Saturday,25 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Saturday,25 November, 2017
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Changing contexts of reception

Nehad Selaiha compares her responses to Nora Amin’s version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People before and after 30 June 2013

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Al-Ahram Weekly

It has long been acknowledged that the socio-political context of a performance shapes in some degree, in one way or another, both the process of its making and an audience’s reception/interpretation of it. What has not been sufficiently stressed, I think, is the extent to which socio-political reality impinges on, and influences the reception/interpretation of a dramatic text, or a performance, in countries that suffer, or have recently suffered totalitarian regimes. In such countries, where freedom of expression and peaceful dissent is, or was up to a recent past, largely suppressed, dramatic texts and performances, whatever their kind, are often substantially, if not exclusively, mediated, both in the processes of production and consumption, through the raw, intense pressure of topical events and immediate experience. In other words, performances are intended by their makers and received by spectators as encoded political messages critiquing lived political reality. It may well be argued that this mode of reception/interpretation, whether of a dramatic text by theatre makers, in the process of making it into a performance, or of the resulting performance by the spectator, may be ultimately reductive — reducing a dramatic text to one level of meaning. However, it often makes up for this by giving dramatic texts in performance new urgency and vibrant relevance.
In the case of Egypt, the 1952 coup d’état brought to power a totalitarian regime that lasted, despite the change of presidents and ideologies, till the 25 January popular revolution and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. During the “socialist” 1960s, the most repressive period of the first military republic, censorship was at its most rigorous, and artists, writers and intellectuals were persecuted for their beliefs and opinions and not infrequently banned, jailed and tortured. Criticism of the regime, therefore, could only be publicly expressed in metaphorical terms, under the guise of history or fiction. As in all police states, theatre then became thoroughly political, serving as an oblique form of resistance and opposition — as a popular forum for the expression of cleverly camouflaged political dissent — so much so that the term “theatre of political projection” was coined by critics and reviewers to describe the theatre of that period. In the subsequent reigns of presidents Anwar Al-Sadat and Mubarak, though censorship was relatively eased to sustain a superficial democratic façade and provide a safe outlet for political frustration and resentment, the habit of making and reading performances in the light of topical events and the immediate political scene has persisted among Egyptian theatre makers and audiences, surviving not only the collapse of the first military republic, but also the collapse of the second Islamist one of the Muslim Brotherhood.
My own responses to Nora Amin’s latest production, a highly condensed version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, on two different occasions, separated by only seven months and each belonging to a different historical moment and political reality, will serve to illustrate how far changing contexts of reception can influence the interpretation of the same performance and change its meaning and immediate message.
The production opened in January 2013, six months into the reign of Mohamed Morsi. At that time, it came across as a powerful reflection of the bitter disappointment and rage felt by intellectuals, artists, liberals, socialists, secularists and revolutionary youth movements at the results of both the parliamentary and presidential elections that brought to power a conservative, rightwing, Islamist regime, with a repressive, totalitarian agenda. That this regime was supposed to be “democratically” elected, made a mockery of both democracy and the guiding principles of the 25 January Revolution. Using the outward forms of democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood had manipulated the majority of Egyptians into replacing one form of totalitarianism with a worse and more rigid one, inimical to both culture and the arts. It was this realisation, I think, that drew Amin to Enemy of the People, with its scathing critique of democracy.
In a review of the production for Al-Ahram Weekly on 9 January 2013, I said: “Viewed against the backdrop of recent political events in Egypt [the current president’s declaration to an American newspaper that he was ‘democratically’ elected and had the ‘majority’ of the Egyptian people on his side, the row over the November (2012) constitutional decree by which he gave himself unprecedented sweeping powers and exempted all his decisions from legal challenge or oversight, the rushed referendum over a half-baked, deeply flawed draft constitution, hastily knocked together overnight by an objectionable constitutional assembly of doubtful legitimacy and legal standing, the besieging by militant Islamists supporting the president of the supreme constitutional court and the Media Production City to intimidate the judiciary and opposing TV channels and obstruct the work of both, not to mention the violent, brutal assaults on peaceful protesters by the president’s supporters outside Al-Ittihadiya presidential palace, all in the name of ‘democracy’], Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which warns of the pitfalls of democracy, demonstrates the tyranny of the majority and warns of the danger of an uninformed public that can be easily manipulated by politicians, seems of serious political relevance in post-revolutionary Egypt and urgently topical in view of the upcoming parliamentary elections within two months.” Fortunately, the 30 June Revolution erupted before those elections could take place.
