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  • Political Theatre Between WarsStaging an Alternative Middle East
  • Sahar Assaf (bio)

What makes a play political in Lebanon? What does it mean to engage in political theatre?

In Lebanon, between 2013 and 2015, I directed six plays. The plays’ general themes were religious and political corruption, patriarchy, prostitution, homosexuality, manual laborers in a private university, and rape as an interrogation technique in armed conflicts. Other subjects included the Lebanese civil war and Lebanon’s collective amnesia as a result of the absence of a serious reconciliation process, dictatorship and megalomaniac leaders, and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The plays had different styles. While some plays were text-based and presented in traditional proscenium theatres, others were research-based and presented in found spaces. They were in Arabic or English. What the plays have in common is a clear political dimension. Reflecting on some of my recent work led me to contemplate a seemingly simple question:

Why do we do political theatre and for whom?

In order to provide an example of what Michael Kirby calls “the archetypal example of political theatre” in his essay “On Political Theatre,” he turns to Alexander Tairov, who wrote in Notes of a Director:

In 1830, at the Theatre Monnaie in Brussels, the play La Muette [The Mute] was being performed. In the middle of the performance, when the words “Love for the Fatherland is holy” rang out on the stage, the revolutionary enthusiasm … was communicated to the auditorium. The whole theatre was united in such powerful transport that all the spectators and actors left their places, grabbing chairs, benches—everything that came to hand—and, bursting from the theatre, rushed into the streets of Brussels. Thus, began the Belgian revolution.1 [End Page 65]

This is undeniably an ideal scenario. As a theatre director myself, I cannot imagine that anything would be more satisfying than witnessing audiences bursting from my theatre (or any theatre) into the streets of Beirut to start a long overdue revolution. But to reduce political theatre to one that aspires to start a revolution, topple a regime, or change the status quo is deficient. How many examples could we draw from the history of world theatre? It was not the great theatre of playwright Jalila Baccar and director Fadhel Jaïbi that ignited the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia in 2010, but the act of self-immolation by Mohamed Bouazizi. However, Baccar and Jaïbi’s theatre remains political par excellence.

In a seminal essay titled “Writing for a Political Theatre” that first appeared in PAJ in 1985 and was published again from the archive in 2016 to celebrate PAJ’s fortieth anniversary and the critic’s one hundredth birthday, Eric Bentley states, “People speak of political theatre as very special. But in the theatre anything can become political by a sudden turn of events outside the theatre.”2 In a similar vein, Maria Shevtsova claims that “‘Political Theatre’ is only ‘political’ in a particular society in time-space and place and its resonance as ‘political’ varies according to socially defined groups of people. Nothing is absolute, universal, or essentialist about political theatre.”3

When Baccar and Jaïbi planned to present Khamsoun in Tunisia in 2006, the censorship office, officially known as lajnat iltawjeeh al-masrahi (the steering committee for the theatre), wanted to delete 286 words form the play. The author and director refused. The play tells the story of Amal, the daughter of leftist parents who was raised as a Marxist and sent to France to study, only to return to Tunisia as a dedicated Muslim. In Tunisia, she gets involved in the mysterious suicide of her friend, a young teacher, who blows herself up in the courtyard of the school where she works. The play opened in France at the Odeon theatre, but as a result of the pressure exerted on the authorities by artists and intellectuals, Jaïbi was summoned to a meeting with the Minister of Culture who asked him to cut six sentences (instead of 286 words). Jaïbi refused again. Finally, the authorities permitted a staged reading of the play on the occasion of World Theatre Day in 2007. This time, the government asked...


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pp. 65-76
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