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Approaching Sa'dallah Wannus's Drama: The Manifestos for a New Arab Theater.


Sa'dallah Wannus's "Bayanat li-masrah 'arabi jadid" (Manifestos for a New Arab Theatre) has been a call for a new movement in Arab theater. Written in 1970 and translated here in its entirety for the first time, this text expresses his philosophy on the revitalization of Arab theater and its impact on the masses. The article provides an introduction that traces the development of Wannus's theater and his contribution to its renewal as he theorizes about it in this significant document. The article thus contextualizes the translated Manifestos within Wannus's legacy and major contributions to Arab theater.


Sa'dallah Wannus: The New Playwright

Sa'dallah Wannus, also commonly transliterated as Saadallah Wannous (1941-1997), is an influential Syrian playwright who made significant contributions to Arab theater between the 1960s and the 1990s. His plays are well-known in the Arab world; many of them are still performed in various Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait. Some of them, however, are banned because of their strong critique of political and cultural norms. Several of his plays have been translated into English, French, and other European languages. These are some examples of his plays that were translated into English: Four Plays from Syria: Sa'dallah Wannous, translated by Marvin Carlson et al; (1) Soiree for the 5th of June, translated by Roger Allen; The Glass Cafe, translated by Fateh Azzam and Alan Brownjohn; The King's Elephant, translated by Ghassan Maleh and Christopher Tingley; The Elephant, O Lord of the Ages, translated by Peter Clark; "A Translation of Sahra ma 'a AbT Khalil al-Qabbam by Sa'dallah Wannus," by Shawkat Toorawa; and The King is the King, by Ghassan Maleh and Thomas G. Ezzy. In 2012, a book in Arabic and English was edited by Eyad Houssami entitled Doomed by Hope, honoring the legacy of Sa'dallah Wannus and tracing his "repertoire in the Arab Middle East and beyond" (2). Thanks to this repertoire his plays have been, and still are, performed in the Arab World and Europe, not to mention that they have become on the reading lists of several departments at world universities.

Wannus can be seen as the founding father of "the theater of politicization," where such essential issues as oppression, tyranny, lack of dialogue, and the impotence of both Arab rulers and citizens are raised. This theater engages and empowers spectators to participate in uncovering their political reality and have a dialogue about how to change it. He not only aims at challenging the tyrannical political conditions of society, but also the tendencies to accept such conditions. Such tendencies, as Salma Khadra Jayyusi notes, are "deeply ingrained within contemporary Arab society, attitudes Wannous has regularly attempted to combat in his work" (xi). As can be gleaned from his "Manifestos for a New Arab Theater," which is translated at the end of this article and hereafter referred to as "Manifestos," Wannus has a mission to renew theater based on knowing the audience and the masses at large. He dedicates his theater and writings to communicating with the audience and transforming their role from passive to active participants. These new methodologies are highly emphasized in his "Manifestos" as well as his plays. (2)

Wannus was born in 1941 to a poor family in a Syrian village called Husain al-Bahr, which is also the birthplace of the Syrian novelist Haidar Haidar (1936-). In a village that overlooks the Mediterranean, Wannus completed primary education before moving to the port city of Tartus to attend his secondary school, which he completed in 1959. He was awarded a scholarship (for being the top Syrian student in secondary school) to study journalism at Cairo University. While still a university student, he wrote his first play, al-Haya Abadan (Life Forever; 1961), but he never published it. When he returned to Syria in 1963, he started working for the Ministry of Culture and wrote Miduza tuhaddiq ft al-haya (Medusa Staring at Life), and also began writing short stories and critical essays. In 1965, he joined the leading government newspaper, al-Ba'th, as its cultural editor. During this time, he resided in Damascus, where he started to explore its cultural and social fabric. Between the years 1966-1968 and 1973-1974, Wannus received other government grants to study in France, where he attended the Theater of Nations in Paris.

