Dr. Mona Hashish
Assistant Professor in the Girls’ College of Arts
Dammam University, Saudi Arabia.
A Bird’s-eye View of the Saudi Arabian Theatre:
Theatre activities in Saudi Arabia have long been restricted for religious and political reasons. The Saudi Arabian authorities do not allow women to act on stage and forbid men and women to gather in the same auditorium. In the past few years, however, some theatre activities have started to take place, creating a newly-born Saudi Arabian theatre. In spite of the fact that there is no professional theatre production in the kingdom, some companies like ARAMCO (Arabian American Oil Company) sponsor theatre activities.
Since there is no theatre institute in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi theatre counts on Saudi amateurs and professionals who have studied theatre abroad. The Saudi theatre does not hire actresses or tackle anti-social or local political issues. Male actors wear masks and wigs to act the female roles. Children, though, are allowed to act with male adults. Most the Saudi plays are either historical or universal in theme. For example, Yasser Al-Hassan’s Mariam, Life Repeats Its Tragedy deals with the Saudi Arabian Gulf heritage, and Ali Al- Ghazwey’s The Sleepers treats the psychological suffering of a spy in an Arab country. Both plays were performed in the theatre of the Arabic Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts last February 2011. The performances took place during the Eighth Festival of Dammam Theatre for Short Plays. The two plays are highly experimental in technique and quite representative of the contemporary Saudi Arabian Theatre. The auditorium has been specialized for only men. However, special performances can be run for women’s audiences if demanded by an organization or institution.
Yasser Al-Hassan’s Mariam, Life Repeats Its Tragedy won the first prize in the Eighth Festival of Dammam Theatre for Short Plays this year. It is a play where the playwright employs grotesquery to panic the audience. He fills the theatrical space with a huge white sheet. The sheet has holes that fit for projecting the heads and arms of characters who are covered by it. The white sheet stands for the other world that is scary and ambiguous. It can also be a symbol of the tribal community because the sheet is reminiscent of a big tent. The characters look uncanny for they are either half-or-fully dressed in white as if they are wrapped in shrouds. They stand for the walking dead who deal with living humans like the child Mariam.
It can be said also that Mariam, Life Repeats Its Tragedy is a folk play. It encompasses several folkloric elements: children characters, dances accompanied by folkloric music, and use of devices that reflect the Khaliji (Gulfian) heritage like incense, lanterns, gas lamps, dates and water. In addition, the play opens with a narrator who introduces the play to the audience. Four men dance with gas lamps on a folkloric music. They sleep straight, composing a square–like shape with their bodies. Then three girls (masked men with wigs) join them. In an expressionistic way, the dancers show that young men and women seek love which is hindered by social forces. The male characters hold the edges of the sheet and keep waving it to represent a sea where the main female dancer falls in. Someone mentions “Mariam,” then a little girl appears from the folds of the sheet. The male characters keep tossing their lanterns towards her as dervishes do in a Sufi circle. The scene ends with them all falling under the sheet shivering and dying. One of the walking dead announces that they will be tortured, then leaves without explanation.
The little girl goes to the front stage. A spot light focuses on her. She says a long monologue. She announces that her mother’s name is “Mariam.” Her mother waits a long time for her husband Nasser, who dives under the water searching for pearls. The girl talks ambiguously about her father’s promise to restore her mother to life. The protagonist talks about past events as if they are occurring at the present moment. The dramatist experiments with the element of time. He challenges the traditional chronological order of events and even creates loose connections among scenes. He tries to reflect the chaos and timelessness of the other world. In this nightmarish atmosphere, Mariam moves to the middle of the sheet, two men roll one edge of the sheet and make a swing for her. The girl swings and giggles creating a comic relief of a sort.
A butler called “Fentass” shows up carrying his goat-skinned flask. He pours water to a man and a boy. They drink; then the man says that Nasser will be back with the life-water which is better than Fentass’s one. Suddenly, he breaks his mug on stage. The existence of water on stage and the clattering of the broken mug are used by the playwright to highlight physical reality and juxtapose with the anti-realistic atmosphere of the play.
Afterwards, smoke starts to emit from backstage. As music gets louder and faster in rhythm, people begin to rise from the holes in the white sheet. This resurrection scene is followed by the characters forming a wall with their bodies. Everyone lies on the other from right and left successively like a brick wall. Then, they spread again to form minute cliff mountains. The audience gets the impression that this is a desert landscape. Here, one man says that Nasser is blessed with a baby girl although he wished to have a boy. He adds that Sheikh Nagy has chosen the name “Mariam” for Nasser’s baby.
