Between two stools
Nehad Selaiha ponders the phenomenon of stage adaptations in the light of some recent experiments
Since the introduction of Western-style theatre in Egypt, adaptations of foreign, especially European, plays have formed an integral part of its output, often making up for the dearth of local dramatic talent. The process has varied greatly in degree, direction and intention, ranging from a simple transposition of plot and characters into an Egyptian setting, without interfering with the general drift of the drama and its general message, unless to remove or alter whatever does not conform to local mores and morals, to extensive rewriting that reshapes the original material to invest it with topical social or political relevance and/or introduce new themes. In March, 1999 I contributed to the Weekly a long piece about the adaptation of fiction, particularly novels, for the stage in Egypt. But a comprehensive and well-documented history of the same activity in connection with foreign plays has yet to be written.
Meanwhile, Egyptian theatre artists keep churning out adaptations. The latest of which include two productions taking part in the 3rd Al-Hanager season for Independent Theatre held at Rawabet -- Al-Ghagar troupe's version of Durrenmatt's 1946 The Rescued (which I described in my Weekly article on 20 April, Issue No. 996), and Abeer Ali's extensive rewriting of Marsha Norman's 1983 Pulitzer-Prize- winning 'Night, Mother, presented by her Al-Misaharaty troupe from 28 April to 7 May -- as well as Laila Soliman's bold and daring Egyptian version of Frank Wedekind's 1891 Spring Awakening, also performed at that constantly active and always exciting Rawabet Garage theatre downtown last April from 1 to 6. While Durrenmatt's dramatic dialogue, rechristened Secondhand Peoples, is relatively straightforward and could be easily bent to director Azza El-Husseini and dramaturge Sayed Fu'ad's satirical purposes, both Marsha Norman's 'Night, Mother and Wedekind's Spring Awakening are unusual, tricky texts in terms of theme and dramaturgy. Both deal with sensitive issues that are bound to stir up controversy among Egyptian audiences and can even prove shocking since they do so in a way that runs contrary to traditionally held social and moral views and values. Today, I will speak only of the former, leaving the latter to a later date.
`Night, Mother, a one act play featuring two female characters --mother Thelma Cates (in her late fifties), solely referred to as 'Mama' throughout the play, and her divorced daughter, Jessie (in her late 30s to early 40s -- is set in the drawing room and kitchen of a nondescript house in rural America on a Saturday night. There are no scene changes and the action solely consists of the conversation of the two women which lasts exactly the same time as the duration of the performance. In other words, 'dramatic time' here neatly matches the actual, real time it takes to perform the play so that the duration of the play is the same as the duration of the action (Norman stresses in the stage directions that the clock on set, which is the focal point of the stage, should display the actual time). Initially, the ordinary setting, the humdrum chatter of the two women and the mundane household tasks performed by Jessie reveal the isolation of the two women and the empty, drab, routine life they lead. We also detect a reversal of the child-parent roles, with Jessie behaving as the mother of Thelma.
Within a few pages of the play's opening, however, we are jolted onto a different emotional terrain as Jessie, who had asked her mother to help her find her father's gun on the pretence that she needed it "for protection", suddenly and quietly announces, as she cleans the gun, that she is going to kill herself at the end of the evening. From that moment on, and as the mother moves from scoffing disbelief to the stunned realization that her daughter is serious, the play consists of Jessie's cool and methodical preparations for her death and getting things ready so that her mother can get by without her, at least for awhile, and of her mother's frantic efforts to talk her out of her plan.
As the conversation progresses, with Thelma switching tactics several times and using every strategy she can conceive of to dissuade her daughter, the relationship of the two women is gradually revealed as difficult and peculiarly dependant, at once complicated, tense and awkward . We further discover that Jessie had suffered from epilepsy since childhood, but her mother, rather than help her face it and learn to cope with it, had kept it a secret from her and the whole world, partly out of shame and partly to 'protect' her, and tried to arrange her life for her, finding her a husband and helping her to become a mother.
Thelma's well-meaning but misguided protectiveness ruins her daughter's life, isolating her from the outside world, making her timid and thoroughly dependent on her mother, unable to work or face the world, or even keep her husband and protect her son from becoming a petty thief and drug addict. Jessie cannot work because of her disease and by the time her epilepsy is under control, she is too frightened and set in her ways to attempt life in the outside world. Her unhealthy and crippling emotional dependence on her mother is further exacerbated by her mother's unconscious desire to possess, control and manipulate her by feigning helplessness when the two resume living together after Jessie's divorce.
Paradoxically, Jessie's torment really begins when the medication she uses begins to take effect and she starts improving. Freed from the terrible epileptic seizures she dreads, she can think lucidly for the first time in her life and her memory returns. It is then that she suddenly realizes with shattering clarity what she has lost -- in her own words: "My own self. Who I never was. Or who I tried to be and never got there. Somebody I waited for who never came. And never will." With the same clarity she sums up her sick relationship with her mother, telling her: "What if it [her planned suicide] has everything to do with you! What if you are all I have and you're not enough? "Having discovered the truth about her life and her relationship with her mother, and convinced that she "can't do anything ...about ... [her] life", as she declares, she decides to "Stop it. Shut it down, turn it off like the radio when there's nothing on I want to listen to." In the light of Jessie's bleak life and long suffering, and in the absence of any spiritual or religious support systems, one is forced to view her suicide positively, as an act of free will, a brave and liberating existential choice, the ultimate means of establishing an identity of her own, separate from her mother's, and of asserting control over her own life.
