PIŠ-PARDA (lit. in front of the curtain), a short comedy sketch, musical number, or dance performed before the main theatrical performance, or in an intermission between acts of a performance. The term appears to be of some antiquity, predating Western cultural contact with Iran, but carrying over into modern times.

Popular entertainment has been an active part of Iranian life since pre-Islamic times, although documentation is extremely sparse before the 19th Century. The geographical and historical sources of the few attested entertainment forms for earlier periods are varied. During the Safavid period (1501-1722), the Iranian cultural sphere extended from India to the border of the Ottoman Empire. In particular, Armenian and Indian entertainers were introduced to the court, performing theater and dance that was widespread throughout South, Southwest, and Central Asia, forms of which survive in all these regions today using a panoply of similar names such as masḵara (farce), tamāšā (show or spectacle), and taqlid (imitation, mime). Bahrām Beyżāʾi and Georges Goyan attest to these court entertainments, consisting of dance, mime and a farcical piece called qahr o āšti (estrangement and reconciliation). These short pieces were identified as “curtain raisers” (piš-parda). These court entertainments were mirrored in popular improvisatory theater forms, known colloquially today as ruḥawżi or taḵt ḥawżi theater. The same short sketches, dances, and comic episodes were included in the ruḥawżi performances commissioned for weddings and other celebrations (Beeman, 1981a; 1981b).

Modern European theater was introduced into Iran during the 19th Century through Armenia and Azerbaijan. Mirzā Fatḥ-ʿAli Āḵundzāda, the translator for the Russian governor of the Caucasus, wrote six comic dramas published in 1858 in Russian and 1859 in Azari Turkish. Although no performance of these plays is registered in Iran at this time, Āḵundzāda’s work was later influential on Iranian theater. The first Western-style drama in Iran was presented by a group of Armenian actors in Tabriz and Tehran between 1877 and 1879 (Floor, pp. 214, 239). The court was also interested in fostering drama. After his first trip to Europe in 1873, Nāṣer-al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96) ordered a new theater hall, called Takya Dawlat (the state theater), to be built in Tehran which was inaugurated near the Shah’s summer palace at Niāvarān in September 1856 (Clamard, p. 220), and plays to be translated and performed (Šahri, V, pp. 479-80; The first Takya Dawlat was built in 1868, Amanat, p. 435). These continued as court activities for some years. Slowly, original plays in Persian were produced, many of which were deeply influenced by earlier folk forms.

After the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, theatrical performances gradually were established throughout Iran, but they mostly remained impromptu affairs acted by amateurs, often to benefit a charitable institution. Nevertheless, by the mid-1930s an important venue for performance had been established in Lālazār Street in Tehran, where several theaters were established by the mid-1930’s, surviving to the time of the Revolution of 1979. In the 1950s, when cinema and television began to erode audiences, the Lālazār theaters began to enhance their shows with musical performances, comedy acts, and female dancing, and these are properly known as piš-parda or curtain raisers.

These informal acts were in no way new. They had been an introductory feature of virtually all theatrical performance from before the advent of Western-style theater. The comedy was inspired by the ruḥawżi tradition, as well as the music. This continued to be one of the ways in which modern and traditional theater forms were combined in the popular Iranian consciousness.


A. Amanat, Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy, 1831-1896, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997.

W. O. Beeman, “A Full Arena: The Development and Meaning of Popular Performance Traditions in Iran,” in M. Bonine and N. Keddie, eds. Modern Iran: The Dialectics of Continuity and Change, Albany, 1981a, pp. 361-82, notes, pp. 440-44.  

Idem, “Why Do They Laugh? An Interactional Approach to Humor in Traditional Iranian Improvisatory Theatre,” The Journal of American Folklore 94/374, 1981b, pp. 506-26 (special issue on folk theater, ed. Thomas A. Green).

B. Beyżāʾi, Namāyeš dar Irān, Tehran, 1966.

J. Calmard “Muharram Ceremonies and Diplomacy (A Preliminary Study),” in E. Bosworth and C. Hillenbrand, eds., Qajar Iran: Political, Social and Cultural Change 1800-1925,  Edinburgh, 1983, pp. 213-228.

W. M. Floor, The History of Theater in Iran,Washington, D.C., 2005.

G. Goyan, Teyatr Sovietskogo Armeniǐ (Theater of Soviet Armenia),2 vols., Moscow, 1952.

Jaʿfar Šahri, Tāriḵ-e ejtemāʿi-e Tehrān dar qarn-e sizdahom: zendagi wa kasb o kār, 6 vols., Tehran, 1990.

(William O. Beeman)

Originally Published: December 5, 2017

Last Updated: December 5, 2017

Cite this entry:

William O. Beeman, “PIŠ-PARDA,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2017, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/pish-parda (accessed on 05 December 2017).