Have you ever imagined a simple clerk sneezing at the back of a government official who sits in front of him at the theatre? If that would ever happen, this poor man would keep apologizing in agony and sorrow to that government official for the rest of his life until he passes away. He could have done that even if the official had already forgotten about it. Such a thing occurs in the short story composed by Anton Chekhov “The Death of a Government Clerk”. How about having this now in a time of panic over Corona?
Such a thing will certainly not happen for one reason. An official, a poor man, and a virus will never meet under the roof of a theatre, especially in the Arab countries. Besides, an apology will not do any good for an arrogant official and will not return the virus to the nose of the poor unlucky clerk.
Theatre is the place where you may see such a forward-looking story. It can only happen in the sphere of this art that celebrates itself this year without spotlights. By this, theatre echoes what the Algerian writer Malek Haddad said in his linguistic and voluntary exile: “Do not knock my door like that. I no longer live here.”
In the past, we used to complain about the fall of the theatre, the decline of its audience, and its performance quality. We did not realize that the theatre would one day close its curtains over puppet theatre and shadow plays in ancient China. We did not expect that to happen to the cradle of the “Commedia dell’arte” shows in Palermo and the home of Romeo and Juliet in Verona, Italy.
“Corona recedes through isolation, and theatre spreads through gatherings” is a phrase that summarizes everything that happens now and here. The Tunisian playwright Anwar Shaafi wrote this phrase on his Facebook page. These days, Facebook is not just a means of social communication, as it also became a platform for artistic and creative activity. Thanks to the pandemic, our houses became spaces that combine the real and the virtual via broadcast and reception.
Is it not the funniest and strangest irony that a person, while sitting in front of a television or computer screen during his house arrest, becomes like an elite inside a royal cabin in the most luxurious opera houses throughout history?
Yes, the theatre got off its high horse. Nowadays, it pays visits to people rather than being visited. That happens through recorded videos, exchanged words and congratulations on its day. It occurs through monodramatic performances aired online. Such a thing happened when the curtains drew down, the lights went out, and the stage fell silent.
The triangle, which guarantees any theatrical spectate, has broken and separated. That triangle consists of the script, the actor, and the audience. Each of these three elements hid away behind masks, gloves, and fears. Consequently, this art which depended since its inception on celebration and participation was deprived of its action.
What might people do these days behind the doors of their homes other than fearing that they will remain confined in their homes? What can they do except yearning for the “enemy that roams the city” to retreat and withdraw in favour of a life that exudes noise, gatherings, festivities, and theatre?
What do we do with a deposit that we kept since the ancient times of Babylon, Assyria, Greece, and Rome? Are we destined to build the most beautiful structures and monuments for the theatre and then withdraw in panic and leave them all in ruins to their roofs? What is the value of places of worship without worship?
Are playwrights satisfied today, lamenting the dark backstages and the drawn curtains, or is it a kind of “intermission”, so that we then come back more connected with this living art that was created to die after every show? And perhaps was that the reason for being eternal?
May Arab playwrights be well and preserve the nobility of this art whose “benign virus” Maron Al-Nakash brought from Italy. The founder of this art in the Arab world was Abu Khalil Al-Qabbani, who suffered in the middle of the nineteenth century to spread it and allow it to strive. At that time, kids took to the streets to run after him. They used to chant: “Abu Khalil, who told you about comedy? Go back to your work. Go back to your work as a weigher.”
It is sufficient condolence for us these days that we celebrate the art of consolation and spiritual cleansing perfectly as if the theatre is resurrecting itself with lamentations these days. Don’t these masks resemble a chapter of a kabuki theatre?
Many do not wish to admit their constant thirst for blood and their eternal yearning for calamities, immorality, betrayals, and sins. They, individually and collectively, rush to the stages and the hordes of mourners to declare their survival while whispering to themselves: “Here we are walking in the funeral, not shrouded or carried. Here we are spectators, not killed, not even killers. Here we are healthy, not bleeding like this bull or that roman fighter in the ring. Here we wake up in the morning, and we are not Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, or human beings who are more emotional than we should be!”
Festivities known to all people of earth are perfectly theatrical rituals. For them came the fourth of arts and the cruel, the beautiful, and the possible impossibilities. However, it is the art that exemplifies everything we wanted to forget, so we can overwhelmingly remember. It looks like a human being that created forgetfulness. It is the only legitimate representative of the law of loneliness and contradiction, as the greater world was contained in it.
Many are not aware of what is beyond festivities. These festivities are a cleansing act that conceals hostile intentions and buried desires for revenge on those we celebrate and pronounce them kings and godfathers with crowns of paper, thrones like coffins and sceptres like machetes and axes.
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