In a fundamentally religious society, like ours in Egypt, trying to justify suicide in such, or any other, terms would be tantamount to heresy and would profoundly offend audiences. And this is the real problem Abeer Ali faced when she decided to stage a colloquial Arabic version of Sanaa Seleha's beautiful classical Arabic translation of `night, Mother. She could get away with the play's exploration of Jessie's life and her relationship with her mother, though negative images of mothers are rare on the Egyptian stage and generally frowned upon, but not with a sympathetic condoning of self-murder. In order to get out of this quandary, she projected the suicide theme as part of the hallucinations of a mentally disordered, old spinster who lives all alone, completely cut off from the world outside. Instead of one daughter intent on suicide, Ali's Egyptian Thelma imagines that she has three, plus a son -- all unmarried, unemployed, frustrated and disillusioned. Jessie's preparations for her death and mundane acts, cleaning the refrigerator, arranging things in drawers, giving her mother a manicure, or making some cocoa, are shared among them, and so are some of her lines. To further dilute the focus on the suicide theme, Ali provides a framing device, projecting the story of the old spinster and her imaginary, suicidal brood through the eyes of her neighbours: two unmarried working girls who share a flat next door and spend their time worrying about money and the lack of suitors and dreading the prospect of one day becoming like their old neighbour, and a married couple with a baby for whom sex is the only way to relieve the dullness and boredom of their existence.
The way Abeer Ali manipulated her framing device was subtle and intriguing. It was cunningly and lightly suggested at the beginning, when the 2 sets of neighbours sat downstage, in two lighted spots on opposite sides, facing the audience, while the old woman sat upstage centre, in the shadows, with her back turned to us, then all four of them got up and stepped into her area to play the parts of her children. There was no hint there that they were stepping into an imaginary world of the old lady's own making and onto a different level of illusion. Though the shift in the neighbours' characters seemed odd and their chattering seemed to bear no relation to the play or point in any dramatic direction, one accepted both as part of the currently fashionable conventions of open theatricality and the rejection of complete illusionism. Such an assumption seemed quite justified in view of the abstract set, the complete absence of props, the use of mime to simulate the handling of nonexistent objects and bits of furniture, the expressionistic movement sequences and the abrupt, startling break into meta-theatricality right in middle of the domestic drama, when the actress playing the old lady (Siham Abdel-Salam) suddenly stepped outside the character and asked her companions to treat the audience to a cheerful song to relieve the gloom of the drama.
It is only at the very end of the performance that the framing device comes into its own and is fully revealed in a visually poetic idiom, with telling pauses, lighting shifts and slight scenic changes, and the discovery has the impact of a veritable coup de theatre. After the shots are heard off stage and the old woman dashes frantically around, screaming, black gauze screens descend from the flies and the son and daughters are glimpsed behind them before the scene is blacked out. A second later, the lights come up to reveal them sitting completely still on their rocking chairs, gazing stonily at us for a few seconds before another black out obliterates them. They reemerge a minute later, having resumed their characters and costumes as the neighbours, to dismiss the gun shots and screams we have just heard as part of the usual noise the poor, mad woman next door habitually creates as she fantasizes about her imaginary children.
However, within this encircling frame, one felt a painful emptiness. Save for the parts of the original dialogue which were kept, the writing was dismal. In Abeer's hands, the inner play turned into an assemblage of inane words that failed to build characters, depict convincing relationships, make significant revelations, seriously grapple with the issue of suicide, or provide genuine insights into human suffering. Instead of Norman's complex characters, poignant and gripping conflict, her sparse, suspenseful and tightly written dialogue, with its intermittent flashes of macabre humour, we got a pale stereotype of the good, generous and kindly mother and vague, half-baked characters posing as her children and tediously rambling on about unemployment, poor wages and the difficulties of getting married, not to mention some political grievances, and voicing their complaints in the same general, shallow way as they are repeatedly aired in chat show on the radio or television or heard in the street.
Though the actors -- Siham Abdel Salam, Mohamed Abdel Mu'iz, Inji Galal, Arwa Rif'at and Samah Antar -- performed with zest and passion, they often seemed ill at ease in their parts, not fully comprehending why any one would want to write a play about such a silly idea as killing oneself and why any one would want to put it on. They were quite at home and in their natural, openly theatrical comic element in the frame scenes. But once they crossed into the main story, their acting became strained, forced and stilted and they seemed at sea and off balance, , like people who had fallen between two stools. Still, taken all in all, and in view of its clever framing device and notable stagecraft, Abeer Ali's 'Night, Mother was a brave, commendable venture and well worth the watching.