How Fares Lysistrata Today?
Written by Khaled El Sawy – Playwright, director and actor, Egypt
Translated by Hazem Azmy
Setting: A mélange of New York City, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Hollywood, along with elements of the classic American country.
Time: now and the near future.
Form: A musical comedy (sometimes teetering towards the tragic) – a rock opera along the lines of the 1970's rebellious classics, such as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. However, as the action unfolds, the play will also break into various theatrical forms such as clown theatre, video performances, and Epic theatre.
Form and content are of course inseparable: In addition to making use of half-documentary film, the stage will feature a cubist structure that combines all the icons of American Nationalism: the Statue of liberty, the White House, the Capitol Building, …etc. The multi-tiered stage then descends gradually into the audience's space, thus invoking the feel of the Colosseum and thereby emphasizing the spirit of the popular convention à la the ritual gatherings in the ancient cities of Athens, Rome, and Thebes. It is as if everyone in the theatre were part of an anti-war demonstration taking place in front of the White House.
The play harbors within it a certain intentional naïveté: This is because, all considered, every effort should be made to return the audience to the childlike frenzy that was once the hallmark of the theatrical experience in ancient times, and which allowed intimacy with the opposite sex to take precedence over almost everything else. This frenzy is balanced with deeper intellectual and ideological insights thanks to the Chorus as well as to the huge projection screen that is never too squeamish to throw gory truths right in the viewers' faces.
Throughout the performance's time and space, masculine and feminine symbols come together and intersect. Their contrasting yet complimentary nature serves to highlight the comedy arising out of the difference between the two worlds, but also suggests the inner link that renders the two indispensable to each other: They are bound to unite, we realize as the play goes on.
The Plot: American men in uniform march into the capitals of the globe and fight deadly wars to protect the interests of, you guessed it, super-powerful plutocrats.
Our American Lysistrata is a struggling commoner whose Marine husband is stationed at the "Yellow" front (East Asia). A kind-hearted and pleasantly plump woman who enjoys a natural rustic beauty, She exudes a guiltless femininity and a natural motherly instinct, along with ample wit and a biting sense of humor. The clever plan she devises serves two interrelated goals: A genuine equality between the two sexes and an immediate end to the War. The two causes are interrelated in that, she discovers, they both hark back to the selfsame aggressive masculinity.
The women who come to meet with Lysistrata in the beginning of the play are a mixture of American female types as imagined by Hollywood: The Sluttish Blonde, the Sentimental Fattie, the High-Strung Black Housewife… you name it.
The two song-and-dance choruses, one male and the other female, comment on the action, intervene in it as warranted, all the while forging and maintaining a link with the audience throughout the performance.
In addition to The Chorus of Women, composed of poor and downtrodden types (including widows and African-Americans), we are also treated to another song-and-dance female group including a student who moonlights as a waitress, an aspiring artiste, a homeless prostitute, a lesbian couple, and a war-injured woman Marine.
The Chorus of Men, by contrast, is an assortment of money moguls, arm dealers and politicians. It is at once a mixture of comic and devious types, à la the screen personas of Walter Matthew, Jack Lemon, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and Nicholas Hopkins. Yet this odd lot eventually strikes a tragicomic note: It is a painful reminder of how this vulture-like breed of masculinity can bring down any civilization before one can say Halliburton.
The character of the head of the state combines in one breath elements of the sitting President, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and ancient Roman Emperors along the lines of Nero and Caligula.
Peace-seeking delegates arrive from China – which is the site of the next war – only to be joined by representatives from all over the globe. The situation highlights the Performance's pivotal question: Is it possible for "Us" to exist without the "Other"?
