The Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous is renowned in the Arab world, but little known outside of it. Now in the first major anthology of his work in English, a new book published by Yale University Press features four of Wannous’ plays in addition to a selection of essays, interviews and speeches.
Born in 1941 in the village of Huseen Albahr in Syria, Wannous grew up in a modest rural setting but was able to pursue his education, first studying journalism in Cairo and then theater at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was influenced by the work of Bertolt Brecht, by the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq El-Hakim, and by figures he met in France, such as his professor Jean-Marie Serreau, the actor and theater director.
One of his most famous plays, included in this anthology, is An Evening’s Entertainment for the Fifth of June. Written shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war—which Wannous, like many of his generation, experienced as a devastating disappointment—it was a ground-breaking work both formally and in terms of content. It continuously breaks the fourth wall, the imaginary boundary between characters and audience, creating interactions between audience members and those on stage, as it mocks official propaganda and questions the causes of the Arab defeat. It was Wannous’ unfulfilled hope that the whole audience would be drawn into the drama and would, he wrote later, “erupt into demonstration.”
Wannous was always deeply concerned with politics and saw theater as a way to dramatize social and political questions and to create a political consciousness in the audience. But in the early 1980s, after former President Anwar el-Sadat’s visit to Israel and the Israeli siege of Beirut, the playwright fell into a deep depression and stopped writing for a decade.
When he returned to writing in 1990, his focus had shifted. He no longer believed theater could affect immediate political change, or that change should be its main aim. Instead he focused more on society itself, on how individuals experienced great historical events and strived toward moral choices and forms of personal emancipation. His political disillusionment seems to have been creatively liberating. “For the first time I feel that writing is a form of freedom,” he told an interviewer at that time.
Characters Who Are Struggling
Wannous was diagnosed with cancer in 1992. He wrote continuously in the last years of his life, producing some of his best work. This includes the play Rituals of Signs and Transformations, also included in this volume. The play is set in 19th century Damascus and at first seems to be focused on a political power struggle between local notables. But the story is taken over by characters who are struggling to free and express themselves—to arrive at a point in which, as one character says, “my inner and outer selves are one.” These characters include striking female protagonists (a hallmark of Wannous’ later work) as well as one of the rare depictions in Arabic theater of a sympathetic gay figure.
English-speaking audiences have access to Wannous’ work thanks to the new translation by Robert Myers, a professor of English and creative writing at the American University in Beirut, and Nada Saab, a professor of Arabic studies and literature at the Lebanese American University.
Myers is a prolific playwright himself. After previous collaborations, Saab and Myers decided to tackle Wannous’ Rituals of Signs and Transformations. Their translation project has gone hand-in-hand with a revival of interest in performances of Wannous’ work.
Silk Road, a theater and media arts organization that promotes theater from East Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern communities, contacted Myers and Saab with an opportunity to receive a MacArthur Foundation grant to translate the play and have it read at their theater in New York. This led to a reading in 2014. That same year the play was also performed in Beirut for the first time in 20 years, directed by Sahar Assaf, a Lebanese theater artist who also worked at the American University of Beirut.
The performances were an important part of this translation project. Myers and Saab told Marcia Lynx Qualey, the author of the Arablit blog that “we hoped to present translations that are more or less ready for the stage, because some of them have already been presented and seemed to work well, and we are trying to reach an audience and readership beyond those who are already initiated, know Arabic or know Arabic literature and theater.”
‘Our Lot Is to Hope’
One imagines that Wannous himself would have been pleased to know that his work was translated with the stage in mind.
In 1996, shortly before his death, Wannous was invited by Unesco to speak on World Theater Day (one of the highest honors for playwrights).
He lamented the marginalized state of theater, saying: “I know of no other period during which the theater was so impoverished both financially and morally. […] Let us face it, the theater today is no longer that civic celebration that allowed us room to contemplate, encouraged us to engage in dialogue and deepened our sense of humanity.”
And yet he maintained his love and belief in theater, calling it “the ideal forum in which man can ponder his historical and existential condition.”
Wannous concluded his speech by saying: “Our lot is to hope, and what happens today cannot be the end of time.” The line has variously been translated as “we are doomed to hope,” “condemned to hope” or “sentenced to hope”—a phrase that Saab and Myers take as the title to this new and valuable anthology: “A Sentence to Hope: A Sa’dallah Wannous Reader.”