The recent remarkable events in Egypt, Libya and indeed throughout the Arab world have drawn the eyes of the rest of the globe toward this large and for many mysterious part of the world. Each week brings remarkable developments and changes, the death of Omar Ghaddafi and the triumph of the revolutionary forces in Libya, the creation of a new constitution and the holding of the first free elections in Tunisia, where this remarkable series of changes began. The withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq and the ongoing turbulence there, as well as Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, guarantee that this region will remain on the front pages of our papers and at the top of international news broadcasts for the foreseeable future. Surely not since the pivotal events of 9/11 have the citizens of Europe and America been faced with the realization of how little familiarity most of them have with any of the numerous and highly varied countries and cultures that make up the Arab world. The events of 9/ll themselves, and the series of wars and military actions which have moved hundreds of thousands of Westerners into various parts of the Arab world have, unfortunately and indeed tragically, scarcely decreased this lack of knowledge. Indeed the situation has arguably worsened, as an indifferent unfamiliarity has been often replaced by a hostile cliché of Arabs as alien terrorists, wild-eyed fanatics driven by religious extremism, sharing few if any human or cultural values with the West, and solidified in a common Orientalist culture stretching from Morocco to central Asia.
The democratic uprisings in the Arab world have put the lie to many of these easy and negative clichés, and opened the opportunity perhaps for a more subtle and nuanced view of the modern Arab world, a world far more challenging and complex than most Western views of it have hitherto imagined. Among the many aspects of Arabic culture that have remained traditionally far outside the interest of European and American scholars has been the theatre and drama of that culture. As a professor of theatre history whose own background has been predominately involved with the European theatre, I have been fascinated to discover in recent years both how extensive and significant has been the dramatic activity in this part of the world and conversely how unknown it remains to Western theatre scholars and producers alike. Even the much more geographically remote theatre of the Far East is far better known to Europeans than that of their neighbors across the Mediterranean.
It would be impossible in a single presentation to cover any major part of this enormous and much neglected subject, but what I hope to do today is provide a brief account of how and why this subject has been so neglected and then go on to indicate some hopeful current indications of change.
Theatre was established as a field of academic study in Germany in the late nineteenth century, at a time when the European nation-state was the major form of socio-cultural organization with which the founders of this discipline were familiar. Not only was the nation-state the dominant form in Europe, but it had been widely and often arbitrarily imposed throughout much of the rest of the globe by the European colonial powers. For most of its first century of development the study of theatre was not only essentially organized by nation-states but in addition was extremely selective in its choice of which such states were considered worthy of study. Very soon an almost invariable and highly restricted narrative of so-called world theatre was developed, and still may be found in the majority of textbooks in this field. According to this narrative, after an obligatory introductory chapter on ritual drama in ancient Egypt the narrative skipped some two thousand years to consider the theatre of classical Greece and then of Rome. Significant, both of these were incorrectly treated as modern unified nation-states not as the disparate empires both eventually became. Standard histories never noted where in the world Hellenistic theatres were actually located or observed that such “Roman” church fathers as Augustine and Tertullian actually came from North Africa, thus effectively erasing considerations of what areas today considered part of the Arab world. The narrative then went on to cover an only vaguely geographically designed ‘Middle Ages” in fact in its details largely British, and then settled more comfortably into individual narratives of the theatres within modern national boundaries, headed by England, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United States.
In short, the field was based on an almost totally unacknowledged focus of upon a very small part of the globe and a very few countries, essentially the major colonial powers. The first major international history of theatre in English was Allardyce Nicoll’s The Development of the Theatre in 1927, which bore the ambitious subtitle: “A Study of Theatrical Art from the Beginnings to the Present Day.”[i] In fact, however, aside from classic Greece and Rome, Nicoll confined his study almost entirely to the four nations already mentioned, plus a few paragraphs on recent Russian theatre and passing references to major modern continental dramatists like Ibsen and Strindberg. This orientation proved remarkably durable. A revised edition of Nicoll’s book in 1966, when it was still considered a basic text in the field, had added only Spain (restricted to the Renaissance) and the United States, which from mid-century onward was generally accepted into the hitherto exclusively European private theatre club.