Wannus published his first plays in 1965 in a volume entitled Hakaya jawqat al-tamathil (Stories of Statues' Chorus), which had five short plays, including Ma'sat ba'i' al-dibs al-faqir (The Tragedy of the Poor Molasses Vendor), which was formerly published in 1964 in Al-Adab, the Lebanese literary magazine where he also published critical essays and reviews. After the 1967 defeat of Arab states by Israel, he started writing his first major play, Haflat samar min ajl khamsa haziran (Soiree for the 5th of June), which appeared in 1968. In this play, according to Edward Ziter, he was the only Syrian playwright to directly examine the 1967 War while "redrawing the boundaries of Syrian identity" by fully engaging the audience with the refugees from the occupied Golan Heights region (12). The 1967 War and its aftermath considerably influenced Wannus and marked a shift in his writing, which produced such significant works as 'Indama yal'ab al-rijal (When Men Play; 1968), al-Fll ya malik al-zaman (The Elephant, O Lord of the Ages; 1969), Mughamarat ra's al-mamluk Jabir (The Adventures ofMamluk Jabir's Head; 1970), the same year he published the "Manifestos," and Sahra ma'a Abi Khalil al-Qabbani (An Evening Entertainment with Abi Khali I al-Qabbani; 1972). These plays received special mention by the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Foundation, which awarded Wannus its prestigious Drama Prize in 1989. (3) In the same year, he also received recognition at Cairo's Experimental Theater, Egypt, and at Carthage Theater in Tunisia.

Wannus was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, but he continued to write, producing several major works in the following year such as Yawm min zamanina (Just Another Day), Munamnamat tarikhiya (Historical Miniatures), and al-Isharat wa-al-tahawwulat (Rituals of Signs and Metamorphoses) in 1994. He resigned from the Arab Writers Union in 1995, protesting the expulsion of Adonis, the Syrian-Lebanese writer, from the Union based on Adonis's meeting with some Israeli intellectuals (Ibrahim n. pag.). His last play, Malhamat al-sarab (The Mirage Epic) was published in 1995. He was chosen by UNESCO's International Theater Institute in Paris to deliver an address on World Theater Day. On March 27,1996, he delivered his address, entitled "Al-Masrah wa-l-'atash lil-hiwar" ("Theater and the Thirst for Dialogue") ("In Memoriam" 14-15). On May 15, 1997, Wannus died at age of 56 in Damascus, after a courageous six-year struggle with cancer. His plays and critical writings were an exemplar of social and political critique. His death was considered by many as a loss of a daring, creative playwright and an independent intellectual. When UNESCO sponsored a project to publish and distribute a free newspaper supplement that contained an Arabic literary work in all major Arabic newspapers, they disclosed that Wannus was the second most voted for literary figure after the classical Arab poet al-Mutanabbl. In this vote, Wannus was followed immediately by Nobel laureate NajTb Mahfuz ("Fi-l-dhikra" n. pag.).


Wannus started to read Arabic literature at an early age. At just eleven years old, he owned his first literary text, a book by Jubran Khalil Jubran (1883-1931). Ironically, the book purchase was the outcome of advice from one of his school teachers who allegedly noticed that Wannus did not do well in the subject of composition, or ta'bir as it is called in Arabic. He also started reading the works of major Arab writers such as 'Abbas Mahmud al- 'Aqqad (1889-1964), Mikha'il Nu'aymah (1889-1989), Najib Mahfuz (1911-2006), and others. Yet, Jaha Husayn (1889-1973)--the Egyptian critic, literary historian, essayist, and one of the earliest Western-trained academics--seems to have been of substantial influence on him among Arab writers, particularly for Husayn's challenging and critical views, even though the latter's legacy started to decline in the 1950s, as military officers started to rule Egypt with less democracy than desired. (4) Wannus's diverse reading led him to Arabic plays, the medium through which he eventually expressed his artistic voice. His study in France and visits to Europe, including the former Soviet Union, allowed him to experience the European cultural scene. From this experience he learned how to understand better the challenges of Arab culture. He realized that intellectuals can have an effective role in transforming society into modernity while keeping and utilizing Arab identity. His theoretical writings, such as the "Manifestos," show the breadth of his readings of Western and Arab dramatists, a fact rightly credited by Roger Allen who particularly focuses on Wannus as a prominent example of Arabic drama ("Arabic Drama" 107).

