ANNOUNCER: This is a production of Cornell University.
SHAWKAT TOORAWA: Welcome. On behalf of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, welcome to today's lecture. It gives me immense pleasure to introduce today's speaker, and I'm going to tell you a little bit about her-- very little about her. But then I'm going to tell you how I know about her, which is far more interesting.
She just completed a Ph.D. last year at the University of Chicago. The dissertation was entitled Hamlet's Arab Journey-- Adventures in Political Culture and Drama, (1952-2002). And she is currently at Yale at the Humanities Center on a Mellon-- is it Mellon-- post-doc and is on her way to Boston University, where she's accepted a position where she's going to be a comparative literature person in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures-- and Comparative Literature, right. Great. All of which is fine. And you know this is-- you know.
But much more interesting is that-- I'm going to have to go backwards a bit. I called her. I emailed her and then I called her. And I asked her if she'd be willing to come and speak on the work that she does to the class I'm teaching on modern Arabic drama. And her first question to me was not, how much am I going to get or where is Ithaca or anything like that. It was how do you know me?
MARGARET LITVIN: Will it be at 8:00 AM in February?
SHAWKAT TOORAWA: Yeah, and I said, well, I-- I don't know what I said. I waffled. And she said, you were one of the reviewers from my article, weren't you? And I said, answering that question will-- I take the fifth. And so that's actually what happened. I was asked to-- one shouldn't be divulging these things, but never mind. I was asked to read an article by a journal, which shall remain unnamed-- except that it's been published, and we can all go see it. And read it and I was just-- I was bowled over by it. I just thought it was brilliant.
So I googled some things and really only one name came up. And so I figured it must be she, I guess I should be saying. And so I called her, and that's how it all happened. And I'm very happy she spoke to my class this morning, which went, I thought, exceptionally well.
MARGARET LITVIN: I had a good time.
SHAWKAT TOORAWA: We have some class members here. And I happen to be a-- I have a special interest in Shakespeare and Hamlet as well. So it's a double kind of pleasure for me to introduce Dr. Margaret Litvin, soon to be Professor Margaret Litvin, who will be speaking or be giving a talk entitled, Shall We Be or Not Be-- Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Anxieties of Arab Nationalism, but you all know that because you've seen the announcement. So as they say, without any further ado, Margaret.
MARGARET LITVIN: Thank you. Shawkat, thank you for that introduction and in general for absolutely lovely hospitality today. And it's been a great joy to hang out here and visit your class and to meet you and converse, at last. This afternoon-- I hope you will have a handout. This afternoon-- oh, hand out the handout.
This afternoon, I want to talk a little bit about Arab appropriations of Shakespeare's Hamlet and what they reveal about the history of Arab political culture over the past half century. The basic thing they reveal, unfortunately, is that the time is out of joint. This is not big news. But what I hope to explore are some sophisticated and increasingly creative Arab responses to that perceived fact.
I'm going to start by summarizing what I'm calling the ordinary language used, sort of the lexical field around Hamlet in today's Arab political usage in recent political rhetoric before moving on to the play's Arab stage history. Along the way, I hope to show two things-- that there exists something you can call a distinct Arab interpretive tradition around Shakespeare's Hamlet, and that the basic theme of this tradition has been consistently the problem of collective political agency. I don't promise to get to the sublime, but let me go ahead and start now with the ridiculous.
Maybe you remember a controversy that flared about two years ago when a Danish newspaper decided to run a series of offensive cartoons-- you remember this-- caricaturing the prophet, Mohammed. Around the world, thousands of commentators felt called upon either to defend freedom of speech or to lambaste European insensitivity to Muslims. Predictably, dozens of Western polemicists lifted a phrase from Hamlet to code their critique. "Something is rotten outside the state of Denmark," proclaimed lots of European, American, and Arab writers who were appalled at the violence of some of the Arab and Muslim protests. By Danish, nothing rotten in the state of Denmark, urged a Belgian newspaper supporting a solidarity campaign.
If they had noticed, these commentators might have been surprised to see Arab and Muslim editorialists paying them back in exactly the same cultural currency. The quotation, "something is rotten in the state of Denmark," headlined an article decrying European double standards on religious taboos in the English language Saudi-based newspaper, Arab News. A writer in the Saudi daily Al Riyadh quoted it in Arabic in a column on European prejudice against Islam. [SPEAKING ARABIC], adding, "and we affirm that the rot is still present in Denmark and several other European countries." I think he meant mostly Holland by the this.
A Jordanian blogger gloated, "something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and it could be the smell of rotting Danish products as a result of the most recently implemented boycotts." You get the idea. For weeks, commentators on both sides used the shared idiom of Shakespeare to hurl insults across what came to look like an increasingly real cultural divide. No one saw any irony in such uses of Hamlet. Unlike Danish havarti cheese, Shakespeare's fully globalized, not really subject to a boycott like a European import.
In most cases, the Shakespeare allusion wasn't even explained. Arab audiences were expected to recognize it, and they did recognize it. Each writer quoted Shakespeare for his or her own reasons. Some simply wanted to look clever. Others might have realized that appropriating Shakespeare-- the crown jewel of Western civilization-- would boost their defense of Western values or their authority in questioning or attacking such values.
Even in matters unrelated to Denmark, Hamlet has long held a unique place in Arabic language political debate. Political speeches cite or quote Hamlet more often than any other Shakespeare play. Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice, for obvious plot reasons, are distant seconds. In fact, Hamlet is probably cited more than any other literary text at all, if you exclude the Quran.
Hamlet has been used to comment on just about every major and minor political issue touching the Arab world in the past five or six years-- Lebanon struggled to free itself from Syria, Iraq's elections, Egypt's economy, women's rights, and so on. It's invoked in Arabic not only by the people you would expect-- sort of Western-educated, europhile intellectuals-- but by a variety of religious and secular polemicists-- liberals, nationalist, Islamists, commentators in obscure journals, and others who publish in major pan-Arab newspapers and command large satellite TV audiences.
