Middle Eastern drama

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The Hour of Feeling

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Hour of Feeling by Mona Mansour is set in 1967 and revolves around a Palestinian couple on a trip to London, examining political and personal dislocation, the fear of failure and the question of homeland.

Fuelled by a love of English Romantic poetry, a young Palestinian academic, Adham, and his new wife, Abir, take a trip to London, where he will deliver a career defining lecture. While the situation in his home "country" deteriorates and his marriage threatens to dissolve, Adham confronts his fear of failure and the reality that he may be an outsider no matter where he goes.

The Hour of Feeling was first presented in the UK at the High Tide Festival in Halesworth, Suffolk, on 6 May 2012.

Middle East and North Africa

Dominated by Arabic, and mainly Egyptian, traditions, the twentieth-century theatre of the Middle East and North Africa comprises many currents differing in detail but often broadly similar in history and structure depending on religion, language, the nature of the colonial experience and the vicissitudes of post-independence struggles. Old forms – oral narrative, musical clowning, shadow puppets – have mostly declined as Western-influenced and national theatre has asserted itself, although in the process the latter has inevitably been shaped by the former.

Religion

Religion, mainly Islam, plays a decisive role in the development of culture in the region, in respect of what the prevailing orthodoxy allows and what it prohibits. In Iran, for example, where great efforts were made to establish Western-style theatre, particularly after the Second World War, the high-profile Shiraz Festival attracted leading Western practitioners, such but this was stopped by the triumph of the Islamic revolution in 1979. However, the tradition of the Muslim passion play, based on the martyrdom of Hussain, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, continues in Iran, as it does in other countries with a significant Shia population, such as southern Lebanon and Iraq. In the Sunni Muslim countries, notably Egypt, Sufi saints’ days often have their own cycle of plays that range from the pious to the rumbustious.

Arab theatre

In the early part of the twentieth century Arab theatre was largely the theatre of the Lebanese and Egyptians. The preponderance of Egyptian plays, and the influence of the Egyptian style of melodrama and pageant play in modern festivals in Tunis (where the important Carthage Festival is held every two years), Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, bears witness to the continuing preeminence of Egyptian theatre in the Middle East and North Africa.

Contemporary Arab theatre can be dated from the middle of the nineteenth century when several plays by Molière were translated into Arabic, mainly by Lebanese writers, of whom Maron el- Naquash (1817–55) was the pioneer. These plays were performed in the traditional style developed by the companies of travelling players called muhabazeen, whose roots probably extend far back into Egyptian history. Until then these companies had not used written scripts, depending more on improvisation that involved a great deal of interplay with their audiences.

Theatre was used, especially by the poet Abdullah el-Nadim, as a popular means of putting over the nationalist message during the years of ferment before and after the Orabi rebellion of 1881. With the strengthening of the British hold over Egypt, and with the advent of the First World War, there tended to be a preference for escapist historical plays that dwelt on past glories, such as Saladin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem by Farag Anton as well as the several plays of Ibrahim Ramzy.

From the war years up to the mid-1950s virtually the only forms of theatre were the melodrama and the farce. The three most notable figures were el-Kassar, who wrote slapstick farces; Naguib el- Rehani (1892–1949), who wrote satirical farces critical of the social corruption of his day; and Yusif Wahaba, whose plays extolled the virtues of the Turkish aristocracy and mocked the simplicity of ordinary people. These three dominated Egyptian and Arab theatre. El-Rehani’s and Wahaba’s theatre companies toured many of the Arab countries and left their stamp wherever they went – an influence that has not always been healthy.

During the 1930s two other trends started to develop. The first was the poetic play spawned by the romantic movement, whose most important exponents were Ahmed Shawki (1868–1932) and, to a lesser degree, Aziz Abaza. Shawki’s plays, such as Cleopatra’s Death and Ali Bey the Great, deal with periods of defeat in Egyptian history in which the larger-than-life heroes often choose to die noble deaths. The second and more enduring trend was that represented by Tawfiq Al-Hakim, whose work represents a qualitative leap forward for Arab theatre, dealing with serious and sometimes pressing ideas in a form that is theatrical and accessible. He drew his plots from sources as far apart as Greek myth, Quranic verses, Middle Eastern history, simple folk tales and newspaper reports. Like George Bernard Shaw, to whom he is sometimes compared, he wrote his plays initially for publication. He remains, despite his shortcomings, the single most important influence in Arab theatre.

