Printer Friendly

Manifestos Toward a New Theater.

It is necessary to start these manifestos by pointing out that they are only headlines of topics; more time is needed to explore them. By doing this, we will deepen our understanding of the ways in which they affect cultural and theater-related issues and concerns. They are still no more than headlines because they are the product of a short experience in practicing the art of theater. Every treatise on theater not stemming from actual practice or conscious immersion in theater phenomena cannot reveal the essence of theater or its complex nature as a social and cultural phenomenon. It will not be able to show an effective way for it to grow. Therefore, I am writing these manifestos as theses, attempting to search for an authentic theater, one that understands and tries to realize and adopt an active role in its environment.

1. Starting with the Audience

The central and proper way to discuss theater--its actualization and how to solve its problems--is to start with the audience. In this regard, I attempt here to reverse the traditional method of studying the problems of Arab theater--its crises and its complicated birth. Two factors motivate me to do so. First, these methodologies have a static understanding and a limited and narrow definition of the theater phenomenon. Second, they have only led us to what sounds like a circular process similar to "the chicken and the egg" question. At their best, these methods only partially improved theater, and through fragmentary and scattered efforts. They failed to discover a reliable course for a theater "movement" or "direction." The improvement was demonstrated by glimpses of success in writing or directing a play or in the performance of an actor. Only on rare occasions was a play successfully performed. These successful moments soon disappeared; progress floundered, without systematically moving in the right direction or establishing solid foundations for theater. Based on my own observation of the theater movement, which thrived thanks to professional groups and national theaters in the beginning of the 1950s and continued into the 1970s, I can say without exaggeration that the problems of theater now are the same as they were during that period. Every critical debate, conference, or roundtable on theater raised the same issues: questions of identity, the author, the scarcity of texts, language, material resources, and, finally, the issue of commitment to the expression of local environment. As a result of practice and some individuals' experiences, some solutions to these problems were suggested. Apart from these few exceptions, the issues remain unsolved. Even though more than enough decisions are regularly made at every conference, those who work in theater repeatedly raise the same problems in almost the same manner.

That is why I want to reverse these methodologies which limit their scope to the theater stage and do not engage the audience except in a minor and occasional manner. For these methodologies, the audience is merely one of the problems of the theater movement, which explains why most of the solutions suggested for this problem have failed. It also explains the division between our Arab theater and the masses. Therefore, we reverse these methodologies as an attempt to broach the core of the problem through what we consider the right and natural path: the audience. Theater is distinguished from other cultural activities because at its core it is a "social event." This is how it began and how it continues to be (although in the Italian bourgeois theater this concept diminished). Consequently, any reduction of the theater phenomenon to only a literary study of texts or a judgment of the aesthetics of other elements of theater performance, whether in their entirety or individually, implies ignorance of the nature of theater as a social phenomenon. This flaw will reduce the social content of theater and distort the role that it should play in our lives. If we study the history of theater carefully, we will realize that, in its original and simple form, the theater phenomenon involved a spectator and an actor who might mingle together in a festival or remain at a distance facing each other. Theater actually begins whenever there is an actor and an audience that watches how the actor plays or takes part in his playing. If one of these elements is missing, theater is invalidated, while those elements added in later, such as the text, direction, and effects, do not negate the theater phenomenon in its basic sense.

This way of defining theater may sound radical, because it neglects a long history of theater development, a heritage rich with texts, and the experience of performed shows. It seems that we need to re-emphasize the role of the audience because it presents a coherent methodology by which we can overcome the painful mess from which our theater movement suffers. By emphasizing audience, we can plan the necessary, original [Arab theater] experience that we seek.

If the audience is the basic principle without which theater cannot exist, it is natural to start with it, whenever we are dealing with the "theater problem" or the problem of culture in general. Doing so will rectify many of the issues we already have and change the nature of questions raised about Arab theater, allowing us to separate legitimate questions from fraudulent, misleading, and marginal ones. In a word, this will allow us to have a straightforward methodology for correct criticism and planning [a path forward].

For me, starting with the audience means that we begin raising questions. Answering such questions will clarify all the core issues concerning theater and will provide positive, but perhaps not final, solutions to them. These questions, which are the basis for ever-growing projects, might be posed as follows.

First, since theater is a social event, whose only meaning is derived from being presented in front of or among an audience, it is necessary to ask: Who is the audience? Defining the audience of theater that we want to establish or develop is the first issue we should tackle, because defining the audience--its social structure, cultural circumstances, problems, and grievances--will determine for us both the ground on which we work and the limits by which we progress. It is also the first step in determining the features of a suitable theater presentation. The audience is no longer comprised of ghosts whose faces, shapes, and inner concerns are hidden by the darkness inside the theater.

