Society / Liban
Theatre in Beirut: How Nancy Wished...
Youssef Bazzi - 11/10/2007
The great cultural and political significance attached to the presentation of the play that evening was represented in the reversal by the Minister of the Interior of the decision of the Lebanese General Security Services to prohibit the introduction of "How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool's Joke" – a reversal that came in the wake of public proclamations made by the Minister of Culture, Tarek Mitri, and aired in the Lebanese media. The public rushed to the theatre that night, to celebrate the victory of permission over prohibition, in support of artistic expression without any bureaucratic or security restrictions, and in support of the principle of "No a priori censorship," as declared by Minister Mitri.
The incident is connected to the meaning behind the theatrical work itself, its nerve and its purpose. Based on an articulation of the intentions and actions of the Lebanese militia factions, the play also delves into revelation and remembrance, confessions and revivals of the memories and diaries of the war. In this way, it prefers a culture that refuses forgetfulness or ignorance and silence - thus contradicting the "policy" of the erasure of the past, the maintenance of anonymity and the ignorance of the involved actors. The censor's decision was inspired by the above-stated widespread, active and dominant "culture" of not calling things by their name, avoiding documentation, blotting out and cutting off memory, and restricting the story of the war to one official narrative based on inattention and maintenance of unknowns, disclaiming the war and if possible burying it. Accordingly, the confrontation of the censorship apparatus with the play is both figuratively and actually a confrontation between two cultural choices, by which a cultural policy and language are built.
Taking some distance from the incident and the meaningful events surrounding it, the text of the play itself constitutes a general and existential fact of theater, literature and poetry on how to approach and undertake the subject of the war. Lebanese culture has heavy contents, a snobbish language and consider the existence of a "pure" literature . All these elements revels in symbolism and evasion, with a sick fondness for poetical beauty. Discussion of the war and its narration became as if describing a rose in a mass graveyard – if it is right to say so – rendering the luck of those siding with descriptions of the rose paradox, more powerful than those describing the mass graveyard.
As a result, artistic and literary products have mostly avoided memory and its nightmares as much as possible and have been governed by inhibition and stuttering when "facts" and the past are recounted. They either put forward generalizations, anonymity or adopt an impartial or innocent stance. This is of course accompanied by a great deal of condemnation and denial without bringing back the history and giving it voice, and the total absence of any confession.
Even if some literature or theatre has taken on the diaries of the war, its dates and events, it has not forsaken ornamentation and poetry or the principle of not calling things by their name. This has proceeded according to the political culture that has dominated the Ta'if republic that has been based on "pardon" and "closing the chapter of the war" and which is also perfectly suited to a cultural strata that seeks to establish the idea that life (and art) must continue from "where it stopped some day of April 1975." The period extending between 1975 and 1990 are thus rendered a tabula rasa or a discarded memory with no trace in the paths of culture or philosophy or the arts, and accordingly any work or text that might catalyze revelation or discussion and direct confessions or the recording of facts must also be discarded.
These were, to this culture, pornography and scandal. War poetry was described as obscene and impertinent, and so the writings produced were described as lacking in class or beauty, being poor and without "language". Even when "recognition" of its status as literature was unwillingly accorded, such recognition did not change its standing or "authority" as a cultural movement.
It is in this sense that the argument behind the censor's decision to prevent "war remembrance" and the "calling of things by their name" can be understood as the dominant and general culture. This finds expression in critical analysis which describes such efforts as "impertinent", primitive, ugly, "direct" and unfashionable.
These descriptions are completely accurate, but the transformation of these intentions from "negativities" to a positive posture was the locus of the argument that emerged at the beginning of the 1990s, as mentioned. Fadi Tawfiq and Rabih Mroue have completed a text that cannot be adequately described by calling it jolting or reducing it to merely a confessional or archival piece; rather, it is a manifest victory of the fragmentary language of war and its suppressed memory.
The war returns to Lebanese culture as a question so long as the policy of forgetfulness fails to succeed, except in bringing back the ghosts of the past and its nightmares, and as long as the wound is open in the body of the Lebanese essence and consciousness. At this particular moment when the shadow of a return to civil infighting confronts us, comes the display of "How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool's Joke" as a burning dose in the spectator's throat. In this sense, the play has transferred the photography angle from that of the rose to that of the open graveyard.
On the stage, Hatem El-Imam, Rabih Mroue, Ziad Antar and Lina Saneh sit closely together on a sofa under four video screens, alternating in narration of their stories as Lebanese citizens who participated in all of the war's phases and battles. They also died and rose to live again several times, as many as the number of the war's stages, changes and stations, to continue their repeated fighting and their killing and death, confessing all that they committed in direct language with no evasion, as though unmediated news or commentary … On this platform - which has forsaken almost any "staging", where the dramatic condition depends upon the contrast between pictures projected (of the martyrs' posters and the four personalities' photos) and the cadence of the narration and its contents - the "acting" ends (in the sense of performance and presentation) to be replaced by the personal "attendance". It is for this reason that the play's heroes use their real names, so that the personification is achieved without play acting. This is the treatment that Mroue desired, as complementary to the serial boycott of the stage, especially his personal stage, beginning with "The Elevator", "The Sand Prison" and reaching "How Nancy Wished …", where in every work he completed his experiment without returning to it in the next work. He started his work with "Who is Afraid of Acting", an angry consummation of "The Video Art" and "The Art of Preparation", accepting the negation of the art of acting itself. "The Search for a Missing Clerk" was a departure from the stage according to the demands of the "art of understandings" which he invested here in "How Much Nancy Wished …" where he has also put forward his intention to throw out performance beauty. The result is the naked text and the naked picture.
The stage of "illusion" almost ended here and the need for it has been voided; as much as it became freed from the conditions to the point of disintegration, it is as if its ending greatly resembles its true beginnings.
And as the personalities set to narrating what happened, from the stories of bloody memories, and as if it is "writing" the memories at the same time, exhausted by the sequence of pictures of the real martyrs' posters with the verbal narration, the display ends with what it contained, not to be a narrator of events but to be the event itself.
* The theatre piece is the production of the Ashkal Alwan (The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts), the Tokyo International Arts Festival and the Festival d'Automne à Paris. Set design and graphics by Samar Maakaroun. Animation by Ghassan Halwani. Poster collection and research by Zeina Maasri gathered in the context of research on the history of political party posters in Lebanon.