You Are Invited Not to Attend: Answering the Call for a Cultural Boycott of the Shiraz Festival of the Arts

Lindsay Goss


In 1976, a debate played out in the pages of The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The Drama Review over whether or not invited artists, among them John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Peter Brook, ought to join a boycott of the annual Shiraz Arts Festival in Iran. At the heart of the debate lay a complex set of ideas about the capacity for art in general, and theatre and performance in particular, to contribute to the construction of a public sphere when making and sharing artistic work depends upon accepting institutional support from a regime actively engaged in violently repressing political dissent. This article revisits the Shiraz debate and how the specificity of theatre as a mode of cultural production intersects with the goals and limitations of the cultural boycott. I consider in particular how invocations of the importance of the “free exchange of ideas” shift in meaning or significance when they refer to theatre and performance practices. I argue that the boycott, far from negating participants’ claims made for theatre’s productive/connective/disruptive, invites artists to recognize the possibility that the transformative potential they associate with performance might sometimes be found in the refusal to perform.


Shiraz Festival; theatre; performance; boycott; Pahlavi; Iran; festival; protest; censorship; Merce Cunningham; John Cage; Peter Brook; Robert Wilson; Xenakis; Christopher Balme; public sphere

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