Second, after identifying our audience and distinguishing its social and cultural fabric, the next question that we should ask, as many important results are related to it, is: What should we say to the audience? The answer to this question is undoubtedly related to the first. That is because defining our audience implies, in one way or another, our stance toward this audience and what we want to convey after we understand its needs and realize theater's potential for change and action. When we choose an audience, we take an intellectual and social stance which will inform our work and the ideas we present.

Third, we have the question that connects both of the aforementioned issues and combines them in the "theater relationship." This question is related to communication with the audience and the style of such communication: What medium should we use to achieve an actual interaction with the audience? In other words, what is the form that correlates to the results of the previous two questions, cementing them into a rich relationship without forcing such a relationship or deconstructing it?

Certainly, while these questions might make for a healthy discussion about theater, answering them, after due consideration, can at the same time create a solid criterion for all theatrical works around us. They also imply solutions for most of the problems that theater faces. When we identify the audience at whom we direct our work, we in fact take a social stance that reflects the ideas in our works (as previously mentioned). The definition of "audience" should be considered in its deep, non-superficial, meaning. It is not enough for the person involved in theater to ride the wave and announce that s/he is aiming for the striving masses, only then to create absurd work on the metaphysical crisis of human beings in the universe and present it in closed halls to fifty or one hundred elite audience members.

Identifying the audience is not a term to be consumed senselessly or a slogan showing political and intellectual hypocrisy. It is an action by which we know the real type of audience which the people who create theater aim to reach. When such writers choose their audience, they also choose the problems and aspirations of that audience. They must have an opinion regarding those problems, and search for a special way to express them. They should accumulate stances that blend with each other, creating the "theater phenomenon" and, eventually, its value and dynamism.

By doing so, we will have a practical foundation from which to assess all theater works. If we then want to know about the audience addressed by theater, or the connection between the content of the play and this audience--specifically, about the harmony between the opinion expressed and the intellectual capacity of the audience, on the one hand, and the content of the play, on the other--there will be an amazing outcome. It will facilitate analysis of the work and reveal its originality (or lack thereof), not through abstraction but by practical diagnosis based on political, social, and aesthetic values. Some of those who are interested in theater might be indifferent to these questions. They are perhaps preoccupied only with "superb theater" or a well-equipped theater which opens to any audience, preferably not the mobs who flock to the theater noisily snacking on seeds as they watch. The questions we raise about theater also touch upon such a superb theater. These questions will easily uncover the values adopted by those in charge of this theater. They reveal the final outcome of the author's work within the context of the historical relationship between his culture and his people. This will be different if he proclaims-rather loudly and even if for hours-that theater is for the people and that it has a social role and responsibility, or some such common rhetorical garbage.

Now, we ask: How do we envision the birth and development of a "theater movement" based on the previous theorization? How can this lead to satisfactory answers, practical ones, regarding the crises of our Arab theater?

We need to start from scratch. Let's leave aside the formulas of theater, such as its schools and its directions, so that we do not have to fall into the whirlpool of their limitations, forcing us to choose one or all of them without understanding the grounds on which we experiment, and without considering the necessary conditions and requirements. We start with the first question and identify who the real audiences are for whom we want to establish our theater. Our immediate answer is: We want a theater for the masses, the striving classes. Even though such an answer is simple and hackneyed due to its overuse, the context in which we put it has neither simplicity nor the cheap privileges of such a slogan-like expression. Such an answer is not valuable or complete without carefully studying the conditions and problems of these masses. This will enable us to acquire systematic knowledge based on actually living with them and an accurate analysis of their lives, rather than relying on cliches and ready-made stereotypes. This knowledge, which replaces formulas--the easiest way to create a theater experience--is complex. It involves a daily interaction with the audience on different political, social, intellectual, and artistic levels. This interaction requires give and take. It experiments and corrects. It draws from people in real life. Its purpose is to create, along with these spectators, theater presentations which aim to entertain and deepen awareness of their mutual social fate and their problems.

In this case, we go back to the roots. We refuse ready formulas because they are not important--we do not create theater just to prove that we are catching up with civilization and that we know theater as others do. If the latter were our only goal, then we would not need all this effort. Rather, we create a theater because we want to change and improve a mentality, to widen the collective awareness of the historical fate of all of us. If this is indeed our goal--and I define it in such a didactic way, even though I know many people who do not share this concept of theater with me--then it is necessary for us to start with those with whom and for whom we work, particularly when we stand among them or in front of them to address them. Based on such a start, we will be able to create works that touch people and create an environment for them to influence and express their responses. We will also develop awareness of our ignorance, stereotypes, and presuppositions that form a mental barrier between us and reality. Living with the masses and interacting with them will destroy such a barrier, and we will recognize their real needs and how they think and understand. A dialogue will emerge from this understanding, and other forms and stances will be born. Moreover, an original experience of a people-bound theater will emerge, a theater which is attached to them and emanates from their circumstances, while having an impact on them.

