An Image That Thinks

Titles of artworks can be considered as first gateway to the realm of abstract ideas behind them. Names in some senses are creators and also creatures of Artwork bodies. Order a few letters together that target the unconscious, and memories of audiences in the darkness of their routines, and – just as arrows seeking some hidden bulls-eye – the resultant title will simultaneously introduce the content, outline the concept and influence the performance of Art.

coverThe title 1978 targets the distance between two contemporary historical events. Two great events that took place on both sides of the world occurred within a few months of each other, stories that in a deep and meaningful level, are linked together: the Revolution of the Iranian People, and the Mass Deaths at Jonestown. The simultaneous events, while having distinct nature, find each other in both the conscience and unconscious of the audience.

To me, the first steps of producing this play about the destiny of Peoples Temple were in discovering and defining its essence, a “Universal Grief” beneath all its layers of that initial sorrow, which resulted from an absurd series of accidents and reveal the scroll of eternal wisdom. History, always like an actor, is accustomed to replicate and reproduce its norms not just in the realm of time, but in different places at the same period of time. This two-stroke pattern has always been the most efficient tool in the “fist” of thoughtful writers and artists – especially in bondage of domination of oligarchies and autocratic monarchies – to review and summon the unchanged nature of their own nation’s history.

The path I had anticipated from the formation of the idea and process of researching and writing the play was a documentary review of the Peoples Temple story through narratives of the seven survivors of final day, 18 November. These seven people, eyewitnesses of the Jonestown nightmare, would talk about the life of the Temple, of Jim Jones, and of themselves. But after about one eventful year of production, I found this way of telling the story both impractical and somehow crude: I did not think I would reach the final image that I always seek through my works. By that, I mean there was a lack of placeless and timeless essence in this very structure, so I could not remake all patterns supporting my ideas that combine to make the great final impact I seek. Once I had been sure that this format would not work, I found myself standing at a crossroads. One was going to a full-documented play with extreme loyalty to the story details and characters, but another led to an open adaptation of the exact solid portrayal of Peoples Temple which would let my thoughts, ideas, and considerations interpret the story as they would.

At that point, the main question was how it will be possible to portray those tremendous moments passing in front of the survivors’ shocked eyes, on the bare stage of documentary theater. The problem was clear, and the answer was more explicit: There is actually no absolute medium strong enough to depict that Universal Grief which revealed itself on that evening in Guyana. At that moment, my most important experience was my recognition of the impossibility of a complete record of reality. So the secret still remained hidden. As it has been said, “A secret is not something untold. It’s something which can’t be told.”

The dramatic performances such as this play with their final poetic and imagery effectiveness can reach towards a challenge to portray this impossibility. Therefore, 1978 insists that it has no claim for exact depiction of the Temple’s fate. In the course of its maturity, this show turned to an exposition of that hidden schema which was common between those two great historical events – here and far there – and will exist to watch the struggle of audiences for decryption of all these symbolic ambiguous facts.

In this way, the single word title 1978 – which at first glance seems nothing but a straight gesture to the date of mass murders – becomes my first step to march in this way and serves as a one-word key and watchword for intelligent audiences to flip through their historical memory and will remind them of other temples that were turned into mass graves.

1978 is only one theatrical effort and an endeavor to determine the interspace between what I think and what I perform, mainly because I am always keen to produce a vision that has integration, freeness and sovereignty by itself. It is an image that thinks.

(Mohammad Shojaei can be reached at