|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 April 2002
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Poet, rebel, martyrThirty-eight years on, Salah Abdel-Sabour's poetic drama, The Tragedy of Al-Hallag, revived at El-Tali'a, has not dated. Nehad Selaiha ponders the reasons
Twenty-one years after his death at the age of 50, Abdel-Sabour remains one of Egypt's most original and influential modern poets, not only because he created a fresh poetic idiom and moulded a new sensibility which few poets in subsequent generations have been able to escape, but also on account of his vital contribution to modern Arabic verse drama. Like T S Eliot, one of the major influences on his poetry, and unlike his predecessors (Ahmed Shawqi, Aziz Abaza and Ali Ahmed Bakatheer), Abdel-Sabour believed that "the essential is not ...that drama should be written in verse. The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world" -- to quote Eliot's essay, "The possibility of Poetic Drama" (1920). This is why, from the start, he placed the question of dramatic form and language at the centre, as a conscious search, a choice to be made from many possibilities, eastern and western -- including Eliot's dramatic experiments, Brecht's epic theatre, absurdist drama, the modes of oriental myth and folklore as well as the medieval passion play and its Islamic counterpart, the Iranian ritual drama of lamentation known as Ta'ziya.
Abdel-Sabour's experimentation with form and language would have been unthinkable without the "new verse movement" which started in the late 1940's and gathered force in the 1950's. Abdel- Sabour was part of that movement and the new verse form which he helped hew and refine was ideally suited for dramatic expression. It allowed for changes in the number of feet in each line, a change of metre from one line to another and, more importantly, freed itself from the shackles of rhyme which in earlier verse drama had given human speech an artificial neatness, impeding the flow of meaning from one line to another and disrupting the inner rhythm of the dramatic mood.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that Abdel-Sabour's dramatic poetry would eventually lead him to poetic drama. His mind was essentially dramatic; it viewed existence and human experience in terms of a series of endless, related antitheses: past and present; word and deed; thought and action; myth and history; body and soul; idealism and materialism; sexual passion and religious ardour; the temporal/relative and the eternal/absolute; tragedy and comedy; Plato and Marx; Aristotle and Brecht; Nietzsche and the Moslem mystics.
Abdel-Sabour produced five plays (all available in English): The Tragedy of Al-Hallag, 1964 (re- titled Murder in Baghdad in the English version); Night Traveller and A Princess Waiting, two one- act plays, 1969; Laila and the Madman, 1970; and finally, Now The King is Dead, 1971. Read chronologically they represent an intense imaginative quest in the realm of art for philosophical repose and harmony, tracing the difficult road the poet travelled towards the final synthesis he tentatively reached and precariously held in his last play. In terms of themes and dramaturgy, as Maher Shafiq Farid has argued in an article called "Salah Abdel- Sabour's Theatre: Meaning and Structure," they draw on a variety of dramatic sources and traditions which give them a universal relevance. And, indeed, if one remembers how Shakespeare's Hamlet and Eliot's saintly archbishop, Thomas Becket, fitfully hover around Abdel-Sabour's Al-Hallag, how A Princess Waiting subtly evokes the dramatic world of Maeterlinck and the symbolists, and Night Traveller the plays of Ionesco, particularly Tueur sans Gages, and how Now The King Is Dead brings to mind at once Shakespeare and Brecht, Ionesco's Exit The King, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Pirandello's theatre-within-the- theatre, one can hardly deny Farid's remark.
Paradoxically, in spite of such palpable western influence, Abdel-Sabour's theatre has an unmistakable national flavour and is deeply steeped in Arabic history, myth and folklore. Moreover, it is, in one respect, an eminently political, topical theatre, the authentic product of a particular historical moment in the life of a nation, projecting its conflicts, dilemmas and urgent concerns. Indeed, the key to Abdel-Sabour's dramatic durability lies in his ability to personalise public issues and political conflicts and politicise personal dilemmas.
