Friday, August 2, 2013

North African Dramatists

Egypt has long been the most important center of northern African theatre. Though Egypt has a considerable history of dramatic writers (going back at least to the 13th-century playwright Muhammad Ibn Daniyal) the first major playwright of modern Egypt was Tawfiq Al-Hakim. Critics hailed his 1933 play People of the Cave as a major breakthrough in Arabic drama. Though the play is based loosely on a legend that appears in the Koran, Al-Hakim departs from canonical versions of the story to pursue his own philosophical meditations.

Al-Hakim wrote a number of plays based on ancient sources, including his 1949 play King Oedipus, but one of his best pieces is the 1966 absurdist drama The Tree Climber. The play involves a detective who shows up at a man's house to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his wife. An enigmatic dervish appears and says that either the man has killed his wife or he has not yet killed her. After much consternation, the man's wife finally shows up, but flatly refuses to explain where she has been during her mysterious absence. In bitter frustration the man throttles his wife, inadvertently killing her and thus fulfilling the dervish's prophesy.

The Tree Climber is heavily influenced by the absurdist writers of the post-war period. However, Al-Hakim was able to take Western influences and integrate them into a new and definitively Egyptian drama. This would impact later playwrights, including Yusuf Idris, best known for his play Flipflap and His Master.

Next to Al-Hakim, the most famous playwright from Mediterranean Africa is probably the Algerian dramatist Abdelkader Alloula. A great lover of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, Alloula wrote adaptations of Gogol's Diary of a Madman and The Government Inspector. In the 1980s, he wrote The Generous Trilogy, consisting of three plays (The Sayings, The Generous, and The Veil) about good people living in an unjust and corrupt society. The last of these plays, The Veil, makes reference to the Gogol short story "The Nose" and contains much of the Russian writer's absurd humor.

Alloula was working on an adaptation of Moliere's Tartuffe when he was cowardly gunned down by religious extremists later identified as members of the Islamic Front for Armed Jihad. Clearly, hypocrites and bigots are not confined to 17th-century France. In Alloula's The Veil, any person who actually does something useful and tries to find some meaningful work in life is hounded by extremists both inside and outside the government. At the end of the play, the only way decent people can escape the injustice of armed thugs is to crawl inside a tomb.

Tunisia also has a thriving theatre scene. The Tunisian playwright best known in the West is probably Jalila Baccar, who in 1976 helped to found the experimental New Theatre in Tunis. In 1993, she helped found a new theatre group called Familia. After the Tunisian Revolution that began the Arab Spring movement, Baccar was offered the post of Minister of Culture in the country's transitional government. She turned down the job, claiming her only true home was in the theatre.

Baccar is most known in the West for her post-9/11 drama Araberlin, about a family of Arab descent living in Germany amidst suspicion and and mistrust. The play was originally staged in Berlin in 2002. An English translation was later commissioned by Horizon Theatre Rep in the United States.

One final dramatist from northern Africa I should mention is the Moroccan playwright Tayeb Saddiki. Born in Casablanca, Saddiki traveled to France to study architecture and ended up getting involved in stage design. When an actor got sick, Saddiki took over the part. He got bitten by the theatre bug and has been acting, directing, and writing plays ever since.

Saddiki has a wonderful play called We Were Created to Understand Each Other, which is available in English under the title The Folies Berbers. Though written in a very theatrical style, the play tells the true story of an attempt by diplomats to get King Louis XIV of France to marry his daughter Marie Anne de Bourbon to Sultan Moulay Ismail of Morocco. The 1993 work features the playwright Moliere as the only one who can bridge the gap between the countries' two cultures.