Lebanese Maroun al-Nakash (1817-55) was a genius playwright who was neither studied nor adequately appreciated during his lifetime. When the scholars of the Arab cultural renaissance failed to recognize him, al-Nakash was forgotten even though his work was intimately linked to the ideas of the renaissance. In particular, his play "The Miser" (1848) was a great musical piece that showed his familiarity with Moliére's "The Miser" (1668).
In "The Miser," al-Nakash used 90 popular musical rhythms from Lebanon and its surrounding region. The widespread illiteracy at the time made theater alien to the general population, but al-Nakash's genius was to combine familiar music with theater, forming a musical experiment that appealed to illiterate audiences. Al-Nakash drew on Italian, French and Lebanese traditions at the time, paving the way for an Arab cultural renaissance.
How did we learn about al-Nakash's achievements after a century and a half -- or about other pioneers in the history of Arab theater? We find the answers in Khalida Said's "Al-Harakat al-Masrahiyya fi Lubnan, Tajarab wa Afaq, 1960-1975" (The Arab Theater Movement in Lebanon, Experiments and Horizons, 1960-1975), published in Beirut by the Theater Committee of Baalbek International Festivals, 1999, 718pp.
Said's contribution, writes Nabil al-Haffar in the London-based Al Wasat, "combines scientific methodology with field research." Said's research method is not the only defining characteristic of this book: addressing the lack of documentation during critical period of Lebanese theater is an equally admirable accomplishment. While critics concur on the central role Beirut played in the 1960s as a home of diverse theatrical experimentation, especially in consolidating the experimental identity of the modern Arab theater, this movement was not accompanied by criticism capable of studying the phenomenon and analyzing the changes it brought about, writes Abduh Wazzen in Al Hayat. The movement, Wazzen continues, lacked academic critics applying scientific and methodological criticism; instead the task of criticism was left to journalists who offered quick coverage rather than analysis.
When the author was commissioned to write this book by the officials in the Arab Theater, they set a condition that it should not exceed 250 pages, a condition they withdrew after they found the book a valuable and indispensable reference system. Most critics and specialists agree that this is one of the most important --and perhaps the most important -- reference book on the Lebanese theater movement. To compile this voluminous work (718 pages), Said went to great lengths to document the history of a movement that affected both the theater and the politics of Lebanon during a critical period of the country's history. Said interviewed 58 playwrights and theater specialists, amassing 280 hours of interviews on audiocassette.
Her research, which consumed five years, was innovative and modern as well as toilsome; Said'sbook was born out of many sources. First she searched for information about playwrights and looked for full or partial texts of their work. Then she formulated interview questions after a close reading of the texts. Wazzen explains that the search for these texts was an essential and difficult step, for most Lebanese playwrights left their works as mere performances, and they certainly did not record their experiments or the ideas they embraced and preached as pioneers. Despite the extensive time and effort spent on this project, Said's only regret seems to be missed opportunities to interview some playwrights who have left Lebanon or were unable to meet with her due to illness.
If interviews with playwrights, directors, and authors were the first source, the second was her own experience. Said was an active part of the Lebanese cultural scene, making her familiar with and knowledgeable about both playwrights and works staged in Lebanon since the late 1950s.
Her third source consists of journalistic accounts, including different articles; news items; commentaries; interviews in Arabic, French, Armenian, and English; publications; as well as lectures, readings, and panels. The author explains that the theater was active in four languages: Arabic, English, French and Armenian. Said hopes to add any important evidence she might have missed to a second edition.
Books comprise her fourth source, whether they are about the Arab theater in general, local theater, political theater, or the theater of the absurd. Another source are the plays themselves, most of which remain unpublished; thus Said has summarized them. Finally, her research included a huge quantity of correspondence.
Said's research led her to conclude that the Lebanese theatrical movement grew out of ideas and did not emerge out of traditional popular customs as was the case in Europe. It was an urban production brought about by certain artistic families involved in writing and translation. The Lebanese theater matured after 1965, benefiting from the democratic atmosphere that existed at the time which enabled it to diversify and develop. According to Wazzen, she identifies two high points among two broad movements: the first has been labeled "renaissance," a period that started in late 19th century and continued until the 1920s, and he second "modernism." The theater was at the heart of the movement of ideas.
When Huda Ibrahim of the Oman-based Nazwa magazine asked the author about the discontinuity between the latter part of the renaissance and the late 1950s, Said said: "The retreat of the renaissance dream was accompanied by a retreat in the historical plays in particular, with the theater losing its educational discourse. Writing for theater, which was closely associated with literature at the time, could not stand up to the wave of realism. We also must not forget the role of political and economic factors, especially WW II and its aftermath. During that period, the art of cinema dominated the visual, fictional, and entertainment scene, supported by economic resources that overpowered theater. Theater would not return to the peak of its energy until it rediscovered its discourse and again met its social and cultural function in accord with the movement of Arab modernism."
Despite her focus on the golden era of the Lebanese theater during the 1960s, the author did not forget the elements of the beginning, especially the pioneering efforts of people like Maroun al-Nakash, the immigration of artists for Egypt, the impact of Baalbek's Festivals Committee, and the Group of Lebanese Theater founded by Antoine Multaqa and other pioneering artists.
The question of the theatrical text receives considerable attention from the author, for the text is not a problem confined to Lebanon but to the rest of the Arab world and the entire developing world. Despite the participation of the modernist figures in theatrical composition like Adonis, Onsi Al-Haj, Issam Mahfouz and others, there has been a continuing reliance on the translated or the "Lebanized" text.
Said defines 1965 as a turning point in the course of the Lebanese theater, when Lebanon witnessed the opening of three theaters: the theater of Al Ashrafiyyeh, Beirut Theater, and the National Theater. These openings coincided with a new law which decreed the establishment of a School of Fine Arts with a specialized theater division.
Wazzen describes the book as the first encyclopedic system which fills a vacuum left by a legacy of theatrical criticism. Relying on her insightful vision, education, and methodology, and her long experience in the field of literary criticism, the author sums up a crucial era of the history of Lebanese theater. Said confined herself to the task of laying a foundation, keeping a distance from the War Theater, leaving opportunities for other critics and scholars to take on the mission of continuing what she began.
This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 33 (Fall 2000)
Copyright (c) 2000 by Al Jadid