Such experience will allow spontaneous discourse in its appropriate form. Nevertheless, the process is not mechanical or mathematical, where every element leads to the next. I postulate that talent is not diminishing, educational background is available, and both sincerity and enthusiasm exist, but these elements will be enriched and improved by the interaction that we have envisioned. Gradually, we will find ourselves starting a new theater movement with strong foundations that are implanted in the ground of the real audience of any theater. This theater will have amazing characteristics that guarantee its development and continuity of active dialogue with its audience. Based on its incentives and foundations, this movement will identify theater formulas and go back to them with a critical approach so that world theater directions will not be left for haphazard evaluations, or lumped together in one category and treated with the same solemnity that prevails in our schools or culture. The movement that we are proposing here will be aware of its principles, reality, and culture, which will allow it to avoid getting lost between theater formulas and schools. It will not be like "fashion" where choice is based on tastes and thus outside the realm of discussion. This movement considers theater schools to be intellectual entities and theater forms as expressions of particular social and political stances. It also approaches such schools critically so as to be consistent with its principles that are informed, first and foremost, by reality. This will put an end to the perplexity from which our Arab theater is suffering, like a muddled child standing dazzled before a shop window of toys of various models and colors, and who is unable to choose.

Those who follow the relationship between the emergence of cultural trends in the world, particularly in Europe, and their reflection in our environment and culture realize our immense and disappointing loss and how much we need a consistent critical position in order to confront these trends. Such a position will enable us to answer one of the most important questions facing our theater: Which direction should we follow?

Because it is rooted in the reality of its audience and aims to achieve the highest degree of connection with, and impact on, that audience, this theater movement should seriously and continuously study its unique experience, style, language, and form, and should do so often. It might try known forms or create special ones--and it will reach this point of creating such forms--but in both scenarios what determines the selection is the practical and real life experience, the one based on daily interaction with the audience: its cultural level, ways of thinking and responding. There will be examination of failure and success, and this will gradually lead to the emergence of proper and developed forms of theater, which are effective and people-oriented. This movement will have a wide horizon for experimentation and selection. It will have a rich heritage of forms and types of expression, which it will use in a better way than that adopted by those who want to build a culture based on folklore, or to remedy cultural deficiency by restoring or developing folklore. Such people respond to superficial reasons for renewing theater and trying it in various forms. Folklore in our theater has another value and a different function. It can be utilized if related to the content of theater while allowing spectators to understand this content. However, its use for superficial and formal reasons is not acceptable.

It is now clear that starting with the audience and looking seriously for an original and useful medium to which it can be connected will save Arab theater from many questions often raised in a disruptive and abstract manner regarding language, style, form,folklore,etc. All these issues will certainly find appropriate solutions. Language will not be discussed in roundtables or TV forums, but will be tested by daily practice. All problems related to language will be solved by such practice, as will be other problems and issues, including the architecture of theater.

The last feature of this movement that we propose is the continuous interaction between the theater and its audience. This movement both learns from the audience and teaches it, taking and giving in a dialectic and daily-expanding process. Undoubtedly, by doing so, we will give the theater phenomenon the energy and inspiration that it once had when it was merely a celebration. Moreover, we will revive its original effectiveness, uniqueness, and social dimension.

If we have a theater movement that adopts these principles, Arab theater will emerge out of its confused displacement. This movement will focus on the real problems, not on preposterous ones. It will originate from its audience and, by having a dialogue with it, it will be giving and taking from it in a mutually enriching relationship. Only then will genuine theater be born, a theater that will stimulate, wherever it takes a place, a social event, a rich dialogue, and an awareness among the audiences, one that is directed to both present reality and the future.

2- The Healthy Beginning of Arab Theater

Anyone who studies the pioneers of Arab theater between the mid-nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century will be amazed by their deep knowledge of their audiences and also their brave solutions for the problems they faced, particularly in the initial stage of theater. Their solutions were not the outcome of elitist theoretical reflection but rather of their strong connection with their audiences and daily interaction with them. During that period, theater was a real social event--with such elements as spontaneous alienation, various popular arts, improvisation, intimacy, and other topics stemming from (or modified to reflect) the issues of real life. This theater took place as society was waking up after a long sleep, and it accompanied such revival, understood it with limited capacity, and also contributed to it.