Page one of your handout samples these polemical uses of Hamlet. For example, the first guy, Syrian secularist Sadiq Jalal al-Azm and Egyptian-born Islamist, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi-- he's now the Mufti of Qatar and the de facto spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood-- these guys represent nearly opposite ends of the Arab religio-political spectrum, yet there are published examples of each of them citing Hamlet to argue a point about the Arabs or Muslims place in history. These uses-- I'll just give you a second to scan the first two quotes. These uses have a remarkably consistent structure. For al-Azm and al-Qaradawi, and everyone in between, Hamlet provides a way of discussing an existential threat to a valued collective identity.
Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" is most often quoted in the plural, [SPEAKING ARABIC]. This is possible because Arabic doesn't have an infinitive, so when you translate to be or not to be, you can't say [SPEAKING ARABIC]. You have to decide who's doing the being or not being. And on the stage, it gets translated as I. But in the political polemics, it invariably gets translated as we, shall we be or not be?
So Hamlet's dilemma, then, comes to dramatize the choice that's seen to be facing the whole Arab or Muslim community collectively. To exist or dissolve, to remain whole or fracture into competing private interests-- this is the big bugaboo, is the private interest-- like a mind splintered by madness to awaken politically and take arms against a sea of troubles-- and here you have the whole awakening and Arab Awakening rhetoric in the background-- or to slumber while history passes by.
On the most obvious level, this comparison to Hamlet is a rousing call for unity and principled action. But at a deeper level, you can see how such rhetoric works to constitute and reproduce a collective identity precisely by threatening it at the moment of threatening it with imminent dissolution. For example, look at the third quote. Invoking a Hamlet torn apart by madness allows a speaker like Mustafa Mahmoud-- he's a big Egyptian TV demagogue-- to imply that there is such a thing as an Arab Muslim community whose interests any decent Arab or Muslim person ought to put above his or her own.
Incidentally, it let's him conflate the two identities, although many Arabs aren't Muslim. And of course, the great majority of the world's Muslims aren't Arab. But you can see what he's doing. We all have one language and one god and one whatever. No, we don't all have one language, but never mind. Once you constitute a whole group as an individual-- you say the Arabs are Hamlet or the Muslims are Hamlet-- one of the things you're doing is assigning a plurality to a singular. And this is part of his point.
For a Western reader, it may be startling to see Shakespeare's melancholy Dane thus repurposed for the barricades. Gone are Hamlet's inwardness and doubt-- all the stuff we love about Hamlet, right? What remains is a sense of intense historical urgency. These illusions only make sense in light of the Arab interpretive tradition that has grown up around the play. So now we'll turn to the stage history, the world of drama, and trace the rise and fall of a character whom I've termed the Arab hero Hamlet.
The earliest Arabic Hamlet adaptations a little over a century ago were meant to entertain. The first one, translated through the French and adapted for the stage in the 1890s, is a musical comedy-- this is the Hamlet you think of first, right, of course-- a musical comedy with a happy ending. Hamlet kills Claudius and marries Ophelia. He then ascends the throne as the ghost applauds from the wings. Lyrics by a leading Egyptian poet were interpolated to display the vocal gifts of the popular singer, Shayk Salama Higazi, who played Hamlet, and to entice his fans to the theater. The political angle was completely omitted. The show owed as much to the conventions of French neoclassical theater as to the tastes of Cairo's emerging middle class.
Hamlet was never thought of as an English or British play. Every translation until 1922 came through the French, rather than translating directly from Shakespeare's English. Even much later in the 20th century, British sources were important, but they were never decisive for Arab Shakespeare reception. Certainly, Egypt had British schools with the required English classes. There were schoolboy abridgements. There were Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, which got translated at the turn of the 20th century and were much in use in Egyptian schools.
But there were also French and Russian schools throughout the Levant. There was Arabic and translated literary criticism. And there was a variety of traveling Shakespeare productions, including Sarah Bernhardt's Hamlet, which played Cairo in 1908. So they were getting everything. They were getting from all directions. Later, there were Soviet and American plays and films. Thus, influential readings of Shakespeare came from Britain, but also from France and Italy, the United States, and especially the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These inputs formed what I call the global kaleidoscope through which Shakespeare's text was received.
And one of the big errors that we're tempted to make as critics working on these texts is to compare something side by side with Shakespeare's original, which is absolutely useless if what someone is responding to is the interpretive tradition rather than the Shakespeare directly. It makes no sense if you don't see the immediate texts where they got their Hamlet from, which may not be Shakespeare's text at all.
After the Egyptian revolution of 1952, the main thrust of theater changed from entertainment to political edification. I've argued that post-colonial Arab appropriation of Hamlet occurred in three distinct phases. These are marked more or less by the three blocks of plays on the back of your handout. Because in the Arab world, all serious theater feels the need to be political to engage with politics, and because Hamlet is invariably read as a political play, these phases have largely corresponded to the prevailing moods in the region-- euphoric pride after the Egyptian revolution of 1952, anger and soul-searching after the disastrous June war of 1967, and a mixture of cynicism and nostalgia since the late 1970s as stale autocracies have spread through the region and stifled its dreams of national awakening.
But in all three phases, the shall we be or not be problem has been central, with the play being used either to pursue or to critique the aspiration for collective political agency. The first phase was the period of Nasserist revolutionary optimism, roughly 1952 to mid '60s. We can take it through '67. In this phase, Hamlet functioned mainly as a source of symbolic capital. Even the most aesthetically conservative stagings-- the most traditional kind of doublet and hose stilted stagings of Shakespeare-- served the regimes progressive political agenda, which was to put Egypt and the Arab world on the map.
The ability to perform Hamlet competently was evidence that the Arab world had world class high culture, and thus deserved a place on the world's stage. And Nasser explicitly spoke this way. He quoted Pirandello. He said that there is a great character in search of an actor perambulating the Arab world, and only we can pick up this actor or pick up this role and play this role. So he used this language of the theater, and the theater was very important in pursuing this aspiration.