This some cultural narrowness may be clearly seen from the outset in the leading international theatre organization, The International Federation for Theatre Research, which was formally established in 1957. Its constitution called for the promotion “in all countries” of “international liaison between organizations and individuals devoted to theatre research.”[ii] Such statements, and even the name of the organization, expressed much more a hope than an actuality. Although theatre research as a field of study was at that time more than half a century old, it still was almost exclusively concentrated in Western Europe and the United States, both in the material studied and in the scholars involved in such study. The first conference of the organization was held in Venice and was attended by representatives from seventeen countries. Fifteen of these were from Europe, and eleven of those from Western Europe. The United States was the only country represented from the entire Western hemisphere and the entire rest of the world was represented by only one country, Japan.
The original lack of global representation in an organization devoted to theatre research “in all countries” very much reflected the view of theatre history then prevalent. The most comprehensive history of the theatre at that time, first published in 1941 by George Freedley and John Reeves,[iii] devoted less than fifty of its 772 pages to the world outside the U.S, and Europe. There was not a single mention of the any theatre in all of Africa or the Arab world. All of South America received only eight pages and all of Asia only thirty, almost entirely devoted to classic forms like the Sanskrit drama, Noh, and Kabuki. Typically, the brief section on China was entitled “Incomprehensible China.” A decade later Nicoll published an even more monumental study, weighing in at a solid 1000 pages with the totalizing title World Drama. Surely one might expect a volume of this size and with this title to encompass a much more ambitious geographical range than previous studies, but in fact this was not so. After the obligatory chapters on Greek and Roman theatre, Nicoll went on to the European middle ages and renaissance, with almost exclusive attention to England, France and Germany. The United States received substantial attention, but there was nothing else on any theatre in the entire Western hemisphere and the remainder of the non-European world was covered in a ghettoized 20-page section, “The Drama of the Orient,” subdivided into The Sanskrit Drama, the Drama of China, and The Japanese Drama.”[iv]
When Oscar Brockett’s History of the Theatre first appeared in 1968, almost twenty years later, the landscape of theatre history had undergone almost no change[v] Brockett devoted one chapter out of nineteen to what he called the Orient, primarily Japan, and offered nothing at all on Latin America, Africa, Australia and Southeast Asia or the entire Arab world. Of the various so-called world histories of the theatre created in the twentieth century, only Brockett still remains widely read. Having established itself from the outset as the model for such study, it maintained that dominance by appearing in new, steadily updated editions every three years or so. This allowed it to present a generally accurate ongoing summary of current attitudes toward theatre history. In the latter part of the twentieth century, more and more theatre research began to be undertaken on theatre in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By the middle of the 1980s theatre studies with much more justification than thirty years before regarded itself as a global discipline. Certainly great strides had been made in that direction, but the drama of the entire Arab world, from Morocco to Indonesia, still remained essentially outside the awareness of the discipline as the new century opened.. the Arab world remained almost totally ignored. The new more global editions of Brockett continued to begin in the traditional manner with the ritual dramas of the Pharonic period in Egypt and then moved on to Greece. The assumption, often explicitly stated, was that nothing of any theatrical interest had taken place in Egypt since about 1850 B.C. Indeed, Brockett for many years concluded his opening chapter on the origins of theatre, with these dismissive words.
The Egyptians maintained an advanced civilization for about 3000 years . . . and never progressed theatrically beyond the stage of ritual drama. Their failure, and that of the peoples of the Near East with almost as long a history, only serves to emphasize the enormous achievement of the Greeks.[vi]
Nothing could illustrate more clearly the traditional Western bias according to which all non-Western cultural achievement is necessarily and essentially inferior to that of the West and of academic use primarily to illustrate Western superiority. The use of such loaded words as “progress” and “failure” reveal an assumption that the Greek model and Western teleology have been automatically taken as the standards against which any other cultural products are measured. In light of our concerns today it is also worth noting that all of Brockett’s failed cultures are part of the Arab world.
