Arab Theatre as the Lack of “Drama”
Karam’s and Brockett and Hildy’s sense of the history of Islamic performance as the lack of drama is connected to post-war developments in Western studies of Arab art and culture; for example Jacob M. Landau’s 1958 Studies in the Arab Theatre and Cinema (still, forty-seven years later, the authoritative Western text on Arab performance). In the preface to Landau’s book, H. A. R. Gibb of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies wrote outright that “[d]rama is not a native Arab art,” and that it was only “as a self-confessed imitation of the European theatre that the drama was introduced into the Arab world in the nineteenth century” (ix).
Consistent with Gibb, Landau develops the idea that “modern theatre” was a “wholly foreign” product “transplanted” to the “virgin soil” of Arab (and mostly Islamic) societies. “There was no regular Arab theatre until the nineteenth century,” Landau asserts, when Napoleon’s invasion of North Africa introduced Molière’s comedies into Egypt.
I think the essential problem here is the rhetorical slippage between “drama” and “theatre.” A recognition of the historical absence of The Drama (text-based, actor-centered, dialogic, ultimately Aristotelian theatre in a realistic vein) becomes a denunciation of historic Arab cultures (considered for the most part to be Islamic) as lacking artistic and social achievements. Theatre is “absent,” and the extremely rich and highly developed traditions of Arab architecture, visual arts, music, and dance are glossed over or simply not discussed at all. In other words, behind Landau, Gibb, Brockett and Hildy’s analysis of theatre in Islamic and Arabic cultures is the idea that those societies are now and will forever be missing an essential cultural achievement. This kind of thinking, which persists in mainstream American culture as taught at college despite the continuing development of scholarship in the field of Islamic performance studies, is a real and ultimately debilitating problem.