The theater, the theater, what happened to Arab theater? Houssami says its 'Doomed by Hope'
A new book by Eyad Houssami, entitled 'Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre,' with a foreword by Elias Khoury and composed of 14 essays discussing the dynamics of modern-day Arab theatre, seeks to give readers insight into how contemporary playwriting is a force that "chronicles history, orchestrates dialogue and forges culture," according to Houssami.
In the following interview, the editor reveals the motives behind this compilation of essays, the topics tackled in the book, its desired impact, and its contributions to the debate on the role of art and performance in the Arab Spring uprisings.
What led you to commission and compile this collection?
Eyad Houssami: As a theatre director, I am always thinking about why we make theatre, what plays matter where, and how to stage drama today. I also think about how characters, stories and public dialogue – intimate, immediate, unmediated – can draw people together.
One of the problems with theatre today is its insularity. Theatres are being padlocked and threatened with demolition in Beirut and Cairo. Translation of dramatic literature and scholarship into Arabic is tragically minimal in a region that translates around fifteen hundred books a year.
The Arab Middle East has some of the world’s lowest literacy rates: only 70.3 percent of the region’s adult population (age fifteen and above) is able to read and write, while the world average stands at 82.4 percent.
Because theatre can be dangerous and transformative, governments – authoritarian, oligarchical and military regimes – have laid siege to theatre in the Arab Middle East, reining it in to maintain the status quo. Because theatre almost never makes a profit, it is anathema to global capital and repels the greed of big money.
Left with negligible funding, most theatre makers, and indeed the art itself, fall by the wayside. It has become a luxury, a pastime of the elite. Theatre artists, producers and philanthropists everywhere have the responsibility to confront these challenges while safeguarding and cultivating the spaces that already exist for theatre.
What drove me to commission and compile the essays that form the Arabic and English editions of 'Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre' is the same impulse that fuels my work as the director of the non-profit theatre company Masrah Ensemble: to make, develop, and foster research and criticism of theatre with a focus on the Arab stage; to reconfigure audiences; and to encourage transcendent, riveting theatre.
Ten years ago, when I began studying, making and directing theatre as a college student at Yale, I noticed how theatres in the American northeast were segregated and populated by narrow demographics.
Vanguards like playwrights August Wilson and María Irene Fornés were among the minority in an artistic universe that marginalised the voices of the oppressed, of those whose "mouths are on fire with song," as Aunt Ester says in Wilson’s 'Gem of the Ocean.' "That song is powerful. It rise up and come across the water. Ten thousand tongues and ten thousand chariots coming across the water."
Research and scholarly production expand the discursive terrain of theatre as a discipline, and subsequently of theatre as an ephemeral civilisational phenomenon. As I write in the introduction to 'Doomed by Hope,' the accounts of scholars and artists lift theatre from its fleeting moment and resurrect it in the imaginations of readers in another time and place.
Thus, through theatre writing, performance embarks on a journey that swiftly transcends borders and languages.
So 'Doomed by Hope' – as an Arabic-English book and as an international theatre series of performances, readings, workshops and talks, which we have already presented in Beirut and the American northeast at Columbia, Yale, Rowan University, NYU and Bard College – has become a vehicle to engage artists and scholars in a discussion about contemporary Arab theatre and also to stage plays and performances by the very artists featured in the book.
What particular topics, issues and literatures does it address?
EH: The essays revolve around the repertoire and reverberations of the late playwright Saadallah Wannous in Arab theatre today. Authored in spring 2011 as revolutions were unfurling across the Arab Middle East, the fourteen contributions include literary analyses of drama, histories of theatrical production, and narratives about making and teaching plays.
Half of the texts were authored in Arabic, and the other half in English. We translated every essay to either Arabic or English.
Scholars such as Ted Ziter, Rania Jawad and Asaad Al-Saleh analyse specific plays by Wannous, like 'Soirée for the 5th of June' (1968) and 'The Elephant, the King of All Time' (1969), while other contributors consider contemporary theatre – playwriting, pedagogy and performance – in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinian Diaspora.
Playwrights and directors, including Zeina Daccache, Rabih Mroué and Sulayman Al-Bassam, reflect on their own practice through the prism of Wannous’s legacy, whereas Jawad Al-Asadi evokes memories of collaborating with him.
What emerges is a collection of essays that privileges experiential and personal accounts alongside more traditional scholarship. The book opens with an arresting forward by the great novelist Elias Khoury, who has also written plays and in the 1990s directed the Beirut Theatre, forced to close its doors in December 2011.
