Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
24 Feb. - 1 March 2000
Issue No. 470
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When Cuban-born American playwright and director Maria-Irene Fornes visited Egypt in the spring of '99, no one here seemed to have ever heard of her, let alone read or seen any of her 40-odd plays. Yet within two weeks she managed to capture everybody's imagination, creating firm affectionate bonds with some, and making a powerful, indelible impression on the minds of many.

For the young artists who attended her play-writing workshop at Al-Tali'a Theatre in Attaba, or the theatre students who listened to her talk about her work at the Academy of Arts, she was a particularly inspiring and liberating force. The freshness of her understanding of theatre and approach to it was exhilarating since, as she told her listeners, she followed no dramatic rules, precepts or theories, had had no professional or academic training in theatre (she was trained as a painter), had joined the Thespian tribe only by a lucky accident (after attending Zero Mostel's Ulysses in Nighttown and Roger Blin's production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Paris in 1954), and, therefore, had embarked on her career blissfully ignorant of the Western dramatic heritage and happily unshackled by the awesomeness of its achievements. She treated the stage as a canvas, she said, and always worked closely from the start with her stage and lighting designer. What intrigued her most initially, and eventually triggered off the drama was the placement of the characters on different planes and the sources of light. This explains, perhaps, why doors and windows feature so prominently in many of her plays as structural components.

To the budding playwrights and directors at Al-Tali'a workshop she offered no recipe, no ready-made formulae; instead she taught them, by a series of exercises (some of them seemingly idiotic and extremely funny, others approaching auto-hypnosis) how to let down the barriers of the rational mind, open the floodgates of memory and let the images flow out freely, then watch how they form themselves into clusters. Reading the meaning of these clusters becomes the subject of the drama and the way to explore, with as much honesty and integrity as possible, the moral and existential dimensions of life. Young as they were, the eager artists at Al-Tali'a workshop realised that the freedom Fornes preached was a hard, responsible choice which required infinite courage, spiritual discipline, a lot of hard work and also a ready surrender of vanity and a willingness to embrace the loneliness and pain that go with the choice of freedom.

One year after Fornes' visit, and despite its strong impact, very few Egyptian artists have had the chance to get acquainted with her work; none of her plays has been done in Arabic, and prints in English can only be got through foreign agencies. It was therefore with great joy that the young Egyptian artists who worked with Fornes last year received the recent AUC company production of her 1987 Abingdon Square. More gratifying still was the quality of the production, which tackled with great finesse and sensitivity a complex, problematic and quite hazardous text, one which delights in dangerously teetering on the edge of melodrama and farce at every point, but manages to avoid slipping into either at the very last minute.

Fornes is known for drawing upon American popular forms -- movies, vaudeville, burlesque, and musical comedy -- for her dramatic structures. In Abingdon Square melodrama is the chosen form and it dominates the whole play, providing not only the skeletal framework but also the plot and incidents. Indeed, a summary of the plot would make the play sound like a hackneyed fallen woman kind of melodrama, while a clumsy performance might make it come across as a parody of one.

A widower aged 50 marries an orphan girl who is only 15 and ravishingly beautiful to boot. (Great potential for farce). He has a son, the girl's age, and both are deeply attached to each other. (Tantalising intimations of possible incestuous love and a Phaedra theme). She takes a lover, has an illegitimate child whom the husband takes for his own, and secretly rents a place nearby to meet her paramour clandestinely. As happens in many melodramas, the discovery of the affair is brought about by means of a simple (and cruelly overworked) device, a piece of paper, usually a letter but in this case a rent receipt. What follows is predictable: the husband is duly enraged, chucks the adulterous wife out, takes away her child and hides it in a secret place; when the lover eventually leaves her, she takes to drink, becomes an easy pick-up and progressively deranged, developing both homicidal and suicidal tendencies. The melodramatic crescendo reaches a roaring climax when the wronged, harassed husband tries to shoot her, then to shoot himself, and ends up having a stroke. The end is also typical of the model Fornes defiantly and quite openly adopts: the play ends in reconciliation over the death-bed of the husband whom the erring wife had devotedly tended and cared for like her lost baby. And, indeed, in a different play, the husband's final "Marion ... Marion ... I love you," and her agonised "I love you, too... Don't die...!' Don't die...!" would have made me squirm in my seat with embarrassment or bolt out of the theatre giggling hysterically. In Abingdon Square, however, whether in print, or as pronounced by Suzette Swanson (Marion) and Michael Guirguis (Juster) in Frank Bradley's fine production of the play at the Wallace, those tediously familiar, over-used words had a different ring, a kind of urgency, and tragic poignancy, as if they had just been discovered at the cost of great human suffering; and simple as they were, like Wordsworth's "least flower that blows", they brought "thoughts too deep for tears".

