Season

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Arabic Drama: Oxymoron or Occidental Oversight

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).
[ii] Article II. The Constitution may be found at www.firt-iftr.org/en/const.
[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.
Kukerica_FEATURED_1

A Celebration of Bulgarian Culture at the Masonic Theater in Old Town Alexandria on April 1, 2012

Hopa Tropa: Kukerica! 

Conceived and Directed by Lilia Slavova
Choreography by Ivan Dimitrov

2nd Part Directed and choreographed by Desi Jordanoff
Set Design by Antonio Petrov
Puppet Design: Julia Tasheva
Music Arrangement Petko Kolev

Cast

Amie Cazel
Daria Kondova
Gwendolyn Torrence
Daniel Rovin
Konstantin Hadjipanzov
FEATURING

ORFEA, Vocal Ensemble: Eastern European Harmonies

SVITANYA, Vocal Ensemble: Music of Eastern Europe from Philadelphia PA

ZHARAVA, The Bulgarian folk-dance ensemble 

ST. KLIMENT OKHRIDSKI BULGARIAN SCHOOL

Memorial Theater in Old Town Alexandria, VA
at the George Washington Masonic Memorial
101 Callahan Drive, Alexandria, VA 22301
April 1, 2012 at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Special Workshops at 12:30 and 3 p.m. Play with the Kukerica and have fun with the actors, puppets and more

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WitkacyPainting

Witkacy a provocative experimentalist

“Witkacy is by birth, by race, to the very marrow of his bones an artist. He lives exclusively by and for art.  And his relationship to art is profoundly dramatic; he is one of those tormented spirits who in art seek the solution not to problems of success, but to the problem of their own being.”   - Tadeusz Boy Zelenski (1921)

As I am looking at Witkacy today, I see many different things I have not seen when I was introduced to him in my early high school years.  He always fascinated all of us young adults with his craziness and willingness to challenge himself and others with everything he has done in life.  For a long time forgotten and misunderstood by many in the communist and post-communist Poland, now rediscovered again as a precursor of the absurd theater with a bit of surrealism at its core.

To these days I remember his provocative pictures in which he disguised himself using his facial expressions mostly done under the use of alcohol and drugs. I could not get through his novels, his plays were rarely done at that time.  Finally, when I got my acting diploma I had the privilege to work with one of the directors, Wanda Laskowska, who rediscovered Witkacy as a dramatist and directed “Shoemakers.”   Working with her gave me an opportunity to look at Witkacy at a different angle and understand better his ideas and the style.

Hotel Europa by Goran Stefanovski

A few words on Hotel Europa

Hotel Europa was a complex project which took over a year to prepare and perform. I originally wrote the concept and the first draft of the script, which was followed by a meeting with all directors, where the material was discussed. Afterwards I wrote the further drafts of the script.

The project was produced by Chris Torch of Intercult, in Stockholm. He is an American and a naturalised Swede, originally an actor in the Living Theatre, a real artistic and human live-wire force.

The production was directed by nine directors and performed by 25 actors from several mainly Balkan and Baltic countries. Every director worked with their own team and their own style. Some scenes were written as drama, some as dance librettos and some as installations. Some scenes mutated from their original version to suit the style of the director and the actors.

“Europeretta” was directed by director Viesturs Kariss and visual artist and designer Ieva Jurjane, from Latvia. “Do Not Disturb” was directed, mainly as a dance piece, by choreographer Matjaz Faric from Slovenia. “One Night Stand” was directed by Oskaras Korsunovas from Lithuania. “Room Service” was directed by Dritero Kasapi from Macedonia. “Hotel Angels” was directed by Piotr Cieplak from Poland. “Maiden Voyage” was directed by Ivan Popovski from Russia. “The Empty Rooms” were installations staged by the Art Action Group “Skart” from Yugoslavia. “The Grand Hotel Casino Europa” was the central scene directed by Neyalko Delchev from Bulgaria. The Roving Characters were directed and performed by local artists from the co-producing parties and countries.

The production was performed in five European cities in the summer of the year 2000. It was performed in specially adapted huge spaces of “derelict buildings”. In Vienna it was co-produced by Wiener Festwochen and performed at the Kabelwerk, an old cable factory. In Bonn-Bad Godesberg it was co-produced by the Bonner Biennale and performed in an empty ex-deprtament store in the centre of town, Das Ehmalige Hertie Warenhous . In Avignon it was co-produced by Festival D’Avignon and performed in the Usine Volponi, a warehouse twenty minutes bus ride from the walled old town. In Stockholm it was produced by Intercult and performed at Medborgarhuset, a huge public building in the centre of the south part of town, including a swimming pool. In Bologna it was co-produced by the City of Culture of Bologna and performed in a building which used to be an aquarium.