In another scene, some characters raise the sheet up showing only the speakers’ legs. A boy says that his uncle has married two women who gave birth to only girls; so, he thinks of marrying Mariam to realize his dream of having a baby boy. The man offers one hundred pieces of pearls as dowry for Mariam. Here, the audience is not sure whether the boy talks about Mariam, the girl or Mariam the mother. Then characters from beneath the sheet stand erect forming a few hills in a valley. People in white clothes walk to and fro. One of them laments the day the elderly man could collect the hundred pearls that make the marriage possible. All of the characters start to perform irritated moves, followed by silence and stability. They form one big mountain using their bodies underneath the sheet. Their mountain-like shape becomes a background for the little girl Mariam and her father Nasser. In the foreground, Mariam smoothes her father’s hair and asks him not to make it hard on himself. As a child, she does not realize how awful it is to marry the elderly man. The audience gets the feeling that if Nasser had been alive, he would have protected his daughter.
Subsequently, the characters move their mountain to the middle of the stage. The boy and his elderly uncle are barely seen or heard at the backstage. Then the boy says that his uncle needs to burn a virgin’s braid in order to have a baby boy. Fentass shows up to announce that Mariam is inflicted with plague. The characters move to form two ranges of mountains that meet at one end like a V-shape. A character says that Sheikh Nagy advises Nasser to take a long crooked path in the desert to reach the life-water spring since this kind of water can cure Mariam.
The white sheet spreads out and the stage changes into a graveyard. The characters pop out their heads from the holes. One of them groans in severe pain and keeps coughing until his son, who pities him, strangles him so as to relieve him of the pain. The son hysterically giggles as if he has turned mad. Sympathetic music accompanies the action. Nasser comes to the front stage carrying Mariam on his shoulders. He puts her down then lays his head on her little lap as if he is a child. Mariam talks like an adult and says that the sea is treacherous for it takes from her the pearls and her green veil. Nasser groans; so, Mariam smoothes his white hair with her little fingers and sings for him a lullaby. She collects her sprinkled pearls from the ground which stands for the sea. Nasser carries Mariam again on the shoulders and goes off-stage.
Mariam reappears in the following scene. She asks the birds to go to tell her father to come back with dates for she no longer needs the life-water. Then she asks a rhetorical question enquiring whether she will meet her fate like those dead characters all around her or not. After she leaves the stage, a child comes eating dates. He beats his hungry cousin and only gives him the seeds. The elderly uncle comes to announce that he is always fair in distributing dates among his folk. Surprisingly, he splits his shirt and asks God NOT to forgive him!
The playwright creates a surrealistic scene where the characters form a cave out of the sheet. Surrealism is an anti-realistic modern movement that appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century. It involves a nonsensical nightmare that ends up in violence: A boy comes to ask Nasser about Mariam. Nasser asks him angrily to go fetch his uncle. The elderly uncle is confronted by Nasser. Nasser tells him that pearls are no longer valuable since one pearl is exchanged for ten dates. Nasser fights with the man. They knock each other down while a fast rhythmical music is being played as a soundtrack. A group of men rush in hammering mortars and producing loud rhythm. The characters in the cave, who pop out their heads, stretch their arms out. Beautifully drawn eyes are shown on their palms. The scene is like a dream. The influence of Antonin Artaud can be sensed in the violent fight between the two men. Nasser laments Mariam’s luck. He says that the pearls are submerged in blood. The characters start to run in circles around him. He gets stifled, falls and drops the pearls. Mariam , the child, appears talking to her doll as if it is her own mother. Mariam tells the doll that she has become a bride!
Mockingly enough, the mother Mariam shows up. There is no awe about her. Fentass removes the mask from her face. She says she cannot save her daughter. She looks selfish on announcing that she will take all the pearls and dates to herself. Before she dies, she says she envies her daughter just for living. Fentass starts to wet the hands of all the characters proclaiming that Mariam’s dowry is three jars of dates.