His knowledge of Western ideologies and philosophy allowed him to follow Marxism, which apparently shaped his thought. Given the fact that socialism generally reflected the official party line in Syria, the Ba'th Party, Wannus did not have a problem adapting this thought to the blatant social critique that appears in his writings. It is obvious that he is critical of authoritarian political systems that did not allow freedom of expression, including that of Syria. He was known among intellectuals as less fearful of governments, and did not care if his criticism caused his works to be banned. Yet, even in Syria, whose government often allows works to get through censorship to maintain a semblance of freedom of expression, some of his plays were banned. "My very existence is propaganda," Wannus once said, adding, after the Syrian government had banned his play al-Ightisab (Rape), that two of the leading government newspapers are "barred from even publishing my name" (qtd. in Miller 317). His contributions as a theorist of drama and audience reception seem to be informed by his experience of such censorship in the Arab world.

Heritage, or turath, is a major influence on Wannus's plays, and many of them are based on plots informed by historical events or figures. In the context of the intellectual, religious, and social aspects of Arab history, heritage has been a significant reference for many Arabs; it is integrated in their memory and is part of their traditions. Therefore, many intellectuals and reformists, including religious figures, utilized this component of Arab identity in their aspiration for a better reality characterized by dignity, sovereignty, and recognition. Looking back on the period known to historians as the Arab revival, which began with the French expedition in Egypt in 1798 and lasted approximately until the end of the first half of the twentieth century, the scholarly focus on revisiting classical Arabic studies--while being exposed to Western thought, modes of education, and lifestyle--created a division between intellectuals. Some promoted modernization and using Western models to improve the state of Arab countries, while others showed more conservative attitudes, calling for the protection of the Arab and Muslim identities of these countries. (5) Yet, by the 1960s, the insistence on a total break with the West became more rhetorical than practical, and many intellectuals called for taking the best of Arab heritage without relying completely on it as a model.

As for Wannus, he is eclectic in resorting to heritage, which he does not see as something that should be romanticized or essentialized. Heritage has a historical dimension, and he believes that the core of any heritage is "time" or the chronological, historical time frame from which it emerged. Moreover, he criticizes those who adopt heritage religiously and conceive of it as a space for showing off achievements or an inventory that answers all questions for all ages. Such a view, which he describes as a salaft one, renders heritage--as well as those who adopt it in this way--as having an "arrogant thought" and belonging to "a timeless civilization that contains by force our present as well as our future" (Wannus, al-A'mal al-kamila 645).

Another critique of the romantic adoption of heritage is that, for Wannus, it does not differentiate between what is good or acceptable heritage and what is not. In this regard, he asks provoking questions of those who do not want to differentiate between the sorts of heritage Arabs have: "When does heritage start? Where does it end? What does it contain? Which accomplishments should we choose?" (Wannus, al-A'mal al-kamila 645). That is why he adopts a revisionary and critical stance on heritage, proposing the adaptation of it "organically" (646), as well as understanding its problematic context. This approach allows Wannus to provide insights from the history of Arabs and Muslims to recreate situations similar to what contemporary masses face in their struggle with their reality--particularly authoritarianism, corruption, and lack of critical thinking. Like other playwrights, Wannus also borrowed from heritage some characters and events. For example, he based his play Sahra ma'a AbT Khalil al-Qabbani (An Evening Party with Abi Khalil al-Qabbanv, 1972) on the Syrian pioneer of Arab drama Abu Khalil al-QabbanT (1841-1902), whose commitment to the genre has been highly admired by Wannus. To escape the Ottoman censorship in Damascus, al-QabbanT resided in Egypt, only to be harassed again by Isma'il Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt. Both al- QabbanT in Damascus and the Lebanese dramatist Marun al-Naqqash (1817-1855) are credited for initiating Arab drama, with the former particularly recognized for challenging the status quo, receiving accusations by religious leaders of producing plays fraught with heretical and immoral references. (6) Having defied social norms by trying to provide society with innovative art, these figures became unique models for Wannus. Thus, Wannus's play celebrates al-QabbanT for his strife in an environment where people saw his work as heterodox and immoral. These figures also provide the morale for Wannus in his own struggle against authoritarianism and the political and social forces that restrain and resist new forms of literary creativity. (7)

