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Belles dames sans merci
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 01 - 2006

Nehad Selaiha enjoys a lethal tug of war at Al-Salam Theatre
How much does our enjoyment of new texts depend on their evocation of earlier ones as clever variations -- on their carrying traces, however faded, of vaguely remembered worlds once visited? In 1980, Mohamed Enany published a collection of short dramatic sketches called The Prisoner and the Jailer and Other Plays which proved very popular in acting classes and with amateur groups and small provincial companies, going into a second edition in 1994. The four skits included in the volume -- Two Men Friends, Two Women Friends, The Lake, plus the title play -- followed the same formula: a concentrated dramatic conflict between two characters, centring on an absent person and unfolding through an explosive dialogic confrontation in a moment of crisis. Illusions, wasted dreams, the tricks of memory and a ruthless survival drive taking the form of protecting a cherished self-image at whatever cost were extended themes in all the plays. These are universal themes of course; but the structure, the orchestration of the dialogue through a series of semi climactic revelations, building up an intense mood of suspenseful expectation, the psychological patterning of the struggle of human wills through cunning fencing and evasion, the painful dredging of the murky depths of a shameful past towards a moment of tragic realisation, or a desperate evasion of such a realisation, and the overriding sense of loss and of terrible human waste the spectator is left with at the end of the plays -- all these features seemed to hark back across near a century to Sweden, Strindberg and the year 1888.
"With two actors I could create a little world; and with three, move it," August Strindberg is reported to have said; and this seems to have been the dictum behind Enany's collection. And mind you, I am not talking here of a case of direct, conscious modelling; more of a case of indirect influence through subconscious internalisation. Or are we talking about recurrent archetypal situations in human history? Unpleasant as it may strike a feminist, it seems that both Strindberg and Enany, though they belonged to different cultures, ideological constructions, geographical locations and historical periods, seemed to deny the possibility of a friendship bond ever existing between two females. Everything would be ok if they are left to themselves; but once a man steps in, the biological drive of a female to possess a man to propagate the species would override all moral and emotional considerations. The same applies to men too in Enany's Two Men Friends ; but the texture of feeling underlying the conflict is not as ruthless, wily or completely amoral as it is in his Two Women Friends.
In Strindberg's The Stronger, modelled on the quart d'heure short, serious sketch popularised by Antoine's Theatre Libre in Paris at the end of the 19th Century, two actresses meet at a café on Christmas eve. It is not a chance meeting; for we soon realise that Mrs X had deliberately sought out Miss Y, or Amelia as she calls her, at her favourite haunt, nicknamed by her professional rivals as "crocodile den". She comes to flaunt her good fortune, to gloat over Miss Y's failure in both love and theatrical career and to taunt her with her loneliness and single status. But this is no ordinary meeting; in an unprecedented, almost sadistic dramatic move, the author gives Miss Y no words, making her remain silent for the whole duration of the encounter -- a gruelling challenge for an actress if there is one. Gradually, however, Y's provocative silence, carefully punctuated with two outbursts of laughter, some sardonic facial expressions and probing looks, proves more powerful and devastating than Mrs X's verbal avalanche; it works on her like a spell, leading her to betray more of her hidden doubts and suspicions than she ever cared to admit to herself before.
At the end, and as the mood of triumph gives way to a feeling of helpless frustration and an overwhelming sense of danger, Mrs X exclaims in a panic (in Evert Sprinchorn translation): "You've just let me sit here prattling on and on. Sitting looking at me, dragging out my thoughts. Like ravelling out silk from the cocoon where they've been lying all this time. Sleeping thoughts. Things I suspected but didn't dare --..." But the really crucial statement is the one where she connects the feeling of female friendship to instinctive fear and rivalry and the impulse of one female to devour another. "It was so odd -- our friendship," she says. "When I met you for the first time, I was afraid of you. So scared I didn't dare let you out of my sight. ...I didn't dare have you for an enemy, so I made friends with you. Still, there was a wall between us, even when you visited us at home." In the background, as a forceful presence dominating the lives of both women is the invisible Mr X in a double capacity as the husband of one and the secret lover of the other. Strangely, though the two women tear at each other, each in her own way, and come out deeply bruised from the confrontation, it does not occur to either of them to spurn him for his double dealing or even blame him for it. It is as if in sexual matters men are poor, helpless dummies and above (or below?) any kind of moral censure.