The high point of this phenomenon was a production at the Egyptian National Theater in 1964. Critics actually assessed it on two grounds-- was it done competently? Was it technically kind of good, solid-- which it wasn't. And did it offer a distinct reading of the play that could take its place alongside the English interpretation of Lawrence Olivier's film and the Soviet interpretation advanced by Grigori Kozintsev? So this is a typical Cold War kind of moment. Do we have a third way? Do we have a non-aligned Shakespeare, which is neither this nor that.
This is typical post-colonial nationalism, too. If you can appropriate Hamlet with enough skill, it proves that your country deserves to exist. And you see this in Latvia. You see it in Lithuania-- all over. Kind of emerging nationalism is the first thing they do is translate and perform Hamlet.
Later in this first phase, and for the same reason, leading Arab playwrights of the mid-sixties chose to weave strands of Hamlet into their own protagonists. They borrowed Hamlet's depth and self-consciousness to mark their heroes as full-fledged moral subjects and hence, deserving political agents. The idea was that if you had a sufficiently deep subjectivity-- if you were really interiorized, you had all these depths inside, you had that within, which passes show-- then you were a real person. You were somehow capable of deliberation and that made you qualified to be a real political agent.
Thus, the hero of play number one on your handout, the political assassin, Suleyman al-Halabi-- he knows absolutely for sure-- he has no real doubt that the morally correct thing to do is to assassinate the leader of Napoleon's army in Egypt, General Jean Baptiste Kleber. And he knows he's going to do it.
But to reinforce his thoughtfulness and his inwardness, his depth as a character, playwright Alfred Farag gives Suleyman some ringing monologues in which he weighs the justice of his act against the collective punishment it will surely provoke. Oppression, or the price of justice, Suleyman intones. Egyptian reviewers immediately heard echoes of Hamlet's to be or not to be. These echoes work to show that Suleyman was not only an anti-colonial assassin-- today we might call him a terrorist-- but a philosopher as well. And there is actually a reviewer who said that this was the finest character ever presented on the Arab stage, the authentic Arabic copy of Shakespeare's Hamlet. So the authentic copy-- here we are.
The second phase, 1970 to '76, privileged an archetype whom I've termed the Arab hero Hamlet. And I sort of think it should start after '67, but in fact, I found no examples before Nasser's death in 1970 of this Arab hero Hamlet moment. And we can talk about why that is. Following the complete military defeat in the June war of '67, dramatists in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq decided that political agency had to be seized. It couldn't be earned. You couldn't just show you were good enough.
The war shifted the goals of Arab drama. Nasser had predicted a great role on the world's stage for the Arabs, but that hope had been crushed. Even for a longtime regime apologists, the defeat was incontrovertible proof that the governments of Egypt and Syria had deceived and betrayed their own citizens. Writers recall the extravagant assurances long after the decisive battles had been lost that victory was imminent. The lack of democratic openness was seen as a key reason for the Arab countries dismal failure.
Here, I'm going to digress from Hamlet for a minute and just read you a tiny piece of a poem by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, a poem called "Notes on the Margins of the Defeat." Hang on a second.
Qabbani writes, "If someone could grant me safety, if I could meet the Sultan, I'd say to him, Mr. Sultan, your fierce dogs have torn my clothes. And your agents are always following me. Their eyes follow me. Their noses follow me. Their feet follow me. Like determined fate, like judges, they interrogate my wife, and they have my friend's names written down. Mr. Sultan, because I've approached your massive walls, because I tried to reveal my sorrow and distress, I was beaten with shoes. Your soldiers forced me to eat from my shoes. My lord, my lord Sultan, you've lost the war twice because half your people has no tongue. What's a people worth that has no tongue? Because half our people is confined like the ant and the rat inside the walls. If someone could grant me safety from the troops of the Sultan, I would say to him, you've lost the war twice because you've become cut off from the cause of the people."
So this is where the sultan is. He's cut off from the cause of the people. It's no point anymore sending him coded messages or addressing your allegorical theater to the regime and hoping to provoke some kind of change or hoping to awaken the conscience of the regime. The criticism has to do with something different. And it's also a frustration with lofty rhetoric. Qabbani also writes in this poem, with the nay and mizmar, you don't win a war. Has this very stinging nasty couplet which rhymes also in Arabic. And yet he writes the poem and he ends it optimistically. He addresses it to the young people of the generation who will rouse themselves and who will defeat the defeat.
So it's not that people stop writing after '67. It actually galvanizes-- in drama, at least-- a new generation of writers and a new type of writing where the address is to the audience, I think, rather than the regime. And at this point, the importance in the role of Hamlet changes. At this point, Hamlet abandons his status as an emblem of psychological interiority-- because who cares how deep you are, much good that did you, and high cultural achievement. Instead, he plunges into agitprop. The spectacle of his resistance and martyrdom in the '70s sought to inspire action in the audience rather than in the regime or in the outside world. Directors turned him into an Arab revolutionary hero, a fighter for justice brutally murdered by a tyrannical regime. He was Che Guevara in doublet and hose, animated by white hot anger at everything rotten in the state. And the key lines here become still to be or not to be, but also, something is rotten in the state. The time is out of joint. Denmark's a prison. These become sort of echoey lines.
The most famous Dutch production put up in Cairo in 1971 and so successful that it was revived again in '76 and '77 was directed by Mohamed Sobhi, who also starred in it. He's the guy who did the controversial Ramadan serial you might have heard about a couple of years ago based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. So he's still alive and kicking. But here, he was a young drama student in '71. And he put up this very grandiose Hamlet.
It began with Hamlet's funeral, which was set to the opening of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," and it preceded in flashback before coming around to the funeral again. Audiences were rapt. One reviewer enthused, "The contemplative thinking side of the characters obscured here by the plodding active side so that he appears to be a revolutionary fighter, furious and pure, seeking justice and freedom with integrity and honor." These political plays drew heavily on the Soviet and Eastern European Hamlet traditions.