Unlike the old alchemists Fornes seems to have found the legendary philosopher's stone and could therefore transmute a naive and simplistic form like melodrama into a serious, complex and sophisticated dramatic inquiry into the nature of human feelings and relationships and their ethical underpinnings. Like Euripides who, in the words of Jean Paul Sartre, used Greek mythology for the sole purpose of exploding it, Fornes takes up melodrama in order to subvert its simplistic and superficial worldview, its rigid stereotyping of people and their relationships, and its naive black-and-white morality. She does this by planting real characters -- sensitive, complex, unfixed and highly conscious -- in a highly artificial form. The result is a series of delightful and enlightening explosions of all the expectations raised by the conventional melodramatic plot. Neither Juster nor Marion fit the bill as either the traditional old, jealous husband of farce or the fallen, repentant woman of melodrama. The son, Michael, neither resents nor covets his father's young wife, but maintains an affectionate friendship with her till the end and does not even think that her taking a lover is wrong. The illegitimate Thomas, against all expectations, is not fathered by the lover, Frank, but by a stranger, a window-cleaner or glazier, who comes into the house one day then disappears forever. Moreover, despite the final reconciliation, Marion never recovers her child, and Juster dies without telling her the child's whereabouts.

This constant clashing of living characters and conventional situations transforms melodrama as a form into a metaphor for the banality, superficiality, and stultifying moral and social conventionality of ordinary life. To survive as human beings and not "drown in vagueness", as Marion feels at the beginning, the characters have to break through their given stereotypes and keep on doing it throughout, and this is the really thrilling dramatic conflict in Abingdon Square. It is also a big and difficult challenge to any director who takes on the play.

Fornes usually directs her own plays and doesn't like anyone else fiddling with them. In the case of Frank Bradley's production, however, I think she would have approved. The play unfolded like a series of images rescued from the ruthless flow of time (clearly marked on a screen on the right), and though they had a certain touching fadedness -- the effect of the lighting and colour palette of the set and costumes -- they were clear-cut, carefully detailed, sensitively shaded and very powerful. The style of acting, though strictly naturalistic, had subtle variations ranging from the blithely exuberant and fervently passionate to the tenderly muted and gently reserved. In contrast, Timaree McCormick's set was predominantly abstract, consisting mostly of black geometric blocks placed on different levels, representing different locations. At the back, instead of the two large French doors indicated by Fornes in her stage directions, a big white sheet was draped over what seemed like a rectangular frame. Initially, the whole set is covered with white sheets, which gives the impression of a deserted house (as if the drama had already been played out and ended, and what we are about to see is a recollection of distant events, some photos in an old album). The dominant whiteness also carries faint and disturbing hints of both death and innocence. As the play progresses, the sheets are gradually removed, revealing more and more of the severe blackness of the set, and marking the progression from innocence to experience. The last sheet to be removed is the upright one at the back, which at one point represented the attic where Marion studied Dante, frenziedly reciting bits of his Purgatorio to strengthen her mind and fight off the feeling of drowning in vagueness. It is removed at the moment she discovers her sexuality, in her brief encounter with the glazier, and what it reveals is the living room of her future apartment and place of exile at Abingdon Square. Unlike the part of the set representing the conjugal home, the part of the rented apartment we see features a realistic fireplace with a large mirror on top (and here McCormick and the director followed Fornes's directions). From that moment on, the two contrasting spaces exist simultaneously in full view, translating in visual terms Marion's conflicting desires and loyalties. One white sheet, however, remains in place until the very end, the one which covers old Juster's bed, and it is only removed to serve as his shroud.

Of Fornes's cherished doors and windows (her stage directions mention seven) we saw only a shadowy one, at the far end on one side. The rest were imaginary, or drawn by the light on the floor of the set at different angles, with varying degrees of intensity and shades of colour. This special fluidity, together with Hani Araman's sensitive lighting design, gave the production a dreamlike quality, the impression of something remembered rather than physically seen. The melodramatic plot receded to the background and became insignificant, leaving one free to experience with painful intensity the sad passage of time, the changing of the seasons, the transience of happiness, and the relentless fading of light and joy that inevitably accompanies growing up and voyaging through the turbulent seas of experience.

But notwithstanding Bradley's and his artistic crew's imaginative contributions, it is amazing that Abingdon Square came across so well with such a young and relatively inexperienced cast. They did their best and gave decent, credible performances. The surprise of the evening, however, was Suzette Swanson. As Marion, she had the biggest task and the heaviest burden. The success or failure of the production hung on her performance and she gave one that will linger long in the memory.

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