In the plays topical events, as well as existential conflicts, are built, through the use of myth, folklore and fantasy, into universal themes of enduring interest. The Tragedy of Al-Hallag is a prime example of this process. It revolves round the revolt and martyrdom of the mystic-rebel Al-Hussein Ibn Al-Mansour in Baghdad, in the year 309 H. (c. 930 AD). Al-Hallag (named so on account of his trade as a cotton-ginner before he became a Sufi) was at once a mystic, poet and political agitator; when he was tried and executed it was unclear whether the charge was heresy or political agitation. Understandably, in view of his socialist leanings, urgent sense of poetic vocation, and deeply-ingrained mystical bent, Abdel-Sabour found in this historical figure an apt vehicle to project his own dilemma as an intellectual torn between the overpowering urge to dedicate himself to the nurturing of his talent and the demands of a social conscience pushing him in the direction of active political involvement. As he worked on his character the conflict crystallised as one between thought and action: at this point the dilemma of the historical Al-Hallag and the poetical persona of Abdel-Sabour unconsciously merged in the crucible of the poet's imagination. Hamlet's dilemma -- "O, cursed spite, that I was ever born to set it right" -- became Abdel-Sabour's and his hero's urgent cry.
Abdel-Sabour originally thought of his play along the lines of Aristotelian tragedy. The final product, however, offers a different formula. In the article 'Tragedy and Symbolism in The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj and Laila and the Madman' Sami Khashaba convincingly argues that in the former Abdel-Sabour developed a concept of tragedy distinctly different from both the original Aristotelian one and its later reformulation by Hegel and Nietzsche, on the one hand, and, on the other, from Ferdinand Brunetiere's modern concept, based on the ideas of the enlightenment about man's freedom and his ability to decide his own destiny. The opposition of the individual's will to the will of the gods, and the inevitable eventual defeat of the hero and triumph of the gods which underlies the classical concept of tragedy was rejected by Abdel- Sabour, and so was the metaphysical void in which Brunetiere placed individual free will. Instead, he groped for a concept of the tragic that did not clash with the philosophical vision of the relation of the individual to divine will inherent in Oriental Christianity and Islam. He tentatively proposed a concept, according to which man, in seeking to determine his fate freely, is ultimately realising the will of God. (One cannot help noting here the basically romantic and optimistic nature of such a proposition).
Abdel-Sabour's new kind of tragedy championed the individual without severing his bonds with Divine authority. Whereas in classical tragedy, the individual stood in opposition to the divine powers and their temporal reflection in the social systems that governed people's lives, in Abdel-Sabour's type of tragedy -- a tragedy of martyrdom -- the individual is aligned to God against a corrupt temporal order which obstructs the fulfillment of the Divine will. The Aristotelian hero's typical Hamartia, or tragic flaw, is transformed in this new tragic mode into a freely embraced oppositional stand against what on the surface appears as the will of God, but is later revealed as only the will of a misguided temporal authority. And though the temporal authority finally succeeds in destroying the hero, the tragic end (death, which significantly takes the form of crucifixion here) becomes the fulfillment of the hero's individual will as well as a confirmation of the will of God.
Given Abdel-Sabour's literary prestige and his wide popularity, one would have expected The Tragedy of Al Hallag to be snapped up by the National as soon as it appeared in print. But it was the heyday of realistic prose drama and the play had to wait two years before director Samir El-Asfouri decided to stage it at El-Masrah El-Hadith (Modern Theatre) where it opened in the 1966/67 season. A video recording of the production suggests he tried to strike a balance between the themes of martyrdom and political rebellion the hero combines, casting the former in a classical, the latter in a Brechtian, mode. The influence of Brecht's epic theatre is detectable in the text in the patches of scabrous humour and vulgar language, which are meant to contrast with the delicate feelings and heightened poetry of the Sufis, as well as in Abdel- Sabour's manipulation of the chorus of the poor, sick and weary whom the hero invites to "come unto" him in the street scenes. The text, however, does not suggest a classical mode of delivery for Al-Hallag, but a passionate romantic one, alternating with spells of doubtful anxiety and moments of resignation or despair. Unfortunately, El- Asfouri entrusted the part to veteran classical actor Mohamed El-Sab' who looked more like a well- fed local preacher than an ascetic mystic and seemed to care more for the sonorous enunciation of the verse rather than the character's moods and feelings. The Hamletian dimension Abdel-Sabour took pains to build into the character was stridently waved aside in favour of a sedately patriarchal construction of the part.