During the economic recession of the 1930s many actors found themselves unemployed. To ease their plight, in 1935 the government subsidized for the first time a national theatre company whose brief was ‘to present the world classics in translations by outstanding men of letters’. The main Egyptian writers who had their plays performed alongside those of Shakespeare and Racine were predictably Shawki and al-Hakim, as well as Abaza and Mahmoud Taimour (1894–1973), whose plays drew on the fashionable psychoanalytical ideas of the day. The successes and failures of this company over almost two decades spawned several rival companies that were to establish themselves and prepare the way for the theatre revolution of the 1950s and early 1960s.

The army coup of 1952 put a group of young nationalist officers in power in Egypt. The clash between them and the British government precipitated the Suez crisis. Ahmed Hamrush, a young leftist officer, had been appointed as the new director of the National Theatre in 1955. With the country on the verge of war, Hamrush decided to take a risk. He cancelled the scheduled season and put on three anti-colonial plays by virtually unknown writers. The plays were produced in the afternoon to avoid problems of curfews and blackouts. Within days the theatre was bringing in audiences such as it had never seen before. Young working-class people were forming queues that blocked the traffic in Cairo’s streets.

As the theatres started to search out new writing talents, Numan Ashour, Alfred Farag, Yusef Idriss and others had their plays taken up in the seasons that followed. The early Nasser years saw an attempt at building a national culture that was independent of European interests. The result was a relaxing of censorship and an increased subsidy for the arts. This paid off in theatre attendances. The National Theatre achieved unprecedented sellout seasons. Subjects that previously had been treated satirically, and locations, such as the countryside, that had been mere backdrops for romantic plots, now came to the fore. The once invisible world of the poor and the weak became the subject of new plays. This was especially true in the early works of Idriss, Ashour and Lutfy el-Khoully.

By the early 1960s the playwrights were raising questions that were beginning to disturb the regime. El-Khoully asked, in The Litigation, how society must be changed. Farag raised issues of war and peace in The Fall of Pharoah at a time when Egypt was still at war with Israel. Idriss tackled in a more abstract way the cyclical relationship between master and servant in his most famous play, Farafeer, which was the theatrical event of the 1964 season at the National Theatre.

During the 1960s the discrepancy between the rhetoric of the regime and its failings in actuality led to a parting of ways. Farag, probably the most consistently interesting and accomplished playwright of his generation, was imprisoned for almost four years for his politics, as were several other writers. On his release his Suliman el-Halabi, about the patriot who assassinated the Napoleonic governor of Egypt, became one of the major productions of the mid-1960s. By then a new generation of writers was emerging, the most significant of them being Muhamad Diab (e.g. The Old House, 1964). The reimposition of the full rigours of censorship hit this generation the hardest. Diab was eventually silenced as a playwright in the early 1970s. Other notable writers such as Salah Abdel Sabour, Shawki Abdel Hakim and Naguib Sorour were also to fall foul of the censor, who during the 1970s tightened his grip on the theatre still further. At the same time the state drastically reduced its subsidy, resulting in a heavy dependence on the adaptation of successful European and American musicals; Hello Dolly! being one of the biggest hits. The few writers who rose to prominence at this time were of a more commercial bent than their predecessors. Ali Salim, the most significant, has that rare ability to present ideas in a form that is easily digestible and therefore commercial. However, although Lenin el-Ramli’s domination of central Cairo’s theatres in the late 1980s was based on a commercial approach, his later efforts showed a greater maturity.

Outside Egypt, Arab theatre is dominated by the actor-manager. The most important of these figures are probably the Moroccan Tayib Siddiq, the Lebanese Nidal el-Ashar and Roger Assaf, who has been trying to develop an Islamic theatre, as well as the Syrian Duraid Laham, whose theatre is pan- Arab and nationalist. Each represents a distinctive approach and offers a content tinged with regional concerns. For a short time the audience-participation plays of the Syrian Saadullah Wannus seemed to offer a way forward, yet once the novelty had worn off, they were revealed as another symptom of a general decline.

