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History of Arab Play

History of the play in the Arab Mashreq

Researchers of the History of Arab Theater agree that the first text set to be performed on stage was the "The Miser" written in 1847 by playwright Maroun Al-Naqqash (1817 - 1855). Scenes of the play were performed by the writer’s own family members on a stage set up in front of the writer’s house.

Some critics believe  that Al-Naqqash had either translated the play or he had been inspired by Moliere’s  "Scrooge" (Miser in English). Some others say that the play was his own writing, but Moliere’s “Scrooge” events were echoed in it.  The play was written in Arabic poetry which lacked rhythm and sometimes contained colloquial Lebanese phrases.

In 1849, Al-Naqqash wrote his second play "Abo al-Hassan, the Fool ", which was inspired by one of the "Arabian Nights" tales. His third play "The Sharp-Tongued Envious "  was  a moral comedy written in1851. Characters of al-Naqqash plays were well-created and well-developed compared to the then development of theatrical work, but the writer, sometimes, didn’t implement certain rules that should be followed in the art of playwriting.

Abu Khalil al- Qabbani (1833-1903) was Damascus’ second playwright and composer with good knowledge of the basics of Arabic music and singing. He wrote his plays to be sung on stage, so he was considered as the pioneer of Arabic lyrical play that fitted the then Arab taste.

 Qabbani had resorted to the storytelling heritage of "The Arabian Nights" to write his lyrical plays. Some critics consider him as the pioneer of originality of the Arab play as he kept his writings away from the effect of the Western theater which appeared in Maroun  Al-Naqqash’s plays.

 "Prince Mahmud, the Persians Shah's Son”, "Ungrateful", "Harun al-Rashid with Prince Ghanem" and  "Qoot al-Qoloub", were among al-Qabbani’s plays, which aimed at entertainment, but contained important advices.

Egyptian playwright and journalist Yakoub  Sannou’ (1839 – 1912),  was the third Arab playwright.

Critics say that Yakoub Sannou’ developed  the Arab play and rid it of the idea of moral purpose, which overwhelmed all events, and placed it within  the framework of social realistic work, which criticized and combated social injustice. In his plays, Yakoub Sannou’ attacked the complex of imitating the Europeans which clearly appeared among the people of the upper and middle classes. He also attacked ignorance, inactivity and bribery. Colloquial Egyptian was the language of Sannou’ plays.

Researchers of Arab drama say that Yakoub Sannou’ wrote 32 plays most famous of which were "The Two Fellow wives", "Helwan", "Alexandrian Princess" and " the Molière of Egypt".

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Egypt witnessed the writing of purely Egyptian plays tackling the situation in this African country. These plays focused on social problems, so they paved the way for introducing the purely Arab social play. Farah Anton's "Modern Egypt and Ancient Egypt" (1913), "Saladin in the Kingdom of Jerusalem" (1914), Mohamed Timor’s "Abdul-Sattar Effendi" (1918), "The Abyss" (1921) and some plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim, are good examples of such type of playwriting.

Ahmed Shawki's poetic drama was a turning point in the history of Arab theater. Shawki returned to playwriting after a long stop following his first play " Ali Beak the Great" (1893) which he wrote when he was a student in France. He returned with the "Demise of Cleopatra" in 1927, later he wrote "Leila's  Demented" , "Cambyses" and "Antara", between 1927 and 1932 then he rewrote "Princess of Andalusia". All these plays presented historical personalities and eras. The "Demise of Cleopatra" and "Cambyses" presented the Pharaonic history. Leila's Demented and Antara are from the Arabic heritage, while "Ali Beak the Great" was inspired by the Turkish history.

 Many critics viewed Shawki's plays as having laid the first brick to use the sober poetry as a language of the Arab play. Later, his plays became a guide to a number of poets in writing poetic theater. Most prominent poets were Aziz Abaza  and Ali Ahmad Bakthir.