With a religious hero, an all-male cast (indeed, an all-male dramatic world) and not a shadow of romantic interest lurking even in the wings, The Tragedy of Al-Hallag can never be expected to make a popular hit. But in the right setting (which a traditional picture-frame stage is certainly not), and with sensitive casting, the play can provide an overwhelming theatrical experience. This is how I remember it from Ahmed Abdel-Aziz's 1984 production in the intimate small hall at El-Tali'a theatre.
The acting area, level with the audience, was bare, except for a couple of rugged blocks for seats, a few tiered ramps at the back for the judges to sit on in the trial scene, and a number of ropes, used at the end to tie up the hero and form a huge cross. The different locations in the play -- Sufi's cell, prison, street, court-room -- were marked by the change of lighting and the shape, feel and atmosphere of each were imaginatively evoked by the subtle deployment of light and shadow. Ahmed Abdel-Aziz himself (much younger then and a lot slimmer) played the title-role with a mixture of burning ardour, desperate urgency, disarming innocence and deep pathos. I still remember how his eyes could look sometimes like clear pools of light, at others like dark holes and how his wiry body seemed to glow in the shadow, sending off waves of electrifying energy. It was a rare performance in an unforgettable show.
The current production, also at El-Tali'a, but this time at the larger Zaki Tolaimat hall, is a revival of the 1984 one. It uses the concentrated version of the play prepared by Abdel-Aziz, but with a new, less frugal, geometrical set (designed by Mustafa El-Sharqawi). The idea of the circle (suggesting at once a vicious circle and the circular whirling in Sufi dancing) which in the earlier performance was created purely by light is more solidly rendered here in the semi-circular shape of both the stage and the tiered structure in the background which rises to form a stepped pyramid -- the solid pyramid of temporal authority which eventually crushes Al-Hallag. As a symbol it was too garishly obvious and had the added vice of eating up most of the small performance space. The lighting was as sensitive and evocative as it was in the previous production but needed a larger or less cluttered space to achieve its full effect. The ropes were replaced with metal chains and used for the same effect; but, again, they needed more space for the cross they create at the end to have its full impact. The final scene in the current production shows Al-Hallag hanging limply from a rope round his neck, while Ali El-Haggar's stirring voice and Amir Abdel-Megid's mellow tunes fill the small auditorium with mournful song. It was an emotional moment which brought tears to the eyes of many, including myself; but even as I cried I found myself regretting the changes Abdel-Aziz introduced and missing the purity and dignified austerity of the previous production.
In one respect, however, the acting, the current production matched the earlier one. Ahmed Abdel- Aziz wisely decided not to take on the part this time. He chose for it Mahmoud Mas'ood, whose sensitive face, clear, candid eyes and rapt expression always make him look saint-like, even off stage. As Al-Hallag he was as convincing as he was in the part of John the Baptist in Mohamed Salmawy's Salome. Much older than the earlier Al- Hallag. he nevertheless managed to suggest a disarmingly affectionate, forgiving temperament and a childlike trusting nature which no amount of suffering could embitter. Rather than passion, he displayed the kind of intense eagerness most commonly encountered in children. One could not help loving him and this made his quiet, baffled resignation in the trial scene and his anguished incomprehension as he was hanged intensely painful. The rest of the acting was competent, with some remarkable performances by comedians Mohamed Mahmoud and Ahmad Seyam (as the coarse, jocular, corrupt judge and his henchman), by Kamal Soliman and Ayman Abdel-Rahman as the hero's diabolic companions in the infernal prison cell, by Tarek Said as El-Shebli, the hero's closest friend and confidant and by Ahmad Sadiq as the honest judge who tries in vain to save him. Those who were lucky to see the 1984 production may miss something in the current revival. But those who haven't can be assured of a thoroughly satisfying experience.
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