In the East, a play is a narrative performance. For an Eastern performer, it is natural for him to play the role of someone else or demonstrate something other than the self. With the help of the allusion and exaggeration inherent in the art of acting, and by distancing oneself from the role, the actor thereby easily makes the character palpable. Contemporary European theater, by understanding and analyzing these very aspects of acting, on the one hand has helped originate the idea of “role distancing,” and on the other, it has become the foundation of “ritual theater.” However in both Western and Eastern theater, neither “role distancing” nor “ritual” are the sought after goals, but rather the inherent and natural dialect of theater. It therefore follows that although the feelings portrayed are real, the roles are not so, and it is normal for the actors not to become the characters they portray. They do not pronounce, “We are them!” but only give us, the audience, news concerning the “role” or narrate the role’s character to us. Hence it is also natural for the actor to observe the role he is portraying and, by emphasizing both the good and bad traits of the role’s character, incite the audience’s approval or disapproval. So it is natural for the actor, whose whole craft rests in being able to create different imaginative objects and mental images in the minds of the viewer, in the intervals and intermissions of being in character, to be able to ask for “a glass of water to regain his breath”; redo his make-up, or indeed openly read his entire role from a written script. The actor does not mean to imply that what is actually occurring on stage is reality; he is only relating a reality that has already occurred.
Although “role distancing” achieves the same end in both ta‘zieh (religious possion-plays) and in the works of Bertolt Brecht, they are definitely not of the same cloth. By the use of “role distancing,” Brecht attempts to keep the viewer from becoming totally immersed in or captivated by the magic of the scene in order for him to retain his objectivity. It is fundamentally not possible for the actor and the role to become one and the same in ta‘zieh, because whatever the actor does is, in reality, a form of religious homage and worship. He, the actor, believes himself to be a tiny speck in comparison to the saints, their counterparts, or the enemies of the saints that he happens to be portraying. So how can he possibly make himself one with them? He does not even consider the thought of becoming one with either the saints or their enemies. In the first instance, it smacks of blasphemy and in the second, there lies the possibility of being welcomed to hell! That which occurs in Brecht’s works by device, is a fundamentally natural caveat in ta‘zieh.