Mohamed Sobhi told me in an interview last summer that he was influenced by the 1964 Soviet film of Hamlet, directed by Grigori Kozintsev, which he claims to have seen 17 times. I actually believe him. I've heard double digit figures from other people of his generation, and it was a huge phenomenon in Arab Hamlet reception, this film. Its political emphasis caught something in the spirit of the time.
I don't know if you've seen it at all. It's an amazing movie, and there are-- it starts to weigh on you after a while. There are eavesdroppers. There are armed guards, iron gates, statues and portraits of Claudius everywhere, busts of Claudius that intrude on you more and more as the movie goes on. And it has a very wonderful rousing score by Dmitri Shostakovich.
So even if you don't know Russian-- if you can't appreciate Pasternak's translation-- you can still hear it. You can hear the rhythms of it even if you don't understand what he's done to Shakespeare's wording, and you can hear the score. And this thing was shown ad nauseum in Egypt, at any rate. Besides being shown at the Odeon Cinema in Cairo and the Soviet and Czech cultural centers, the film was televised repeatedly. Eventually subtitles were pirated from Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's translation of Hamlet. Before that, it was shown without subtitles.
This film has influenced two generations of Egyptian intellectuals. But there are other Soviet and Eastern European influences as well. Riad Ismat, the Syrian director of play number five on your handout-- is it play number five? Four. Yeah. That sounds weird. Yeah, four-- likewise felt the influence of Eastern European Shakespeare. Ismat's version of Hamlet, produced with amateur actors at an elite Damascus high school, was divided into three sections titled Sorrow, Revolt, and Martyrdom. His program notes quoted Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, the groundbreaking book by Polish critic Jan Kott.
Ismat tells his audience, "I de-emphasized the individual importance of the character and instead stressed his fully conscious involvement in the furious political struggle to purify Denmark"-- again, furious and pure-- "to purify Denmark from within, preparing it to face the danger of Fortinbras' army and its attack on the country's security. The private love in Hamlet's heart pales before this public love, and his sadness for his father dwindles before his love for his nation. So I'm forced to request that you were erase from your minds"-- this is right when the spectators saying, well wait, what about Hamlet? "So I'm forced to request that you erase from your minds any previous image of the play Hamlet, for it is not, as I see it, simply a philosophical or psychological play, but a political play first of all."
This is the same move made by Shakespeare's Hamlet. The adolescent impulsive Hamlet of Act One-- when he hears the story told by the ghost, the first thing he promises is to wash his brain, to become a tabula rasa, forget all of his earlier experience and devote himself singlemindedly to his dead father's cause, literally brainwashing. "Remember thee! Yea, from the table of my memory, I'll wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past that youth and observation copied there, and by commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter." So this is a complete single-minded devotion to the revolutionary cause.
So by the late '70s, this lack of irony had become untenable. The reality of brute power had exposed the futility of political art. Worse people started to question the basic goodness of Arab nationalist ideals, not just their feasibility. I think that what I'm discovering is I revise my book is that the ghost of Hamlet's father really is Gamal Abdel Nasser. And if he does represent the ghost of Hamlet's father in this story, it's fair to say that the early '70s quest for single-mindedness gave way to some late '70s confusion about whether or not this was really an honest ghost.
So now in the last 30 years, some Arab writers have used Hamlet to mock and mourn the Arab nationalist ideal. Despairing of collective political agency, they've turned instead to ironic laughter as the last best chance to rise above their circumstances and reclaim some moral agency.
So five of the last six plays on your handout work against the archetype of the Arab hero Hamlet, which doesn't mean they don't refer to it, they don't use it. They depend on it crucially, but they work against it. Rather than ask audiences to erase from your minds any previous image of the play, these works keep that previous image around and they deploy it as a dialogical background against which to generate dramatic irony. So audiences have to use what Marvin Carlson called binocular vision. They keep two plays and two Hamlets in mind at the same time. The proper heroic one, they remember from the good old days on TV, and the ineffectual, inarticulate, often alcoholic blunderer shown to them on stage.
The later plays use various formal strategies to draw your attention to this irony, in case you missed it. Two of them open with Horatio, who enters as a kind of Brechtian narrator, framing the thing-- framing the performance for the audience. He greets the audience and tells them they are about to see Hamlet performed in a non-standard, unusual way. Other plays have lines in which their characters criticize Hamlet for not acting like his heroic self.
The Iraqi play pointedly titled Forget Hamlet-- number nine on your handout-- was produced in Cairo in 1994 during its author's 30 year exile from Ba'athist Iraq. Its point is that there is no Hamlet-like hero able to stand up to the grotesquely Saddam-like Claudius. At one point in the play, Horatio accuses his friend. "You are not the Hamlet I know and have lived with." Hamlet responds with infuriating blankness. "Well, maybe I ought to change my name." Later, al-Asadi's Ophelia rebukes Hamlet with a zinger that only makes sense-- it's only going to hit-- if the audience knows Shakespeare's original. Ophelia tells Hamlet, "Get yourself to a monastery. There, you can rest your mind and body and have leisure to repose your question, to be or not to be."
But the post-1975 adaptations reserve there worst sarcasm for their agitprop immediate predecessors. Several of them appropriate Hamlet's Mousetrap. Of course, it's there. It's waiting to be appropriated. It's about theater. It's about political theater. It's about political adaptation, in fact, of previous plays which exist in very choice Italian. So they appropriate Hamlet's Mousetrap to mock the pretensions of political art. In Shakespeare, The Mousetrap is the name of Hamlet's play within a play-- do you remember this-- where he hopes to use it to catch the conscience of the king.
But in the Arabic plays, Claudius has no conscience. What he does have is enough power to make him immune to public opinion. Nothing any artist or intellectual can say is a match for what this brutal tyrant can do. My favorite example of this is from a play called The Theater Company Found a Theater and Theatered Hamlet, developed by an independent Jordanian company for an Arab Theater Festival in 1984. Nader Omran's rollicking musical comedy-- the thing is hilarious to watch. It has like song and dance numbers where the cast stumbles around the stage and sings, "A tyrant is like a blind man, helpless without his stick," things like this. It's quite bold in a way.
