February 2023

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

The Politics of English

Karren Alenier

English is both the title of Sanaz Toossi's play about a class of Iranian students learning English and how Gertrude Stein intended to prove herself a genius.

The Steiny Road Poet saw Toossi's intermission-less, hour-and-forty-minute play January 15, 2023, at Washington, DC's Studio Theatre. English is directed by Knud Adams, who also premiered the play at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater in New York City (February 3, 2022). This new production is intimate staging mounted in Studio's Milton Theatre which accommodates 187 people. The set is an unadorned classroom with a courtyard  seen through the windows and door of the classroom. The acting is outstanding with no one player out shining another. Movement is fluid and natural. Hats off to director Knud Adams.

Stein developed her writing career while living in France, where she could be alone with her works in English. Although she said she wrote for herself and strangers, she wanted her work to be heard by the American public. That happened when in 1934-1935 she made her extensive lecture tour of the continental United States. Many critics and readers criticized her work because they said it made no sense and/or it was like nursery rhymes. There was little tolerance for her experimental writing.

In this production of Toossi's play, the playwright and director have moved the original setting from 2008 to spring 2009 so that politics outside the play loom large. In the spring 2009, the expectation was set that the reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi would win, and the restrictions imposed in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini would be lifted or lessened. The problem is, as the Iranian protest timeline provided in the written program brochure details, the liberal faction was disappointed and, most likely, cheated. The program brochure asks in the voice of the liberal voters, "Where's my vote?" Clearly the way Toossi and Adams want this Iranian political morass stated is to keep it from being compared to Donald Trump's claim that he lost the 2020 US presidential election because he was cheated.

The thrust of English is to emphasize how badly women are treated in
Iran. Ergo the printed Timeline includes September 16, 2022, when the young Kurdish Iranian woman Zhina Mahsa Amini died in the hands of the morality police who had injured her for "improperly" wearing her hijab (headscarf). Ergo the Timeline runs through December 16, 2022, documenting that the Islamic Republic of Iran has arrested 18,000 protestors, killed 475, sentenced 11 people to death, and executed two protestors after a less than adequate trial. All the women in English obediently wear the hijab until the end of the play when the teacher Marjan, without reference to this lack, appears without the headscarf.


There are four women in this play and one man who almost seems like a spy. The reality of the play presents Marjan (Nazanin Noura), an Iranian teacher who had spent nine years in Manchester, England but has an accent that is a cross between British and American English. It is unclear why she left Manchester where Marjan loved becoming another person known as Mary. Now in the industrial city of Karaj, a suburb of Tehran, she is teaching four adult students of varying ages having different reasons for learning English. Marjan insists that all the students speak English. The students speak hesitant, broken English, but when they are communicating their frustration in their native Farsi, the audience hears fluid and flawless American English.


The toughest student in the room is Elham (played by  Tara Grammy who premiered this character in the New York production). She is desperate to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) so that she will be accepted in a medical program in Australia. (Just for the record, the TOEFL is Toossi's invention.) Marjan tells Elham that "English isn't your enemy."  Not only does Elham disagree but retorts that her accent "is a war crime."  Later we learn that this would-be doctor has failed the TOEFL five times. Admitting this only to Marjan, she is humiliated and musters the effort to look up and speak the English word humiliation. After all, she doesn't want to be known as idiot. To which Marjan replies in correction "an idiot."

The other student who has plans to leave Iran is Roya (Nina Ameri). Her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter are living in Canada. Her son has put his foot down that Roya cannot converse with his daughter in any language except English. Periodically, she calls her son, who never seems to answer his phone, to speak a few English words to his voice mail. Eventually, we learn that when Roya's son speaks to his mother in , he is caring and respectful but when he speaks to her in English, he is rude. A revelation comes with learning the difference between two English words: visit versus live. Roya quits the class when she realizes her son will not welcome her immigration to his home.

Goli (Narges Kalogli) at eighteen years old is the youngest student and the only one in love with English. The reason she loves English is because it "does not want to be poetry like Farci." The Steiny Road Poet pauses here to ask, does Goli think Farsi is pretentious? Goli also compares English to rice and like rice, "English tries to float on top of the water." Steiny scratches her head and guesses that this might mean English does not try to blend in or be one thing. Toossi's metaphors require time to ponder.


Omid (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), the lone male in the room is out of place because his accent and knowledge of English seems too polished. He's the fox in the hen house. In watching American romantic comedies together during Marjan's office hours, Omid and Marjan develop an aching but platonic relationship. Marjan is married and Omid has kept his private life quiet until Elham, who sees the inappropriate relationship between student and teacher,  outs Omid by congratulating him on getting engaged. Elham said she found the news on Facebook. After that, we learn he has an American passport, but he let it expire. He needs to prepare for an interview with American government officials. Marjan says the class is over for him that he should go get a refund. Omid has already told Marjan that she likes him better in English than in Farsi.

The most overtly political moment in the play begins with Marjan asking her students to forget they are Iranian and to become native English speakers who think and breathe in English. This moves Elham to tell Goli about her dream that the Persian Empire expands and makes Cyrus the Great ruler of the world, such that everyone speaks Farsi, and the
English-speaking world no longer dictates how everyone else should communicate. It's a complicated wish since Elham is afflicted by the conservative patriarchal society too and she is part of the freedom-seeking exodus from her country.

For Stein writing in English while living in France was certainly a political choice. There she could live in protected isolation from her native American audience which would criticize her English [writing] and possibly punish her for choosing Alice Toklas as her life partner.

Sanaz Toossi's English runs through February 26, 2023.


Share This Page

View readers' comments in Letters to the Editor


Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

Scene4 Magazine - Karren Alenier - The Steiny Road To Operadom | www.scene4.comWritings
Index of Karren Alenier's
columns in Scene4
Click Here for Access

©2023 Karren Alenier
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





February 2023

  Sections~Cover This IssueinFocusinViewinSightPerspectives Special Issues
  Columns~AdlerAlenierBettencourtJonesLuceMarcott Walsh 
  Information~MastheadYour SupportPrior IssuesSubmissions Archives Books
  Connections~Contact UsComments SubscribeAdvertisingPrivacyTerms Letters

|  Search Issue | Search Archives | Share Page |

Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine
of Arts and Culture. Copyright © 2000-2023 Aviar-Dka Ltd – Aviar Media Llc.

sc4cover-archives-picSubscribe to our mail list for news and a monthly update of each new issue. It's Free!


 Email Address

        Please see our Privacy Policy regarding the security of your information.

Thai Airways at Scene4 Magazine