Political playwrights: what’s the point? Ten minutes in a taxi with Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is an incredible woman. An Egyptian feminist writer, she has been repeatedly persecuted for her politically controversial views. The treatment she has received at the hands of the Egyptian government has forced her into prolonged periods of exile, and has given her considerable international attention.

I myself had an almost incredible experience when I met Saadawi in April this year whilst working at the Free the Word! Festival, run by International PEN. She had established a reputation amongst the staff for being both difficult and wilful, and for some reason I was asked to take her back to her Bloomsbury hotel. More than a little daunted at having to chaperone an elderly, stubborn, internationally renowned writer with a reluctance to speak English, it was fortunate that she seemed to like me.

Stuck in traffic over the Thames Bridge, we began a hesitant conversation. Though initially stilted, it soon livened up when she asked me what I wanted to ‘do’. ‘I want to write’, I said.

‘What do you want to write?’, she replied.

‘Plays.’

‘I write plays. Are you published?’

‘No, I’m not.’

‘You should get published.’

Although this comment wasn’t particularly helpful, she did recommend me a play – one written by her. It turns out that this play, God Resigns at the Summit Meeting, had been the catalyst for her exile. Whilst in London for PEN commitments, she had apparently also been in talks to arrange its premiere. (Unfortunately I don’t know which theatre these talks were with).

After this brush with awe-inspiring literary celebrity, I duly went away and read the play; I daren’t not really. God Resigns is published in The Dramatic Works of Nawal El Saadawi along with another play, Isis.

My reading experience was part enjoyment and part endurance. The endurance aspect arose purely from the fact that these are two of the least theatrical plays I’ve ever come across. Apart from the occasional incorporation of disembodied voices and suggestions towards potentially interesting staging, they were moreorless entirely political tracts. Although the relationship between theatre and politics is important and necessary for the development of both parties, theatre should no more be completely politics than politics should be completely theatre. Saadawi could have written her argument for these plays on a piece of A4 paper and we would have gleaned the same amount from it. But this is not her point.

Theatre is inherently more political than fiction or essay writing in that it presents a crucial additonal battle to be fought: performance. Saadawi told me that God Resigns was set to be performed in London. If this were to happen, I don’t think it would really matter what the quality of said peformance was like; if God Resigns receives a performance at all, it has achieved one of its major aims. I doubt very much that it will enter the dramatic canon, but then again I don’t believe that it really hopes to. Saadawi has identified a societal problem (that of female subjugation) to which she is directly responding through drama. Rather like Earthquakes in London (which, although a wonderful exploration of 21st century dilemmas, is not likely to be performed again), God Resigns is something of a zeitgeist, and an immediate response to problems of misogyny specific to Saadawi’s time.

We must accept that the potential of theatre is vast and that its role in protest (though possessing limited leverage) must be permitted if not always praised. Political plays have to be allowed to be performed, even if we are skeptical as to what their performance will achieve. The dilemma is a difficult one: either we permit the politically didactic on our stage, or we risk condoning the repressive silence imposed on political writers by their own extremist governments.

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2 Responses to Political playwrights: what’s the point? Ten minutes in a taxi with Nawal El Saadawi

  1. Robert says:

    You’re right, she’s a storm. I met Nawal at that Free The Word! event, where she recounted a fantastic story about bossing about her prison guards when she was incarcerated. We have commissioned her to write about her experiences for the December issue of Index on Censorship, which is a special edition to celebrate the work of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.

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