And it uses Shakespeare. It turns Hamlet inside out. Hamlet itself, Shakespeare's play, becomes the play within a play. So a young prince commissions a group of players and their European-trained director to come stage Shakespeare's Hamlet in his kingdom in an attempt to embarrass his uncle who's ruling the kingdom after his father's death and who has married his mother. Here's the prince introducing the play. There's a lot of drinking in this play, I have to say.
Prince, facing the audience. As for Shakespeare's story, which we shall theater tonight, it's a play called Hamlet. He's a prince from the country of Denmark. He returned from abroad to his country to find that his father had been murdered, and his uncle-- with an exaggerated wailing expression-- had married his mother. And this treacherous uncle was none other than the murderer of his brother, i.e. Hamlet's father. Prince freezes for a moment in the proscenium, carrying his bottle, and turns toward the King. Can you think of anyone more treacherous than that, oh uncle? King, slyly-- it seems to be an amusing story, nephew of ours. Another class, servant. Please, continue.
Prince-- doesn't the story remind you of anything, uncle? King, raises his cup in his right hand, long moment of silence in which the two men stare at each other. Of course, my son. It reminds me of the country of Denmark, a beautiful country and famous for its dairy. I saw milk products there like I had never seen before in my life. What a country. Go on, son. So what are you going to do? If the tyrant doesn't blink, Omran's play and several of the other plays suggest public exposure can't hurt him. Political theater is impotent to accomplish political change.
Let me just mention one similar moment from Mahmoud Aboudoma's Dance of the Scorpions, performed in Egypt in 1989. Here again the physical power to control the symbolic fear turns out to be more important than the truth of what's said in it. I love this scene because of the way that it incorporates and revises-- updates-- an indigenous Arab theatrical form, the puppet show.
Aboudoma's play posits that Claudius has fabricated a foreign war, bribing his enemy Fortinbras to pretend to attack his kingdom in order to silence his domestic opposition and extort war taxes from the poor. Further, Claudius has invented a Council of Nobles who, the stage directions tell us, are not human, but are simply paper dummies. At a meeting of this imaginary war council, Hamlet attempts to expose the so-called ministers as paper dolls. "Enough! What's happening? What's this stupid buffoonery? Where are these nobles you're talking to, King? They're just paper dolls. If these dolls are human, let me hear their voices."
Hamlet's critique gains resonance from its echo of a dialogue in the Quran-- which also appears in Jewish texts-- between Abraham or Ibrahim and his father, who sells wooden idols. But this emperor is untroubled by the child's revelation that he's naked. He just sits there naked. Hamlet does not catch the king's conscience or even disrupt the puppet show. Instead, Hamlet gets a stern warning not to interrupt the meeting and not to mock the king's cabinet. And the meeting continues.
What finally unseats Claudius is not Hamlet's critique, but Fortinbras' betrayal. His troops attack after he had promised they wouldn't. And this coincides with the revolution-- a domestic revolution-- led by a group of religious fundamentalist militants. They end up in power, not Hamlet.
So as I revise the book manuscript I've been talking from today, I'm wrestling with the question of what it means for works of art-- especially public art, like theater, political art-- to thematize their own inefficacy like this. Why would you do it? It's all very well to say what I almost said a few minutes ago, that this longest phase-- last and longest phase-- of Arab Hamlet appropriation represents an abandonment of the ideal of collective political agency. And it turned to a more individual notion of moral agency, achieved through incisive literary reflection.
So it's the story about the triumph of art over politics, of irony over slogans. I think it's a story that many of us, as liberal critics and academics and playgoers, would love to tell. But I don't think it's quite right. I don't think this story about artists overcoming the need to make political art does justice to the way that most contemporary Arab playwrights understand their own work. Many of them would describe their Shakespeare adaptations as political and function, and not only in theme. They're not just about politics, but they hope somehow to intervene in politics. Several are still committed Nasserists. Most have not fully given up on what people still call the Arab cause.
Exactly how their irony coexists with their commitment is the problem I'm still trying to work out. My intuition right now is that the story these writers are telling themselves about their aims is only partly accurate, and on some level, they must know it. At times, they claim to be doing political theater to send political messages to their audiences. But other moments, they concede that these artistic gestures have failed to develop into actions-- there is a difference between a gesture and an action-- and that the era of the pure and furious struggle is past.
Maybe afterwards in discussion we can talk also about how 9/11 and the post 9/11 context and especially the Iraq War have muddled all this further. I think the epilogue to my book is happening as I write it, which is that maybe political theater is becoming relevant again. And maybe it's becoming relevant here too. In the West, there's a huge market now for political plays, or at least plays about politics. I don't know. We can come back to this.
For now, let me close by returning to Mahmoud Aboudoma, the guy with the puppet show. In 2006, Aboudoma-- now part of the Egyptian cultural establishment as the cultural director of the new Biblioteca Alexandrina-- published a short story collection called Nustaljiya-- it's in Egyptian colloquial-- so, Nostalgia. It actually has a story in it titled "Gamlet is Russian for Hamlet." The story reminisces about Nikita Khrushchev's 1964 visit to Cairo and links it with a child's first viewing of the Russian Hamlet film at the Russian cultural club in a then leafy suburb of Cairo. Aboudoma would have been about 11 at the time, so it's probably autobiographical.
Aboudoma fondly recalls the nationalist slogans of the day. Quote, "The great nationalist dream, justice, the alliance of working peoples forces, the fight against colonialism, the Egyptianization of culture, and the rockets pointed toward Israel." He uses the phrase "the tree abandoned its roots" to describe Egypt's loss of its nationalism and its socialist ideals. His story ends like this. "When the years went by and the changes came, and the tree itself abandoned its roots, Shafiq Street and Heliopolis filled up with tall buildings. But the Russian's building stayed as it was, except that they put a new banner on it. It was red like the other one, a picture of some guy smiling for no reason, and the words, Kentucky Fried Chicken."