Before we know it, the fanfare and fireworks celebrating peace and global harmony turn into earsplitting war sirens and fierce explosions bombarding the audience's space. These are accompanied by a gradual crescendo of sound bites featuring the rulers of the Rich World unleashing on us their signature politico-military slogans -- as if the moneyed few had declared war against the rest of humanity. Images of bloodshed, destruction and barbarity run frantically on the screen. The whole stage scene is now in shambles, and all those onstage step outside their characters to sing the Anthem of the World Front Against War and Globalization: It is the Anthem of the freedom yet to come.
Postscript, in response to the questions included in the Project Statement:
Lysistrata is a play about sex and war at once: It deals with the forces of life and destruction in all of us.
The vexed issue of women’s liberation, which the play raises, is a tricky one. To put it plainly, the liberation of Arab women (socially, emotionally, and sexually) is a natural subset of liberating the Arab Masses at large from the yoke of their masters at home and abroad. Now caught between the rock of poverty under patriarchally oppressive local regimes and the hard place of racist-oriented foreign occupation pretending to democracy and civilization, the Arab masses – of both sexes- are as eager as ever to mount a resistance – a fact that I came to see firsthand in the reception of my play Messing with the Mind.*
In other words, my version of Lysistrata may attempt a universal and world-wide appeal (providing, of course, that it proves technically and aesthetically sound), yet to fabricate an Arab clone, by setting the play in a local context, is most unlikely to deliver. To preach a message of peace to today's Arab audiences is tantamount to instructing the victims to accept sheepishly the dictates of their arrogant oppressors.
Yet the war depicted here has never been one between civilizations or religions, the enemy being none other than the oppressive Capitalist System, regardless of its country of origin. Indeed, the Arab masses need to join hands with their very American counterparts so that all can subvert the tyranny of the fat few.
The struggle for the freedom of artistic expression is in itself another facet of the larger struggle for social justice and spiritual and material progress.
Since it still needs to take shape materially, it is too early to determine how the play will be received. However, given the play's emancipatory message, the Censor is unlikely to see kindly to it, all the more so because of the rise of right-wing reactionism all over the world.
* Note by the Translator: The 2004 Al La'eb fi al Dimagh ("Messing with the Mind") is the latest and most successful work thus far by Khaled El Sawy (b 1963), himself a theatre firebrand who came to attention in the early 1990s as a poster child of the “Free” Theatre movement (that is, presumably free of State control as well as of the dictates of commercial theatre) This "revolutionary" image was bolstered when El Sawy played the role of the legendary anti-colonial Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in an eponymous movie directed by Anwar Kawadri in 1998. Be that as it may, many of the founding figures of the Free theatre movement itself, now well into their mid thirties or older, continued be dismissed by the hegemonic cultural establishment as Young Turks yet to come into their own. "Messing with the Mind” may have already forced a sea change in this perception. The play was performed by El Sawy’s Al-Haraka (“Movement”) fringe group at Al-Hanager small experimental theatre (what one American reviewer rightly compares to an off-Broadway setting) Most unusually for an Egyptian play with this cultural positioning (or, indeed, for any Egyptian play at all since Lenin El Ramly’s 1992 In Plain Arabic), the play's anti-globalization/anti-Bush content has managed to attract international media attention, to say nothing of its unprecedented box office success and critical acclaim in Egypt and much of the Arab World.
For some English-language reviews of the play, see:
Abou El-Magd, Nadia. " Egyptian play becomes a hit by condemning U.S. designs on Middle East and its occupation of Iraq" Associated Press. March 13, 2004.
El-Bakry, Rehab. "Mind Games" Egypt Today. April 2004. Available Online at <http://www.egypttoday.com/0404/arttemplate.asp?id=et0404-4510111671117105100101-52458311697103101>
MacFarquhar, Neil. "Who Messes With Egyptian Minds? Satirist Points at U.S" The New York Times. March 18, 2004. Section A; Column 3; Foreign Desk; Pg. 4.
Selaiha, Nehad. "The Art of Distortion" Al-Ahram Weekly. Feb. 5, 2004. Available online at < http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/676/cu1.htm>