Arabic has a relatively strict literary form and a looser colloquial form. The language issue has been resolved by words being spelt as they should be when written, but pronounced according to the regional bias of the character. Strict grammatical construction is then modified to fit local speech patterns. This compromise avoids regionalization and allows plays written in one Arab country to be performed in another without loss of meaning. Any playwright working in Egypt at the close of the twentieth century was hampered by a ruthless censor, crass commercialism and a cultural bureaucracy that controls all aspects of state-subsidized theatre. These conditions are similar, give or take a degree or two and the effects of war, in the rest of the Arab world; Palestinian theatre, though, is a special case due to the Israeli occupation.

Palestinian theatre

In the 1920s and 1930s plays were performed in church schools. In the 1940s a club in Nazareth was actively presenting classical plays in Arabic. The State of Israel, created in 1948, largely suppressed Palestinian theatre through heavy censorship. On the West Bank, theatre continued under the watchful eyes of the Jordanians, while in Egypt and Syria a theatre in exhile developed that mixed symbolism with slogans. Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967 led to Palestinian attempts to create a serious theatre that drew on their experience of being occupied and of exile. During the 1980s the improvisation-based al-Hakawati was the dominant force in Palestinian theatre. Two important companies, Al Kasaba Theatre and Inad Theatre, which established links abroad, were formed on the West Bank in 1974 and 1987 respectively. Over 40 productions later, Al Kasaba opened a new theatre in 2000 in a converted cinema. To cope with the scarcity of performance spaces, Inad Theatre under its director Raeda Ghazaleh has taken to presenting children’s plays off the back of an open truck to complement its work in its studio theatre. The flat back of the truck is used for transporting the set and the actors, and then is decked out as a stage. In this way productions like Sharshoora (toured 1998) and Miladeh wa Ramadan (2000) were seen all around the Bethlehem area. Interactive plays like Karagoza (1997) that engage a young audience have been presented throughout the occupied West Bank territory in schools and community centres. However, the intifada, beginning in 1987, led to a parting of the ways: while activists resorted to puppetry and traditional storytelling techniques to get their messages across, those with international ambitions left to perform abroad. During the second, al-Aqsa, intifada, which began in 2000, the Inad’s theatre was shelled by Israeli tanks and extensively damaged, but Inad as well as other groups, including Al Kasaba, continued performing.

Turkey

Its geographical position, bridging Europe and Asia, and its imperial past have meant that many theatrical influences have shaped Turkish drama. While its adopted religion of Islam did not encourage drama to flourish, popular traditional forms, like that of the actor-storyteller (meddah), shadowpuppets (karagoz) or comic troupe (orta-oyunu), have given way in the twentieth century to Western forms, often in the spirit of social and political protest.

The National Theatre was founded in 1908, following the establishment of a Turkish constitutional monarchy that year. The First World War saw the country occupied by foreign troops. They were expelled in 1922 by Mustapha Kemal, known as Atatürk, who a year later founded the Turkish republic, paving the way for the creation of a new Turkish drama. Women were allowed on stage, municipal theatres were set up in Istanbul in 1927 and a children’s theatre was established in 1935. A state conservatory for theatre, opera and ballet was opened in 1936 with help from Western European artists. Later, private companies grew as the state-backed theatres prospered.

The main figure in this expansion was Mushin Ertugul (1892–1979), who had returned from Germany in 1920 to run the National Theatre. After spending a period in the mid-1920s in the Soviet Union with Meyerhold and Stanislavsky, Ertugul returned to Turkey to transform his country’s, theatre in the light of contemporary European practice. Under his aegis, European classics were produced alongside new Turkish plays by writers such as Müsahipzade Celâl (1870–1959), Vedat Nedim Tör and Nazim Hikmet (1902–63).

New plays have flourished, by writers such as Turgut Özakman, Refik Erduran, Cahit Atay, Haldun Taner, Orhan Asena, Hidayet Sayin and Güngör Dilmen, and there has been a strong musical theatre, particularly associated with the brothers Ekrem Resit Rey and Cemal Reşit Rey.

