Sa'dallah Wannous: A Life in Theater

Manal Swairjo
A web-based image of Sa'dallah Wannous.

Selected by UNESCO and the International Institute of Theater, the Syrian playwright Sa'dallah Wannous presented this year's address to the world theater community during its celebration of International Theater Day on March 27. This was the first selection of an Arab writer since the organization started this tradition in 1963, indicating the organization's recognition of the Syrian playwright's achievements, and those of Arabic theater in general.

In his address, Wannous called for "a comprehensive dialogue between individuals as well as between nations." He sees "theater as a starting point for launching such dialogue, which could grow to include all nations and cultures of the world." A pioneer of modern Arabic theater, Wannous took upon himself the defense of theater against the degrading forces that threaten modern culture everywhere. "Theater," he said, "is not only an expression of civil society, but also a necessary condition for its establishment and growth;" for there is no true theater outside civil society, and there is no civil society in the absence of democracy and respect of the rights of individuals.

Since his selection, Wannous has been celebrated and honored by theater institutes and art groups across the Arab world, from Damascus to Tunis, via Beirut and Cairo. Numerous articles and columns discussing his work have appeared in the Arabic press, and his Theater Day address has been translated to most of the world's languages.

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 Alba'th 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 Sixties, 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 Sixties 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 focussed 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.

For example, when Gush of Blood (1963) was written, the Arab world was severely divided, and its nationalist regimes in particular were viciously at war with one another, a situation so dismal it turned "the birth of resistance to no more than a dream or a desperate wish," as he wrote in the play's introduction.

In the late Sixties, triggered by the Arab defeat of the 1967 war with Israel, political Arabic theater was born. The defeat had resulted in the creation of a new level of awareness among artists and intellectuals, particularly toward the government-controlled press and its infiltration of popular culture. The new movement in theater could not but make use of the experiences of Western political dramatists, such as Brecht, as well as the leaders of documentary theater, such as Weiss.

Wannous contributed to this new theater with his first political play, Night Party for June 5 (1968), which -- through its landslide success in Damascus and Beirut -- managed to direct the attention of audiences of poetry and novels to theater. It had a similar effect on Arab writers and artists.

In 1969, joined by a group of playwrights, Wannous called for an Arab Festival for Theater Arts to be hosted in Damascus, later realized and attended by dramatists from all over the Arab world. In this festival, he introduced his new project: "theater of politicization," to replace the traditional "political theater." He intended theater to play a more positive role in the process of social and political change. He believed that theater in itself could be a tool of revolution and reform and may, in fact, succeed in politicizing popular culture to the extent of achieving political victory. Theater was the battle he chose to fight at a time when conventional political and military wars were being lost.

For his new "project," Wannous resorted to "experimental theater," a form that had matured in Europe, exemplified by the works of Brecht. However, experimentation was not adopted by Wannous in its original European realization, which was rather elitist and formal. Instead, experimentation for him was a research effort to find the theater that fulfills society's needs. He sought to create a realistic theater that was effective under the socio-political conditions.

In attempting this, he wrote for interactive theater some of his most powerful plays, such as The Elephant, the King of All Times (1969), The Adventure of Jaber's Head (1970), The King is the King (1977), and Hanthala's Journey from Slumber to Consciousness (1978). In those plays, Wannous introduced improvisation, live music and song, story telling and even direct conversation with the audience in an attempt to keep a live interaction with it. In this most impressive way, he managed to grant his audience the chance to make moral judgments and openly take sides on issues even before leaving the theater hall. Their participation was, thus, evaluative and critical, often turning the show into a small-scale social phenomenon.

In the late Seventies, Wannous helped establish and later taught at The High Institute for Theater Arts in Damascus. He also started Theater Life magazine, of which he was editor-in-chief for years. In 1982, and in the aftermath of the Israeli siege and invasion of Beirut, Wannous lived through a period of shock, ceasing to write for a decade. His silence throughout the eighties was part of a process of re-reading and contemplation of history. Above all, it was his way of facing defeat, not only in war but also in his project of politicization. He and most of his generation of dramatists believed in the ability of theater to affect change by joining the national cause. For him, the future was well defined and political reform was within reach -- he was only to discover otherwise later.

In his June 16, 1996 interview with Mary Elias in Al Tariq magazine, he declared, "I had illusions on all levels, including the humanistic one. For the first time I feel free in my writing. In the past, I used to subject work to self-censorship, deliberately leaving out what I thought was secondary... I used to think that personal suffering and the problems of the individual were issues of a superficial nature and that they should be avoided in writing. My core interest was in understanding history ... Now, I continue to write for the stage, undoubtedly. However, I no longer think of the theater hall and audience while writing. This allowed me the freedom to borrow from the novel, the art of individual writing ... The role of the intellectual became less fanciful and more realistic in my eyes. This role, which I now believe to be no more than critical, is far more effective than indulging in daily political concerns or preaching packaged ideas and fancy slogans."