This is by no means accidental. An important part of the long-standing Western ignorance to drama in the Arab world has been the false but widely circulated myth that Islam has played a continuing role of suppressing the development of drama among Arab-speaking peoples. Again Brockett, even in the most recent editions, co-authored by Frank Hildy, asserts this misapprehension: “[Islam] forbade artists to make images of living things because Allah was said to be the only creator of life … the prohibition extended to the theatre, and consequently in those areas where Islam became dominant, advanced theatrical forms were stifled.” [vii] “Advanced” theatrical forms is of course a code for modern Western forms, while the many highly developed performative traditions of the world that do not conform to this Western model, such as dance-drama, puppet theatre, or enacted story-telling, are conveniently ignored. Many of these utilize images of living beings, which in fact have never been generally prohibited in Islam. True, certain Islamic sects and clerics have condemned such representation, but so did Augustine and Tertullian, but we can hardly use that as a basis for saying that Christianity as a whole prohibited such activity, as Brockett, Hildy, and many others in the West have done in the case of Islam. Ironically, one of the most elaborately developed religious dramas in the world is Islamic, the Ta’zeiyh of Iran, which dates back at least to the eighteenth century and is composed of a series of religious based dramas mixing sacred and secular material and surprisingly close in their structure to the medieval English cycle plays.
There are even more varied examples of secular performance dating back centuries throughout the Arab world but since these involve such forms as folk farces, puppet theatre, and story-telling, none of these considered quite respectable by most Western theatre historians, they have received little attention. One particularly striking example of this are the plays of the Egyptian Ibn Daniel, dating from the thirteenth century. Ibn Daniel’s three surviving plays are remarkable creations, closest in the Western tradition to Aristophanes, with highly complex plots, rich mixtures of tone, and a highly sophisticated literary style mixing, as does Aristophanes, many modes, from elevated poetry to rollicking obscenity. It is not until some four hundred years after Ibn Daniels’ work that any theatre is produced in Europe that can be compared with his in literary or theatrical skill and complexity.
And yet Ibn Daniel is a name still virtually unknown to European and American theatre scholars and his plays have yet to be translated into any European language. In part this may be due to his writing for the puppet theatre, a form generally regarded as not quite respectable by European and especially American theatre scholars. And yet the 18th century Japanese dramatist Chikamatsu, who wrote for the Japanese puppet theatre, the bunraku, is generally recognized as a major figure, indeed widely referred to as the “Japanese Shakespeare.” Ibn Daniel could with equal justice, be known as the “Arabic Aristophanes,” but obviously is not. Puppetry then is not the problem, or at least not the only one. We come back again to the unquestioned assumption that the Arabic world, unlike Japan, has been, essentially due to Islamic repression, unable to create theatre.
One generally sees, in the few Western writers who so far have turned their attention to drama in the Arab world, the claim that such drama begins in 1847 with the staging in Beirut of a comedy inspired by Moliere’s The Miser. This does not mean that the Arab world had not, for centuries, had a rich tradition of ritual and folk performance, like most of the rest of the world, not to mention the shadow play tradition including Ibn Daniel. There were even occasional productions by visiting Europeans of European plays ever since the Renaissance. Quite surprisingly, Hamlet was performed in the Arab world as early as 1608, years after its creation, by the crew of the East India company’s Red Dragon, at anchor in a port of what is now Yemen. What was special about the Beirut production of 1847 was that it was a European-style play created by and for a local European-oriented community. In short, it was a colonial creation, and as such was part of the introduction of European style drama and staging as a specific new form, a phenomenon that can be observed during this century from the far East to Latin America. Brockett and Hildy, in presumably unconscious colonialist language, call this phenomenon the appearance in these counties of “advanced” theatrical forms, that is, plays based on European models.
The two early centers of such “advanced” theatre were Beirut and Cairo. Egypt, which throughout modern times has remained the cultural center of the Arab world, soon emerged and still remains today the most significant producer of Arabic drama. A significant tradition of European-style drama was established there early in the twentieth century and a National Theatre, devoted to such work, opened in 1935. The new play that opened that theatre, The Sleepers in the Cave, was the work of Tawfiq al-Hakim, a young dramatist who soon became and still remains the sole dramatist from the entire Arabic world to gain some name recognition, though very little production history, in the West.
