Syria is known for being one pillar for theatre in the Arab World. Theatre in the Levant started with a group of pioneering dramatists like Marun Al Naqqash, Adib Isaac and Abu Khalil Al Qabbani among few others who set the motion for new movement in theatre and musicals in MENA. Abu Khalil Al Qabbani is considered the father of Syrian theatre, one of his first plays is called: The Ungrateful Man (Nakir Al Jameel). He wrote some plays and adapted others from western works. In the beginning, he performed in Damascus and attracted decent audience, but the extremists of that time forced him to put an end to his works in Damascus. He moved to Alexandria-Egypt with his company where he worked there for several years, he died in Damascus in 1903.
Before Abu Khalil Al Qabbani, the only actual entertainment shows were roaming puppet shows (Karagoz and Hacivat puppets) and storytelling in cafes (mainly historic).
A number of theatre companies were formed after the death of Abu Khalil Al Qabbani, but the second rise of theatre in Syria came in 1912 with Abdul Wahhab Abu Al Su’ud who started his own company, Abu Al Su’ud was accompanied by translator and writer M’aroof Al Arna’ut. Most plays used Arab Islamic heritage as a source for its subjects and plots, as well as political situation like the Ottoman empire at that time, and afterwards the French colonization. The director is usually the one who takes care of all arrangements related to the show like writing the script, training actors and promoting the show. Women remained absent from taking part on stage due to religious and social consequences till the 1950’s, before that date most female parts were performed by men.
A more serious movement of the Syrian theatre started in the second half of the 20th century when the Nationalist Company was founded under the umbrella of The Ministry of Culture, taking the stage from a random scattered performances controlled by individuals into a financially supported and technically organized one. After the defeat of 1967 before Israel, a new kind of art was crystalized in MENA which is the Committed Art: Any form of artistic expression that is committed to the cause of land rights and way of life, and theatre was part of it.
Between the 60’s and 90’s, Syrian theatre witnessed an unprecedented surge of plays and thoughts. Famous names like Saadallah Wannous, Muhammad Al Maghut and Mamdouh Adwan shined as playwrights as their works were transformed into timeless performances in Syria and touched the conscious of many generations. Their works discussed political and social matters.
Baath Party came a time when theatre was already in on the rise, many of the writers were politically oppressed, but their production continued till their death. The atmosphere of oppression in Syria prevented any authentic artistic production in theatre, as the elite continued performing foreign plays, mainly taken from former Soviet Union regions. Since the 80’s, TV became the main destination for anyone who works in arts field for making a living. Although many efforts continued to revive the stage, but most productions were either without any message or the message was politically guided by authorities.
The purpose of writing this introduction is because I wanted to look into a question the stagnant status of a form of art I love, after I watched a Syrian play entitled: Under The Sky (The show took place in Dubai on the 17th, 18th and 19th of February 2016). The play was a long heartbreaking monologue of a mother who lost her children in the first stage of Syrian uprising before the burst of civil war, we can describe it as a humanitarian play; it’s message is: No one wins or lose in war, this is death.
The performance of the actress Yara Sabri was moving, I was a bit shaken in the beginning by the intensity of the introduction and the pain that haunts me as a Syrian, but the monologue went through a stereotypical course. The idea did not look beyond our situation in 2013, however, this is understood as I don’t believe that a single work can trace all transformations and tragedy of 5 years of war when hundred of thousands of art works were made for each and every nuance of it.
Syrian theatre still uses recitative tool for expression, not argumentative nor controversial one, it does not tackle thoughts that we took for granted, which I believe this is the main rule of art beside maintaining our empathy in the face of modern distractions, and not mere entertainment.
For me, theatre seems the last resort to watch untainted raw acting, no matter how much special effects are introduced but the stage is the measure for quality of a performed thought.
P.S. I was questioning my legitimate use of Syria before 1916, because the area was part of the Ottoman empire before that.