The art of questioning
Nehad Selaiha watches the latest product of Mustafa Saad's Theatre of Enquiry at Al-Tali'a
It is not unusual for artists when launching new experiments to provide audiences with some aids to reception in the form of manifestos, notes, introductions, or similar theoretical writings. Think of all the critical essays T S Eliot churned out to justify and bolster his poetic creations, of George Bernard Shaw's voluminous prefaces, Brecht's Short Organum for The Theatre, Pierre Corneille's Examen or Discours on dramatic poetry, August Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, Antonin Artaud's Theatre and its Double, Tawfiq El-Hakim's foreword to Ya Tali' Al-Shagarah (O, Tree-Climber), or Youssef Idris's three essays entitled Towards an Egyptian Theatre... the list is endless. Some artists have even gone so far as to include such explanations in the work of art itself, making them part of its meaning and message. In Salah Abdel-Sabour's Ba'd An Yamoot Al-Malik (Now the King is Dead), the chorus of three women narrators who introduce the scenes and take part in the action are made to comment ironically on the wayward technique of the play, comparing it to the more familiar teachings of Aristotle, and cunningly guide the audience as they try to puzzle out the author's intentions.
Mustafa Saad, however, is the only playwright I know of who has written plays with no other purpose than to dramatise his theory of what theatre should be and do. His "Masrah Al-Istifham" (Theatre of Enquiry), of which the current 3-1 is the 11th and most extreme illustration, conceives of theatre as a communal activity whose primary function is to train the audience to think critically, question what they see and draw their own conclusions away from any ready-made answers. In his author's note to the play, he says: "After years of research and enquiry, I have come to the conclusion that our problem in the Arab world (whether as subjects or rulers) is not the lack of good theories or their misapplication, but the way we are programmed by our upbringing to copy and repeat what has been handed down to us by tradition and authority. As a result, we tend to think and speak in clichés that simply reiterate our problems rather than analyze them to find solutions. Now, the question is how to get rid of this mentality and all the restrictions that go with it? As I see it, the only way is to activate the questioning capacity of the mind and bring it to bear on everything, to cultivate a spirit of inquiry from early childhood. The Theatre of Enquiry is one attempt in this direction."
Though educative in thrust and tactics, Saad's Theatre of Enquiry is not didactic in the sense of attempting to influence the minds of the audience in the direction of any particular ideology. While Brecht's shunning of illusionism, disposal of traditional plot and characterisation and his many alienation effects were inspired by Marxism and ultimately meant to alert the audience to the way capitalism insidiously distorts reality, morality and logic and presents such distortions as natural, Saad's plays which espouse many of Brecht's artistic ideas and techniques use them, particularly in this last piece, to disrupt any ideological framing of one's perceptions. Indeed, one can describe 3-1 as a series of calculated disruptions which extend from the writing to the mode of performance and can only make sense as a show through the active participation of the audience.
The burden of activating this vital audience participation falls squarely on the shoulders of a clever storyteller, with an impressive gift for improvisation (superbly performed by Rushdi El-Shami). Dressed in motley and a peaked cap, and fervently delivering the message of the author/director, he is often mysteriously called offstage by the real stage-manager, only to return a few minutes later, during which the show seems to come to a halt and fall apart. When he is finally dragged off by force and replaced by another, who presumes to possess the truth and begins to reel off the officially approved version of modern Egyptian history, the audience's objections and inquiries as to his fate bring the show to a close. Assisting him are four actors planted in the audience to egg them on to talk; while three of them are disguised as ordinary spectators, the fourth, Aida Famhi, who is eventually called upon to take part in the acting, is present in her real identity as actress, and openly greeted by the storyteller as a comrade in the profession.
That the storyteller has no definitive story to tell, but only fragments of history that invite reflection, is the first disruption of audience expectations. Rather than one coherent story, the narrator, who begins by casting doubt on all bequeathed narratives, offers us in succession three seemingly disconnected scenes in terms of historical dates and geographical location: Mohamed Ali in 19th century Egypt, and Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Saddam Hussein in Egypt and Iraq in the latter half of the 20th Century. The craving for power is what connects the three scenes, and they are succeeded by other triple sets of scenes showing how all three leaders attained power and eventually lost it. When some members of the audience objected to lumping all three rulers in one basket, the narrator pointed out that he was not concerned with particularities, honest or fabricated motives, but with looking into the way of thinking that propels all power-seekers, and he showed them to be amazingly similar though prompted by different drives. I cannot pretend I was not sometimes offended and often chagrined by the parallelisms the play seemed to draw between Nasser and Saddam Hussein, or between the latter and Mohamed Ali; nevertheless, the play struck me as a cautionary tale against all forms of idealisation, an invitation to rethink history untrammelled by ideological leanings or inherited accounts.