Adoudoma's Kentucky image-- I've actually tried to write about the ambiguous place and role of Kentucky, as it's called in Cairene culture. It's something. It's not zero. So it's a well-chosen image for him to use. And this image argues that political messages are irrelevant in today's depoliticized, commercialized, globalized situation. With no living ideals to reinforce, what is political theater supposed to accomplish? For Arab artists seeking a way to be rather than not to be, maybe the only kind of self-actualisation available is the pleasure of mocking and mourning those losses. The time is still out of joint, but the dream of setting it right now seems more and more like a beautiful post-colonial fiction.
SHAWKAT TOORAWA: Take questions?
MARGARET LITVIN: Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Thank you very much. This was absolutely wonderful and it just really generated all sorts of ideas [INAUDIBLE] for me. And I have two-- I'm not sure if they're comments or questions or just openings for a conversation. But the first, I've been doing some writing on Youssef Chahine's films, and he's, of course,
MARGARET LITVIN: Obsessed with [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: Yes, exactly. And of course I, in the context of your presentation, caught the ways in which the something's rotten in the state of Denmark is used in [INAUDIBLE], which is about the '67 defeat and it fits very nicely in there. But it's too bad you're here now and not like three weeks from now when my class is seeing Alexandria again and forever because it would be a really nice complement to the discussions about that film. Because that film essentially hinges on-- it's Hamlet versus Antony and Cleopatra and where does postcolonial agency reside? So it was just-- wanted to perhaps open up some broad question on Chahine's adaptation's of Hamlet.
MARGARET LITVIN: And Chahine there speaks in Arabic? That's the thing, right? His teacher asks him to recite something. I think to be or not to be. They have it written on the board in transliteration. So they're cheating.
AUDIENCE: That's the first one. That's Alexandria...Why? And then the third part of his quartet is the one where he does that sort of fast forward kind of rendition of the Antony and Cleopatra. And Hamlet, it gets tied up with his romance with the young actor, who's sort of his kind of alter ego. But ultimately, [INAUDIBLE] convinces him in some ways to give up Hamlet and the kind of introspection that the-- this introspection that leads nowhere.
MARGARET LITVIN: That's right. He goes on inside himself.
AUDIENCE: And to pick up the postcolonial take up arms against the imperial power in the context of Antony and Cleopatra.
MARGARET LITVIN: Chahine himself may be-- I've never written about him because-- well first of all, I don't know his work as well as I ought to. And I think he, himself, may be out of joint with the chronology that I'm trying to layout here because he has these French things going on. And he's operating, also, in this other tradition, this European tradition of reading Hamlet as about introspection. The line I've drawn here-- and I've sort of abstracted from anything that doesn't fit on this line, like North Africa, where again, the chronology is all messed up for various francophone reasons, where they're doing things in 1968 that people in the Arab Near East don't start doing until the mid '70s for reasons having to do with France in 1968.
So Chahine, also he's not necessarily on this trajectory, which ends up at the same place of the Hamlet who thinks too much and talks too much and can't get it together to act-- the Hamlet that you might be familiar with-- but through this other route of having been the big representative of action. I don't know if-- because he's lived abroad, I don't know if he's as steeped in that as somebody who grew up on Russian movies.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] It really is a question that how this might fit in. But I think that film comes out in '87 or '89, the third installment. It's much delayed from the first two and it does, I think, fit nicely into this [INAUDIBLE]. I have another question, but I'll come back to it.
MARGARET LITVIN: Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Thank you for your talk. I can't wait to read this book.
MARGARET LITVIN: I know. Me too.
AUDIENCE: I'm used to thinking of The Tempest as the play that enables a kind of postcolonial self-assertion in the face of globalizing Shakespeare. And so I'd just be curious to hear you just maybe talk a little bit about why Hamlet. I mean, I have some guesses, but especially because in the sort of English language tradition, which is where my familiarity comes, it's not a play that really lends itself to nationalist self-imagination when it is first produced. I mean, the sort of Shakespeare industry that sort of emerged later in the modernity, it kind of does, and I see how that happens. But I think in a way, it's not an obvious fit, and so I'd love to hear you talk about or speculate or maybe confirm answers--
MARGARET LITVIN: Why Hamlet?
AUDIENCE: Why Hamlet?
MARGARET LITVIN: Thank you for the question. I avoided this question studiously for five years. I don't touch it in my dissertation, and I'm now coming around to it. So let me try to answer it in the order you asked it. The thing about the postcolonial Tempest rewritings of Aime Cesaire's Une Tempete or something is that they're writing back to Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the thing to be not attacked, but engaged with-- to be criticized, to be revised, and problematized.
Here, it's a much different case. Shakespeare is the ally against everything else that is out of joint. Shakespeare is our friend. And even if we're writing back to the colonial powers-- like Alfred Farag in his play about Soleyman in Aleppo, we're using Shakespeare to do it. We have no problem with Shakespeare per se. Whereas all of The Tempest rewritings I know of are that-- the sort of, oh well, he put Prospero on top, but I'm going to put Caliban on top, OK, wonderful. So it's a different thing.
About Hamlet-- I think Hamlet does lend itself. I think it lends itself first of all because of who Hamlet is. You think about him, he's this young guy who's being handed scripts by three old guys. This is a story that really resonates with Arab theater makers. His dad, from beyond the grave, has the nerve to tell him what to do. Claudius wants him to sit-in the corner and be quiet and act like a nice courtier. Polonius wants him to star in this ridiculous romantic comedy with Ophelia that he keeps trying to set up.
So everybody is trying to hand him scripts and he wants to act out something of his own. He doesn't quite know what. He ends up putting on this half-baked Mousetrap, but he's struggling the whole time to write the lines that he's going to say and not to say someone else's lines that have been handed to him. So all you have to do is pluralize it and collectivize it to make it a very good metaphor for a certain kind of postcolonial condition for the pursuit of agency and self-determination.
