Hamlet galore: Nehad Selaiha enjoys a Hamletian feast at the Creativity Centre
Of all the foreign dramas translated into Arabic, including Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet has been the most influential since the 1950s. Not only has its language, particularly Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy and phrases like "The time is out of joint" or "Frailty, thy name is woman", found its way into the rhetoric of political writers and intellectuals and even in the daily speech of the educated, it has also haunted the imagination of playwrights, directors and actors, appearing in different guises to address different needs at different historical moments. Echoes of Hamlet abound in many of the best dramas produced in the 1960s, and at least three tragedies, Alfred Farag's Sulayman Al-Halabi and Al-Zeir Salem and Salah Abdel Sabour's The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj, modeled their heroes on the Prince of Denmark, giving them more or less the same moral/political/ existential dilemmas. While the play itself has not received many 'textually unadulterated' productions -- the most famous and memorable being Sayed Bedeir's at the Opera house in 1964/65, starring the late, great Karam Metawi', and Mohamed Subhi's 1978 one, in which he also played the title role -- it has inspired a spade of stage adaptations, original plays and what can be best described as ironic, inter-textual engagements.
In her extensively researched, well informed and deeply insightful doctoral dissertation on the appropriation of Hamlet by Arab culture between 1952 and 2002 (entitled Hamlet's Arab Journey: Adventures in Political Culture and Drama, soon to be published in book form), American scholar Margaret Litvin demonstrates that the different Arab Hamlet-appropriations since the 1952 Egyptian revolution 'fall into 4 main phases' that 'have corresponded to the prevailing political moods in the region'. The first phase (1952-64) was one of 'euphoric pride after the 1952 revolution', and in it 'Arab dramatists' preoccupations with Hamlet were focused on [achieving literary and theatrical] international standards'. The second phase (1964-67) was one of 'soul-searching and impatience for progress' and 'Hamlet's incorporation into Arab political drama' then took the form of what Litvin calls (in the manuscript of her thesis, which she has graciously sent me, and from which all the above quotations and the ones that follow are taken): a '"Hamletization" of the Arab Muslim political hero'. 'Such Hamletization,' she goes on to say, 'was an easy way for Arab playwrights to emulate (and borrow) Hamlet's complexity of characterization and to obtain the moral and political standing it conferred. Thus the critical demand for deep, complex, yet politically topical characters encouraged serious dramatists to weave strands of Hamlet in their heroes -- in turn linking the character of Hamlet with the theme of earthly justice in the audience's imagination' (Litvin, pp, 12, 13. 82).