The same lenient view of male philandering obtains in Enany's Two Women Friends which features a similar brief encounter between two female buddies after a long separation and centres on their rivalry over a man who is the husband of one and the lover of the other. As in The Stronger too, the three characters are related to the acting profession in different capacities: Suzy is a famous actress who manages to seduce and marry her best friend's lover while still at college, and Huda, her rival and betrayed friend, is a diligent theatre scholar who leaves for France to nurse her wounds, getting a doctorate in the process and all the while maintaining a secret, passionate correspondence with her former lover. For 20 years she nurses her love for him and also her grievance against the actress and when she thinks the time is ripe and that she has become stronger than Suzy whose beauty and stardom have begun to fade at 40, she comes back to claim him. The 'him' in question, a colourless Mr Ibrahim whom we briefly glimpse at the end, and whom, incidentally, the play projects as an eternally potent male capable of functioning and attracting women at any age, has meanwhile blossomed into a famous dramatist and film writer and a redoubtable lady-killer to boot. Though the sexual conflict is carefully hidden in folds of discreet platonic rhetoric and demurely steers clear of any allusion to the possibility of physical adultery and is couched in an altogether different and more timid and evasive moral idiom than Strindberg's, a secret, chilling animosity and air of phoney profundity inform the whole dialogue as they do in The Stronger. But instead of the open end formula Strindberg opts for and which leaves the conflict unresolved, Enany lets Huda gracefully admit defeat at the end and withdraw to seek a different life away from the shadows of the past. But what seems at first a positive and morally laudable conclusion to the conflict is suddenly emptied out of its meaning and projected as a ruthless joke when in a final cruel twist Huda is revealed as the unsuspecting dupe of a ruthless ruse cooked up by the crafty actress to rid her philandering husband of an unwanted, persistent admirer whom he was too weak to openly shirk.
In October 2001, Strindberg's two haunting females surfaced once more on the Egyptian stage at Al-Hanager in a production by Manal Ibrahim which superimposed the Swedish text on Alexander Pushkin's 1831 poetic "little tragedy", as he called it, Salieri and Mozart. As the turbulent, murderous feelings of the older composer towards the younger one in Pushkin's drama were vested in Strindberg's Mrs X, the sexual edge was taken out of the conflict and replaced with an artistic one. Artistic rather than sexual rivalry became the focus of the new concoction and the issue of female friendship was cleverly skirted. The theme however was to surface once more in 2002 in Hanaa Abdel-Fattah's production of Catherine Hayes Skirmishes at the small (Yusif Idris) experimental hall in Al-Salam theatre. It was yet another two-hander starring two forceful actresses. But the love-hate relationship between them and their subtle movement from deep resentment and jealousy towards mutual sympathy and a peaceful, gentle reconciliation displayed a profounder understanding of female bonding and solidarity in the face of adversity and inherited patriarchal values than any ever seen on the Egyptian stage. That this could be due to the fact that the author was a woman remains a matter for speculation. What is certain, however, is that making the two women sisters, albeit emotionally and existentially estranged, and conducting their forced rendezvous round the bed of a dying mother who resents the older, divorced daughter who looks after her and does all the dirty work, and is obsequiously grateful for whatever scanty attention her constantly absent, supposedly happily married younger daughter bestows upon her, shifted the relationship of the two females to a much profounder level which touched a live chord in the hearts of the hordes of female audiences who flocked to the play. Not that the three women's lives -- the dying mother who never speaks and the two sparring sisters -- are not dominated by absent males. The males are prominent by their absence and by the damaging effect they have had on these three women's lives. What the play puts across at the end, however, is a heart-warming vision of female love and solidarity and a redefinition of the female that frees her from the constricting boundaries of male-imposed sexual and biological reifying concepts.