I believe that we need to go back to that period and study it carefully so that we can discover how robust the beginnings were and how the pioneers realized, even with limitations, the nature of theater as a social phenomenon that dwells among people. That is why, even though they adopted the European formulas of theater, they never regarded them as sacred, immutable tenets. Rather, with a great deal of cleverness and insight, they adapted them to fit their sense of their audience. Their works did not have rigid rules, but rather a splendorous spontaneity that was inspired by the people themselves, who gathered every evening with their seeds, as the Greeks used to bring food baskets to their stone theaters where they sat on uncomfortable seats. Without following any rituals, they might intervene in the game, expressing their opinions or even getting involved in discussion. Dr. Muhammad Najm tells us that a great theater person like Ya'qub Sannu' had a splendid wit through which to respond immediately to his audience, adding some scenes that fit the moment. This daily dialogue, which is a source of disgust to influential theater persons who are committed to formulas and rituals, uses some elements that are foreign to theater only to create an enjoyable experience and allow intimacy with the audience. This is a healthy theater with deep understanding, which differs from the textbook definitions in the theater institution, and against which I have no grudge. It follows the original type of theater, the one that immerses the audience, has a meaning for them, talks about them, comes from their environment, and, above all, entertains them.

The spectator in this theater is immersed with the group, and the group is engaged in the "game" as long as it is not strange or foreign in form or content for the conditions and consciousness of this group. Arab theater pioneers also rightly adapted, rather than represented, world plays, which caused them to be ridiculed by their contemporaries who accused them of both destroying world heritage and being superficial. But those pioneers knew that the value of the play was its expression and attachment to a particular environment, and that presenting world plays in their original form would make them outlandish and inaccessible to the Arab spectator of that period who would not respond to them or be interested in their message, even if they were well structured and entertaining. The pioneers realized this fact and considered such foreign plays only important if they fit their environment and reflected the problems of their spectators. In this case, they used those plays in a daring way, which is similar to what Brecht did with the classical heritage. They made them sound like local plays, addressing local problems that the spectator encountered every day. We were behind and not yet able to reach such realization, even after the influx of the new theater that started in the 1950s, with its principles, academic rules, and ideal models, as in European theater. It is a strange irony that the audience between 1880-1900, who was supposedly culturally backward and almost completely illiterate, could respond to the plays of Moliere, Jean Racine, Pierre Corneille, and others as they were adapted by Ya'qub Sannu', al-QabbanT, al-Naqqash, and al-QirdahT, while the audience of the 1950s through the 1970s did not have the same response, despite their more developed education and greater literacy, and the fact that the plays were presented to them in a professional manner, in better equipped and decorated theaters. We may not have statistics on the old audience, but, based on the social effectiveness of the old theater, I can say that our current audience in modern national theaters has not increased [in numbers and sophistication]; if anything, it has perhaps slightly decreased.

Before I leave the issue of adapting world theater to the local environment, which was a healthy phenomenon in the old Arab theater, I want to remind those who ridicule such beginnings and regard them as a sort of spoof that the basic element of success in a contemporary play is being both aware of the environment and able to prepare foreign texts for theater in a way that makes them seem as if they were written for local people. Take, for example, Al-Tayyib al-SiddTqT from Morocco. The Odeon Theater was full of applause for al-SiddTqT and his cast after presenting Moliere's The Tricks of Scapin in the Festival of Theater of the Nations, because he replaced Scapin with Juha, the popular Arab character. The applause was directed at his originality and serious search intending to bring about an interaction between such heritage and the world theater, creating a new environment with its special nature and problems. We are unfortunately still far from learning this lesson of spontaneous adaptation from our predecessors, which they accomplished despite their lack of education and the difficult circumstances of their period.

Again, I believe that it is very useful to go back to those beginnings and to learn about their positive experiences. With only glimpses of light and little help, the pioneers started their theater when the state of education was weak but with a high level of sensitivity toward both the nature and needs of their society. Their works were like unsettling events in a critical period when the region was going through a revival to change its conditions. Those who want to neglect such revival and are afraid of it nevertheless recognize the effective influence of such unsettling events that the pioneers launched in their night performances. In his book, al-Masrahiya fl-l-adab al-'arabi al-hadith [Drama in Modern Arabic Literature], Muhammad Yusuf Najm points out that he found in old newspapers some reports on the beginning of theater, such as this one:
   The state received from the Ma'arif [Knowledge] Supervision
   Department a decree indicating that the political
   newspapers in the [nation's] sates should be supervised
   by the Department and the government, and
   that plays should be sent to Istanbul to be scrutinized
   before they are performed. I believe that after these
   orders, theater will never flourish in our land. (75)

From the beginning, authorities recognized the danger of theater as a factor for demolishing, changing, or shaking the status quo and deeply rooted old values. That is why the Ottomans closed the theater of Abu KhalTl al-Qabbani, who was forced to leave Syria and settle in Egypt. The ruler of Egypt, the Khedive, also closed the theater of Ya'qub Sannu' and exiled him.