The photography, mostly by Dalia Khamissy, features specially commissioned portraits of the very artists at the forefront of the struggle to defend theatre.
'Doomed by Hope' departs from Wannous, whose monumental plays incited audiences to rise up against tyranny decades ago, to offer a tangled history of Arab theatre in times of revolt. It also documents the insights of intelligent, sensitive Arab theatre artists and rigorous scholars in a moment of cataclysmic change.
The book testifies to the singular force of playwriting, an artistic and literary craft that chronicles history, orchestrates dialogue and forges culture.
Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EH: The book is first and foremost for theatre audiences, students, scholars, producers and artists, especially those in the Arab Middle East. We live in a region decimated by insurmountable borders, remnants of colonialism past and present. A theatre artist in Gaza will probably never be able to share a theatrical experience with another in Baghdad, for instance.
In the first half of the twentieth century, an actor could have taken the Palestine Railway to Aleppo and transferred to the Baghdad Railway, continuing onwards to Iraq. The distance between Gaza and Baghdad is less than the distance between Chicago and New York, or between London and Berlin, Beirut and Istanbul.
The radii of theatre – and therefore of societies – is shrinking despite the fact that we live in an era of greater interconnectivity and advanced transportation. Why is that? And why does it matter? Why do we need theatrical dialogue between societies?
Without unmediated encounters with imagined realities on the stage, we forget how to live. We become alienated from strangers. We jeopardise our shared humanity. We isolate individuals and barricade communities, rendering them easier to manipulate and exploit. It becomes easier for us to kill, bomb and enslave one another. We tighten the limits of our imagination.
'Doomed by Hope' is therefore an effort to expand the horizons of theatre and bridge otherwise cloistered communities. I hope that it will draw together a community of Arabophone and Anglophone readers who champion or will come to champion the urgency of theatre.
What does this collection contribute to discussions about the role of art and performance in the Arab uprisings?
EH: It was a coincidence – or perhaps fate – that intertwined 'Doomed by Hope' with the uprisings. We had intended to launch the call for papers in 2009, when the inimitable Prince Claus Fund confirmed their support of the project. But due to a number of unexpected challenges – including my deportation from Lebanon (I returned in mid-2010), the project stalled.
It wasn’t until two years ago that everything came together and I announced the call for papers at the Sharjah Biennial March Meeting on 15 March 2011, which just so happened to be the first day of organised national protest in Syria and days before NATO warplanes began bombing Libya. So we commissioned the essays in a moment of turbulence.
From the outset, one of the goals of the project was to deepen the theatre discourse, which all too often reduces performance to how it explicitly tackles topics deemed to be "political." Notions of origin, authenticity, censorship, nationhood, post-colonialism, Islam and dissent frame and saturate discussions about culture, usually assessed and interpreted in terms of its political cunning to the exclusion of its aesthetic, poetic, philosophical and psycho-emotional qualities.
We strived to coalesce these approaches to thinking about art by foregrounding intellectually abstract questions in the call for papers.
These ambitions were slightly thwarted by our timing. Many contributors felt compelled to write the uprisings into their essays. While the collection does capture the zeitgeist of the early phases of the revolts, 'Doomed by Hope' is by no means about the role of theatre in the Arab uprisings – only a few of the essays directly address the uprisings. Some do not even acknowledge them.
Instead, the book underscores the potential trans-historicity of theatre. For instance, Zeina Daccache takes us inside Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh Prison, where she directed an adaptation of a Cold War teleplay by American Reginald Rose.
Scholar Margaret Livtin considers performances from the last decade presented in festivals in the US: Khamsoun (2006) by Jalila Baccar, Richard III, an Arab Tragedy (2007-09) by Sulayman Al Bassam, and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue (2006), which features a Puerto Rican-American family, whose three generations served in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.
Alongside these essays, and perhaps as a counterpoint to them, Katherine Hennessey links performances in Yemen in 2009-10 to youth protests in Sanaa, noting how they "mirrored" aspects of those productions. Asaad Al-Saleh parallels Wannous’s dramaturgy of audience interactivity in 'Soirée for the 5th of June' with how youth "resort to social media networks to organise protests that lead to revolution…Creating a dialogue within the theatre is an implicit call to launch a dialogue in reality."
The essays from Egypt attest to how theatre can construct collective memory in a time of revolt.
In sum, 'Doomed by Hope' traces threads of cultural history that have registered and informed, but by no means caused, what happens within and without the theatre today. It reveals how artists have for decades – even centuries – defied the prescriptions of despots and aesthetic hegemonies in order to agitate for new ways of being human, of acting as citizens, of existing as a society.
By Eyad Houssami
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