I also said: “The tentatively optimistic note of hope in future generations on which the original play ends becomes in Nora Amin’s production an urgent rallying cry to stay in Egypt and resist. It felt as if Nora and her cast and crew were speaking for the Copts, the liberals, the secularists and the revolutionaries of Egypt and sending a clear, defiant message to likes of Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Yaqoub, a leading Salafi preacher, who, in a Friday sermon in March 2011, interpreted the results of the referendum on the constitutional amendments put to the vote that month as a clear majority vote and popular mandate for the institution of an Islamic theocracy and said, addressing ‘those who say they cannot live in such a country and under such a rule’: ‘As you like… God speed… What’s that to us? You can seek visas to America and Canada… We [meaning the Islamists] have won the battle of the ‘boxes’… this country is ours and anyone who does not like it is most welcome to emigrate’.”
Indeed, the whole conception of Amin’s production seemed to centre on a conflict very much like the one at the heart of the political scene in Egypt then — a conflict between knowledge and ignorance, open-mindedness and bigotry, respect for reason and enlightened thinking and a slavish following of tradition and adherence to inherited common notions. “This explains,” I added, “why Nora went right to the heart of the play, to the public meeting which takes up the whole of Act 4, staging it almost in full and making it the focus of her stage version… and ending it with Stockman’s final defiant cry that he will stay and fight back, even though victory may lie in the very distant future, or, even, may never be achieved.” Amin’s Enemy captured the mood of the country then, proving an immediate hit, playing in different locations in February and March, with full houses every time, and scooping three top awards in the National Egyptian Theatre Festival in March/April 2013.
When Amin’s Enemy opened again, in August 2013, the political scene had dramatically changed, and with it the context of reception. Egypt had undergone a second revolution. The simmering anger and resentment of large sections of the population, including the young revolutionaries who, together with liberals, secularists socialists, artists and intellectuals, had led the 25 January Revolution, only to have it snatched away from them by the Islamists, had been progressively fanned by the glaring, abysmal failure of Morsi’s Islamist regime to tackle any of the country’s pressing problems, by its studious manipulation of the conventions of democracy to suppress freedom of thought and speech and silence opposition, and by its implacable efforts to take sole control of all the nation’s institutions, to erode its cultural identity (an inherently cosmopolitan multi-religious and multi-ethnic one), to destroy its artistic heritage, and to rob its women of their hard-won rights. Finally, the frustration and anger flared up on 30 June, the first anniversary of the Islamists coming to power, when more than 33 million Egyptians went on the streets, calling for the ousting of Morsi and his Islamist regime, a feat which was accomplished with the help of the army on 3 July.
How did the production feel like after the triumph of this massive popular revolution which removed from power the enemies of culture, freedom and enlightenment?
Predictably, the new reality infiltrated the performance and could not be shut out. The play had another resonance. The performance text was the same; what changed was one’s perspective. This resulted in foregrounding certain ideas, which in the previous viewing had received little attention, or passed unnoticed, and in a different reading of others. When seen during the benighted reign of the Islamists who claimed to have the majority with them, Dr Stockmann, the beleaguered hero in the play who risks his personal and professional standing to reveal a health hazard threatening the community, had seemed to speak for the champions of reason and enlightened thinking; he had seemed to warn against the danger of a mindless majority dictating the direction of politics, to offer a twofold critique of democracy, at once showing the tyranny of the majority and the manipulation of this majority by wily, corrupt politicians.
Watching the performance after the Egyptian people had risen against the rule of the Islamists who had rested their claim to power and superiority on a vain belief that they alone possessed the “truth” and knew what was best for the people, one could not but feel that the changed political scene cast a fearful shadow on some of Dr Stockmann’s views and sentiments and gave his passionate pronouncements a chilling ring. A man who is capable of saying:
“Yes, my native town is so dear to me that I would rather ruin it than see it flourishing upon a lie…”
… a man whose faith, however pure and disinterested, allows him to say:
“What does the destruction of a community matter, if it lives on lies? It ought to be razed to the ground. I tell you. All who live by lies ought to be exterminated like vermin! You will end by infecting the whole country; you will bring about such a state of things that the whole country will deserve to be ruined. And if things come to that pass, I shall say from the bottom of my heart: Let the whole country perish, let all these people be exterminated!”