This is an absurd drama by all means. The characters’ confinement to the white sheet throughout the whole play creates an absurd situation. They are helpless creatures. They suffer and groan and fail to save themselves or others from their tragic lives. That is why the play opens with chaos and ends in chaos. The characters are divested of their identities. They are superficially portrayed and their monologues bear no psychological realism. Most of them have no names and rarely talk. They are reduced to a mute chorus who only form certain shapes with the white sheet and express agony, discomfort and helplessness through expressive moves. The few protagonists—Mariam, Nasser, Fentass and the Elderly Uncle— express themselves in words. They do not develop because they are mere types.
The combination of dead and living characters is grotesque. The little girl Mariam is surrounded by ghosts from the past. She acts uncannily because she deals with the ghosts as if they are alive. The dramatist experiments with not only surrealism, but also expressionism and symbolism. Surrealism is clear in the anti-realistic nightmarish atmosphere of the play and the naturalization of the grotesque figures. Expressionism is obvious in the abstraction of characterization, use of loose episodes instead of a plot and creation of scenery that counts on one big white sheet to represent various desert landscapes. Dark symbols are there to add to the gloominess of the place. The white sheet has various connotations in the play. Once, it stands for poverty and helplessness. Another time, it represents resurrection.
The play is non-chronological. One scene follows the other without a curtain or even a pause. The continual overflow of events confuses the audiences and increases the element of ambiguity in the play. The playwright deliberately chooses the same name for the mother and daughter. Ambiguity is, in fact, praiseworthy in modern drama since it reflects the reality of life.
What is most striking in the play is the director Oquail Khamis’s use of the white sheet. The characters, who play the chorus, do not leave the stage during the performance because they shape the theatre space by spreading the sheet out, move it in, waves or even put it up or down. The director has trained the actors to form beautiful geometric shapes with the sheet, copying Tom Stoppard’s Vorticist technique. It seems that he copies Tom Stoppard for the latter in some plays also mixes flashbacks with the present time, and gives every character two different names.
Last but not least, there is no beginning, middle or ending in the play. However, it is clear that the little girl Mariam has been offered as a scapegoat. She is to marry a man in his forties who has two other wives and children. She submits to her arranged marriage to survive. Poverty, ignorance and misery dominate her Bedouin community. The play shows that superstition and oppression find fertile soil to grow and morality fades away under the pressure of poverty. The play is, however, thematically detached from reality. It lacks an element of realism for it does not reflect on the Saudi Arabians in the twenty-first century. It generally tackles the problems of people in the Arabian Gulf area in the early twentieth century before the discovery of oil. Dealing with past Saudi Arabian problems does not fulfill the audiences’ expectation.
Ali Al- Ghazwey’s The Sleepers is similarly detached from reality. It does not tell or show the problems of contemporary Saudi Arabian people. The play opens with no curtain. A man anxiously stirs in his fancy bed then gets up with a scream that reflects his restlessness and shows his life as a nightmare. The whole play is a long expressionistic monologue. The actor exerts many efforts to keep drawing the audiences’ attention by continual movement and talk.
The playwright depends on a sole protagonist to convey his message. In a monologue, he exhibits a subjective truth, highlighting a personal experience rather than a national one. He says he suffers from insomnia and does not know the reason. He turns on the radio to entertain himself. Sardonically enough, it broadcasts a song entitled “I Forgot Sleep.” He feels that the radio is ‘prejudiced’ against him, so he turns it off. He then receives a message on his cell phone, asking him to pay his bills. He gets irritated and dumps the phone. The man’s reaction implies that he thinks that there are hidden forces which threaten his security.
The play is ambiguous. In the first quarter of an hour, the audience does not know who that protagonist is. However, they detect from his behavior that he is a psychologically disturbed man. He lives under pressure, and he is irresponsible. He starts talking to a picture of a lady on the wall. His tone is bitter. He blames her for abandoning him and stains the picture with dust. He remembers when she used to tempt him with her sensual beauty until they became lovers. He circles his arms as if hugging her and describes how passionate they were. He drinks wine to forget her cruelty. He finds a book entitled “International Law of Human Rights.” He wonders how such a book has reached his house. He mocks the idea that all people are born equal. The audience realizes that this man is irreligious and inhumane. He starts to appear as a villain hero.