From the experience of these pioneers, we learn not only about the immense trials they faced, but also about the means by which they transformed their shows into unsettling events, not relying exclusively on the text and its critique of common values and shameful conditions. Rather, they went beyond that to make the show itself an unsettling event. By using the above-mentioned elements, the show could succeed in creating a group of people who would feel their collectiveness and the unity of their problems--thanks to transcending the distance between the stage and the hall (where the audience is), utilizing all-inclusive alienation, intimacy, improvisation, and interaction in the show. Furthermore, these people were "theaterized," perhaps in the same sense of theater as postulated by Yusuf Idris. ** At the same time, they realized the deep meaning and significance of their collective and social identity.

This point, which shows the healthy beginnings of theater, has been overlooked and thus needs more careful analysis and research, using a methodology that accommodates the previous arguments. Unfortunately, in his important study about the beginnings of Arab theater, which were characterized by confusion and underestimation, Yusuf IdrTs only studied those texts and their sources and evaluated their originality. Sadly, those texts and the principles of the European bourgeois theater were his criteria in evaluating and judging these pioneering experiences. I am certainly not belittling the value of his work which is indispensable for any researcher or student and a book that fills a great gap in the Arabic library. Yet, in my opinion, it is not a sufficient source on past theater experience and an analysis of its social foundations and historical effectiveness, because Idffs neglected the core of this phenomenon, which is the "dramatic performance."

3- Theater is a Collective Work

After reading the first paragraph of these "Manifestos," it is common for someone to ask, "Who will launch such a theater movement with these principles?" or more precisely, "Who will be able to start such a movement, which involves a good deal of both fertility and strife?"

Certainly, it will not be a single individual's work, regardless of his or her genius or various talents. It is obvious that theater is a collective endeavor, but most of the time the consequence of that fact is confusion. The common conception of the collectiveness of theater is viewed as a combination of individual efforts accruing so as to produce a work. This conception considers the collective as collection and gathering of individuals working on their own. It also looks at theater as a series of consecutive processes: an author who composes a text at home; a producer who selects a text and trains actors to perform it; an actor who memorizes the role and performs it; an artist who designs the decorations; a musician who composes musical pieces if any are used; and a costume designer. Then, these processes, which might be done individually or at best through dialogue, contribute to producing the play. This is the traditional and common concept of theater in our countries. I think it is a superficial and uninspired understanding, one that is thus unable to stimulate the energy and magical powers of theater as described by [the French playwright and theater director Antonin] Artaud. The result of this understanding is dull, sloppy, and poor performances.

My own understanding of the collective work of theater is categorically different from the one mentioned above, which coincided with a period of theatrical malaise and bankruptcy. Collective work is not merely an assembly of individual efforts, but a creation where the richness of the group, continuous dialogue, and persistent research supply such creation. We are looking for the interaction of a group of energies participating in a mutual and gradual creation which contains the strength and identity of the group. If the commonly understood collective work is like a chain whose links are interconnected, our proposed collective is like interactive chemistry, whose elements give the best they have, changing and becoming changed, altering and being altered--a highly charged process that results in a heated and amazing structure. We do not want to reduce individuals to nothing, but rather to nourish their utmost potential and capabilities so that they get rid of their narrow and useless individuality, with its egotistic concerns, while being involved in a wonderful act of creation.

By "collective work," I mean the emergence of a group of individuals who share harmony, a clear vision, sincere enthusiasm, and an unflagging talent for research and exploration. They will start an experience of a new kind that breaks the routine of theater, and emerge as a group (not individuals) in building a theater that achieves the original inspiration: a collective revolution in a stagnant environment. No writer, director, actor, or other participant will be working on his own or separated from other members in this group. The work will strive to be a continuous dialogue that moves in two directions: both inside the group, to clarify and deepen ideas and to design and build the work; and between the group and spectators, or the audience they are facing. These two dialogues must go hand in hand, and one should be reflected by the other in a dialectic manner that achieves success and positive outcomes for theater.

If we review the most important theater experiences in the world, we will find that they had such structure and elements. Greek theater, Shakespeare's, and Brecht's were all collective-work oriented. It is unfortunate that history has neglected the collectiveness of these experiences and only recorded a name or two. This is so because it was impossible to record the liveliness of a performance acted in theaters full of people, or in an Elizabethan theater where the group melded and was creating theater at the same time. The many changes that Shakespeare and Brecht made to the play-text--during rehearsals, discussions with the actors before and after the show, and responses of the audience--are evidence that theater is a collective creation, a living experience being renewed every day with each new performance.