On the other hand, Tawfiq Hakim was a pioneer of theatrical prose writing. Some of the plays, which he wrote between 1920 and 1950, were classified as society theater and some other as mental theater. He focused in his social plays on the problems the Egyptian society suffered from at that time. His mental plays dealt with intellectual philosophical themes based on dialogue which focused on the ideas more than the characters.
The Revolution of 1952 produced a new generation of playwrights who tackled their people’s problems. Characters were pure Egyptian and the language was often colloquial Egyptian.

Critics say playwright Nou'man Ashour’s  "The People Who are Under",  which was performed on stage in 1956, was the beginning of a new phase in the history of Arab playwriting since it replaced the classical language with the colloquial one and the purely mental dialogue with the realistic and spontaneous one and the dramatic traditional complex with people’s social problems and normal life. Thanks to this generation of writers, playwriting moved from the classical stage to the realistic one.

Beside Noman Ashour, the pioneer playwrights of this stage were: Saad Eddin Wahba, Alfred Farag, Youssef Idris, Rashad Rushdi and Lutfi Kholi.
In the 1960s, a new trend of playwriting had emerged in which playwrights adopted the trochee poetry as a language. Themes like the revolution and the refusing of the wrong were the basis of theatrical ideas. Such a trend was clearly represented in Abdul Rahman al-Sharqawi and Salah Abdel Sabour’s works.

Some critics consider the plays of Salah Abdel Sabour as an era in the history of the Arab play as they contained an extraordinary ability to overcome the problem of pairing between drama and poetry. Among the most prominent poets in this era were Suleiman Essa and Farouk Juweideh.

The era, which followed, was characterized by the direct effect of the different  types of European playwriting. A number of epic plays appeared during this stage such as "Lumumba "by Saad Roav, "Ah Ya Leil Ya Amar" by Naguib Surur and "Baladi Ya Baladi" by Rashad Rushdie. Then appeared the theatre of the absurd in "You Climb the Tree" play by Tawfiq al-Hakim (1962) and "The Newcomer" (1966) by Mikhail Roman.
Most of today's Arab plays are comedies written to commercial theaters and designed to attract audience through vulgar laughing caused by verbal humor or exaggerated movements. Therefore, these plays are mostly suffering disintegrated dramatic structure, superficial treatment of issues and poor construction of characters.

Playwrights claimed that they tried in these plays to highlight  moral objectives and adopt noble values so as to cover the trivial goal of the audience.

History of the Arab play in the Arab Maghreb:


Researchers of Arab theater say that the Arab Maghreb knew Arab theatre after the band of Souleiman Alqirdahi had come to Tunisia from Egypt in 1908. After it stayed there, the band visited Algeria but did not reach the Far Maghreb because of the then political situation.  Other bands, like Salama Hegazi’s also visited Algeria to present their performances.

The beginning of playwriting in Arab Maghreb was similar to that in the Arab Mashreq. Playwrights followed the steps of those of the Mashreq particularly in translation and adaption from the European theater, especially the French because of the mandate imposed by France on the Arab Maghreb countries where it was keen to impose its language. Translations and adaptations focused on Moliere’s theater due to the distinguished human characteristics of his characters.

On the other hand, the French occupation’s concentration on obliterating the Arab identity of the Maghreb produced a strong reaction by the peoples of this region aiming at preserving the Arab identity. This reaction was embodied in playwriting through early awareness about the importance of originality in the texts of the Maghreb playwrights, who did their best to avoid imitating European theatrical heritage or applying its rules in order to contribute to maintaining the Arab cultural identity.

This trend continues until Moroccan playwright Abdul Karim Bershid came out with an integrated theory in which he preferred to name theatrical performance as ceremonial art.
Among the most prominent playwrights of the Arab Maghreb were Ahmed Tayeb al-Alj , Al-Tayieb Siddiqi and Abdol-Karim Barshid.

Amal Farhat