In Review: Sentence to Hope: A Sa’dallah Wannous Reader and Modern and Contemporary Political Theatre from the Levant

Sentence to Hope: A Sa’dallah Wannous Reader
Translated from the Arabic with an Introduction by Robert Myers and Nada Saab, Yale University Press, 2019

Modern and Contemporary Political Theatre from the Levant: A Critical Anthology
Edited by Robert Myers and Nada Saab, Brill, 2019

Reviewed by Rebekah Maggor

Volume 8, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)

The Arab world has had a rich and diverse performance culture for centuries. But play-based theatre, anchored around scripted dialogue and performed in a space with demarcated areas for actors and audience, made its entrance as a European import around the middle of the nineteenth century. In Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus, and Beirut, elite audiences attended performances of visiting troops from Europe and locally produced Arabic translations of mostly French and Italian dramas. Towards the close of the century, however, a growing cohort of radical Arab intellectuals appropriated this novel theatre genre, transforming it from an exclusive “Western art” into homegrown entertainment. As historian Ilham Khuri-Makdisi has shown, the major Arab cities in the Ottoman provinces of Egypt and the Levant were seized by a frenzy of theatrical production that both reflected and helped formulate anti-colonial and anti-elitist ideas. Arabic theatre stood at the core of a wider network of civic institutions such as leftist newspapers, schools for workers, free reading rooms, and industrial and agricultural expositions. Theatre groups staged politicized Arabic adaptations of European and Greek classics, as well as original plays based on a rich heritage of tribal tales of early Islam or stories of The Thousand and One Nights. Decades before Brecht’s consciousness-raising Lehrstücke and epic historical dramas obliterated fourth walls across European stages, Arab theatre artists fomented revolution with bold experimental plays that blurred lines between audience and spectator, decried economic exploitation, and called for the elimination of poverty.

The ideal of theatre as social project, with the potential to mobilize the masses against a sectarianized and unequal society, remains very much alive in the Arab world decades later. This socio-political thrust is evident in two excellent collections of contemporary Arabic drama in translation published this past year: Sentence to Hope: A Sa’dallah Wannous Reader (Yale University Press) and Modern and Contemporary Political Theatre from the Levant: A Critical Anthology (Brill), both edited by Robert Myers and Nada Saab. The collections bring together seminal plays written between 1967 and 2015 and make a major contribution to the small but growing body of contemporary Arabic drama available in English translation. Each annotated collection begins with a detailed introduction to the literary and political context of the plays and personal biographies of every writer. The Wannous Reader also includes a selection of the playwright’s speeches, essays, and interviews, showcasing his erudite perspectives on the intersection of theatre and politics. The books are an enormous boon not only for scholars of international theatre and Middle East studies, but for a much broader audience of artists and activists interested in political theatre, protest literature, and radical social change.

Wannous and the other Arab-Levant playwrights, these collections demonstrate, are more than worthy heirs to the political imagination and aesthetic ambitions of the pioneering Arab dramatists of the turn of last century. These writers animate weighty philosophical ideas through poetic language, dazzling storytelling, and vivid characterization. As Wannous explains, “Theatre is the profound presentation of the human condition through the rules that govern history, and through class struggle and the process of social development” (426). For these Arab playwrights, class struggle and social development are broad umbrellas that necessarily include the status of women, sexual liberation, freedom of speech, the role of religion in government, the coercive apparatus of the state, and sectarianism as a means of autocratic rule. Aesthetically, their plays amalgamate European and Arab influences, or more accurately, as Wannous explains, they treat theatre as a “Western art that must be cultivated without any complexes in our local environment” (425). They critically and self-consciously integrate and deconstruct elements of Arabo-Islamic history and folk performance traditions with Aristotelian dramatic structures and modern European staging techniques.

In Sentence to Hope: A Sa’dallah Wannous Reader the editors co-translated four representative plays by one of the Arab world’s most dynamic dramatists of the twentieth century. In An Evening’s Entertainment for the Fifth of June (1969), one of Wannous’s earliest dramas, a disillusioned playwright in an unnamed Arab country sets off fierce public debate when he interrupts the performance of his festive nationalist drama in the aftermath of a devastating military defeat. A hyper meta-theatrical experimental play, it opens with hilarious playfulness and turns abruptly dark and brutal when security forces surround the theatre and arrest all who dared participate in the public conversation. The Adventure of the Head of Mamlouk Jabir (1971) similarly revolves around a catastrophic military defeat for which ordinary people pay the ultimate price. Drawing inspiration from the thirteenth century sacking of Baghdad by Hulagu Khan, Wannous imagines the adventures of the vizier’s Arlecchino-esque mamlouk (slave). A provocative play within a play, a neighborhood hakawati (storyteller) relates Jabir’s tale to a disheartened audience of down-and-out coffeehouse patrons. They interrupt with increasingly boisterous protests as the hakawati’s tale swerves precipitously from Jabir’s high-spirited scheming to his ruthless execution, fast followed by the looting and destruction of the city.