Soren Brunes did the overall complex production design. The project resembled a military operation and required military precision. Audience of 300 would enter the building for an opening scene. Then it would be split in six groups of fifty and taken to separate rooms for individual scenes. There were six scenes going on in synchronicity, each lasting roughly 15 minutes. After each scene a Roving Character would lead the audience from one room to another, where another scene would start. Groups of audiences would sometimes brush shoulders with each other in corridors during these journeys.

It was extremely important for these transitions to go smoothly, which was not easy at best of times. In the middle of the performance all of the audience would gather in a big “banquet” hall for the longer central scene. After this, there would be further journeys of the audience for the remaining scenes. This means that people saw the production in different order of scenes and consequently with a different narrative flow.

All these years later I’m still reeling with excitement when I think of the sheer sweeping breadth of the project of Hotel Europa.

Goran Stefanovski, February 2009

Goran Stefanovski

Dramatist and playwright Goran Stefanovski was born in Macedonia. He worked in Yugoslavia as one of its most prominent theatre professionals until the late 90s, when he moved to England. His plays and essays have had numerous translations and publications.

His latest plays include:

2006, THE DEMON OF DEBARMAALO, commissioned and produced by the Dramski teatar, Skopje, Macedonia.

2002, EVERYMAN, commissioned by Theatre Melange,

premierred at the Atelje 212 Theatre in Belgrade, Serbia in 2003. English production and UK tour by Theatre Melange in 2004.

During the civil wars in Yugoslavia his works became engaged with the social and political problems in Ex-Yugoslavia and their repercussion in Europe. He wrote scripts for a number of European productions, dealing with issues of migration, social conflict, post-communist transition and multicultural identity. Among them are Hotel Europa (2000) and Landscape X: Euralien (1998), both produced by Intercult, Stockholm.

In 2004 he presented the paper “After dinner speech” at the “Sharing Cultures” conference in Rotterdam, Holland. In 2005 he presented a paper “The Heart of the Matter” at the “What Future for the Balkans and the EU?” European Cultural Foundation Conference, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Stefanovski is also a teacher of scriptwriting. In 1986 he founded the playwriting course at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Skopje, Macedonia where he was a full professor until 1998. Between 1998 and 2000 he was a visiting professor at the Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm, where in 2002 his “A Little Book of Traps, (a scriptwriting tool)” was published.

He is now a free-lance writer, living in Canterbury, U.K, where he teaches at the Canterbury Christ Church University.

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The Madman and the Nun: Cast and Crew

Cast and Crew

Previous

John Stange ….. Alexander Walpurg
Jenny Donovan ….. Sister Anna
Mary Suib ….. Sister Barbara
Ivan Zizek ….. Dr. Jan Bidello
David Berkenbilt ….. Dr. Ephraim Grun
Ray Converse ….. Professor Ernest Walldorff
Jen Bevan….. Attendant
James Randle ….. Attendant

Crew

Directed by: Hanna Bondarewska
Assistant Director: James Randle
Stage Manager: Adam Adkins
Set Design by Daniel Pinha
Costume Design by Jen Bevan
Lights by: Marianne Meadows
Sound and Visual by: David Crandall

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Balkan Sampler November 5, 2011 at American University

A BALKAN SAMPLER: FIVE CONTEMPORARY DRAMATISTS

http://balkansampler.eventbrite.com/

Scenes from plays by some of the most important modern playwrights from Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania will be performed in staged readings at the Department of Performing Arts at American University. The vision of these writers is forged in the crucible and the memory of conflict, yet they reveal an astonishing consistency in terms of the innovative theatre culture that is shared by.

They also demonstrate how united these artists are in their desire to confront us, to challenge us, to find new models of co-existence. Post-show audience engagement will involve thought- provoking dialog with experts on the Balkan area—and a sampler of Balkan cuisine.

The featured plays and playwrights include:

Albania, Stefan Capaliku—Allegretto Albania

Bulgaria, Hristo Boytchev – The Colonel and the Birds

Macedonia, Goran Stefanovski—Hotel Europa

Serbia, Biljana Srbljanovic – Family Stories

Romania, Saviana Stanescu—Aliens with Extraordinary Skills

At the Katzen Arts Center’s “Studio Theatre.”

4400 Massachusetts Avenue, at Ward Circle

Saturday November 5, at 2pm and 8pm.

Co-sponsored by the Department of Performing Arts and the Center for Global Peace (SIS) at American University.

In collaboration with the embassies of Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, and Ambassador Theater

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THE MADMAN AND THE NUN


by Stanisław Witkiewicz AKA Witkacy
TRANSLATED BY DANIEL CHARLES GEROULD
DIRECTED BY HANNA BONDAREWSKA
Previews November 29-30, 2011
Shows December 1-18, 2011
Thursdays – Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 7:30PM
Matinees Sat & Sun at 2:00 PM
FLASHPOINT: Mead Theatre Lab

ORDER TICKETS ONLINE at InstantSeats

 

Read our raving reviews at Newsroom

“In the anthill civilization which is coming individualism will be limited like a man in a strait jacket . . . True artists . . . will be kept in special institutions for the incurably sick and will be, as vestigial specimens of former humanity, the subject of research by psychiatrists.” , New Forms in Painting, 1918.