In Skirmishes, the two speaking female parts were taken by Magda El-Khatib and Safaa El-Toukhi. The former, who monopolised most of the dialogue is an excellent actress in realistic parts. She is at her best with highly-strung, slightly neurotic characters, in tense, emotionally charged situations. In this play, the blithely nonchalant, slightly drunk surface glitter of her words revealed through well-calculated silences, brief hesitations and abrupt pauses profound suffering, self-questioning and a desperate reaching out for some life-lines -- a kind of existential mooring. El-Toukhi, who had fewer words to speak, maintained a false air of quiet composure for the most part so that when it suddenly cracked and caved in at the end, revealing her as a long-suffering, deeply abused wife, the effect was shattering, like watching a majestic statue collapsing with a loud, dusty crash. Suffering and long abuse, openly and humbly confessed by the two sisters at the end, without false vanity or pride, brings them together, and this happens just as the dying mother finally departs.
The resounding success of Skirmishes and its deep impact on the audience, many of whom where ordinary theatre-goers with little tolerance of new-fangled, avantgradist experiments, whetted El-Khatib's appetite for meaty parts of that calibre and sent her hunting for similar acting contests. For her current venture, Akrahak (I Hate You), designed by Mohamed Saad and directed by Hisham 'Atwa, she chose the same venue which hosted Skirmishes three years ago. But though the actress who shares with her this sensational two-hander, Riham Sa'id, is a brilliant performer with a rich and varied emotional range, admirable vocal skills and highly expressive and eloquent body language, and though the two of them initiate and keep up a vibrant and intense battle of wills from the word go till the end, the play falls far short from Skirmishes in terms of dramatic sophistication and human depth. It harks back to, and even carries clear verbal echoes from both Strindberg's The Stronger and Enany's Two Women Friends.
Once more the battle is between two friends, one a famous, aging, alcoholic actress, the other a young, bright and healthy journalist, over a man who is married publicly to the former and secretly to the latter. As the angry Soad, the actress, virtually gatecrashes into Nadia's dainty, elegant love nest, having hunted her down for years, the melodramatic revelations come cascading down at a breathless pace. First, the young journalist whom the husband, here called Omar, though really indistinguishable from either Strindberg's Bob or Enany's Ibrahim, pretended at first to hate (an unmistakable throw back to lines in Mrs X's monologue) turns out to be his lawfully wedded wife and not his mistress as Soad had thought. Moreover, she has also produced for him a seven-year old son, a revelation which Soad sardonically counters by telling us about the death of her only daughter in a tragic accident and the adverse effects this had on her relationship with her husband. To pile on the melodrama, Soad tells her former friend that she has repeatedly tried suicide, chickening out every time at the last minute, and pleads with her to help her put an end to her life. In turn, Nadia pleads with her to let go of the invisible Omar and let them live in peace as a family. Such tearful pleadings and flashes of tender memories alternate with violent recriminations which spiral into explosive, mentally murderous assaults until at last, Soad springs on Nadia the last surprise. Omar is no more; she has shot him just before she came to see her. In a mad, impulsive reaction Nadia shoots her. And just as Soad collapses on the couch with a triumphant smile on her face, Omar's voice comes across the answering machine calling for Nadia, exposing Soad's lie, and telling us, into the bargain, that though the two women he has loved are destroyed, he is as right as rain and in the pink of health.
The survival of the two male figures in the play, the father and son, and the destruction of all the females, the two wives and the daughter, leaves a bad taste in the mouth at the end which no amount of blood and thunder can disguise or palliate. One enjoys the bloody, slanging match while it continues; but at the end of it you are left with nothing to touch the heart or nudge the mind -- nothing except perhaps a cool, detached admiration for the stamina and ranting power of the two actresses. The fact that Ahmed El-Khatib who is billed as the author of the play is rumoured to have adapted it from an Italian text by a woman dramatist which his sister, Magda El-Khatib, had stumbled upon on a visit to Rome makes one wonder, if the report is true, how much he has diverged from the original. Unfortunately, one has no way of verifying this since no one, not even translator Amani Habashi who is reported to have done the play into Arabic, has yet been able to track down the authoress or discover the title of her play. As rumours buzz around and accusations are hurled right and left, the mystery surrounding the authorship of I Hate You promises to be even more thrilling and sensational than the play itself.

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