Theatre and the Arab Spring
This blogpost was adapted from guest Editors Hazem Azmy and Marvin Carlson’s introduction to a special issue of Theatre Research International entitled ‘Theatre and the Arab Spring.’
More than a year and half ago, when we started conceptualizing a collection of essays on theatre and the Arab Spring, we were occasionally greeted with a measure of scepticism from those who thought that the developing situation in the region was far more reminiscent of a bleak winter than any spring of hope. In fact, part of this scepticism was due to the very phrase ‘Arab Spring’, a cliché long promoted by Western media outlets which routinely celebrated the (typically young) forces of regeneration in their presumed longing for the ‘global’ values of Western liberal democracies, but especially when these values were manifested in – you guessed it – neo-liberal capitalism.
Even more challenging for a project like the one at hand, the usual highlighting of the role of theatre and allied artistic practices in the current Arab zeitgeist has often been dismissed by many well-informed commentators as naively euphoric. Citing the example of a young Egyptian theatre director who refused to see any play with the word ‘Tahrir’ in its title, Margaret Litvin in her piece in this issue cautions against the rush to produce ‘revolutionary’ plays that depend for their appeal on ‘emotional release and self-glorification’. As she puts it,
‘To praise a revolutionary uprising – to try to tell its story, as though it were already over – is to bury it. A performance like The Tahrir Monologues, which does not reach a mass-market audience, quite literally takes its relatively small activist audience “out of the streets and into the theatre”, reversing the neo-Brechtian avant-garde’s slogan.’
Yet perhaps the problem here has less to do with the limits of theatre itself than with where we should look for the ‘theatrical truth’ behind the new Arab realities. For their part, rather than lamenting the often rushed or underdeveloped theatrical expressions of the revolutionary uprising, many of the contributors to this collection have opted to cast their net wider, employing the tools of their theatrical trade to make better sense of the myriad complex socio-cultural and political realities defining this new environment. In fact, whether these contributors are conscious of it or not, this approach clearly suggests the idea of ‘performance realities’, a term that Janelle Reinelt, among others, has been popularizing for the last ten years or so. In her words, this idea implies a uniquely aesthetic mode of knowledge that involves ‘interpreting the contemporary world through a theatrical lens as well as viewing the theatre through contemporary reality’.
This theatre–reality double dynamic is in ample evidence in the image chosen for the cover of this issue (pictured above), depicting a demonstration that took place at Tahrir Square on 25 January 2012, marking the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Many readers will immediately recognize the Guy Fawkes theatrical mask, a reference to the 1982 comic book V for Vendetta, which was adapted in 2005 into a successful movie. When shown in Egypt in early 2006, the film was not exactly a box office hit; however, following the example of earlier protest movements in the West, the theatrically minded and globally open demonstrators would appropriate the film’s signature mask as an iconic symbol of defiance, explicitly encouraging a re-enactment of a popular uprising against a totalitarian regime similar to that which we find in the film.
This endorsement of the Guy Fawkes symbol, with its conscious blurring of the dividing line between dramatic fiction and real life, would eventually result in some of the worst paranoid propaganda by the post-Mubarak military regime, as well as, most notoriously, by Islamists. Both factions would cite the mask and its ‘anarchist’ associations as one further proof of the criminal and vandalist nature of the predominantly young and secular revolutionaries (hence the sign lifted by the female demonstrator in the background of the picture, which reads, defiantly, ‘The Martyrs of Egypt Ain’t No Thugs!’).
Images like this one suggest that, perhaps, the major achievement of the ‘Arab Spring’ to date has not necessarily been the toppling of any dictatorial regimes, much less replacing them with truly representative ‘democratic’ ones. Rather, this achievement has proven to be first and foremost a theatrical one, resulting, for good or ill, in a certain decisive dismantling of whatever dividing line between the theatrical/hyperreal and multi-layered cultural and political Arab realities (which had always been theatrical in many curious ways).
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Featured image – A march at Tahrir Square, Cairo on 25 January 2012, marking the first
anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Photo: Elwy Ahmed