Being well-versed in Western thought, Wannus adopted an idealistic Marxist scheme for political and social justice. Similar to many Syrian intellectuals who were influenced by progressive thought, either directly from the West or inherited from such Arab thinkers as 'Abd al-Rahman Al-Kawakibi (1855-1902), Wannus embraced anti-authoritarian modes of expression. He was influenced by the Sixties movement which took place while he was in France. He believed that socialism was the perfect system and ideology of government, even after the Soviet Union had collapsed. His visits to France, Germany, and the Soviet Union allowed him to follow the cultural scene of cosmopolitan Europe, which became his inspiration for creating similarly thriving modes in his own theater. He recalls a visit to Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in the Soviet Union, where he was fascinated by the French artist Henri Matisse's La Danse and intrigued by "how a portrait can be transformed into a vision" (Wannus, al-A'mal al-kamila 718). Based on his familiarity with the creative and critical movements of theater in the West and adapting some of them, Wannus chose Western political theater as a model for his own.

German political dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is often associated with Wannus because they both endorsed experimentation, innovation, and alienation. In "On Experimental Theatre" (1940), Brecht traces the development of theater, which shifted from the Enlightenment's concept of instruction and entertainment (as being the core of theater) to naturalism and expressionism, the dominant modes of theater after World War II. Brecht argues for immersing various creative powers to create an experimental work: "The playwright could work out his experiments in uninterrupted collaboration with actor and stage-designer; he could influence and be influenced" (qtd. in Bentley 102). He adds that the painter and the composer can use their artistic means independently, resulting in an "integrated work of art (or 'Gesamtkunstwerk')" appearing before the spectator "as a bundle of separate elements" (qtd. in Bentley 103). Wannus's "Manifestos" also argue for harmonizing all different actors in theater to produce what he calls "interactive chemistry." The components of this chemistry "give the best they have, changing and becoming changed and altering and being altered" (33). Following Brecht's model--along with Erwin Piscator, with whom Wannus agrees on the centrality of the interconnection between the actor and the spectator--Wannus provides Arab theater with new models for experimentation. By using non-traditional tropes of presentation, such as addressing the audience directly and eliminating the supposedly prevailing illusion of the fourth wall, the imaginary barrier in Brechtian theater--with its Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect)--is already broken. The theatrical vision of Wannus aims at creating a work of art that engages spectators in understanding their reality and provoking them to change it, instead of merely observing it on the stage or outside the theater. This approach goes along with his responsibility as an Arab intellectual in opposition to power, establishing him as an artist with a political, social, and ethical message.

Yet, Wannus's creative engagement with, and adaptation of, European theater and its theories is localized, in the sense that it addresses the Arab political reality, which in itself is another influence. This reality directed him towards the theater of politicization, with events in the Arab world and beyond--in the late 1960s--becoming the climax of this politicization. The socio-political content of his theater is demonstrated particularly in the plays that he wrote after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In the post-war period, Wannus started to "wonder what relevance writing could still have; he wanted to hold on to the belief in a deed-word, in a deed-theater, in an effective art that could create changes by addressing realities with honesty and depth" (Kassab 56). This historical context is important to understanding the psychology of a playwright who, shortly before the war, was in France, fully exposed to its dynamic culture, restless society, and anti-establishment calls for individual and political liberties. This war brought him to the reality of defeat in his country which belonged to a world where hopes and dreams had been crushed by a shocking display of weakness. Nevertheless, one of the largely disturbing results of the war was the backlash against any forces in society that tried to question the legitimacy of the regimes under whose leadership the defeat took place. What followed the war was a great deal of acquiescence to authoritarian regimes. The individual was given neither the truth about what happened or why it happened, nor the freedom to seek answers, a situation that Wannus and other intellectuals tried to resist by works against the political authority. (8)

