Egyptian Playwright Alfred Farag Analyzes Decline of Arab Theater

Dina Amin
Alfred Farag by Zareh for Al Jadid.
What is your opinion on the current state of theater in the Arab world, and do you believe theater is declining in the Arab world today?
Yes, there is a decline. The condition of the theater is not good. I always hear friends say that the situation of the theater reflects the overall social and economic situation – for instance, class conflict and the increasing poverty level. But I always reply that even if the social and economic situations are bad, there is no reason for the theater to be on the decline. I think theater can flourish under dire circumstances and attain far-reaching goals in both prospering and declining social and economic conditions. For instance, there was good theater at the beginning of the Western Renaissance despite difficult social and economic conditions. Likewise, Arab theater thrived at the turn of the century during the colonial period. The theater is a call for resistance; it does not just reflect social conditions. It challenges them. The theater has the power to change prevailing negative conditions.
Does theater require courage, in your opinion?
Who are the main creators of this courageous apparatus – actors, directors, playwrights, or producers? And what is your opinion on theater artists today?
The primary makers of theater are the playwrights because they are the initiators of the word. They create a leap in the dark. This leap starts the whole process of theater-making. After that, the roles of actors and directors begin. To those artists, I say – you must take the plunge.
What has prevented them from taking the plunge today? Does it involve training or awareness?
It is a combination of reasons. The main reason is that today's general education and cultural sensibility aren't what they used to be. Let me give you specific examples: If you compare the role a small magazine such as “al-Risalah” – run by Lutfi al-Zayyat – played in our cultural life in the 30s and 40s with the role of all the magazines published today, you will realize how ineffective most of them are. In the past, Arab societies across the Arab world used to choose the most intellectual minds for their cultural leadership. Our generation witnessed Gibran Kahlil Gibran, Mikhail Nuaimeh, Taha Hussayn, Mai Ziyadeh, Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, and Tawfiq al-Hakim leading our cultural life. Those writers inspired the students; some writers became university professors, broadcasting consultants, and even ministers of culture and education. They had actual power and leadership over our cultural development. From their respective positions, they were able to influence and disseminate culture. One must then ask, what is the role of intellectuals in our life today, and what is the share of the cultural leaders across the Arab world? I say that the role of Arab intellectuals shrunk drastically in the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps the numerous wars that the Arab nations were involved in is why the leadership of army officers overtook any other form of leadership.
This applies to playwrights or writers in general. What about other artists?
And artists too. Look around you: those artists known for creativity, courage, and insight are not leading the theaters. They are not placed in positions where they could make a difference or provide guidance to a new generation.
In your opinion, what is the value of theater festivals? For instance, the annual Experimental Theater Festival in Cairo?
Generally speaking, I rarely have negative opinions about any collective artistic endeavor. But this festival, like others – please allow me to include in this discussion the theater festivals of Carthage, Damascus, and Jordan – have not generated any new artistic or philosophical currents. They have not influenced the development of theater art. Theater flourished in the 60s without festivals, so why don't those festivals help release new artistic energies? Festivals are meant to do just that. Why haven't our festivals opened up new possibilities in the theater?
Do you attribute this to management and administration problems?
I think so. Of course, it has several reasons, but I think that bureaucracy is at the top of those. I'm not sure how they manage theater festivals in Tunis or Jordan; in Egypt, to organize a festival, many administrative offices and personnel are involved – are they qualified? Would they produce works that they themselves neither understand nor appreciate? The paradox is that any truly original or groundbreaking project will no doubt be unappealing and unfamiliar to the system and staff of production, for it will not resemble anything they have seen before. [Laughing] So the management of those festivals asks artists to present innovative projects that somehow fit a bureaucratic artistic agenda's vision (or lack thereof). How can this succeed?
Another problem lies in criticism. Criticism in newspapers and magazines is divided equally among productions.
What do you mean by that?
I mean that both good and bad theater get the same level of attention, coverage, and compliments. This strips criticism of educational value and removes the theatrical event from intellectual dialectics. As it is today, criticism is just bouquets bestowed on all artists equally, regardless of the quality of the art they present. In my opinion, the role of criticism has shrunk immensely in the theater. Unfortunately, a theater without criticism is like a structure without one of its columns.
The third issue that has contributed to the decline of theater – an aspect that is not often discussed – is the price of tickets. In the 60s, at the peak of the theatrical upheaval, there was a balance between ticket prices and people's average income, especially the middle class and its enlightened groups. Perhaps this was the reason theater was so successful during that decade. We must reflect on all these problems when we discuss theater and not just judge it as good or bad without researching its various problems.
Are you referring to state theater or commercial theater?
But tickets for state productions are reasonably priced?