Written in 1923 and first staged in 1924, The Madman and the Nun is one of Witkacy’s most widely performed dramas. Dedicated to “all the madmen of the world,” the play takes as its theme the tyranny of society over the individual. The author himself felt threatened by insanity–an expression of rebellious individuality–and the play may be considered an ironic portrait of the artist.
In The Madman and the Nun (the title of one of Witkacy’s paintings exhibited in 1921), the creative personality becomes victim of cultural repression when science and state, abetted by religion, form a totalitarian alliance to bring about enforced happiness and social tranquility through psychiatric confinement. Witkacy’s decadent poet and drug addict, Walpurg, exemplifies the destiny of exceptional beings who are locked in padded cells and trapped in ever-widening circles of incarceration by body, family, and society.
The Freudian psychiatrist Grün hopes to cure Walpurg by rendering him normal and restoring him to society lobotomized of the madness that constitutes his genius. The fettered poet (whose consciousness alone is free} and the psychic healer prying into the recesses of his brain are a complementary pair. Grün is both the observing self, voyeuristically watching the instinctual behavior of his alter ego, and the controlling self attempting to curb the explosive creative energy of his double. The doctor alternately provides Walpurg with paper and pencil—tools of creation—and binds his arms in a strait jacket, encouraging his art and yet restricting it. Grün reduces psychoanalysis to a mechanistic system for fabricating puppets ready for the anthill society.
As the only way out of imprisonment, Walpurg seduces his nurse (the beautiful Sister Anna), murders one of his doctors, and hangs himself. Here Witkacy introduces a spectacular coup de theatre that cancels the seemingly inevitable tragic ending. Stepping over his own corpse lying on the floor, the handsome young Walpurg—an elegantly dressed dandy—enters the cell, bids farewell to his keepers, who are now locked up as insane, and goes off to town with Anna. Witkiewicz’s favored device of the risen corpse violates the laws of both nature and conventional dramatic logic; the play subverts its own premises and calls into question the entire rational world that constructs madhouses.
Walpurg’s feat of dissociation–splitting in two and leaving behind his outer shell–is deeply ambiguous. Has the poet created a new form for himself or merely accepted society’s validation of a stereotype? Are his suicide and escape a triumph of mind over matter or a step backward on the treadmill of Eternal Recurrence, repeating the same punitive story?
Pure Form (the modality of the final act) can allow for multiple endings and accommodate contradictory meanings. In the double denouement of The Madman and the Nun Witkacy, incorporating Heisenberg’s principle of complementarity and Bohr’s uncertainty principle, plays bold theatrical tricks on the audience in order to dispose of the dead conventions of stage realism along with Walpurg’s dead body. Witkacy’s protest against psychiatric confinement anticipates strategies of the post-1968 avant-garde: creative madness, anarchic violence, liberating sexuality, and emancipation through dreams.

Daniel Gerould

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The Literary Cafe: June 30, 2011

Reserve your seat at the Cafe now | Meet the Artists

Ambassador Theater Invites you to The Literary Cafe at the Kosciuszko Foundation, in Celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Czesław Miłosz, poet, critic, prose writer, translator, and Nobel Laureate.

Thursday, June 30th at 7PM

in Honor of Miłosz and his Life Travels

Readings from poems of Czesław Miłosz, Songs in Polish and English
with special guest Mezzo-Soprano Monika Krajewska accompanied on the piano by Natasha Ulyanovsky
Wine Reception with Food Catered by Creative European Cooking

Biographical Highlights

Czeslaw Milosz was born on June 30, 1911, in Szetejnie, Lithuania.
In 1931 he co-founded the Polish avant-garde literary group “Zagary”;
his first collection of verse appeared in 1933.

He spent most of World War II in Nazi-occupied Warsaw working for underground presses.
After the war, he came to the United States as a diplomat for the Polish communist government.
In 1950 he was transferred to Paris, and the following year he requested and received political asylum. He spent the next decade in Paris as a freelance writer.

In 1960 he moved to the United States to become a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley.
In 1980, Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He also translated the works of other Polish writers into English, and has co-translated his own works.
His translations into Polish include portions of the Bible (from Hebrew and Greek) and works by Charles Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Simone Weil, and Walt Whitman.
Czesław Miłosz died on August 14, 2004.

Reserve Your Seat at the CafeReserve your tickets online or call us. The tickets will be held for you at the door. Cash or Check: $25 includes the performance and reception.

(703)475-4036 ATICC

(202)785-2320 KF

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