It should also be said, I think that these readings don't rewrite Shakespeare. I think they recover something that's just as much in Shakespeare's. It is a play about politics. Claudius popped in between the election and my hopes, Hamlet says. And it's just our readings have followed this trajectory from-- I don't know where you want to start it-- but A. C. Bradley sort of, and on, dot, dot, dot, T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom, the guy whose head is too big for his play, the guy who thinks too much, the poster boy for Western subjectivity. So that comes in handy here. It's borrowed. He becomes almost an emblem for subjectivity.
All you have to-- Hamlet doesn't really act out his depth either. He tells us he's deep, right? He says, I have that within which passeth show-- like wearing a big sign that says, I am deep. So Egyptian characters in a certain period do the same. But otherwise, there is this political dimension to the play, so I don't know why not bring it out. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Thanks a lot for a great talk, by the way. I have sort of a two part question. The first part is aside from the Aboudoma rendition, which you mentioned was in colloquial, how many of these plays were in colloquial, whether colloquial Tunisian or Egyptian or so forth? And the second part of this question, what was the size of the audience? I mean how popular were these plays on a mass level? Did you get a sense of that at all?
MARGARET LITVIN: Yeah. I get this question everywhere. I wish I could answer it. I wasn't in any of these audiences. I haven't seen any of these plays performed, except in some cases, I have videos. Not mass culture-- the audience could be, again, 250 people at the [INAUDIBLE] Theater watching Jawad al-Assadi's play and then however many more read the reviews, but not mass. Part of the story is you can write more and more in the newspapers, and the theater loses its importance as a place for political debate. So in the '60s, you really do have all kinds of people coming to the theater. It is a mass phenomenon. It is mass culture. And it's an agora for political debate much more.
And then gradually after [INAUDIBLE], Sadat doesn't care about the theater. Nobody else cares about the theater. So at least in Egypt, theater loses its relevance as a real site for political debate. The audiences get smaller. And I don't want to say that that's what explains the increased level of irony. I don't know which way the causality goes. But in some cases, it is the director sort of addressing his 200 friends. It's not a mass level intervention.
Language-wise, [INAUDIBLE] Hamlet was written by an Iraqi. It went up in [INAUDIBLE], but the gravediggers who provided ironic commentary-- they have like intercut scenes every other scene-- speak very earthy, very bawdy Egyptian omnia. They were two actresses and they-- not really subversive, pseudo-subversive, in fact, just reinforcing the mightiness of the regime. Oh, that Claudius, yeah, he'll marry you. And he'll marry me. And he'll marry your mother. And oh my god, you know?
So it's obscene, but it's not really critical in the sense of opening up any real possibility for dissent. It's just further confirming, which is why I think also these plays don't get censored, why they are produced and published. They don't really challenge the mightiness of the regime. They just reiterate it.
Ismail/Hamlet is in Syrian colloquial and The Al-Hamlet Summit is the most interesting case. It's in English. It's originally in English. So It was produced in Edinburgh, and then it got translated via a commission from Japan. The playwright was commissioned to produce an Arabic version, which he duly did with a mixed Arab cast of Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Kuwaiti actors.
AUDIENCE: Is that one in print?
MARGARET LITVIN: Yeah. It is. Hold up the poster. Is that a picture from it?
SHAWKAT TOORAWA: This is The Al-Hamlet Summit.
MARGARET LITVIN: That's The Al-Hamlet Summit, yeah by Sulayman Al-Bassam. I highly recommended it not for its subtlety. Hamlet becomes a fundamentalist suicide-- a fundamentalist terrorist, Islamist terrorist, and Ophelia becomes a suicide bomber who quotes Mahmoud Darwish on her farewell manifesto video. So this is very much for the Western market. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: This is fascinating and I'm sort of percolating on a lot of different levels. I think you have established unequivocally the power that Hamlet has culturally, and I find it really interesting that you've given us these quotations from political discourse, philosophical discourse, and then, of course, these listings of plays. And I'll maybe ask you to talk a little bit more about something I think you were just speaking about a little bit in the last response, which is given any number of possible ways that Hamlet has a trope could be deployed-- it could be deployed in political discourse, it could be deployed-- I mean in a political arena in political discourse. It could be deployed in film. It could be deployed in some poetic structure.
But obviously these dramatists have specifically chosen a theatrical-- or at least the one's you're doing-- they've specifically chosen to explore this trope in a theatrical venue. And given, again, what you've told us about relatively modest audiences, this longstanding idea that theater may have some kind of potential for political agency, but that very rarely is actuated. So given that, why do they keep writing plays? Why the theater?
MARGARET LITVIN: Because it's what they do. Yeah, but they've got to have some-- something more. In other words, why choose the theater? Why not write a novel? Why not write a poem? Why not write about it in the newspaper? Why not make a movie? What is it about the actual phenomenon of live performance that's the compelling feature here, if it is indeed the compelling feature?
MARGARET LITVIN: I don't know because you never think to ask a theater guy why are you a theater guy and not instead-- why do we write academic papers for all of the problems of impact and audience that those have? I mean, because it's what they're good at. It's what they enjoy. It's where their friends are. Some of them also write in other media, not many of these last six, I have to say. They're really mostly theater guys, and their engagement with Shakespeare is in some cases a long standing one.
They keep returning-- like Jawad al-Assadi, I think I mentioned this morning, is now working on Richard III. Sulayman Al-Bassam did a Richard III last year at Stratford called Richard III-- An Arab Tragedy as opposed to an English history. I don't know. I mean, in general, the thing that makes live theater powerful is that you can slip in things that weren't in the script shown to the censor. You can do very subtle things. You can recite a certain line.
My advisors favorite example is in the play, Smoke by [INAUDIBLE]. There's a character who says, I spit on you, oh, drug dealer. He's an addict and he's talking to his pusher. But he directs the gesture towards the president's box in the theater. It's unquantifiable. The censor can't get its grip on it, but the audience gets it immediately. You can do things. And so I think-- it's been suggested to me. I think this is right that I need to develop a theory of what it means for theater to have any impact politically that is less grandiose than, oh, it's going to catch the conscience of the king or it's going to expose the wrongdoing and turn everything upside down. And it's going to be evidence in some kind of trial.