No. Fifty pounds is not reasonable. Cheap or expensive are ambiguous terms; ticket prices should be compatible with the average income.
At any rate, this problem is not particular to Egypt but is international. Here in the States, it remains a problem too. That does not make it acceptable, but it is a worldwide problem.
Ticket pricing is not a simple matter. I have studied research conducted by European research centers that tried to regulate ticket prices by the general income. All I'm saying is that this issue should be tackled in a more scientific manner in our part of the world.
Another important aspect that has contributed to the decline of theater in Egypt – I will only talk about Egypt in this respect, but perhaps other Arab countries have the same problem – is the backwardness of stage technology and the lack of elegance and comfort in the auditoriums. I mean the architecture of the place, including seats, foyers, cafes, etc. The overall aesthetic condition of theaters does not encourage one to go to the theater. We seem to forget that theater is, after all, an outing. Why should I leave my home to visit a place void of all beauty? This is alongside the total backwardness of stage technology, from lighting to sound, costumes, stage sets, and the mechanical aspects of scene changes, etc.
I don't know why we always discuss theater's flourishing or declining conditions from the point of view of the program only; we must discuss those aspects which constitute the theatrical event as well. I will discuss the program too, but I must also bring to everyone's attention those issues because they somehow seem to escape the attention of scholars, research centers, and critics. I must also exclude a few modern private theaters from this discussion, but these theaters charge very high ticket prices.
As to theater programs, schedules, and planning, I can safely say this is non-existent in privately-run and state theaters. There is neither planning nor vision, although I always hear artistic directors talk about their “vision.” I believe theater in Egypt proceeds blindfolded bila ru'ya wa-la ru'yah (lacking in foresight and vision).
For no one, wa-la ra'i (nor opinion) seems to critique that oversight.
Exactly. In the past, the theatrical mission of theaters was to present yearly a wide selection of international dramatic repertoire. That's how our generation was introduced to Beckett, Ionesco, Ibsen, Pirandello, Brecht, Weiss, and even some lesser-known plays by Molière or Shakespeare. The National Theater in Egypt included world drama in at least a third of its annual productions. This approach is now nonexistent; I don't know why.
But it has been resuscitated recently.
No. The international repertoire is no longer a consideration in Egyptian theaters.
However, the “House of Bernarda Alba” was produced no less than five or six times in Egypt in the past five years, once at the National Theater.
True, but now we suffer from another syndrome: rewriting classics.
Do you mean Arabization or stage adaptation?
No, I mean “rewriting.” A young, upcoming writer would rewrite a play without shame and without finding this a violation of the ideas and creative input of the original writer. Those (re)writers have no qualms about doing so to international and Arab drama, so they have also rewritten some Arab classics. I'm sorry to report that even Tawfiq al-Hakim's drama has fallen prey to that. They have gone as far as changing the titles of some Arab classics. As members of the board of the Theater Committee in Egypt, we have tried several times to stop such horrendous violations, but they continue. Again, I mention this as a deficiency within the theaters' programming and planning.
Another problem with theaters' programs in Egypt is neglecting to establish an Egyptian repertoire. Plays by Ahmad Shawqi, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Numan Ashur, Yusuf Idris, Sad Wahbah, Alfred Farag, Nagib Surur, etc., are names that no longer appear on the theaters' programs. There is no excuse for that oversight, especially since, during this last decade, the National Center for Theater has discovered plays that were either not known to us before or were lost. Some of the works retrieved are by Ismail Asim and Ibrahim Ramzi and plays by Badi Khayri and Yusuf Wahbi.
A great deal of attention is now given to those plays as they are being reprinted. Furthermore, the Egyptian Book Organization (Hay'at al-Kitab al-Misriyyah) has recently published “The Theater Dictionary” (Qamus al-Masrah); this work makes information about plays accessible to whoever is interested, thereby preserving our dramatic heritage. Ironically, while all this attention is given to the Arab dramatic heritage, the different theaters' administrations continue to exclude them from stage productions.
I must add here, however, that only last week, I read in one of the newspapers that Faruq Husni, the Egyptian Minister of Culture, had called for a general meeting with all artistic directors of state-run theaters and requested that an Egyptian repertoire be incorporated regularly in all theaters. This has given me hope that the National and avant-garde theaters will again become houses for national and international repertoires. Should classic revivals occur, I think this would undoubtedly bring about a much-needed theatrical resurrection.
On another topic, I would like to know your opinion on the current literary censorship which has taken place in Egypt for the past year or so. As you may know, this act has banned 70 books, including “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran.
I don't know the particulars of that specific incident, but I certainly do not endorse censoring our literary production. I also do not think that censorship is a solution in any case.
In the West, there is a high level of theater attendance. How do you compare that with the Arab world?