Wannus's Career

Wannus's works have often been classified into phases that reflect his intellectual trajectory and his reaction to the dramatic history of the modern Arab world. He stopped writing from 1977 through 1986, highly discouraged by the lack of freedom (Basal 96). When he did not produce any works between 1989 and 1994, there were speculations that the reason might be the drastic political changes that occurred during that period, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf war against Iraq. However, Wannus's productivity and works are more often than not influenced by his reaction to, and interaction with, the ideas that feed his work. From a constellation of ideologies that swept the Arab world in the 1950s and the 1960s, existentialism was a fashionable theoretical trend. Even though it was not popular on the social level, it made it to the writings of some Arab authors, as in the case of Najlb Mahfuz and his controversial Awlad Haritna (Children of the Alley) in 1959. As for Wannus, existential themes were developed in such early works as his first play, al-Haya Abadan (1961) and Miduza tuhaddiq ft al-haya (1962), and the works he published in 1965, marking the end of this stage of his career with both 'Indama yal'ab al-rijal (When Men Play) and Juththa 'ala al-rasif (Corpse on the Pavement). These existentialist works demonstrate his focus on the struggle of the individual and the misery caused by authoritarian rule (Ramadan 35). These early works attempt to explore and highlight the issues of the individual as influenced by clearly stated social conditions, rather than purely focusing on the existential questions related to the meaning of life or self-making.

While learning more about European theater in France, Wannus received advice from a French director to avoid the formulaic nature of European theater. Willing to create an Arab theater that does not necessarily ignore the stylistic approaches utilized in Europe, Wannus's energy was redirected after the 1967 war. This unexpected event motivated him to create what he called "the theater of politicization." As he envisions it in his "Manifestos," this theater addresses common people with sociopolitical issues that should concern them, even if they are not aware of them due to a lack of intellectual effort, media coverage, or enlightening art. In the same way Wannus himself was shocked by the war, he wanted the masses to have the same reaction. In his "Manifestos," he argues that theater started as a political phenomenon, and it should continue to express "a political stance and undertake a political function" (35). This suggests that, even if the audience is given a purely entertaining show, the theater providing such a show is diverting them away from "their essential issues or thinking about their conditions," instead of inciting them to change such conditions, or "fate," as he often refers to it. (Wannus, al-A'mal al-kamila 42). The theater movement, as he conceives it in the text, is aware of the political role of theater in a society that has other political forces working to deceive or suppress it.

The theater of politicization defines the works that Wannus published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including al-Fil ya malik al-zaman, Mughamarat ra's al-mamluk Jabir, and Sahra ma'a Abi Khalil al-Qabbam. This political stage is devoted to provoking the spectator, while showing her/him the reality that they do not see in the public sphere, which is occupied almost exclusively by the coercive Arab regimes and their media, cultural, and mass-indoctrination systems of control. A case in point is Haflat samar min ajl khamsa hazTran, which won a prize from Syria and UNESCO the year it was published. It was the first highly political work he had produced since his former plays in 1965. The text is written with an emphasis on events rather than characters, which are absent in the traditional sense, as we read in the introductory lines of the text.

In this play, a director is extremely confused because he cannot deliver the play, "The Whistling of Souls," which the audience has come to attend. The playwright has not handed the director a complete script, and the audience witnesses the dialogue between them concerning this situation. Each one tries to explain his point of view directly to the audience. In a reference to the 1967 war, the audience then sees the performance of a village divided between those who flee the war and those who want to stay and resist. The soldiers who have been defeated are presented as pathetic subjects who cannot communicate, illustrating the sense of confusion that existed during, and in the wake of, the 1967 war. The government, which is responsible for what has happened, is represented by the director who tries to control the theater (society), but the audience symbolically refuses to remain silent and speaks back to him. This dramatic defiance shows the power of the masses that has been missing for a long time in Arab societies. By resorting to history to immerse the audience in the present, Wannus's play centralizes the social function of theater. Yet, it does not necessarily follow the historical event; it rather tries, according to Muhammad 'Azzam, "to read the future and [similar] events that it might bring, by scrutinizing the present and the ability to expose its negative and unhealthy aspects" (206).

