In 1959, at 18 years of age, Sadallah Wannous received his Baccalaureate degree in Tartus, Syria, and then headed for Egypt to study Journalism at Cairo University. During his stay in Egypt, he became interested specifically in theater, voraciously reading works by European and American playwrights. His readings included plays in existentialist traditions and the theater of the absurd; he was also attracted to critical literature about theater.
Al Adab magazine, a Lebanese literary publication, had a great impact on Wannous's approach to theater, especially when in the early 1960s it translated and published works by existentialists like Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. The influence of these two is apparent in Wanous' early plays such as “Juthah ala al-Rasif (Corpse on the Sidewalk) and “Fasd al-Dam” (Blood Letting).
After completing his studies in Egypt, Wannous left for France and the Sorbonne. In France, he broadened his readings and acquainted himself with various schools of theater. His interest in the works of socialist playwrights like Peter Weiss and Bertolt Brecht began in the wake of the Arab defeat in 1967, an event that was a turning point in Wannous' approach to theater. For the Syrian playwright, socialism was the solution to the problems afflicting Arab societies.
Despite his interest in and knowledge of Western literature, Wannous did not mechanically reproduce European ideas and methods in the Arab theater. In fact, he worked on producing a theater that reflects the peculiar needs of an Arab audience. His interest in the politics of the Arab world made him aware of the importance of theater in society. This is reason his theatrical works aim at “educating the masses.” In an interview with Al Masrah magazine, Wannous stated that theater cannot be effective in a society if it avoids social, political, and economic questions. He also added: “No theater should be without an ideology unless it does not want to be effective in society and it declines reaching the moment of deep interaction with the audience.”
The close relationship between Wannous and his audience explains, in large part, his overwhelming concern with the social, economic, educational and personal needs of the theater going public. In his works, the message comes after deciding who the audience is; only such an approach can insure the maximum interaction between the theatrical performance and the audience. Believing that theater should make people think and change, he focuses his attention on devising the best techniques that allow the audience to react to the events and the message.
Wannous was interested in Brecht's technique of alienation which aims at leading the spectators to think rather than to feel. The theater must make it apparent to the spectators that they are not witnessing real events, but rather, they are watching events that had happened in the past at a certain time in a certain place. The goal is for the audience to grasp the message by thinking about how the events reflect their own reality. He wants the audience to stop playing the passive role of a receptor. The spectators should be aware that what is happening in the theater is related to them in one way or another.
Elements of Wannous' views on Arab theater are well developed in his published works. He is known for his advice to fellow Arab playwrights to utilize their knowledge of the audience's viewing habits while creating theater. He also cautioned against introducing the element of folklore into theater. Whenever it undermines the content of the play, folklore should be left out, regardless of its pivotal cultural role, he argues.
Unlike some Arab playwrights, like Yusuf Idris and Tawfiq al-Hakim, who attempted a parochial approach to theater by shunning Western influence, Wannous took issue with such views. “We should not forget that the human heritage is our heritage, and that what has been realized in the universal theater belongs to us as much as it belongs to others.” Realism marks Wannous contentions with what may be called nationalist-parochial school. He warns the critics calling for an Arab nationalist theater that ridding Arab theater from Western influence is a slow and cumulative process.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 2, no. 8 (June 1996)
Copyright © by Al Jadid (1996)