Al-Hakim’s singular success may be traced to several factors. First, he consciously and not at all accurately, promoted himself as the sole creator of an Egyptian theatre in the European model. In quite neo-colonialist terms he spoke of theatrical art as developing according to a “natural progression” of which Europe of course is the model example. Unfortunately Arabic drama, lacking the necessary classic seventeenth and eighteenth century theatre, followed by romanticism and nineteenth century dramas of social life, had to catch up in a single generation, a task Al-Hakim set himself to perform with, in his own words, “mad anxiety.” He proposed, again in his own words to carry out “in thirty years a trip on which the dramatic literature of other languages has spent about two thousand years.” This led not surprisingly to a highly diverse body of more than seventy plays, inspired by the entire Western tradition from Oedipus, of which Al-Hakim wrote his own version in 1949 to comedies inspired by European surrealism and the theatre of the absurd, such as the 1966 Fate of a Cockroach.
Although none of these plays were major successes on the Egyptian stage, their publication, often with substantial theoretical prefaces, played a major role in the establishment of theatre as a significant literary genre in the modern Arabic world. That, and Al-Hakim’s strong European orientation, growing from his education in Paris, caused him to be given unique attention in twentieth century European scholarship. In 1979 Richard Long published a biography of Al-Hakim, the only book-length study in a European language of any dramatist from the Arabic world published during the entire twentieth century. Its title, significantly, was Tawfig Al-Hakim, Playwright of Egypt, hinting that he might be the only such playwright. This hint was made specific in a three-volume collection of Al-Hakim’s plays and prefaces published in 1981 in the UNESCO Contemporary Authors series, still the only such collection of any Arabic dramatist’s work in existence in any European language. The introduction to that collection is entitled “A One-Man Egyptian Theater Tradition.” In fact by the 1980s Egypt had several generations of important playwrights, even if one counts only those working in the European tradition, many of them more widely produced in Egypt and throughout the Arab world than the respected but not very popular Al-Hakim.
The 9/11 attacks on America and their aftermath along with the growing attention in Europe to immigration from Arab countries has brought about a major increase in Europe and America in interest, by no means all of it positive, about the Arab world. The more recent Arab spring has reinforced this interest, one hopes in a more positive way. Although old stereotypes die hard, this new interest has unquestionably provided an opening for Western theatre scholars and producers to consider seriously, for the first time, the substantial body of Arabic drama produced during the past century. Dina Amin’s 2008 study of Alfred Farag, generally considered the major Egyptian dramatist of the late twentieth century, is the first such study since Long’s book on Al-Hakim thirty years ago, and is a very hopeful sign. Although Farag lived and wrote in London for much of his professional life and is known and admired throughout the Arab world, he still remains essentially unknown in the West.
There are hopeful signs in the Western professional theatre as well, even if some current developments bear strong traces of tokenism and traditional orientalism. One particularly visible example of this was the Arabesque Festival, held in the Kennedy Center in Washington in 2009. International festivals of the arts have been often taken place at the center, but obviously, in the wake of 9/11 this festival had a special symbolic as well as cultural and political significance. The early announcements of the festival mentioned no theatre, emphasizing music, dance, crafts and exotic exhibitions of items like native wedding dresses, but eventually two major theatrical productions from the Arab world were included, providing for almost all the attendees their first awareness that drama even existed in this world.
This highly visible introduction of Arabic drama into the American cultural scene was extremely significant, but also highly revelatory in the negotiations necessary to introduce a cultural tradition hitherto almost totally ignored and in the wake of 2001 regarded with both suspicion and fear. The first and more highly publicized production, subsequently also presented in New York, was the Richard III of Kuwaiti dramatist Sulieman Al-Bassam. After the establishment of a tradition of European-style drama in Egypt and Syria at the beginning of the twentieth century, such drama spread gradually to much of the rest of the Arab world, primarily through the influence of traveling companies from Egypt. By mid-century, on-going professional theatres could be found across the Arab world, from Iraq to Morocco. Kuwait has had a respectable dramatic tradition in the European style since the 1960s, but can hardly be considered a leader in modern Arabic drama. It is a therefore a bit surprising to find the first major professional production in America of a drama from the Arab world comes from here and not from the traditional centers of such drama, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, but a closer look is highly revelatory. Al-Bassam and his work are far from representative of modern Arabic drama, but for a variety of reasons they could not be better designed to provide an acceptable introduction to Anglo-Saxon audience to drama from the Arab world.