It is obvious that the playwright satirizes the protagonist. The audience is kept in suspense to know more about the protagonist’s problem. The man tries to change his position in bed to help himself sleep. He moves from the bed to the floor. Once he rests his head on the pillow, he is bothered with the hissing sound of cockroaches. Here, he addresses the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall and violating the dramatic illusion. He tells the audience that cockroaches are there among them. He declares that he is scared of them and declares that he is ready to hang their leader! His speech forms a dramatic burlesque: he says he challenges the biggest cockroach that has stolen parts of his briefcase and enjoys the taste of its flesh without realizing how much pain one undergoes to manufacture a briefcase. This is actually a parody of his own tragic story. He means that his rival has stolen his beloved’s heart. He believes his rival is cruel to break his heart. Moreover, he calls himself “Nidal.” In Arabic, the name means “an honorable strife.” The playwright mocks Nidal for deluding himself. Throughout the play, Nidal criticizes others for being dishonest while he himself is dishonest.
The dramatist employs another method of expressionism by inserting an element of grotesquery. Expressionism is a movement that emitted from symbolism in the early twentieth century. It shows symbols, grotesquery and abstraction in characterization and scenery. Nidal in The Sleepers is startled to hear a lady’s giggle. He guesses this might be hallucination or dream. Then, he puts his head on the pillow and exclaims how he feels people are treading over his head in hatred. Consequently, the previous voice talks to Nidal. This is mysterious because Nidal does not recognize the lady’s identity. She is a grotesque figure. He starts to accuse her of inflicting him with insomnia. She giggles again and calls him ‘her lover.’ Nidal claims that he loved no one after his beloved has abandoned him. The mysterious voice says she pities him so she has decided to cheer him up.
The playwright creates an impressionistic scene that looks like a dream. Impressionism is an anti-realistic movement that flourished with the emergence of modernism at the end of the nineteenth century: Nidal happily raises his head and hands up towards a source of red light. In a state of ecstasy, red petals keep falling on him for several seconds. Suddenly, a yellow light interrupts this moment of delight. The voice cruelly tells Nidal that he has to forget her. Nidal is shocked. He cries and asks for the reason. A peeping tune from a machine is heard. Nidal metamorphoses into a machine-like figure. It seems that the woman has hypnotized him. He receives orders to forget her, so he keeps on going to and fro, trying to forget her. He finally sobers up and damns his heart for not obeying him.
In subsequent scenes, Nidal resumes his monologue. He proclaims he is as lusty as nature. He says his people accuse him of selling them for the sake of money. He claims that they are all traitors and liars. He believes he is honorable, so he says that the honorable one unfortunately loses at the end. Once again, Nidal turns to talk directly to the audience, assuring them that he is not a spy. He swears he does not betray his nation. Nidal goes to stretch his body on the bed. He hears the mysterious voice saying “Sleep now for tomorrow the world will come to an end.” Nidal turns nervous. He confirms he is not a spy. While defending himself, the lady’s giggle is heard as if mocking him. A police siren is heard, so Nidal is scared to death. He keeps on putting on different masks to hide his face then he drops them all. This behavior reflects his confusion and inability to act rationally or logically.
A spot light falls on his beloved’s picture, so he cries that she and the others are all treacherous. He dwadles in the red petals lamenting his unfulfilled love. A shower of feathers starts to fall from above on Nidal, surrealistically creating a dream-like atmosphere. Finally, Fayrouze’s national song is heard as a soundtrack in the dénouement. Fayrouze is a Lebanese singer. She sings, “The air breezed upon us/ from the split of the valley/ O breeze, for love’s sake, take me home!” Nidal makes fun of the song. He unconsciously proves to the audiences that he is a spy.
All in all, the play tackles the issues of belonging and patriotism. It shows the spy’s character as being imbalanced and depraved. He is morally confused between what is right and what is wrong. He is Machiavellian in making his ends justify his means. He is a typical spy that can be found anywhere in the world.
Both plays Mariam, Life Repeats Its Tragedy and The Sleepers are based on an aesthetic principle; so they include no obscene scenes. Aestheticism is a critical philosophy that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century and became a fuel to the modern movement. Aesthetic writers are pleasure seekers who emphasize spiritual beauty and do not care whether their viewpoint is accepted or rejected by others. They are against obscenity, not because it is a social or religious taboo, but because it stands for physical beauty. Yasser Al-Hassan and Ali Al- Ghazwey can be called ‘aesthetes’ since they blur the minute details to accomplish spiritual, not physical, pleasure. To achieve their goal, they appeal to some experimental aesthetic devices like impressionism, symbolism, expressionism and surrealism. Because of the dramatists’ implicitness of expression and subtle ideas, the audiences should be cultured enough to read between the lines and grasp as much meanings as they can.