So, if we go back to the question of the theater movement that we envision, we can answer the question that we raised. It starts with the audience, but can only be exercised by a group such as the one that we have just described, a group full of youthfulness, with a clear vision and goal. It originates from and addresses the audience, while being based on the principles that we have explained.

This group will be full of capabilities, not pre-conceived ideas and formulas. Through daily practice, creative efforts, and continuous dialogue, it will realize its full potential and that of its environment, creating a healthy and lively theater--a growing theater that does not become frozen in formulas and static frames. With such a clear goal, this theater will shake the audience, disturb them, and stimulate their awareness, as if it possessed electrical power.

In a collective movement which blends with the audience, we can awaken and embody the common ground between actors and audience, fulfilling the most important goal of theater: to unite as a group and to understand our common fate and its laws.

4- We Must Provoke, Not Calm Down

Theater started as--and remains--a political phenomenon. Even if it seems to disregard politsics or avoid political problems, concerns, and whirlpools, it expresses a political stance and undertakes a political function, which is, in brief, to divert people from showing any interest in their essential issues or thinking about their conditions, but also to distract them from attempts to change them. In almost every culture, at all times and everywhere, being politics-oriented is the essence of theater. Everything that I have mentioned above stems from this fact and underlines it.

Therefore, all members of the group that will establish the pillars of a "theater movement" should have an awareness of its political role and of the dangers involved in playing such a role. Based on its formation and the originality of its connection with its environment, this movement will be aware of the nature of conflict, a social conflict that it reflects in theater. It also realizes the reality of the "fate," a political and historical fate, of which it aspires to be simultaneously aware.

But regardless of the clarity which may appear to simplify the issue and lead to confirmed results, there are still slippery slopes that may lead to totally different results. The role of theater and its possible effects within its own environment are complex and difficult questions. If there is no continuous alertness, it is possible to deviate from, or betray, such a role. In recent years, we have seen some theater works that produce something contrary to what they wanted to say, contributing to deception and misleading elements in society.

Of course, we are not constructing extreme illusions about what theater can do in any given society. According to Brecht, "theater cannot achieve revolution or alter the structure of society." We know that theater is only one of other daily and longterm efforts that have the potential to contribute to change. When such change is achieved, the starting point is not the theater or its stage. Nevertheless, theater has its role in change, and it can be an astonishing substitute in periods of repression and organized non-politicization. Through its collectiveness and its daily and active relationship with people, it can give the illusion of involvement in political work or activity. One cannot help but feel a great power enabling people to shake, even if only partially, the iron wall of non-politicization. Most importantly, we should be profoundly aware of the complex and difficult nature of theater's role. It is a double role; achieving a balance is very critical and sensitive, for it has to discover, explain, and define (to the audience) the nature of conflicts that are happening in their surroundings, based on its awareness of them. It should reflect the conditions of the audience after analyzing them and revealing their hidden aspects. At the same time, it must confront people in order to encourage them to start changing their current fate, based on theater's awareness that political fate is not final but able to change once the potential for change is materialized and the people have decided to embark on it.

The Arab theater that we want is aware of its dual tasks: to teach and to provoke its spectators. It does not bring relief to spectators or alleviate their plight. Instead, it makes them anxious and annoyed. In the long run, it prepares them to start the process of changing fate. Yet, as I have mentioned earlier, there are dangers involved in such a tedious task. If theater fails to discover the truth or errs in its analysis of societal conditions, it becomes a medium of ignorance and deception. If it does not know how to do its job--to use its methods and tools to provoke spectators and encourage them to act--it becomes a tool for venting, freeing the spectator from the elements of hatred, anger, or anxiety. The effect will be to increase the power [of the people] to tolerate their miserable situation. It will paralyze them and endorse the status quo. There is a thin and transparent line between something that aims to provoke and something that aims to calm down. I can give more examples of plays and performances that failed to distinguish between these two types of theater, ending in the latter, even though they started with a strong charging approach. They eventually ended up serving precisely those entities that they wanted to criticize. In such cases, spectators leave the theater satisfied, quiet and smiling, as if their concerns have been left behind on their theater seats. This type of theater may make the theater movement that we are envisioning spend the night criticizing itself, trying to find out why it failed and what mistake it had committed! We are not concerned with those who are delighted with this [superficial] success, who wait for people to congratulate them and show their satisfaction and happiness when the performance is over. They are far removed from the function of the theater that we want and need.

5-What Is Demanded from the Spectator?