The two later plays in the Wannous collection, both written around 1994, hone in on gender disparities and the predicament of women within unequal societies. The intimate Wretched Dreams, set in a provincial Arab village in the early 1960s, follows two impoverished peasant women sharing a cramped house with their abusive husbands. The older of the two is a seamstress who works day and night to eke out a living while her good-for-nothing husband fritters away her money on drink and prostitutes. After a cultured and mysterious young lodger offers the wives an enticing glimpse of independence, self-respect, and sexual freedom, the women devise a bold plan to free themselves from their oppressive marriages. Like a heightened and hallucinatory Edward Albee play, Wretched Dreams begins with the deceptively naturalistic setup of a droll bickering married couple and ends with a nightmarish sequence of revenge gone wrong. Rituals of Signs and Transformations is a meditation on connections between economic independence, gender inequality, and sexual liberation, based on a titillating historical incident in Damascus in the late nineteenth century. When a high-ranking religious official is caught in flagrante delicto with his prostitute mistress, the official’s wife forces him to divorce her. With the advice and training of this same street-savvy prostitute, the fresh divorcee transforms herself from a respected and sexually repressed noblewoman into the erotic celebrity courtesan Almasa (“the diamond”). An Almasa craze takes Damascus by storm and threatens to wreak havoc with the social and political order of the city. Fearing a popular uprising against the aristocrats, the Grand Mufti (the top religious judge) issues a decree legalizing violence against prostitutes, leading to further bloodshed.

Wannous thus reworks important elements of Arab heritage—popular literary characters, ancient tales, and key moments in pre-modern and contemporary history—to coax class struggle onto center stage. There are no “good” or “evil” rulers in his plays, only self-serving elites who behead servants, murder assertive women, sack entire cities, and disappear protesters all in the name of maintaining the status quo. In his inverted renderings, however, these ancient tales of high politics and betrayal are no longer the escapades of sultans or caliphs but rather, the stories of slaves and servants, who become the chief protagonists. His plays within plays feature mixed audiences of workers, refugees, peasants, and urbanites who hotly debate the events on stage. He shines a light on both the frustrations and glass ceilings of aristocratic and bourgeois women as well as the overbearing poverty and duress of working women. His peasants and servants are not comic sidekicks to the elite, but rather intelligent and sympathetic protagonists who take action to escape their unjust circumstances.

A dismal and disillusioned grassroots political outlook coupled with black humor similarly characterizes the plays in Myers and Saab’s second collection of dramatic translations, Modern and Contemporary Political Theater from the Levant. In his bluntly titled The Dictator (1967), Lebanese poet, playwright and journalist Isam Mahfuz mocks the faux populist rhetoric and empty revolutionary promises of “liberation” and “freedom.” This absurdist two-hander is reminiscent of Beckett’s stiflingly repetitive Endgame. The General and his suspiciously servant-like assistant Sa’dun, organize a revolution from inside a small cramped room, replete with a few pieces of broken furniture, the shard of a mirror, and a phone with a severed cord. Through a series of power-play word games, the General gradually convinces the modest Sa’dun to turn himself into a king. The General then stabs Sa’dun and declares, while admiring himself in the mirror shard, “I killed the King. I saved the world.”

Poet, screenwriter, and dramatist Muhammad al-Maghut likewise threads the ironic trope of oppressing the people to save the people through his hilariously bleak time-traveling satire The Jester (1973), translated by Gordon Witty. Al-Maghut, an influential contemporary of Wannous in Syria, staunchly identified as working-class. He was most famous for his pioneering prose poetry and his popular collaborations with Syrian comedian Durayd Lahham. The Jester of the title is a player in a ragtag traveling theatre troupe in a present-day Arab city. While performing at a coffee house, improvising a ludicrous impersonation of the eighth century Umayyad conqueror ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu’awia, known as Saqr Quraysh, the Jester suddenly finds himself whisked back in time to the real court of the heroic Arab prince. Saqr Quraysh is shocked and dismayed when the Jester reveals that Spaniards and Zionists have conquered Andalusia and Palestine, and ruthless Arab dictators have pummeled the rest of his impoverished “grandchildren” into terrified submission with their merciless security forces. Saqr Kuraysh, in antiquated literary Arabic, orders his groom to “saddle me a steed as fast as the wind” and fearlessly travels into the future to liberate Palestine and restore dignity to all his oppressed Arab descendants (168). Soon after reaching the present-day Arab world, a lowly security guard detains the passport-less Saqr Quraysh at a border checkpoint and anticlimactically squelches his valiant plans to restore the Arab peoples to glory. When the local officials discover Saqr Quraysh’s identity, they hand the medieval “war criminal” over to a Spanish diplomat in exchange for several tons of onions.

