Can Al-Hakim Be Staged (in English)?

Commenter Al Haraka (The Movement) apparently saw a version of my beloved The Donkey Market at the D.C. fringe festival. The play takes a Goha story—the region’s “wise fool”—and expands on it, playing with the ideas of labor, slavery, and the ability to speak, all while entertaining.

Indeed, the play addresses quite “modern” themes, perhaps re-working Gayatri Spivak’s question: Can the subaltern speak?

But Al Haraka said that when he saw it in D.C., it was somehow rendered as a children’s play, and people were either delighted by its silly charms, or baffled.

It made me realize that theater must go through a triple translation process: script, then direction, then actor. Or quadruple: the final translation into the viewer’s mind.

Surely all writing is a translation, since no two people speak exactly the same language. The process of moving a text between languages (and, more importantly, cultures) creates additional interpretive possibilities, and by the time this game of telephone comes out of an actor’s mouth, it’s hard to know what the author intended.

The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim makes no notes about staging (after all, one can use “the theater of the mind”), although Mahmoud el-Lozy, in his translation of The People of the Cave, clearly intends for someone to stage al-Hakim’s play.

I also should note here that al-Hakim has been difficult to stage in his native tongue, Arabic, and that when The People of the Cave first appeared, theater-goers were not amused. Al-Hakim was so discouraged by reviews that he, for a time, stopped writing for the theater.

But according to the Daily Sundial, al-Hakim’s The Fate of a Cockroach “enthralled audiences” in Southern California in 2009. Of course, this was not exactly al-Hakim’s Cockroach: “In keeping with today’s trends, [director Ken] Sawyer has altered the script so that it plays quickly (90 minutes quick). He has also updated the story so that it is relevant to a modern audience.”

And such is a director’s right. I don’t know much about the mechanics of the theater world, but I would like to see al-Hakim playing somewhere outside my mind.