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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saadallah Wannous: Theater as a Means to turn Words into Actions

Hamidiya bazaar syria
Syrians shop in the Hamidiya bazaar in the old city of Syria’s capital Damascus on December 3, 2019. Photo: LOUAI BESHARA/ AFP

Youssef Sharqawi

I don’t think that Saadallah Wannous who comes originally from Hussein al-Bahr village died just from cancer. Rather, disappointment played a significant role in that. The Syrian well-known playwright foresaw disappointment, and possibly he prepared himself for it. Nevertheless, bitterness kept slashing his body every day, with each visit to the theatre, in each show, with each applause and in each defeat. Despite that, Wannous refused to give up at the beginning. A year before passing away, Wannous said on World Theatre Day in 1996: “Hope is our destiny. What happens today cannot be the end of history.”

However, history itself stopped a year later. This time it was the history of a word told by a man who was desperate to turn that word into action, revolution or a real uprising. It was sad to see that those who received that word only stood to applaud and went afterwards back to their homes as if nothing happened.

They might be the bourgeois, or the “petit bourgeois”, that Saadallah Wannous wanted to punish at the beginning of his manifestos for the new Arab theatre. That punishment was neither harsh nor painful. Rather, it was a mental punishment. It was like gazing at oneself. That punishment was like pushing those bourgeois to gaze in the mirror and stare at others’ faces. By that, they might feel frightened and have wary of looks. I don’t know if that punishment was performed at some place. But that did not happen in our theatre for sure. That punishment remained only on paper, and didn’t enter the theatre that Wannous wanted to purify itself this time, rather than purifying others.

He gave a name to that punishment. The name was “The Mirror – The Illusion”. It goes like that: “To put a real mirror as big as the theatre curtains in front of the audience instead of the illusionary one. I imagine that the mirror will be washed, facing those who enter the hall full of lights. Tickets are in their hands, and I hope that these tickets are expensive. The mirror is confident, capturing them as they enter. At the beginning, it may be entertaining. When they have in their seats, they look for their faces in the mirror. However, comfort will turn into confusion when they see other eyes staring at them. Escaping is not possible. Time passes slowly. Lights expose like a scandal. The mirror is calm, lurking like a trap. No doubt the audience will start fidgeting. What is the end of this game? Nothing but the same for a longer time. Tired of deceit and lies, theatre wants to purify itself this time, not to purify others. It should last longer until spectator’s face wears out, or until he howls in fear and disorder.”

Wannous aspired to take off the mask that doesn’t care for defeat. He aspired to purify it, till it becomes a new face that exudes anger and explodes. That was not a punishment. Rather, it was a warning or an ultimatum to remove the face submitting to its cruel reality and its miserable existence. For that, Wannous searched for the word that can perform as a direct struggle to change reality. More precisely, he said: “I was aspiring to achieve a harmony between the word and action. That combination holds tight dreams and the act of revolting together.”

Wannous continued this diligent search until he died, or let us say “until he was murdered”. He intensified the search after the defeat of 6 days war. At that time, the Syrian playwright viewed the word as a trap he was ensnared in. It was – as he described – a ruse, or a rotting corpse. Its gases turned inside us into silent shyness and cruel shame. Wasted by his disappointment, Wannous once asked: “Can the word turn into an actual act?”

He thought it was possible. When he started writing his play “Evening party for the fifth of June”, he was filled with a feeling of balance. He explains: “I was just imagining, often with real emotional excitement, that I strip the reality of defeat. Among revolting and improvisational masses, I was removing masks from those who made them. That motion becomes consistent and grows until it involves us in an action, a protest, or a real popular uprising. The tempo was rising, and the certain action was realized.”

The play was banned at first. Yet a green light has been given afterwards to perform the play. At that time, Wannous was preparing for disappointment. Every night he felt bitterness in his soul.

He manifested his disappointment by saying: “The finale applause is over. After that, people would get out like they do at the end of every other play. They will be whispering, laughing, or even admiring the play. Then what? Nothing else. Nothing at all. A protest didn’t break out in the hall. The audience didn’t intend on doing something as they went through the cold air of the night, where defeat dwindles and renews.”

Wannous after that announced the complete defeat. He admitted that he was disappointed by someone who simply did nothing.

“Word is just a word and theatre is just a theatre. The word is not an action, and the theatre is not a center for an uprising. The conclusion was disappointing and bitter. The dream was fading like a mirage or an illusion. Yes, the dream dissipated and collapsed”, Wannous said.

Admitting defeat was in my opinion what killed the man. The dream was far stronger than cancer. He dreamt of a revolution that starts from the theatre and grows out of it. That dream spread like a germ into the body. It was growing in his heart and mind. On the other hand, the tumor was growing in him. In fact, the hands that applauded and did not shout with protests were the same that planted this tumor. People that left the theatre without organizing protests let him down. It is sad enough to say that this tumor was Wannous’ final disappointment.

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written by
Mohammed Abdullatif
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