Based on what has been discussed thus far, particularly on the definition of theater as a social phenomenon, we see that the spectator and actor are simply what constitutes theater. They can be targets for improvement, as suggested by the German playwright Piscator, for both of these elements are responsible for this improvement and its success to different degrees. Undoubtedly, spectators can play a positive role in directing theater, but we need to counsel (and strongly encourage) them to play such a role, so that we can send theater in a suitable direction and reform its foundations.

In order for spectators to play such a role, they need to transform themselves and adopt a new and different way, unlike our current spectators.

First: The spectator needs to know the importance of his opinion regarding any theater production, because s/he is the target of everything being presented. The value of theater production is related to the position taken by the spectator.

Second: The negativity and inactivity of spectators toward theater and its stage should come to an end. They should realize that everything in front of them is relevant to them, and they have to take a position towards it.

Third: Spectators should know that adopting a stance regarding any performance is a responsibility, one that has critical and important results for the individual and the condition of their country. That is why they need to change their school-like environment where they are passive recipients. They need to remember their important role as spectators and refuse to be manipulated or deceived. They should pay attention to what is being said and shown without falling into the trap set by deceptive, trivial, and fraudulent theater people.

Spectators are required to intervene when they are witnessing triviality, deception, or outright lying, and to stop those who try to numb or divert the individual from essential problems and issues. If they do not see themselves represented on stage, they should intervene and teach the actors a lesson about their society. If they have the impression that their picture is distorted, they should shout at its forgers and stop the performance.

Spectators always need to remember that what is taking place concerns them. They should not be prevented from countering lying, deception, and trivialization because of social etiquette or the stupid school traditions of respect. After all, they are not at elementary school where one is supposed to listen carefully and submissively. Rather, they are the fundamental half of any theater performance--its [effect on them is the] goal, but also the one responsible for it. That is why spectators should exercise their full rights and play a complete and positive role by filling the theater sphere that is assigned to them. They can either refuse or accept what is presented, or even boycott some productions. They can say whatever they want, and even correct what is being said. In summary, they should not passively accept what is given without objection or examination. Does this mean they should be imprudent?

Yes, the spectator should be aware and prudent. That is when trivialization and lies will be removed from theater. That is when theater becomes an effective social and cultural activity, one that brings the stage and the hall of spectators together in a strong and rich dialectical relationship.

These are the main headlines for wider topics which demand revision and reconsideration more than once.

Translator's Note

** Wannus is referring to Yusuf IdrTs (1927-1991), an Egyptian short story writer and novelist who contributed significantly to Egyptian theater. After abandoning medical practice, IdrTs devoted his life to literature. His play al-Farafir (1964)--roughly translated as the Flipflap, Flutterbug, or Little Mousey--whose performance in Egypt became a hit was characterized by breaking the barrier with the audience, as actors directly addressed the audience. He also wrote Nahw masrah 'ArabT (Toward an Arab Theater). For more on IdrTs and al-Farafir, see Burt.

Works Cited

'Abbud, Mustafa. Sa'dallah Wannus ft mir'at al-naqd. Damascus: Wizarat al-Thaqafah, MudTrlyat al-Masarih wa-l-MusTqa, 2008.

Allen, Roger. "Arabic Drama in Theory and Practice: The Writings of Sa'dallah WannQs." Journal of Arabic Literature 15 (1984): 94-113.

--. "Wannus." Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature. Eds. Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey. NY and London: Routledge, 1998. 804.

'Amln, Khalid. "Muqabala [Interview]." Al-Quds al-'Arabi. November 19, 2011.

'Ammar, Fatin 'All. Sa'dallah Wannus ft-l-masrah al-'arabl alhadlth [Sa'dallah WannQs in Modern Arab Theater]. Kuwait: Su'ad al-Sabah, 1999.

'Azzam, Muhammad. Masrah Sa'dallah Wannus: Bayn al-tawzlf alturathl wa-l-tajrlb al-hadathl: Dirasa [Theater of Sa'd Allah WannQs: A Study on Using Heritage and Modern Experimentation], Damascus: Dar 'Ala' al-Dln, 2003.

BadawT, Muhammad Mustafa. Early Arabic Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Basal, Muhammad Isma'Il. Qira'a slmya'lya ft masrah Sa'dallah Wannus: Nusus al-tis'lnat namudhajan [Semiotic Readings of Sa'dallah Wannus: The Texts of the Nineties as an Example], Damascus: Dar al-Ahall, 2000.

Bentley, Eric. The Theory of the Modern Stage: An Introduction to Modern Theatre and Drama. NY: Applause, 1997.