In this new spirit, and with continued passion for history, Wannous delivered to Arabic theater a series of plays no less political than their predecessors, starting with The Rape (1990), a play about the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1992, he was diagnosed with cancer which he has been resisting with determination. Since then, he has written Fragments from History (1994), Rituals of Signs and Transformations (1994), Miserable Dreams (1995), A Day of Our Time (1995), and finally Mirage Epic (1996).

Despite some influence from European theater, Wannous' works do not suffer from mimicry and duplication. In Night Party for June 5, for example, he canceled the curtain and simplified stage mechanisms -- both characteristic of Brecht's experimentalism -- in order to convey the cozy atmosphere of early Syrian theater gatherings. Also, the story teller took the form of a Hakawati, the traditional storyteller of 19th Century Syria. The Hakawati, to whom the Arab audience passionately relates, appeared on stage to disclaim another teller's narration and to present his own, leaving the audience with questions about the truth.

From Brecht, Wannous extracted for his own work two points: first, a well-defined mission for theater that changes the world rather than simply explains it; and second, Brecht's vision of the role of history in determining fate. Wannous saw that the social and political efficacy of his own theater necessitated the complete avoidance of the artistic and technical forms used by Brecht. Instead, he favored the techniques of the early pioneers of Syrian theater, such as Abu Khalil Alqabbani and Maroun An Naqash.

Wannous' use of the Hakawati, the old-fashioned popular coffeeshop and the folk-tale were attempts to communicate with the audience through Alqabbani's authentic methods, which he thought to be useful and effective. His play, An Evening with Abi Khalil Alqabbani is based on one of Alqabbani's early 20th Century plays and on his struggle against the Ottoman authorities to establish a theater movement in Damascus.

Wannous' authenticity lies in his understanding of the early pioneers' real-life experiences as well as their theatrical methods, for example their favoring stage action over script. The realization that his situation bore a similarity to theirs fostered this understanding. His silence in the eighties was another realistic endeavor, in which withdrawal was his defense against the increasing commercialization of theater and television.

History, and subjects from the past generally, provided a good resource for Wannous. His focus was on the Arab defeat in history and on the exposure of the negative sides of celebrated historical figures. Fragments from History, for example, is based on the fall of Damascus to invading Mongol armies in the 15th century. In this play, the religious scholar and scientist, Ibn Khaldun, is portrayed as an opportunist, a portrayal largely dependent on historic facts that are rarely mentioned, such as his ambition for power and his ingratiating himself with rulers. Sheikh Attathli, another religious figure, refused to surrender the besieged city, fighting and dying as a martyr. On the other hand, Attathli had been ruthless in exercising his religious authority in at least one instance: he ordered the arrest and beating of a colleague and the burning of his books. Attathli favored literalism and authoritarianism in religion over this colleague's position for reason and choice.

Such contradictions in Wannous' character's and tensions in their motivations prompt critical thought in the audience. The play's message is clear: the social and political conditions that fostered injustice, corruption and suppression of free thought in Damascus were central to the city's fall. However, the new message is that individuals take no less responsibility in the making of history than nations and governments. The underlying impulses that drive individuals' actions in moments of crisis can be major forces in history. For example, Ibn Khaldun's ironic mistake of seeking self-promotion in a time of siege and consequently selling his knowledge to Tamerlane at the gates of Damascus resulted in the destruction of the city and the burning of its libraries by the Mongols. Such lessons from the 15th century are left for the audience to deduce, in order to prompt self-criticism in the Arab nations which fell victims of similar circumstances in the current century. Thus, in the games of history lie the power of wisdom, and in wisdom lies hope for the future.

Despite his cancer, Wannous continues to work and produce. Notwithstanding his anxiety regarding the future of theater, and culture in general, he remains full of hope. "Theater is in decline!" he said in his Theater Day address, reminding us of the present crisis in art and culture. In the materialistic world of television and commercial art, fewer people attend the theater. Theater halls are withdrawing into the neglected corners of modern cities, left alone to face the crisis and protect the future of culture. "I insist on writing for theater because of the need to defend it and keep it alive ...We are bound by hope, and what is happening in the world today cannot be the end of history," he concluded.

Manal A. Swairjo is a Ph.D. researcher-scientist.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 8, June 1996.

Copyright © 1996 AL JADID MAGAZINE