For most Americans, Kuwait is known only as the small country invaded and occupied by Saddam Hussein of Iraq in 1990 and subsequently liberated in the First Gulf War by UN forces headed by the United States. Among Arab nations, then, Kuwait has a special lustre as the victim rescued by the West from an evil Arabic despot. This particular drama and its author however were able to draw upon other, and much more fundamental sources of cultural support. Al-Bassam was born in Kuwait of a Kuwaiti father and English mother, and was raised in Britain. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, he remained in Britain, founding an experimental theatre company, Zaoum, in London. He established his reputation with a comically nightmarish version of Hamlet, the Al-Hamlet Summit, set in a dystopic contemporary Middle East with the characters from Shakespeare’s play as contemporary Arabs locked in a ruthless struggle for power. It premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002, less than a year after 9/11, and gained a major success there. Later that same year Al-Bassam returned to Kuwait, where he continued directing and writing. A few years later he was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, preparing its 2006-2007 Complete Works Festival, to create an Arabic version of Richard III. For the festival, the RSC invited artists and companies from around the world to devote a season to presenting a global complete works of Shakespeare.
When the organizers of the Kennedy Center Arabesque Festival began to seek examples of current drama from the Arab world, it was almost inevitable that they would favor Al-Bassam’s Richard III. It was almost a perfect neo-colonialist choice, celebrating the influence of the greatest Anglo-Saxon dramatist on the third world and moreover depicting that third world in comfortable stereotypical terms, a story of ruthless and power-hungry desert sheiks locked in a bloody struggle for dominance. In its publicity for the production, the Royal Shakespeare had specifically compared Al-Bassam’s Richard to Saddam Hussein. As if this were not sufficient, the production came to the U.S. with the imprimatur of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which for half a century has been considered by the American critical establishment and much of the theatre-going public there as the pinnacle of Western theatrical achievement. Al-Bassam’s work offered the opportunity of offering a nominally Arabic drama that fitted almost seamlessly into Western and especially Anglo-Saxon political and cultural prejudices. Significantly, after Washington, it went to the Brooklyn Academy in New York, becoming the first drama from the Arab World ever to be presented in a major theatre in America’s theatre capital.
Al-Bassam’s dual English and Arab heritage, his focus on Shakespeare, and his sharp satires of the corruption in contemporary totalitarian Arab states by no means make him a representative dramatist from the Arab world, indeed he is quite unique, but together they make him a perfect figure to represent Arab drama to the contemporary West, and especially America. The final play in what he calls his “Shakespeare trilogy,” is The Speaker’s Progress, loosely based on Twelfth Night, and depicting the trouble caused in an unnamed Arab totalitarian regime by a banned theatre piece. The play was premiered by Al-Bassam’s company in Kuwait in May of this year. It toured to Beirut in September, with Al-Bassam continually reworking the play in the interim to reflect the rapidly changing political scene in the Arab world. It was performed earlier this month in Boston and New York, where Al-Bassam was hailed as the leading dramatist of the new Arab world. I saw the North American premiere of this work earlier this month in New York, where it received a respectful, but somewhat guarded response. Typical was the review in the New York Times, which had high praise for the elegant staging and the striking performance of the author in the title role, but found the plot itself constricted, contrived, and not entirely making sense. Like all of Al-Bassam’s Shakespeare trilogy, it has a distinct neo-colonial edge, with Western cultural liberalism in general and Shakespeare in particular being foregrounded as the best hope for the still largely totalitarian Arab world. This play in particular suffers from being overtaken by events. The wave of change that is currently sweeping over the Arab world did not need Shakespeare to inspire it, and The Speaker’s Progress, created as recently as October of 2010, already seems strangely dated. Its author is well aware of this, and in a program note to the production in New York, written in August of 2011, he explains that the play, especially the ending, was rewritten after its opening performances in Kuwait and Lebanon, to be more in tune with the evolving situation. What began, in his words as “a black satire on the inertia that crippled the Arab world, a bleak cry of despair” in a world “where nothing could be changed,” no longer related to current reality. The “black satire” on Arab inertia suddenly found itself in a world where change seemed not only possible, but even inevitable.