Israel

Hebrew drama is mainly a product of the twentieth century. Revived as a spoken language by the late nineteenth century, modern Hebrew was still making hesitant steps by the turn of the century, when the Jewish national movement of settlement in Palestine was started. In the absence of a theatrical tradition or an established current practice, Hebrew drama first emerged as an occasional offshoot of literature, written almost exclusively by novelists or poets who hardly had theatrical production in mind. Sporadic attempts at mounting stage productions or forming amateur groups in Palestine and the diaspora culminated with the triumph of Habimah (since 1958 the National Theatre of Israel), which was founded as a studio beside the Moscow Art Theatre in 1918 and made its name especially with Vakhtangov’s highly expressionistic production of Ansky’s The Dybbuk. The success of Habimah gave rise to several permanent companies in Palestine: first the TEI, the OHEL and the satirical theatre Mat’até (‘Broom’) in the 1920s and then, after the final settlement of the Habimah in Palestine (1931), the companies constituting the contemporary theatrical scene: first, in 1944, the Cameri Theatre (then a youthful, West-orientated company reacting against the stagnation of Habimah in its classical and east European traditions; later, the established Municipal Theatre of Tel Aviv), the Haifa Municipal Theatre in 1961, the Be’er Sheva Theatre and the Jerusalem Khan Theatre in the 1970s.

The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, following the terrors of the Holocaust and a tense struggle against Arab-Palestinian hostility and British restrictions on Jewish immigration, was marked by lively theatrical activity, attentive both to world theatre and to the immediate problems of the newborn state. However, most leading Israeli playwrights of the period were still prose writers who turned to drama. A new era began in 1949 with In the Wastes of the Negev by Vig’al Mossinsohn (b. 1917) and He Walked in the Fields by Moshé Shamir (b. 1921), two topical melodramas about patriotism and the generation gap, set against the background of the War of Independence and performed at the Habimah and the Cameri respectively, while the war was still going on. Like Shamir’s play, the successful They Will Arrive Tomorrow (1950), a war thriller with political touches by Nathan Shaham (b. 1925) – including the controversial scene in which an Israeli officer lets an old Arab prisoner loose in what is, unbeknown to the prisoner, a minefield, in order to ‘eliminate’ an unlocated mine – was a dramatic adaptation of an earlier work of fiction by the author. The themes involved in the plays of Shamir, Mossinsohn, Shaham and Aharon Meged (b. 1920) were mostly topical: the frustrating encounter of the veteran soldier with the compromising reality of postwar society; kibbutz and socialist ideals versus the cynicism of emerging bourgeois society and capitalist state; newborn bureaucracy and the corruption of the system (His Name Goes before Him, 1951, by Ephraim Kishon); and above all, Israel as a problematic melting pot of the conflicting traditions and cultures comprising the Jewish diaspora, highlighed especially in the confrontation of Holocaust survivors with Israeli reality (e.g. in Leah Goldberg’s The Lady of the Palace, 1956, and Ben-Zion Tomer’s Children of the Shadow, 1963). Significantly, hardly any of these plays touched upon the Palestinian problem, which was rapidly emerging as an important factor in the political, moral and social development of the Jewish state. This attitude was well in keeping with the predominant ideology: as late as the early 1970s Prime Minister Golda Meir still denied the existence of a Palestinian nation.

While most plays of the 1950s were well-made problem plays, Nissim Aloni’s Most Cruel the King (1953) read topical conflicts into the biblical narrative of the split of the kingdom, and several plays were to follow this pattern. During the 1960s Aloni emerged as the most distinguished writer to turn to the theatre as a full-time career. Most of his plays were based on borrowed narratives (an Andersen fairytale, a Mark Twain story, the Oedipus myth), commenting indirectly on Israeli themes. He uses allegorical and symbolic patterns to create metaphysical thrillers, invested with colourful Ghelderodean theatricality, melodrama or the picaresque (The King’s Clothes, 1961; The American Princess, 1963; Aunt Lisa, 1969). The 1960s also saw the major poet and translator Nathan Alterman (1910–69) emerge as a writer of verse drama (notably The Inn of Ghosts, 1962, a complex dramatic study of the interrelation between life, love, freedom and art).

