“In the History of the Theatre […] Islam is Largely a Negative Force”
In his 2003 TDR article “Theatre in Lebanon” (T180) Raif Karam frames his first-person account of experimental drama in Beirut by re-invoking a maxim of Western thought. “Modern theatre,” Karam writes, “was introduced to Lebanon, as it was to most Arab countries, in the late 19th century” (129). Karam is technically correct, but his quite typical approach to Arab theatre is infused with a pervasive cultural and political ideology. Namely, the Western origin of “modern theatre” in Arabic and Islamic cultures is regarded as a crippling social failure which always already defines Islamic and Arabic performance as traditions of absence. This ideology is omnipresent in most Western considerations of Islam and performance; we need to examine it more closely.
Despite ongoing and insightful analyses of particular aspects of Islamic and Middle East performance culture (much of it, like Karam’s essay, in the pages of TDR), the preponderant sense of Islamic performance among American college students and their teachers is almost entirely negative, if not simply non-existent. For example, here is Oscar Brockett and Franklin J. Tildy’s opinion, in the most popular theatre history textbook in the United States, of theatre and Islam:
In the history of the theatre […] Islam is largely a negative force. It forbade artists to make images of living things because Allah was said to be the only creator of life and to compete with him was considered a mortal sin. Thus, Islamic art remained primarily decorative rather than representational. The prohibitions extended to the theatre, and consequently in those areas where Islam became dominant advanced theatrical forms were stifled. (Brockett and Hildy 2003: 69)
This sweeping denunciation, reinscribed in 2003, is stunning in its scope and ignorance. Yet because their History of the Theatre is so widely used and respected, their faulty scholarship remains dominant, the voice of authority.