Revolutionary theatre of the Absurd from the Arab World
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Revolutionary theatre of the Absurd from the Arab World

Born in southern Lebanon, in the town of Jdiedet Marj Ayoun in 1939, Issam Mahfouz1 moved to Beirut, the country’s capital, at the age of twenty, where he quickly became involved in the movement to renovate and modernize Arabic poetry, spearheaded by the poets Yusuf al-Khal and Adonis. Mahfouz contributed articles to the influential review Poetry (Shi’r), co-founded by these two poets two years before his arrival in Beirut, which championed new experimental styles, particularly the use of vernacular Arabic instead of Modern Standard Arabic in literary works that continues to be the norm in Arabic writing. Several years later he wrote his first play, The China Tree (al-Zanzalakht), which premiered in Beirut in 1968. The China Tree, published in 1995 in the anthology Modern Arabic Drama,2 is the first play of a trilogy written between 1963 and 1967. The trilogy also includes The Dictator (al-Dictatur), translated into English for the first time here, and Saadoun the King (Sa’dun Malikan). The first two works were completed, but the latter was not.

In an article published in 2001, Mahfouz states that Saadoun the King, which was still in draft form when the 1967 War began, was never finished because war broke out. “The June Naksa,” he writes, referring to the “setback” or cataclysmic defeat of the Arab armies in the war and the seizure of more Palestinian land, “was a boundary separating two historical moments. Many of the beliefs that had guided us changed, and it was inevitable that this change was reflected in my dramatic writing. I focused on direct political writing beginning with the play The Killing (al-Qatl), which commemorated the first anniversary of the Naksa in 1968.” 3

In 1969, the year after the premiere of The China Tree, The Dictator was produced in Beirut, and the success of these productions tempted Mahfouz to complete the draft of Saadoun the King. However, the new political atmosphere made the task more difficult because, he asserts, it would have required a rewriting that would have betrayed the perspective of the historical moment in which the play was written.4 The Dictator was also produced in Beirut in 1973 and 1983, and in Damascus at the Second Festival for the Dramatic Arts in 1970. More recently it was staged in Beirut in 2012, in a production directed by Lina Abyad, who modified the text and changed the gender of the two characters, The General and Saadoun, to female. This production was also performed in 2012 at the Sharjah Theater Festival, where [End Page 94] it received the award for “Best Arab Play of 2012” (the Sheikh Sultan Bin Muhammad Al-Qasim Prize).

Mahfouz’s aesthetic displays two distinct and apparently contradictory strains. On the one hand, like many intellectuals and writers who were his contemporaries in the Arab world, Mahfouz became increasingly concerned with the relevance, nature, and function of cultural and literary production in an age of military defeats and tumultuous political and social change. He came to believe that the times in which he lived called for more direct political writing instead of allegories, symbols, and oblique allusions. He was the editor of the cultural page of the Lebanese daily newspaper An Nahar for almost three decades, in which many of his critical essays (later collected in books) were first published. A number of his critical writings focused on Arab social critics, intellectual rebels, and skeptical philosophers from the medieval and Renaissance periods, such as the Sufi Ibn Arabi, Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi, and Jabir ibn Hayyan, figures with whom he conducted “dialogues” as a means to expound their philosophies.

In other critical works he surveyed modern and contemporary poetry, novels, and drama from Europe and the U.S. His earlier works, however, including his poetic and critical production, appear to be informed by more formalist concerns. The Dictator and the other two plays that compose the trilogy, written early in his career, display the substantial influence of the Theatre of the Absurd, especially Beckett and Ionesco, about whom he wrote critical...