Although Arabs generally see the theatre as a recent import from Europe, different forms of performing arts, such as shadow plays, Sufi and Shia miracle plays, and the oral performances of poetry reciters and storytellers, have a long history in the region. Acting troupes also entertained aristocrats in their palaces, travelling merchants in khans, and competed with other street performers for the attention of shoppers and passers by in the maidan.
While such traditions seem comparable to the earlier forms of European dramatic art from which the theatre evolved, a few play scripts have recently been discovered, suggesting an Arab theatrical tradition comparable to the Chinese or Indian for example.
However, as with music, Arabs made no attempt to preserve a fixed record. In the case of music this was because improvisation was seen as essential, which might also be the case for drama. But, while both music and performance arts survive in the folkloric tradition, the native theatrical heritage does not have an equivalent to the ‘high’ status form of classical Arab music. Historical records provide the life story of the legendary Zeriab, who brought the music of Baghdad and Damascus to the Andalusian court; but no mention is made of playwrights, which indicates that dramatic performance were seen as mere amusement.
The Arab world only began to consider drama as ‘art’ after the introduction of works by European playwrights, of whom Shakespeare was the foremost, the ‘canon of canons’, as Khalid Amine puts it. Amine goes on to argue that the “making of the Shakespeare myth” in the Arab world was not spontaneous, but “was induced through the implantation of a whole apparatus of translation and theatrical reproduction” following an unequal colonial encounter. After independence, Amine says, “Shakespeare becomes a paradigmatic icon of the 'Western Other' or the Other's dramatic medium”, so that artistic engagement with his work by the postcolonial dramatist “amounts to a dialogue with the West and the Western dramatic tradition”.
The Nigerian Wole Soyinka has another take on the relationship of the Arab cultural establishment to Shakespeare. In his essay “Shakespeare and the Living Dramatist” he surveys Arab appropriations which seek to “claim him as one of their own”, and disparages Arab “translations and adaptations” of his work. However he ends by concluding that this still leads back to the immortal source, “to the gratification of celebrating dramatic poetry anew”, which reverses the earlier power dynamic that presents the English genius as the object of inept manipulation, and seems a positive spin on the process Khalid Amine describes.
Margo Hendrix argues that Soyinka’s essay anticipates two related points later raised by postcolonial theorists: recognising that importing the Shakespearian canon requires the absorption of culturally alien elements; but also the fact the plays contained so much foreign material (settings, characters, topics, or just the odd reference –like Lady Macbeth’s “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”). The plays themselves are in a sense internationalised in their own right, as texts and not just in terms of appreciation.
Shakespeare’s fascination with the unknown and unfamiliar was a feature of the theatre during the Western ‘age of exploration’ (or exploitation for those on the receiving end); but what sets him apart is his complex treatment of ‘the other’.
Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello the Moore of Venice’ is the most relevant example. The dizzying situation of a title character who is a North African commanding Christian European forces against an invasion by the expanding (European Muslim) Ottoman Empire; and the hatred, or at best ambivalence, with which he is regarded by the Italians whom he ‘defends’, have been linked to similar paradoxes and inconsistencies in Shakespeare’s Britain.
Although ‘Turk’ and ‘Moor’ were words that inspired fear and loathing, Queen Elizabeth I had alliances with both the Ottoman Sultan and North African states against her Catholic rivals. Mark Hutchings discusses the fearful fascination with the ‘Turkish Threat’ in English plays of the time, arguing that by drawing on memories of the fall of Constantinople and “perhaps an older "crusader" narrative”, plays provided a safe thrill for an English audience who, as opposed to most of Europe, were not in reality threatened. The Turks were essentially the Godzillas and King Kongs of Elizabethan cinema. Nabil Matar’s book 'Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery' details extensive commercial relations and cultural exchange, including the fact that it was much more likely, and profitable, for an English adventurer to move to North Africa than North America.