No, it needs to be something more minute, more situational, more terroristic and opportunistic. You come. You attack. You don't do the same thing twice because it won't work twice. And there are some theater makers who play with this like, Lina Saneh Rabih Mroue in Lebanon are two performance artists who actually play with this idea of performance art as momentary and therefore possibly effective intervention, whereas sustained intervention could never succeed because the system would just shut it down. I don't know if that's something to work with there. Yeah, Shawkat?
AUDIENCE: Something that I think is-- this is my other question that sort of is connected in some ways to that question. There's some poets-- Egyptian poets-- who sort of came of age in the late '80s and who are now in their late 30s and early 40s who experienced the first Gulf War-- so in 1981-- as a kind of turning point for them and their own recognition of the uselessness of the poet as prophet model.
And I was wondering in this kind of chronology whether there is any mapping-- whether it's generational or otherwise-- with that shift that takes place in poetry that I think is somewhat similar to what you were talking about when you say about this individual notion of agency as opposed to a collective nation. That instead of trying to rally the people, it becomes this very small voice. It's this voice of the personal. It's this inward look, which isn't to say that it's not political, because some of it is very political. It's a very individualistic kind of politicism.
MARGARET LITVIN: Yeah, no. That's really helpful. I think that is exactly what's happening is the rejection of the prophethood. And again, these guys know each other. I don't think it's a generational thing. Like Mamduh Adwan saw Riad Ismat's play, the grandiose one at the high school. And he wrote Hamlet Wakes Up Late, which is this nasty, bitter, not quite disillusioned satire. You still have an idea of what it might mean for Hamlet to wake up. He doesn't do it, but you still-- you sort of know what correct ethical and political action would be in there. And then [INAUDIBLE] saw that production in Damascus, and he writes about it in that column that I quoted.
So it's not strictly generational in terms of their age. It's not a particular event. It's certainly not as late as the Gulf War, but I think that's exactly the phenomenon. That's exactly what happens.
AUDIENCE: As a follow up to The Tempest question, I didn't ask you this this morning, but I mentioned in class. Well why not Macbeth and Caesar? Is that because of the censors?
MARGARET LITVIN: There's a lot of Macbeth, yeah.
AUDIENCE: There is?
MARGARET LITVIN: Yeah. Like if you go to a festival of local theaters, where theaters from all the provinces are coming to perform in Cairo, you'll see versions of Macbeth. It's done. It was the Iraqi play-- like Iraq sent a play to last year's Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater. It was a very, very straight, non-experimental production of Macbeth, the point being to do straight theater in Iraq is a major experiment right now.
And Julius Caesar comes up a lot in political commentary. [INAUDIBLE] relies on it obsessively in his newspaper columns. And the funny thing is, it's not read one way. It's not read as a play pro-revolution or a play about the terrible, horrible civil war consequences of revolution. It's read both ways by different people. I don't know so much about productions or adaptations of it. I haven't seen one or seen of one.
AUDIENCE: I saw a production of [INAUDIBLE] in Cairo.
MARGARET LITVIN: The [INAUDIBLE]? No?
AUDIENCE: In the mid-nineties. I don't know.
MARGARET LITVIN: Oh, OK. No. That's an earlier one even. Yeah, King Lear, which you would expect to be a major thing the way it was in the Yiddish theater. Oye, my children, they don't love me enough is weirdly not a major thing. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Actually I'm interested to listening more to your views about-- in the light of what you presented and the themes addressed politically about Shakespeare's work. How do you see the translation of Shakespeare's work relating to today and to globalization? How would you view that nowadays? I mean, some of the chronology that you've presented, it's like until 2004. So within the last three years, how would you evaluate the translation of Shakespeare's work in the West, and connecting that like to globalization and culture of themes and political themes and all that?
MARGARET LITVIN: It's a big-- I'm not sure I exactly understand what you mean by translation.
AUDIENCE: A co-presentation. I'm sorry.
MARGARET LITVIN: Well, as I said, I think the interest in political theater is a European and American phenomenon since the Gulf War, since the Iraq War started to go sour. And this has been reflected in, I think, lots more productions of the bloody political plays-- of the Henry cycle, of Coriolanus-- I think these things have had very resonant productions.
There was some attempt by Michael Boyd when he did Richard III-- the straight production of Richard III, not the Arab one-- at Stratford. Richmond, the guy who defeats Richard III at the end, wore a kaffiyeh and carried a Kalashnikov. So I mean, obviously, the icons are out there. They're on Al Jazeera. They're on CNN. And they get adopted into Shakespeare because people want the impact. They want the flashy, meaning-loaded, explosive signifier that they can use. Also, there's a new global audience for Arab theater. Not all of it, but some of it gets reviewed now in The New York Times. And there's a sort of increased Western interest in Arab culture in general.
And that messes with the Arab theater makers, of course-- having to produce for, or seeing that they can produce for that market. The Sulayman Al-Bassam is the glaring example of this. He has essentially-- since 2002, he has re-Arabized himself. He's moved back to Kuwait. He's started directing in Arabic. He still writes in English, but now he gets it all translated into Arabic. He's turned himself into an Arab director because he sees that that sells in the West better than being a bright, young British director. He's very talented. I have nothing against the guy, but this is what I think the market is pushing and pulling him to do. Have I exhausted you utterly?
SHAWKAT TOORAWA: We've exhausted you. Well thank you very much. I think we bring it to a close.
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Margaret Litvin, assistant professor of Arabic and comparative literature at Boston University, discussed Arab appropriations of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' and what they reveal about the history of Arab political culture over the past half-century, February 28, 2008, in Cornell's White Hall.
Litvin specializes in modern Arabic drama and political culture. Her book manuscript,
Hamlet's Arab Journey, examines the many reworkings of Shakespeare's Hamlet in postcolonial Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Critical Survey, the Journal of Arabic Literature, and Shakespeare Bulletin.
Introduction by Shawkat M. Toorawa, associate professor of Arabic literature and Islamic studies at Cornell.