... such a man, assuming he means what he says and is not simply ranting or carried away by passion, can be truly dangerous. Listening to him in the August performance, his words seemed to uncomfortably echo the threats of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood on the eve of the second round of the 2012 presidential elections when they repeatedly warned that they would burn Egypt and raze it to the ground if their candidate did not win. Their threats were rooted in their narcissistic belief that only they possessed the truth and were entrusted by God to do his will in the world. The fact that when ousted from power, they retaliated by literally burning down shops and homes, public buildings and churches, proved that they had meant what they threatened in 2012.
In the light of this, one could not easily dismiss Dr Stockmann’s talk of “destruction”, “extermination”, “ruining” and “razing to the ground” as mere hot air, and the suspicion that, in his zeal for the “truth”, he could actually condone people being exterminated like vermin gave one a shudder. In short, Stockmann’s original ambivalence as a character — by turns formidable and frail, wise and naïve, funny and tragic — acquired a sinister side in the August production in view of the actual deeds of fervent fanatics after the fall of Morsi.
The August revival of Amin’s Enemy touched another sensitive chord relating to the controversy over the resignation of Nobel Prize winner Mohamed Al-Baradei, the former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a prominent figure in the 25 January Revolution, from the post of vice-president of Egypt for foreign relations after the ouster of Morsi — a post he held from 14 July to 14 August 2013. The resignation, which immediately followed the forced break-up of the two long sit-ins by supporters of the ousted Islamist regime in Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Nahda Square in Cairo, shocked many and surprised all, and was generally viewed as extremely ill-timed. I will not go into Al-Baradei’s motives for his action; but the reaction to it was deep disappointment and a feeling of desertion and betrayal on the part of his supporters and admirers, and violent condemnation by his opponents. Suddenly, the man who since 25 January 2011 had been regarded as a trusted friend and leader of the Egyptian revolution became an enemy of the Egyptian people. A recurrent refrain in the abusive campaigns against Al-Baradei on Facebook and Twitter said that since he had lived abroad most of his working life, he knew little and cared less about his homeland.
When one of the townspeople in the play hurls the same accusation at Dr Stockman in preparation for branding him an enemy of the people, no Egyptian audience watching the play on 17 August, as I did, only three days after Al-Baradei’s resignation, could fail to make the connection between the public condemnation of Ibsen’s hero and the public attacks on Al-Baradei. This connection, if made, can prove disconcerting, not only for those who see Al-Baradei as a traitor, but also for those who regard his decision as a personal one and respect it as such. In either case, the connection is bound to problematise one’s attitude to Stockmann and create ambivalence.
Equally problematic for the Egyptian viewer, when reading Enemy in the light of the two recent popular revolutions, is the distinction Dr Stockman makes between “the common people” and the “People” when he says:
“The common people are nothing more than the raw material of which a People is made.”
How does one define the people who staged the 25 January Revolution, the people whom the Muslim Brothers manipulated to rise to power, or the people who after only one year could not tolerate the Muslim Brothers and staged another revolution to topple them? Were they the same? And if so, were they always “a People”, or did they start off as only “the common people”, as “raw material”, then developed through suffering, through trial and error, into “a People” able to correct their mistakes and put their first derailed revolution back on track by mounting another one?
One is tempted to think that one year of the Islamists’ reign had worked a change for the better in the common people, alerting them to the evils of bigotry and fanaticism, and awakening them to a renewed appreciation of the value of broadmindedness — a virtue inherent in their multi-ethnic, multi-religious, tolerant culture, and one which Dr Stockmann describes as akin to, or synonymous with morality. For a fleeting moment one feels as if the play is talking about the recent past, holding up a mirror to it to show the audience what they were like only a short time ago and warn them against a relapse into bigotry and ignorance.
Though Amin’s version of Enemy acquired new shades and nuances after the 30 June Revolution, becoming more complex and provocative, its warnings against the pitfalls of democracy and the rule of an uninformed majority remain as strong as they were before, and so does its defence of culture and attacks on ignorance, poverty and ugliness. Not withstanding all the teasing ambivalences created by the new context of reception after 30 June, the performance manages to tell its Egyptian audience in a subtle, dramatic way that toppling a fascist Islamist regime is not the end of the road, but, rather, the beginning of a long and difficult battle to critique the whole cultural heritage and rid it of all the elements that made it possible for Mubarak to stay in power for 30 years, and for a bigoted, fanatical group to rise to power by popular vote.

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