Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Early Arabic Shakespeare translations

This week I figured out which French translation was used by Tanyus Abdu, author of the first published Arabic Hamlet. (Hint: pick up John Pemble's very entertaining Shakespeare Goes to Paris (2005). Then spend three days at Widener comparing half a dozen 18th and 19th-c French translations.)

It's amazing no one has bothered to trace this before. It's common knowledge that the early Arabic adapters/translators of Shakespeare were mainly Syrian-Lebanese immigrants to Egypt who knew French better than English and had absorbed the neo-classical aesthetics of French theatre. It's even known that the earliest Arabic versions of Shakespeare were translated not from English but from French. (No surprise there -- same thing happened in Russian, in Spanish, probably in plenty of other languages. Paris, capital of the 19th century, etc., etc.)

But... doesn't this matter? Every critic and scholar I've seen notes the French mediation, then proceeds as though it never happened. They spill ink deploring or defending the "distortions" introduced by early adapters, especially Abdu and Mutran -- without considering which of these distortions (like Abdu's much-mocked happy ending!) were already present in their French sources. What a waste. Stop seeing it as a simple two-way exchange between Shakespeare and his Arab translator, and the literary argument about textual fidelity falls apart; even the Bourdieusian sociological argument (adaptation to the needs of Cairo's emerging middle-class commercial theatre audience, then pursuit of autonomous aesthetic standards, etc.) can be made in a considerably more complicated and fruitful way.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Brooklyn June 11

Brooklyn June 11 was a lot of fun. The audience was pretty big, and full of people who asked smart questions and seemed really to like the show. So did NYT's Ben Brantley. (And wrote a really perceptive review, I thought.)

Here is also my backgrounder, written in a big hurry at the Asia Society's request. Most of this will be news to no one who reads this blog. Except maybe this nugget:

In 1935, Egypt’s future president Gamal Abdel Nasser starred in a production of
Julius Caesar put on at his Cairo high school. He played Caesar as a liberating
nationalist hero who defeated Great Britain.
It's true! Check Georges Vaucher or Joel Gordon or any good Nasser biography.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Al-Bassam hits New York

Theatre preview capsule by Ben Brantley (NYT 6/5/09)
Winters of discontent occur in even the sunniest climes. The Kuwaiti-born director SULAYMAN AL-BASSAM has relocated Shakespeare’s demonic Richard III to the Middle East, and this bloodiest of monarchs apparently feels gleefully at home in his new surroundings. Part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas” festival, “RICHARD III: AN ARAB TRAGEDY,” which opens Tuesday at the Harvey Theater, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of its 2007 Complete Works Festival. It has now arrived in the States (stopping off at the Kennedy Center in Washington this year) with its message of the utterly contemporary relevance of Shakespeare’s tale of a country raped and paralyzed by a charismatic sociopath. Mr. Bassam has written that “Richard III” has always fascinated him more as history than tragedy. The emphasis in his production, set in an unnamed Gulf emirate, is accordingly less on the psychology than the society of the crookback who would be king (who first appears under the name of Emir Gloucester, if you please). He is, Mr. Bassam says, “the twisted child of a demented history.” Arab music and ritual infuse this “Richard III,” which is performed in Arabic with English titles and seems guaranteed to summon images of the reign of Saddam Hussein and its chaotic aftermath. Tuesday through Friday, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, (718) 636-4100,; $25 to $45.
[Will I see BB at the show? Will be sure to keep you posted. -ML]

Village Voice previews Al-Bassam's RIII

Al-Bassam's Richard III: An Arab Tragedy will be at BAM in New York next week. Check out this brief piece by Alexis Sokolsky in their summer theatre preview. (I'm quoted!)