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Early Arabic Drama.

Until recently, drama has played the role of poor stepsister to poetry and the novel in Western studies of Arabic literature. This has, to a certain extent, reflected the situation in Arabic literary criticism itself The relative lack of serious studies devoted to the drama has, however, slowly been changing in the Arab world since the 1960s. Partly as a reflection of this, in the last decade several introductory works have appeared in the West that deal, in whole or in part, with Arabic drama, and especially the beginnings of modern Arabic drama in the late nineteenth century.

Professor Badawi's book is the latest entry in this series, which also includes Matti Moosa's The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction (1983) and Mohamed A. Al-Khozai's The Development of early Arabic Drama (1847-1900) (1984). Each of these works has its own particular virtues, but Badawi's is clearly the most extensively documented and wide ranging. Thus, it goes beyond the category of introductory work and recommends itself to specialists, as well as novices, as a useful reference manual for more detailed research into the subject.

The book itself is divided into four parts. An introductory chapter briefly catalogues various indigenous literary kinds, like the shadow play and the ta ziya (the "passion play" recounting the events leading to the death of the Prophet's grandson, Husayn), which preceded the introduction of Western-inspired drama in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This chapter is probably the most theoretically interesting in the book, in that the author argues quite convincingly that these predecessors had an important thematic and structural influence on Western drama when it was adapted, channeling it toward comedy rather than tragedy, and mandating an extensive use of poetry and musical interludes within the plays.

Following this historical introduction, the author devotes a long chapter to a study of Ya'qub Sannu, the writer and journalist who pioneered drama in Egypt. Like all of the studies of individual dramatists in Early Arabic Drama, this chapter contains extensive summaries of the plots of Sannu's major plays and attempts to provide a comprehensive evaluation of his contribution to the development of theater in the Arab world.

This chapter is succeeded by one treating the works of three pioneering Syrian dramatists: Marun al-Naqqash, his nephew Salim, and Ahmad Abu khalil al-Qabanni. the fact that this chapter follows the one about Sannu, even though Marun al-Naqqash and his nephew wrote much earlier, illustrates one of the few questionable perspectives in the book: there is a marked tendency to emphasize Egyptian developments - sometimes, one suspects, at the expense of developments in other areas of the Arab world. Even though it may be true, as the author says, that "[f]or many years . . . Arabic drama was to be synonymous with Egyptian drama" (p. 1), this does not justify placing these two chapters, in what is otherwise a chronologically ordered work, in a way that seems to deemphasize the very valid claims to Syrian priority in the adaptation of Western-style drama.

The fourth chapter, "The Search for Egyptian Identity," returns, as its title suggested, to the Egyptian arena. The main subject of this chapter is the generation writing around World War I, when the institutional form and generic conventions of modern Arabic drama were taking their final shape. Badawi focuses on what he considers to be four pivotal figures of this period: Farah Antun (of Syro-Lebanese origin, a fact not mentioned by Badawi here), Ibrahim Ramzi, Muhammad Taymur and Antun Yazbak. He not only extensively summarizes their major plays but also translates representative scenes - a welcome addition, since these plays are not now easily available, even in their original Arabic.

Not by coincidence, all of these authors, with the exception of Yazbak, were also theoreticians of the drama and Badawi presents us with some of the major issues addressed in the period through summaries of their critical writings. But it is the fact that all of these authors wrote in colloquial Arabic that gives rise to the major theoretical subtext of this chapter, which is then carried over into the conclusion: the debate between the proponents of the literary language and the colloquial over which form of Arabic should be used in the drama. As Badawi notes, the decision by the government-sponsored National Theatre Troupe, as official policy, to produce only plays written in literary Arabic "confirmed and legitimated the existing rift between the colloquial and literary Arabic theater" (p. 139). This in turn caused much worthwhile drama, like that of Antun, Ramzi, Taymur and Yazbak, to be unjustly ignored.

The major theoretical issues taken up in Early Arabic Drama, like the conflict over the use of colloquial or literary Arabic, or the question of possible indigenous roots for modern Arabic drama, are addressed as well in Badawi's other book on the drama, Modern Arabic Drama in Egypt (1987). In fact, the two should be seen as interdependent, complementary works. Each one can stand alone, but, taken together, they form an impressive survey of the history of modern Arabic drama, though perhaps one should emphasize that this is most true when this history coincides with the developments taking place in Egypt.
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Author:DeYoung, Terri
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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