Bin Salih, Rida and Qays HammamT. Al-Masrah al-'Arabi bayn al-tajrlb wa-l-taghrlb: Qira'ah ft masrah Sa'dallah Wannus [Arab Theater between Experimentation and Alienation: Reading Sa'dallah Wannus], TQnis: al-Maghariba lil-Tiba'a wa-1Nashr, 2008.

Burt, Clarissa. "The Tears of a Clown: Yusuf Idris and Postrevolutionary Egyptian Theater." Colors of Enchantment: Theater, Dance, Music, and the Visual Arts of the Middle East. Ed. Sherifa Zuhur. Cairo: American U in Cairo P, 2001. 27-66.

Gouryh, Admer. "Literatures of the Middle East: A Fertile Crescent." World Literature Today 60.2 (Spring 1986): 216-20.

"Fi-l-dhikra al-'ashira li-rahll al-katib al-masrahi al-kablr Sa'dallah WannQs [On the Tenth Anniversary of the Great Playwright Sa'dallah Wannus]." <http://www.moc,>.

Houssami, Eyad, ed. Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre. London: Pluto P, 2012.

Ibrahim, Youssef M. "Arabs Split on Cultural Ties to Israel." The New York Times. March 7, 1995. < wanted=all>.

"In Memoriam: Saadallah Wannous 'Theater and the Thirst for Dialogue.'" Middle East Report 203 (Spring 1997): 14-15.

Jayyusi, Salma K. Introduction. Short Arabic Plays: An Anthology. NY: Interlink Books, 2003. vii-xiii.

Kassab, Elizabeth Suzanne. Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective. NY: Columbia UP, 2009.

Miller, Judith. God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Najm, Muhammad Yusuf. Al-Masrahlya ft al-adab al-'arabT al-hadTth [The Play in Modern Arabic Literature |. Bayrut: Dar Bayrut, 1956.

al-Rafi'T, Mustafa Sadiq. Tahta rayat al-Qur'an: Al-ma'raka bayn al-qadlm wa-l-JadTd [Under the Banner of the Qur'an: The Battle between the Old and the New], BeirOt: Dar al-Kitab al-'ArabI, 1983.

Ramadan, Khalid 'Abd al-LatTf. Masrah Sa'dallah Wannus: Dirasa Fanniya [Theater of Sa'dallah Wannus: An Artistic Study]. Kuwait: Sharikat al-Manabir, 1984.

WannQs, Sa'dallah. Al-A'mal al-kamila [The Complete Works], Damascus: Dar al-AhalT, 1996.

--. "Bayanat li-masrah 'arabT jadTd." al-Ma'rifa 104 (October 1, 1970): 5-32. <>.

--. "The Elephant, O Lord of the Ages." Trans. Peter Clark. Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures 4.1 (January 2001): 53-68.

--. Four Plays from Syria: Sa'dallah Wannous. Trans. Marvin Carlson et al. NY: Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications, 2014.

--. "The Glass Cafe." Trans. Fateh Azzam and Alan Brownjohn. Short Arabic Plays. Ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi. NY: Interlink, 2003. 412-32.

--. "The King is the King." Modern Arabic Drama. Trans. Ghassan Maleh and Thomas G. Ezzy. Eds. Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Roger Allen. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1995. 77-120.

--. "The King's Elephant." Trans. Ghassan Maleh and Christopher Tingley. Short Arabic Plays. Ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi. NY: Interlink, 2003. 433-51.

--. "Restoring Taha Husayn." Taha Husayn. al-'Aqlanlya, aldlmuqratTya, al-hadatha. Eds. Sa'dallah WannQs, Jabir 'AsfQr, Faysal Darraj, and 'Abd al-Rahman Munlf. Cyprus: Mu'assasat al-'Ibal, 1990.475-94.

--. "Soiree for the 5th of June." Trans. Roger Allen. The Mercurian 5.2 (Fall 2014). <>.

--. "A Translation of Sahra ma'a Abi KhalTl al-Qabbanl by Sa'dallah Wannus." Trans. Shawkat Toorawa. Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures 3.1 (January 2000): 19-49.

Ziter, Edward. "Refugees on the Syrian Stage: Soiree for the 5th of June." Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre. Ed. Houssami Eyad. London: Pluto P, 2012. 11-27.

(Translated by Asaad Alsaleh)

* The Manifestos of Wannous published in this issue of Alif have been translated to English from Saadallah Wannous, al-A'mal al-kamila [Complete Works] (Damascus: Dar al-Ahali, 1996), with the kind permission of the Wannous Estate and Yale University Press.
COPYRIGHT 2019 American University in Cairo
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Wannus, Sa'dallah
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Jan 1, 2019
Previous Article:Approaching Sa'dallah Wannus's Drama: The Manifestos for a New Arab Theater.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters