Sadallah Wannus: His Last Five Years, His Greatest as Playwright

Ali Alsouleman.

The Syrian playwright Sadallah Wannus died on the 15th May 1997 , after a long battle with cancer. He left behind 21 plays and four books in addition to many articles and essays concerned with aspects of culture and theater. Born in 1941, he published his first play, “ Midoza Tuhadiq fi al-hayat” (“Midos Stares at Life”) at the age of 22. 

Though Wannus was always productive, his last five years of life saw his greatest creativity. Between 1992 and 1997 he wrote seven plays: “Munamnamaat Tarikhiah” (Historical Miniatures), “Yaum Min Zamanina” (A Day of Our Time), “Tuqus al-Isharat wa al-Tahoulat” (The Rites of Signs and Transformations), “Ahlam Shakkia” (Miserable Dreams), “Malhamat al-Sarab”(The Mirage Epic), “Bilad Adyak Min al-Hub” (Too Narrow Homelands for Love) and “Al-Ayam al-Makhmurah” (The Drunken Days). Death became a recurring theme in this last phase of his writing while he was confronting and living with a terminal illness. He also published a collection of stories called “An al-Zakira wa al-Maut ” (Memory and Death). In this volume, Wannus muses on the theme of death in the remarkable entry “Rihla fi Majahil Maut Abir” (A Journey Through the Obscurities of a Passing Death). Scholars believe this text to be the only one of its kind in Arabic literature; Wannus goes beyond philosophical and metaphysical approaches to death to the reality of the experience. Moreover, he breaks many taboos as he faces death — a naked reality which cannot be hidden or helped by either faith or illusions. “From darkness I came, and to darkness I return,” is the only certainty Wannus offers. 

In “Zakirat al-Nubouat” (The Memory of Predictions), a story included in “Memory and Death,” Wannus recalls his months in Paris for medical treatments in 1992. He recounts how the French doctors told him that he had only six months to live. When he actually lived another five very active and creative years, the miracle of his life considering that dire prognosis enhanced his prestige and popularity almost to the point of canonization. That miracle became the subject for a number of studies and reviews concerning his theater, focusing on the relationship between his abundant and improving writing during the 1990s, his physical suffering, and his consciousness of impending death. 

Wannus's heroic struggle with cancer was undoubtedly a primary factor in the remarkable developments in his writing as well as the dramatic changes of his attitude towards theater — and the world. When examined in depth, those developments and changes prove to be a unique instance of his own evolution harmonizing with the new socio-political reality in the region and, furthermore, a demonstration of a new sensibility. 

" In the last phase of Wannus's writing, characterization is the focus of the new dramatic structure. Now the character occupied the theatrical scene and became the central element in the dramatic representation. For the first time, Wannous' characters became individual human beings, structured not only according to social reality or an ideological perspective, but to psychological, ontological, and sexual realities "

In this period of the 1990s, Wannus introduced new stylistic and thematic features stemming from various factors; political reality is primary among these. He explained that the new direction was a result of his hiatus from writing during the 1980s and the intensive revision he did of his work. Emphasizing the contrasting political situations, he explained how the political changes in the Arab world between the late 1970s and the end of the 1980s had affected his writing. His dramatic writing between the play “HaflatSamar Min ajl 5 Huzairan” (An Evening Entertainment for the 5th of June), 1968, and the play “Al-Malik Huwa al-Malik” (The King is the King), 1977, was based on a belief in the possibility of bringing about political change in the region. Theater at that time could be active politically and historically, Wannus explains, because the political regimes had not yet become totalitarian, and encouraged a degree of democracy. Therefore, in this earlier phase he structured the plays according to the relationship between the stage and the audience, where the main concern of the dramatic text is the theatrical performance. It was a social and political event aimed to create a dialogue with the audience in order to increase its awareness of the political condition and the collective reality of the individual. 

In the last phase of Wannus's writing, characterization is the focus of the new dramatic structure. Now the character occupied the theatrical scene and became the central element in the dramatic representation. For the first time, Wannus's characters became individual human beings, structured not only according to social reality or an ideological perspective, but to psychological, ontological, and sexual realities. This new individual characterization was a major development in Wannus's work, showing itself in the changed relationship between dramatic representation and reality. 

In the pre-1980s phase, reality was based on certainty. This certainty controlled and characterized the two major dualities in the dramatic world, the duality of the ruler and the ruled and the duality of the stage and the audience. Wannus did not question the nature of this truth, but instead explored how it could be brought to the stage and presented to the audience in such a way that there was no doubt about it, according to critic Yumna al-Eid. In the latter phase of his writing, however, the nature of truth would be more relative; truth became questionable, and Wannus would admit the possibility of multiple truths. In “Al-Ayyam Al-Makhmura” (The Drunken Days), his last play, the characters discuss this idea: 

Al-Sabiyya : what is truth? 

Al-Arajuz : a needle lost in a dunghill. 

Al-Sabiyya : there are stories and news about truth. But the truth... 

Al-Arajuz : it is a needle lost in a dunghill. 

Al-Shab : I found the wound wounds. And the way to truth is through labyrinths and gaps. So, I had no option but to imagine and form my own views, and instead of the truth I reformulated the family in a story. 

Al-Arajuz : Oh my son, there is nothing except stories and news about the truth…” 

The truth no longer equated reality. It became a question, examined within social reality but according to the individual approach of each character. The characters encounter the tension at the meeting point of the individual human being and social reality. Two new dramatic movements provide the framework for characters in Wannus's theater. The first is self-consciousness, a central movement producing a kind of subjectivity, and the second is the effort of the subject to retain its individuality within the social structure. As these two movements conflict with each other, the individual's action always contradicts the collective reality. This new struggle created the hero in Wannus's theater for the first time. In 1994'“Tuqus al-Isharat wa al-Tahoulat” Mumina/Almaza associates individuality with freedom, explaining her attitude towards collective social values: “The first step in my journey is to throw your norms behind my back. I must liberate myself from your rules and characterizations and commandments in order to obtain my self. I must transcend the fate of violation in order to reclaim my body and to know it...” 

These two movements, of individual characterization and of a relative truth, together form the principal motif in all his plays of the 1990s. The details of this motif differ in each play, but in general it reflects a new sensibility and Wannus's unique developmental relationship with reality. 

This new sensibility is reflected by the writer's attempt to liberate his writing from the political and ideological frames which had characterized his drama in the pre-1980s phase. This liberation occurred, according to Wannus, not only on the political and ideological level, but also on the human and individual level: writing became for the first time a “freedom,” Wannus told Mary Elias. In this freedom, he tells us, he found a release from the earlier illusions and beliefs regarding individuality when, “I considered personal experiences and individual privacies to be bourgeois concerns and superficial matters which were insubstantial and could be ignored. At that time, I was mainly interested in the consciousness of history. Therefore, I mistakenly supposed that the concern for the movement of history must supercede the individual... so when writing plays I always felt that I was outside my self.” 

In going thus beyond the political and the social, Wannus directs his fundamental questions towards the ontological. By breaking the taboos, he created in the last five years of his life a body of dramatic work, which is both politically and humanly more rich and more significant than anything he had written before. AJ 

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 7, no. 34 (Winter 2001) 
Copyright © by Al Jadid (2001) 

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