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Farewell to Sadallah Wannous, Noted Arab Playwright
By Elie Chalala
Sadallah Wannous, 56, famed Syrian playwright, died in mid-March, 1996. The cause of his death was cancer. In the June's issue of Al Jadid we celebrated his selection to give the keynote address to observe the International Theater Day. Wannous chose as his theme the "Hunger for Dialogue,” a dialogue he feels “starts with theater, than roams vastly, growing until it encompasses the world in all its different peoples, and diverse cultures.” In that special issue, Manal Swairjo, a contributing editor of this magazine, wrote a lengthy feature about his life and works from which we excerpt the following:
“Wannous was born in the village of Haseen Albahr, in Syria , where he received his early education. He studied journalism in Cairo and later served as editor of the art and cultural sections of the Syrian paper Al Baath and the Lebanese As Safir. He also served as editor-in-chief of the Syrian children's magazine Usama, and held for many years the directorship in the Music and Theater Administration of Syria.
“In the late 1960s, he traveled to Paris where he studied theater and encountered various currents, trends, and schools of European stage. His career as a playwright had begun in the early 1960s with several short (one-act) plays which were characterized by a display of his fundamental theme: the relationship between the individual and society and its authorities. Though often said to have been influenced by Existentialist and Anarchist European theater, these early works are focused on the “social condition” of the individual, rather than the issues of the “self” that mark existentialist literature. Wannous even reached further in these works, pointing to possibilities of resistance and the realistic chances the individual may have in standing up to governmental oppression and societal pressure in the corrupt political and economic atmospheres dominating the Arab world."
I translated and edited large section of Wannous'speech in the same issue. We reproduce here major portions of the speech.
Wannous believes “theater will remain the ideal forum in which man ponders his existential and historical condition. The feature of theater that makes it a place unparalleled is that the audience breaks out of their wilderness in order to examine the human condition in a collective context; theater awakens their belonging to the group, teaching them the richness of dialogue and the multiplicity of its levels. There is first a dialogue that takes place on stage, second, an implicit dialogue, and a third, a dialogue among members of the audience themselves.” This dialogue grows to encompass the community in which the performance takes place. As a result of this dialogue, “we feel free from the pain of our loneliness and become increasingly sensitive and conscious of our communality. Theater is therefore, not only one of many manifestations of civil society, but rather one of the many conditions of this society, one of the many necessities that sustain its establishment and one of the necessities of its growth and prosperity.”
In the wake of claiming this essential social role for theater, however, Wannous went on to lament the current theatrical decline: “Wherever I look, I see cities losing theaters, forcing them to isolate themselves into dark and neglected margins, at a time when we are witnessing the creation and an increase in night life, colored screens, and packaged trivialities. I am aware of no other period in which theater was of such dire economic and moral need. The allocations used to nourish it are declining year after year, and the attention by which it was surrounded has been changed to negligence equivalent to disdain, although often this negligence is cloaked in hypocrisy. The crisis of theater, regardless of its particularity, is part of a crisis that encompasses culture in general. We need not prove that a crisis of culture exists, and that culture is suffering from almost methodical marginalization and siege.”
Wannous went on to remark upon the irony that this marginalization is occurring at a time when both wealth and technology are exploding the possibilities of human communication. He seems to feel that while mankind is truly building a global village, it is a village in danger of being without a theater. Indeed, this globalization “has become almost the fundamental opposite of the utopia preached by the philosophers, and which nourished man's visions throughout centuries. This globalization increases inequality in resource distribution, deepens the gap between the very rich countries on one hand, and the hungry and poor peoples on the other. It also mercilessly destroys all forms of solidarity among groups, tearing them off into individuals weakened by loneliness and depression. Since there is no vision of the future, and because the people for the first time in history stopped daring to dream, the human conditions in the end of this century look dark and depressing.”
It is in just such critical conditions, according to Wannous, that “culture emerges to form the main front to confront this selfish globalization, a process that is void from any humanistic dimension. Culture is the medium which could develop critical positions, expose what goes on, reveal its constituents. Culture is the one which could aid man to regain his humanity, propose ideas and examples that make him more inquisitive, consciously and aesthetically. Under these circumstances, theater has a fundamental role in accomplishing critical and creative tasks which are tackled by culture. Theater will train us, through participation and example, on healing fissures and divisions afflicting groups, and it is theater which will revive the dialogue which we all lack.”
Wannous put a personal face on the issues he discussed when he referred to his own four year battle against cancer, saying “writing, particularly for the theater, was the most important weapon in my battle.” He spoke of his anger and surprise when asked why he went on writing in the face of the decline of the theater, saying that to stop writing for the theater, especially at this time in his life, would constitute, “a denial and treason my spirit cannot bear” that might actually hasten the end of that life. He went on to say, “I insist on writing for theater, because I want to defend it, and exert my efforts so this art remains alive... ‘Theater is in fact more than just art; it is a complex cultural phenomenon; were the world to either lose it or lack it, it would become lonelier, uglier and poorer.' “
Calling for a defense of culture and a restoration of theater “to the spotlight,” Wannous closed his remarks with an utterance both and sad and profoundly optimistic: “We are doomed by hope, and what takes place today cannot be the end of history.”