied a public presence; the graphic novel goes a step further, allowing presence both vocally and physically through repeated self-portraiture, which deals frankly with distinctly corporeal issues of visibility, sexuality and identity. These are threaded through the narrative and dealt with frankly in both word and image. Drawing on comic and performance theory to discuss how Satrapi uses the interplay of visual and narrative languages to perform herself, I contend that graphic novels may best be understood as occupying a middle ground between the novel and the theatre, where their formal liminality frequently echoes the liminal states of their protagonists.

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1 Farrokh, Gaffary, Arby, Ovanessian, Laleh, Taghian and Anthony, Shay, ‘Iran’, in Don, Rubin, ed., The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, Volume 5: Asia/Pacific (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 191.

2 Afsaneh Najmabadi discusses the symbolic connection between women's bodies and the Iranian national body in The Story of the Daughters of Quchan: Gender and National Memory in Iranian History (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998).

3 Gaffary et al., ‘Iran’, p. 196.

4 Houshmand, ‘Iran in Theater’.

5 Scott, McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), p. 197:2 (This notation format indicates the page number, 197, followed by the panel number, 2. The absence of a colon and number after the page number indicates that the entire page is being cited. I will use this format for all graphic-novel citations.)

6 Ibid., p. 104:1.

7 Gaffary et al., ‘Iran’, pp. 193–4. Peter Chelkowski also uses the term ‘tableaux’ to describe the pre-Ta'ziyeh Muharram processions in his Ta'ziyeh, Ritual and Drama in Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1979).

8 Contrary to conventional wisdom, Western-style theatre continues in present-day Iran. Ideological constraints as well as more practical restrictions regarding appropriate dress and interactions between women and men have critically affected dramaturgy, but have also resulted in a new tradition of experimental performances (like Atilla Pessyani's wordless The Mute Dream, performed at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2002) which stretch the definitions of theatre. Few Persian-language plays (either those written in Iran or elsewhere, by exiles) are available in English translation, making comparisons for this study difficult, but scholarship indicates that they are almost universally concerned with sociopolitical issues.

9 Marjane, Satrapi, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, trans. Mattias, Ripa and Blake, Ferris (New York: Pantheon, 2003), pp. 95–6.

10 Andreas Huyssen, ‘Of Mice and Mimesis: Reading Speigelman with Adorno’, in New German Critique, 81 (Autumn 2000) span: 65--82, p. 72. Although the comparisons to Maus are legitimate, Satrapi also has another antecedent in Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima.

11 This is of course a post-structuralist view. See Joseph, Roach, ‘Culture and Performance in the Circum-Atlantic World’, in Andrew, Parker and Eve, Kosofsky Sedgwick, eds., Performativity and Performance (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 4563, here p. 47: ‘performance offers itself as a governing concept for literature and orature alike’.

12 Satrapi, Persepolis, p. 25:7–8.

13 Ibid., pp. 51:4–5, 53:1–6.

14 Marjane, Satrapi, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, trans. Anjali, Singh (New York: Pantheon, 2004), p. 21:6.

15 Ibid., pp. 34:8, 35. The imperfect grammar of this passage is representative of much of the text of the books, and conspicuously resembles spoken rather than written communication.

16 Ibid., p. 49:4.

17 Ibid., pp. 153–5

18 Ibid., pp. 28, 30, 58:2.

19 Ibid., p. 148:6–7.

20 Gaffary et al., ‘Iran’, p. 197

21 Satrapi, Persepolis 2, p. 116:4.

22 Huyssen, ‘Of Mice and Mimesis’, p. 70.

23 McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 17.

24 Ibid., p. 65.

25 Satrapi, Persepolis 1, p. 12:6.

26 McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 30.

27 Ibid., p. 41.

28 Satrapi, Persepolis 1, pp. 11:1–2.

29 This same image appears on the cover of Persepolis 1.

30 Satrapi, Persepolis 2, p. 39.

31 Ibid., p. 118.

32 Ibid., p. 163.

33 McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 7.

34 Natasha Walter, ‘Marjane Satrapi: The Lipstick Rebellion’, The Independent Online Edition, 6 September 2004 ( = 558825, accessed 30 March 2005). What is not mentioned is that however marginal Satrapi may present herself to be, the presence (to say nothing of the success) of Persepolis indicates that she has had many opportunities others have not enjoyed.

* For the sake of clarity, I will use “Persepolis 1” to refer to the first volume and “Persepolis” to refer to the work as a whole in the body of the article, even though the official title of the first volume has no numerical marker and will be thusly identified in the end notes.

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Theatre Research International
  • ISSN: 0307-8833
  • EISSN: 1474-0672
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