This experimental and highly political work dramatizes the ongoing conflict between the government and people, and it does so in an aesthetic manner that annihilates the distance between actor and spectator. In Soiree for the 5th of June, Wannus applies the alienation effect to raise questions about the defeat and to achieve social change that can lead to the avoidance of more defeats. As some critics have pointed out, Wannus realizes that "the next battle necessitates transforming the spectators into participants, for those who create their reality and aspire to be fully cognizant of such reality--as well as seeking victory in such a battle of change--cannot be merely spectators" ('Ammar 95). In both this play and his "Manifestos," the audience is encouraged to initiate a democratic dialogue for understanding their reality and responding to the circumstances, ideologies, and the actors responsible for creating it, particularly the defeat they receive at interior and exterior fronts. In Soiree for the 5th of June, the audience is brought to stage by having actors sitting with the spectators, acting as if they were spontaneously responding to what occurs in the play. This immersion of actors into audience creates a theater within a theater, where the audience is turned from a passive observer to an active character. And the unhappy ending of the play, involving the "arrest" of the entire audience, suggests that suppression is part and parcel of Arab regimes of his time--regimes that can be resisted effectively if the masses, starting with the audience, are empowered by theater. Involving the audience in the work of art functions as the antithesis of having them marginalized by political leaderships that do not count on their people. Roger Allen gives an analogous example of the Austrian playwright, Peter Handke (b. 1942) whose play was entitled Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending or Insulting the Audience; 1966) and termed an "anti-play." Allen argues that Wannus's actual contribution was to take this approach even further:

[T]he audience is made to watch as, at the play's conclusion, the theater is closed by actors dressed as soldiers. ... Theater in this case not only offers a telling commentary on the events of the recent past, but also comes disarmingly close to the actual situation in the public domains of much of the Arabic-speaking world, that very space that in 2014 is being contested in many of its regions following the events of the so-called "Arab Spring" of 2011. (9) (Wannus, "Soiree" n. pag.)

Nonetheless, Wannus's call for the emancipatory performances of theater, staged as social events, remained more theoretical than applied, because of the failure of involving the audience. And he died before he could see it materialize in Syria or other Arab countries.

In a more daring move to challenge these regimes, Wannus strived to put an alternative ending in his symbolic text al-Malik huwa al-malik which proposes killing athe unjust king. This revolutionary vision was newly introduced to the Arab audience decades before the Arab revolts started in Tunisia in 2010 and led to toppling four Arab dictators by 2012. What sets this ending apart is its implication of using violence against dictatorial regimes to satisfy the flaming anger of the people and to achieve a better life for society, theoretically. It is worth mentioning that, after this play, Wannus did not publish any works till 1986. He blamed lack of freedom for this unproductive period.

The plays written in the 1990s constitute the third and final stage of Wannus's works, including such plays as al-Ightisab, Yawm min zamanina, Tuqus al-ishdrat wa-l-tahawwulat, and Munamnamat tarikhiya. Instead of focusing on the peculiar relationship between authoritarianism--with all its associations, including corruption--and the citizen, Wannus experiments with new creative forms. His works go beyond depicting Arab society as politically impotent and unable to have a democratic rule, or facing a military invasion and rationally analyzing the reasons behind it. Instead, he insists in this phase of his career on presenting a contingency between constructive dialogue and the practice of freedom, always implying that the individual is in charge, even if s/he is not playing a visible role. That is why his vision of the audience shifts toward conceiving of them as participators, not viewed as mere recipients but rather as co-creators of the theatrical effect. He invites them "to think of their reality and their role in life" (Bin Salih and HammamT 29-30). In this later stage, he exposes the widening gap between authoritarian regimes and their marginalized citizens that are kept uninformed even about wars. He exposes the ways in which society is affected by this division between the ruler and the ruled, and how the latter needs to question the authority of the former. He opens up new possibilities for dialogue, even between the Israelis and Palestinians as in al-Ightisab.

Wannus's Manifestos on Theater

Wannus published "Manifestos for a New Theater" in the Syrian-based literary journal al-Ma'rifa in 1970. (10) The text shows his initial interest in theorizing about theater, as his views on its nature and desired effect had been published in some weekly essays in Syrian and Lebanese newspapers and magazines. Such a similar tendency to discuss theater is also reflected by his translation of Jean Vilar's Tradition of the Theatre in 1967 and his position as a lecturer in Syria's Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in 1985. Wannus's effort to create a vision for a new theater, or a new theory thereof, is also indicated by his practice of theater, which always triggered resistance to authority and improvement of the political and intellectual life of the Arab citizen. If the events of 1967 ushered in a new reality characterized by discontent and disappointment with Arab regimes that grew more authoritative, then his voice was among the most distinctive in its engagement with a dialogue concerning social, cultural, and political crises. This call for constructive dialogue lies at the heart of his works and his vision for a politically active subject, inside and outside his theater. He proves to be not only an artist seeking insights from the past, but also as an intellectual who looks into the future, seeking to create a democratic society based on participatory dialogue, following the model of what he suggests in these "Manifestos."