Written thirty years later, the Iraqi playwright and director Jawad al-Asadi literally strips bare the political drama in his strikingly naturalistic tête-à-tête Baghdadi Bath. Months after a military invasion, two working-class brothers wash themselves in an abandoned public bath in the middle of their ransacked neighborhood. In the first act, Majid, who has been earning handsome sums running supplies for the occupying military, pronounces the foreign soldiers his country’s saviors, for whom he would “sacrifice my eyesight” (314). In the second act, after a shipping gig goes gruesomely wrong, Majid admits that he has betrayed his own brother for the favors of a pitiless imperial military campaign. As in Wannous’s prophetic Mamlouk Jabir, the invading army sacks the city and replaces one oppressive regime with another, leaving the people of Baghdad to pick up the pieces.

Like Wannous’s work, the plays in the Levant collection exhibit a deep cynicism towards “regime changes” and “revolutions” that swap one tyrant for another, each propped up by foreign capital and proxy-military interventions. In some ways, however, a few of the plays represent a distinct strain. Whereas Wannous (and al-Maghut) deployed a geographical and linguistic distancing of epic tales and poetic language to disguise a call to arms, Mahfuz and al-Asadi embrace absurdist political nihilism, which often takes the form of minimalist and claustrophobic two-person vernacular dramas. Plays such as Mamlouk Jabir and The Jester set up animated public dialogues between the performers and their questioning audiences in historically specific settings. Baghdadi Bath and The Dictator, by contrast, take place in detritus strewn spaces. They confine human conversation to an alienated exchange in the perpetual vacuum of an anonymous present. Wannous constructed crushing narratives that nonetheless proceed with a determined sense of change over time and cast ordinary people as part of an emerging collective consciousness. For Al-Asadi and Mahfuz’s isolated individual characters, history grinds to a halt. They are unable to struggle for change.

Whether nihilistic or collectivist, absurdist and minimalist or lavish and epic, the plays in these two collections belong to a pantheon of modern international drama. Even as these plays draw on a magnificent and longstanding legacy of Arabic literary forms and folk performance traditions, they emphatically do not fetishize Arab authenticity. As Wannous insisted, “Arab theatre has, since its inception, been authentic…what guarantees particularity and identity in Arab theatre are not cosmetic or prepackaged forms but its content and engagement with the real world from which this theatre emerges”(400). For Wannous and the other writers, engaging with the “real world” meant situating Arab countries as postcolonial states in an uneven global system that “accentuates unjust divisions of wealth and widens the gap between extremely rich countries and destitute peoples” (389). In thinking about the translation and staging of his plays internationally, Wannous was deeply concerned that they might be interpreted as exotic objects. A production of Mamlouk Jabir in Moscow in 1990 greatly pleased Wannnous because the Russian audience felt the tale was about them. “They appreciated the play not as an alien novelty that speaks about the land of The Thousand and One Nights, but as a serious play that reflects their own concerns, a play that relates to them in the same way these conditions relate to us” (396). Myers and Saab appropriately chose translations that do not “otherize” or “Orientalize.” Lucid and lively, the translations engage with the political core of these works. They provide an excellent foundation for new English-language adaptations, which would be painfully relevant for our current moment of global tumult and grotesque inequality.


REBEKAH MAGGOR is a translator, director, and scholar. She is Assistant Professor in the Department of Performing & Media Arts at Cornell University. Her research centers on political theatre and drama in translation, with an emphasis on recent Arabic drama from Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. She co-edited Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyptian Revolution (Seagull Books) and her forthcoming collection, New Plays from Palestine: Theatre Between Home and Exile: co-edited with Marvin Carlson and Mas’ud Hamdan, will be published by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications. As a director, Maggor has staged her translations at venues across the U.S. including the Huntington Theatre Company, Golden Thread Theatre, PEN World Voices Festival, the Segal Theatre Centre, Harvard University, Cornell University and others. She has received grants from the NEA (Literature Fellowship in Translation), Fulbright Scholar Program, Doris Duke Foundation, Mellon Foundation’s TCG Global Connections, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, among others.

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