The indictment the play posed was an indictment against a world already being swept away, with something much more inchoate and unpredictable in its wake. One can certainly understand the dilemma a dramatist in this situation, but his efforts to adjust the work in mid course has resulted in a production that is visually striking but intellectually confused and confusing, especially in the last third. It seems most likely that al-Bassam, a highly talented and intelligent dramatist, will move to a drama more in keeping with current events in the Arab world in his post-Shakespeare trilogy work. Whether he will also move away from the neo-colonialist slant of that work and whether, if he does, he will remain as popular in the West, of course remains to be seen.
The second theatrical production from the Arab world in the Kennedy Center, less immediately accessible to American audiences, inspired much less attention and was not invited to New York. Even so, like Richard III, it reflected less an interest in introducing Arab drama to American audiences than in responding to current political concerns. This was the production Khamsoun (Fifty) from Tunisia, another outpost of the Arabic drama. Khamsoun has a much better claim than Richard III to be a representative of contemporary Arabic theatre. Its author, Jalila Baccar, is certainly one of the best-known contemporary Tunisian dramatists and with her husband has been a leader of experimental theatre in that country since its independence. Unlike Al-Bassam, she has spent her formative years in her native country and been involved with its theatre throughout her career. The so-called “New theatre,” which she founded with her husband, the director Fadhel Jaibi in 1974 was the first and most important Independent Theatre in Tunisia. The selection of her play Khamsoun, however, unquestionably owed more to external political and cultural factors than to the prominence of its author in the Arab theatre world.
When Tunisia received its independence from French control in 1956 it already had a well-established, though naturally French-oriented theatre tradition. President Bourguiba encouraged a national theatre after independence but theatre has always been more restrictged by censorship than any other art in that country. Jaibi and Baccar, though highly visible dramatic artists, had suffered little from this before 2006 when they were commissioned to create a play to be presented in the National Theatre as part of the fiftieth anniversary of Tunisian independence. The result was the play Khamsoun (Fifty), Baccar’s work most directly concerned with recent Tunisian politics. In the play a young Tunisan woman who has studied in France but returns with fundamentalist leanings, has become a teacher, when one of her fellow teachers blows himself up at the school. The police fearful of some sort of religious plot, arrest and interrogate her, arousing memories in her parents of their struggle, as secular Marxists, against the police and the state in earlier years. The dark picture of state paranoia and oppression along with the specific naming of many prominent Tunisian political figures, infuriated the Tunisian censors, who refused to allow the play to be presented unless Baccar removed more than one hundred passages from it. She refused and the anniversary celebrations took place without this commissioned production.
Matters did not end there, however. While the play was still being held from production in Tunisia by the censor, it was accepted by one of the most prestigious theatres in France, the Paris Odéon, second only to the Comédie Française in reputation, and with a strong commitment to international theatre. The play thus received its world premiere in Paris. It was presented in Arabic, but with a provocative French title, Corps hotages (Bodies Held Hostage). Baccar and Jaibi were already known to the French theatre community. One of their earlier works, Junun (Dementia) was presented at the Avignon Festival in 2002. Khamsoun, full of references to Tunisian society in the 1960s and 1970s, was a less accessible work, but had a special appeal as a work banned in its own country which France could present as an example of its more liberal and open literary culture. The fact that the banned work was written by a woman made it even more symbolically important, since it could reinforce the widespread Western fantasy of the oppressed native woman being rescued from persecution in her own culture by an enlightened Westerner. In France this fantasy has been an important part of the national imagination at least since Jules Verne, whose hero Phileas Fogg saves the Indian woman Aouda from her savage local customs and may be seen playing out in contemporary culture in the ongoing French campaign against the presumed oppression of the burka.
Both Khamsoun and Al-Bassam’s Richard III are strong works, though it is doubtful that the Kennedy Center would have taken a chance on staging either one of them had not both come with stamps of approval from two of the most honored theatres of Europe, the RSC and the French National Theatre. It may be only coincidental, though it seems unfortunate, that both plays, the first professional productions in America of plays from the Arab world, present negative pictures of that world which reinforce already existing negative stereotypes all too common in America today.
