The Meanings of a Quadrilingual ‘Glass Menagerie’ in Egypt

A new adaptation of Tennessee William’s Glass Menagerie — titled The Gentleman Caller, or al-Arees — by the Alexandrian troupe, Elmedina, recently finished its quadrilingual run at the AUC Falaki Theatre in Cairo:

By Raph Cormack 

As the audience enters, a trio of musicians plays Egyptian songs from the side of the stage. Ahmed Mostafa steps out of the group and away from his instrument to begin a monologue in Arabic. This play, he tells us, will be set in the past — in the 1930s of labour unrest and the Spanish Civil War. At that time, he, Tom Wingfield, was living with his shy self-conscious sister, Laura, and his mother, Amanda, who spends the play longing for past glories. Tom’s father has left them, and his mother’s main priority is to find a suitor for the shy and self-conscious Laura.

At the end of his monologue, Tom removes his clothes to reveal another costume underneath and steps into the action. As the rest of the family appear, the play’s central conceit becomes clear. Tom speaks entirely in Arabic, while his mother Amanda speaks in French, and his sister Laura in Spanish. They speak to each other and understand each other, but throughout their bickering and squabbling, each character speaks wholly their own language.

The beginning of the play centres around the family’s tense, often passive-aggressive, relationships with one another. Tom’s frustrations and his nighttime carousing form a significant part of the action, but the focus of the play is their desire to find a man for Laura. Tom has a colleague at work called O’Connor, who was very popular in high school, and is now on the up. The family contrives to have him over to dinner and hopefully set him up with Laura.

When O’Connor arrives, the language of the play suddenly changes to English and, after a pretty funny musical number, all the characters begin speaking broken English to their new guest. Tom and Amanda then take a back seat, and the play becomes a long exchange in English between O’Connor and Laura. In this conversation, O’Connor successfully woos her and kisses her, only to tell her afterwards that he is already engaged and can never see her again. So the play ends, with Tom leaving home and family for an uncertain future.

A play in four languages: every audience member’s experience is different

There is a lot to talk about in the production: The acting was engaging, the set was used to good effect and, barring a few minor stumbles, everything was done to a high standard. However, it is the multilingualism of the play that must dominate the discussion. I went in to the play hoping to understand the English and Arabic, some of the French and very little of the Spanish. Due perhaps, in part, to the speed of the dialogue and an accent I was not used to and, in part, an overestimation of my own ability to understand French, I found I could only really follow the English and Arabic. This did not, I think, hinder my understanding of the play as a whole but it certainly meant that the terms of some of the arguments in the first half of the play were a little vague in my head.

As a theatrical experiment, this has the appealing result that every audience member’s experience of the play is different. It also means that every member of the audience necessarily misses certain aspects of the drama — everyone’s experience is incomplete. This is conceptually extremely rich, but can be frustrating in practice. I wonder, for instance, how easy it would be for a nonnative speaker to pick up on the “pleurosis”/ “blue roses” pun in English that sums up the relationship between O’Connor and Laura so neatly.

Despite the difficulties of following the intricacies of the action, I am convinced this play is a hugely worthwhile endeavour. The switching between languages is not just a gimmick, but it is used creatively to make larger conceptual statements. Before the play started, a member of the cultural section of the American Consulate, which had partly funded the production, offered his interpretation of the performance. After reading a short summary of the play, largely based on the Wikipedia article, he argued that when all the characters are speaking their own languages everyone understands each other, but when they all switch to the same language (English), understanding, ironically, falls apart. For him, the production was a call for people to embrace their own diversity and not deny who they are. He concluded that this was a fine idea for two countries with long histories of valuing diversity, Egypt and USA, to collaborate upon.

An attack on the lure of Anglophone domination

Whenever I am given a somewhat trite interpretation like this to frame a performance, I tend to react against it. My reading of the multilingualism was different. It is true that, despite speaking different languages at the beginning, the characters did understand each other. But this did not really lead to any kind of harmony in their relationship. I agree the pivotal moment does come when O’Connor arrives and starts speaking English, but the meanings are thankfully more complex.

O’Connor’s arrival on stage has been preceded by a period of excited anticipation from all three characters, and he finally enters accompanied by a bombastic song and dance number. Paul Spera, dressed in a suit and red tie, looking as much like Donald Trump as it is possible to do for someone who has not spent 70 years sucking the souls of the less fortunate, blasts onto the stage. The family begin a sycophantic display, seating him on a chair far above them, addressing him in English and laughing in an exaggerated fashion at his lame jokes. He then proceeds to charm and seduce the introverted Laura only to reveal, at the end, that it has all been a sham and that she will not get the man of her dreams. He slowly exits the stage through the audience, dripping with politeness, apologising that he will not return and crushing the family’s hopes. It is after this that Tom leaves home forever.

This play was not a simple celebration of diversity, but an attack on the seductive, but ultimately deceptive, lure of Anglophone domination. The characters abased themselves for the promise of a new hope, which turn out to be hollow. If you wanted to take it further, it would not be hard to read this as a comment on Donald Trump’s current enthusiastic policy towards Egypt and the insincerity of his rhetoric. Though, of course, no representative of the American government could say that.

Staging a production as ambitious as this was always going to be risky and difficult for audiences. But this production shows that, when you take risks, something unexpected and interesting can emerge.