In the Arab world, attendance is very low, because the people are not encouraged to attend more theater. In the Western world, people learn to attend and appreciate theater as children from elementary school onwards. This helps form theater-going habits, which we do not have. The habit then develops into a need for the aesthetics of dramatic performances. In the 60s, our theater attained that because it fulfilled the people's need for social justice by projecting the various social injustices. Once theater establishes such communication with its audience, it becomes necessary. The theater has now lost its touch with reality and its audience; it has lost its power to communicate. This is in addition to all of the reasons that I have given you, all of which have contributed to the decline of theater.
Some non-Arab scholars have claimed that the Arab mind is incapable of producing tragedy. Can you comment on that?
To begin with, if their assumption were true, I see no shame in it. Now, suppose we contemplate the concept of the tragedy itself. In that case, we will realize that it does not pervade modern Western theater either, in comparison to its prevalence in Greek and Renaissance drama. On the other hand, I don't like statements that create an acute gap between East and West because I believe that a human being is a human being whether she/he is Western or Arab. The human condition is the same everywhere. I like to believe that what people appreciate artistically in one part of the world is appreciated in other parts of the world.
Having said that, I must also say that tragedy, in its Aristotelian sense, is closely associated with fate. So the question that I must pose here is, do Arabs not have the same relationship with the fate that ancient Greeks had? In my opinion, Arabs' belief in fate is even stronger than that. I will even go as far as to say that this implicit belief in fate is indeed an intellectual flaw of the Arabs. The fact is, I cannot respond to this question in any concrete way except to say that I myself have attempted to write tragedy several times.
And you did. You wrote “Suqut Fir`awn,” “Sulayman al-Halabi” and “Al-Zir Salim.”
Yes, and they were successful and highly appreciated by the audience. Furthermore, there are many successful productions of Greek and Shakespearean tragedies in Egypt. Why do you think people appreciate them so much? They must speak to them somehow.
In Egypt, plays by Arab dramatists are not taught at any level in schools. What are the implications of that?
This is an enormous flaw in our education because in teaching a younger generation theater, you are teaching them the spirit of dialectics.
The problem is that the younger generation in Egypt is only taught Western drama. They learn to read – as we all did – Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, but not Tawfiq al-Hakim and Alfred Farag.
Do you mean in English classes?
In general, as well as in English classes.
This creates alienation from one's cultural heritage.
Additionally, it indicates that theater remains outside of our educational system. What does that mean to you?
It is a huge weakness in our educational system. While Western drama can be part of linguistic training, Arab drama must be integral to our literary education. I repeat – theater teaches the art of discussion, disagreement, and intellectual dialogue. It also sharpens the students' analytical tools and deepens their comprehension of hidden textual meanings and verbal ambiguities. It teaches them the art of dialectics and debate. These are all very necessary tools that the upcoming generations must learn.
Does theater have to be a "state" theater?
No, state theaters were accidental. When the National Theater was established in the 30s, it was a non-profit organization subsidized by the government to achieve certain educational goals. But the state theaters as we know them today were established in the 60s. It is not the ideal way to do theater, nor has it always been successful. I admire the relationship between the government and the National Theater in England; the government helps with funding, provided that the program includes a national repertoire, reduced tickets for students to matinee shows, and the production of several ethnically diverse plays annually.
That would be us; has Arabic drama been produced there?
Unfortunately, not yet.
Can theater be a good medium for an autobiography?
Is it correct to assume you have used aspects of your own experience in writing “`Awdat al-Ard” (Returning of the Land) and “Al-Shakhs” (The Person).
Why only these? Every play I've written is, in a way, autobiographical. Look at “Hallaq Baghdad” (The Barber of Baghdad).
That's not what I mean. I mean that a character represents Alfred Farag in “`Awdat al-Ard” and “Al-Shakhs” in a more direct way.
In response to your question, theater can be a medium for autobiography. For instance, “After the Fall” by Arthur Miller is considered autobiographical, as well as “The Seagull” by Chekhov. From this angle, “Al-Shakhs” is autobiographical in a surrealist way.
Because of the reconstruction of memory.
Exactly. It is both memory and reality meshed together.
Last but not least, why does theater pose a threat to some governments?
Because those governments are weak. Strong governments support and appreciate theater because they realize that social and political criticism is the role of theater. Theater aids in the development of society. How can any government fear the development of its society? Historically, governments have supported theater, even the governments of autocratic leaders such as the princes of the small German kingdoms or the Caesars of ancient Rome. Throughout history, they have been the biggest benefactors of opera, ballet, drama, and music. It was under their auspices that beautiful edifices were const­­ructed to host performances. Therefore, governments that fear theater are weak; they fear social and civic development.
This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 29, Fall 1999.
Copyright © 1999 AL JADID MAGAZINE