Still, whatever its shortcomings, the Arabesque Festival did bring to the awareness of a significant number of American theatre-goers, that drama was being created in the modern Arab world, doubtless a new realization for many. Given the conservatism of the American theatre about producing work from anywhere outside the United States, except of course for Great Britain, it is most unlikely that the Kennedy Center productions will serve as an opening for a greater awareness of Arabic drama in the United States, though Al-Bassam may prove a significant exception. If, however, European, and especially British theatres begin to be more open to such work, that may encourage American theatres to follow suit, as they did in the case of the Arabesque Festival itself.
A very promising example of such a development is the outreach to the theatre of the Arab world undertaken in recent years by London’s Royal Court theatre, long a leader in the encouragement of innovative young dramatists. In the Spring of 2007 the Royal Court in collaboration with the British Council, launched a program to encourage young writers from across the Arab world. Workshops involving writers from seven Arab countries were held over the next year in Damascus, Tunis, and Cairo, and in November of 2008, the Royal Court presented readings of seven of these plays, five of which were then published in an anthology, Plays from the Arab World. The countries represented were Syria, Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine. These playwrights were subsequently invited to the Segal Center at the City University of New York, where the plays received another reading. The following spring there were additional readings in Amman, Beirut, and Tunis, and several of these plays have since had full productions in various parts of the Arab world.
In August of 2011 the Royal Count continued this project as part of its Rough Cuts season of developing works. In the program “After the Spring” five new plays from the Arab World reflecting recent events were given staged readings. Voluntary Work by Leila Soliman, an Egyptian director, playwright, blogger and activist, was especially praised, but reviewers also had warm words for the work of Mohammad Al Attar of Syria, Kamal Khalladi of Morocco, and Arzé Khodr of Lebanon, all of whom were also involved in the 2008 project. These presentations closely followed the Shubbak Festival in July, the first festival in London ever devoted to contemporary Arabic culture. As usual, theatre was far less significantly represented than music, dance or visual arts, and no actual plays were presented, but still theatre was not wholly absent. Gulf Stage presented a digital film production of an award-winning Quatari play, Me..You…the Human.” There was a one-man performance piece from Egypt, and a one on one interaction with a Lebanese performer in a local bar. Still, for a major international festival celebrating Arab culture this was a very thin showing, and made one all the more grateful for the modest but essential programs at the Royal Court.
So this is the situation of Arab drama today in the Western and especially the Anglo-Saxon theatre community. It is no longer as totally marginalized as it was up until the beginning of the twenty-first century, but it still represents only a very minor part of world drama in the minds of even fairly sophisticated theatre-goers and theatre producers. The interest in a few established dramatists from the Arab world, headed by Al-Bassam as well as in emerging young dramatists from this world, such as those being developed and encouraged by the Royal Court initiatives, are very encouraging signs, and would have been quite unimaginable even a decade ago, but there is still a very long way to go. Besides the many leading dramatists throughout the contemporary Arab world still almost completely unknown in the West, there lies behind these a century or more of dramatists in many of the leading Arab nations who have made significant contributions to European-style drama, but whose work has never been acknowledged by European and American theatre scholars or theatrical producers. Bringing dramatists like Egypt’s Alfred Farag, Ali Salem or Lenin El-Ramly, or Syria’s Sadallah Wannous, Algieria’s Abdelkadar Alloula, or Morocco’s Tayeb Sadikki into the body of acknowledged world drama should be one of the tasks of the coming century and if it is achieved, will result in a considerably richer and more varied international repertoire than what is available today.
From Dr. Marvin Carlson
[i] (London: G.G. Harrap, 1927).
[iii] (New York: Crown Publishers, 1941)
[iv] Allardyce Nicoll, World Drama: From Aeschylus to Anouilh (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950)1
[v](Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1968)
[vi] Oscar Brockett, History of the Theatre Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1968), 8.
[vii] Oscar G. Brockett and Franklin J. Hildy, History of the Theatre (9th ed), (Boson: Allyn and Bacon, 2003), 69.