The June 1967 war, followed by a long era of military occupation of neighbouring territories by Israel (longer, eventually, than that of the existence of the state prior to the occupation), saw a rapid change of attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The sharp satirical cabarets by Hanoch Levin, especially The Queen of the Bath (Cameri, 1970), shocked the public and rendered Kishon’s popular bourgeois satires rather obsolete. The Haifa Municipal Theatre emerged as a lively workshop for new Israeli drama, critical of predominant ideologies by way of documentary, satirical or political plays. Co-Existence (Wattad, 1969) pioneered the theatrical theme of being an Arab in Israel; Status Quo Vadis (Joshuo Sobol, 1971) satirized the orthodox religious laws imposed on the secular majority in Israel, where there is no separation between state and religion; Kriza (Sobol, 1976) exposed ethnic relations; and The Poisoned Mushroom (Mittelpunkt, Nizan and Oz, 1984), a documentary about the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s, drew the menacing analogy between past experience and topical, local dangers. From the late 1970s, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the reality of occupation figured as a major theme in the theatre. The most significant playwright to have emerged of the ‘Haifa School’ was Sobol, who developed from a writer of documentaries into a major dramatist questioning national myths (notably Weininger’s Last Night, 1982, and Ghetto, 1984). Yet the most popular and controversial Israeli playwright of the 1970s and 1980s remained Hanoch Levin, who abandoned satirical cabaret for a witty and sour theatre of cruelty (notably Heffetz, 1971; Ya’acobi and Leidental, 1972; Shitz, 1974; Rubber Merchants, 1978; The Execution, 1980; The Sorrows of Job, 1981). Some marginal attempts to delve into Jewish mysticism to redeem an allegedly dormant tradition of ‘Jewish theatre’ resulted in an awkward ritual theatre, failing to convince audience or critics that any such tradition ever existed.

Since the beginning of the 1980s the annual Akko Fringe Festival has served as a hothouse for new playwrights, directors, actors and designers. Most established companies started travelling frequently to various international festivals. Several plays, especially by Sobol and Levin, were translated and produced in Europe and the United States.

Current Israeli theatre is often described as nonconformist and critical of the political establishment. The case of Itzhak La’or’s Ephraim Returns to the Army (1986), banned by official censorship for ‘defamation of the military forces in the [occupied] territories’ and then released by ruling of the Supreme Court of Justice, epitomizes the heated discussion concerning theatre and politics in Israel. The National Children and Youth Theatre’s production of Daniella Carmi’s The Blast in Ahalan Street (1986), whose child heroine lives with her Jewish mother and Arab father in a Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, was reproached by the Minister of Education and Culture for ‘encouraging inter-marriages between Jews and Arabs’ (the couple in the play live unmarried, since there is no civil marriage in Israel). And the opening night of Sobol’s Jerusalem Syndrome (1988), an historical parable attempting to allude to the current political situation, was physically interrupted by members of right-wing groups. A closer look at mainstream Israeli drama reveals, however, a self-imposed reticence as far as a deep down analysis of Zionist ideology is concernerd. Even plays dealing openly with acute political issues related to the effects of the occupation on Israeli society (such as Motti Lerner’s Throes of Messiah or Benni Barabash’s One of Us, both 1987) are reluctant to transcend the portrayal of the conflict as an internal Jewish problem. In the politically charged climate within which Israeli culture is still seeking self-identity and definition, such a reluctance leaves much to be desired. The Gesher (‘Bridge’) company, founded by Russian immigrants headed by director Yevgeny Aryeh, in spite of some fine theatrical achievements, has so far failed to plug itself into the Israeli cultural identity, whereas the attempt to create a state-supported Palestinian repertory theatre, based in Haifa, proved a short-lived venture. The mainstream Israeli theatre of the 1990s became stale and commercialized, barely open to ideological or aesthetic daring, a closed shop run by a narrow cultural clan of managers, directors and playwrights, hardly allowing for the emergence of new voices. Mediocre box-office hits dominated the repertory houses, marginalizing the more creative theatre events: some promising fringe work, a few feminist plays (by Miriam Kayni, Shulamit Lapid or Hagit Ya’ari), Rina Yerushalmi’s often intriguing aesthetic experiments with her Itim Ensemble, and the work of some regional theatrical groups. One of the latter, Dudi Ma’ayan’s in Akko, staged a five-hour performance of Arbeit Macht Frei …, a breathtaking theatrical experience exploring the tension between the memory of the Holocaust and Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, which proved one of the most exciting and singular achievements of Israeli political theatre.