Khalid Amine, in “Moroccan Shakespeare: From Moors to Moroccans”, charts the development of a range of responses to Othello specifically and the Shakespearian canon more generally, from “celebrations of Moroccan presence in the English Consciousness”, to more radical rewritings of Shakespeare’s plays.
Such subversive strategies are present in the titles of Abdelkrim Berrchid’s two plays otheil wa alkhail wa al barudu which re-arabises the Othellos name, and to anyone familiar with Arab poetry echoes a line by Almutanabi; and Imri’u alqais fi Paris, which replaces Hamlet with the pre-Islamic poet who faces a similar “to be or not to be” predicament in a destructively futile revenge tragedy.
Set in the present, the play is a re-visioning of Hamlet’s “tragedy of delay and procrastination….[as] a collective tragedy rather than an individual tragedy” as Khalid Amine puts it, quoting Berrchid who says the “The new Imruù al-quays cannot be but the spirit of this new age, that is the age of homesickness, murders, and military coup d'état, and the migration of intellectuals and laborers in search for bread and dignity”.
In this new age Shakespeare has not lost his potent spell, but there are conflicting ways of putting it to use. Some Arab playwrights strip Shakespeare of what Amine calls the “aura of authority” created by European dominance in order to rewrite his work in terms of their own concerns.
Sulayman Al-Bassam, the British-Kuwaiti writer and director of ‘the Hamlet Summit’ and ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’, presents his project of adapting Shakespeare’s plays to the politics of the modern Arab world in exactly the opposite way.
He insists on the “aura of authority”, or what he calls “the global accreditation”, with which Shakespeare is invested; seeing it in purely positive terms as giving the Arab dramatist “not merely a mask but a bullet-proof face” with which to face the censors.
More problematic is Al-Bassam’s assertion that “A fundamental pre-modernity is at the core of both the Shakespearian world and today’s Arab world”, which sounds like something straight out of The Collected Orientalist Stereotypes; his adaptations engage with the original context in a much more complicated and productive way.
But this point is made in even broader terms by reviews of his plays, which inanely and repetitively begin by saying that Arab world’s woes cry out for Shakespearian treatment, and back it up by noting one thousand and one parallels with England emerging from the Middle Ages.
Perhaps the best commentary on such reductive simplification of a postmodern and postcolonial situation to stereotypes of towel-heads stuck in the dark ages is the fact that ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’, part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival, was on at the same time as another Richard III adaptation - set in modern Britain.
The director of this Richard III, Michael Boyd, sees both his and Al-Bassam’s plays as dealing with "the tendency, very difficult to resist, of pulling more power where power was in the first place, of increasing the centralization of power”, and draws his own parallels, the totalitarian behaviour of democratic governments in the context of the war on terror, citing the manipulation of information to create and use “fear as a political weapon, fear as a means of censorship, a means of mobilization, a means of justifying arrest”.
This is the same ‘war on terror’ which in ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’ is used as a pretext for tyranny and occupation, with the use of words setting up an equivalence between the invading American general and the Arab Dictator. The French adviser to the Emir boasts that he “can make a mockery of the judiciary; thread an axis of evil through the eye of the press; I can turn a democracy into a tyranny and keep it all as clean and transparent as a Security Council resolution".
What the two Arab re-makers of Shakespeare, the Morrocan Berrchid and the Kuwaiti Al-Bassam, have in common is their mixing of Arab and Western forms of performance in their theatrical art.
In Berrchid’s case, as in that of many Arab dramatists, this includes a conscious decision to incorporate native dramatic traditions, such as the Albsat tradition of improvised comedy with a political message.
Al-Bassam’s Arabian-Shakespearian tragedy contains recitals from the Holy Quran and folkloric dance and music, as well as email messages, phone conversations, Aljazeera newscasts and a religious TV show.
They both create a mixed form which mirrors their content, a hybridized product of Arabia and Europe, East and West.