Concerned with involving the audience in an active way, Wannus presented his ideas in the "Manifestos" in a lucid, engaging, and highly argumentative manner. He starts by emphasizing the role of the audience, which, according to him, needs to be redefined. The audience should be addressed as the primary element and goal of any theater, and Wannus highlights the need to "provoke" and enlighten the audience through theater--as if charging them with a different energy, as his choice of the Arabic verb, shahana (charge) implies. After recognizing that the "striving (kadiha) masses" must be the target audience whose way of thinking and social awareness should be improved, he postulates certain factors that theater should take into account in order to effect change on the social, cultural, and political levels. A scholar of Wannus's works might approach these manifestos in ways that could help unearth their effects and impact on theater as "social events" in the way recommended by the prescriptive sections of Wannus's text. (11)


(1) These plays are Rituals of Signs and Transformations, The Evening Party for the Fifth of June, The Adventure of the Mamluk Jaber's Head, and The Drunken Days.

(2) For a bibliography of Wannus's works, see 'Abbud 213-45; for more on Wannus, see Allen, "Wannus" 804; and for more on Syrian drama, see Gouryh 216-20.

(3) The Foundation records show that he was one of the winners for 1988-1989, while Wannus's al-A'mal al-kamila (The Complete Works) suggests that he won the award in 1990 (784).

(4) See Wannus's introduction, "Restoring Taha Husayn," in Taha Hu sayn's al-'Aqlanlya al-dimuqratlya. The introduction is also available in Sa'dallah Wannus's al-A'mal al-Kamila 475-94.

(5) For an interesting classical case, see al-Rafi'T.

(6) For more on al-Qabbani, see Badawi 56-64.

(7) Another Lebanese dramatist and journalist, Sallm Khalil al-Naqqash (1850-1884), participated in establishing Arab theater by also challenging the prevailing social customs. In what seems to be oddly reminiscent of Shakespeare's time, boys and men used to play the female parts in the Lebanese theaters before al-Naqqash's time. In a bold move that resulted in strong criticism, he put, for the first time, female performers on stage in Beirut. On al-Naqqash, see Badawi 43-54.

(8) When the Kuwaiti actor, director, and professor of drama Khalid Amin, was asked in an interview by al-Quds al-'Arabi newspaper if he could ever produce something related to the Arab Spring, his answer was to refer to Wannus as someone who had already done so: "If I want to present a theater work related to the Arab revolutions, I will not adopt a violent approach like the one in which these revolutions are presented. Rather, I will be violent in the way I direct my thought to encounter all suppressive forms in life. But as a reminder for myself and others: what shall I produce or add to the works already made by Sa'dallah Wannus? A long time ago, this great creative person ... started writing about these popular revolts, which basically existed in an intellectual form. ... I will not create anything better than what Wannus had written, for every time I think of a revolution, I find its spirit in his plays" (12).

(9) Roger Allen's translation of Soiree for the 5th of June incorporates both versions of the play, the one published in 1968 in Mawaqif and the later (much revised) one published in Wannus's Complete works.

(10) This following translation of the "Manifestos" does not include the few footnotes that Wannus had in the original text because I did not find these explanatory notes necessary for understanding the arguments in the text. In fact, some of them contain anecdotes that are relevant to Wannus's contemporary readers, and the act of translating them would have required more explanation and contextualization that would have increased their irrelevance. I used italics for words and phrases that appear in bold in the Arabic text, most likely used by Wannus for emphasis.

(11) An introductory note by Wannus states: "These manifestos were written and published in the October issue of al-Ma 'rifa journal in 1970. Emphasizing this date is important both to clarify what I meant by 'a short experience in practicing the art of theater,' and to point out that many studies and theories that appeared later had relied significantly on these manifestos, but failed (either by mistake or intentionally!) to refer to the source" (17).
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Author:Alsaleh, Asaad
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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