Al-Hakim Introduces Absurdism to the Arab Stage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Tawfiq al-Hakim, Egypt’s most distinguished modern author, was known for his experimentation with different dramatic styles, but he surprised the Arab world with his absurdist play The Tree Climber, which was extremely contrary to Islamic thinking.

Summary of Event

By 1961, Tawfiq al-Hakim had secured for himself the leading position in Egyptian letters. Although he had written several novels and important essays and incidental pieces, al-Hakim’s reputation rested principally on his work in drama. This circumstance would not be unusual in Western countries, where drama has always been considered a branch of literature; in the Middle East, however, there is no long tradition of writing for the theater. Indeed, in such great cities as Cairo, ancient capital of an ancient civilization, no theaters existed until the Napoleonic invasion (1798-1801), and the playhouse erected at that time was intended to provide entertainment only for the invading troops. Theater of the Absurd Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Tree Climber, The (al-Hakim) [kw]Hakim Introduces Absurdism to the Arab Stage, Al- (1961-1962) [kw]Absurdism to the Arab Stage, Al-Hakim Introduces (1961-1962) [kw]Arab Stage, Al-Hakim Introduces Absurdism to the (1961-1962) [kw]Stage, Al-Hakim Introduces Absurdism to the Arab (1961-1962) Theater of the Absurd Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Tree Climber, The (al-Hakim) [g]Africa;1961-1962: Al-Hakim Introduces Absurdism to the Arab Stage[06800] [g]Middle East;1961-1962: Al-Hakim Introduces Absurdism to the Arab Stage[06800] [g]Egypt;1961-1962: Al-Hakim Introduces Absurdism to the Arab Stage[06800] [c]Theater;1961-1962: Al-Hakim Introduces Absurdism to the Arab Stage[06800] Hakim, Tawfiq al-

For most of the nineteenth century, the plays performed in Cairo were translations or adaptations of European dramas. In rural areas, several performance traditions had developed since medieval times. These included certain types of shadow puppet plays as well as singing, dancing, and comic skits. All these plays or dance plays were in the vernacular and were thus not considered worthy to be called literature.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, theater emerged as a feature of Cairo’s urban life, with plays written and performed in classical Arabic as well as the vernacular. In 1935, the Egyptian government established the National Theater Troupe, National Theater Troupe, Egyptian and al-Hakim’s play Ahl al-Kahf People of the Cave, The (al-Hakim) (pb. 1933, pr. 1935; The People of the Cave, 1989) was selected for its debut. Thus, in a sense, Egyptian theater and al-Hakim sprang up together, and some consider The People of the Cave to be the first Arabic work that may properly be called drama.

There were theatrical movements at work through the twentieth century that would prepare the Egyptian public for al-Hakim’s Ya taliՙ al-shajarah (pr. c. 1961, pb. 1962; The Tree Climber, 1966). The Institute for Theater Arts, Institute for Theater Arts, Egyptian established at approximately the same time as the National Theater Troupe in order to train theater artists, had graduated a large number of accomplished actors, directors, designers, and writers by the 1950’s, and several of these graduates established the Free Theater, an alternate to the National Theater Troupe. Within a decade, another alternative group, the Pocket Theater, had been formed. Most of the work presented in the alternative theaters, and to a great extent by the National Theater Troupe as well, was realistic and naturalistic, but modern issues of alienation, lack of communication, and human despair in the face of uncontrollable social and economic forces were all explored. This exploration doubtless presaged the inevitable introduction of existential themes.

Al-Hakim himself had been steadily supplying this “adolescent” theater of Egypt with quite producible and often compelling and powerful plays. He was strongly influenced by Western theater, for his career as a dramatist actually began in France, where on an extended visit from 1925 to 1928, he claimed that he was able to drink from real culture and to discover that, in Europe at least, literature and the theater were considered one entity. He especially fell under the influence of Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, and Maurice Maeterlinck. Ibsen’s and Shaw’s works tutored al-Hakim in the presentation of social and economic issues; Pirandello’s and Maeterlinck’s revealed the power of symbolism and nonrealistic structures.

Throughout his prolific career as a playwright, al-Hakim experimented with all types of theater—classical, romantic, realistic, and surrealistic—and thus it is no surprise that, after a second visit to France in 1959 and 1960, he turned his hand to experimenting with France’s new absurdist style. Introducing absurdism to the Arabic world was not, however, merely an issue of a new style. Basically, there is no compatibility between the tenets of absurdism and those of Islam, for the Islamic faith is rooted in the view of a harmonious world created by God with a wise purpose.

On the other hand, the Theater of the Absurd grew out of the existential view that the universe is illogical and that the only order is that which people create for themselves. Despite the success of the premiere production of The Tree Climber, Egypt’s two leading critics, Taha Husayn and al-Aqqad, had very negative reactions; al-Aqqad argued that it was not yet time to give up on rationality, and he urged a general rejection of the Theater of the Absurd.

Without question, al-Hakim’s play is unremittingly absurdist and irrational. Structural devices and thematic issues common to the Theater of the Absurd shape The Tree Climber. Like Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), al-Hakim’s play calls for a stage that is bare enough to represent everywhere or nowhere. At times the audience sees the home of the lead characters. At other times, though without change of scenery or special production effect, the audience sees a garden or the interior of a train. Moreover, time is as fluid and irrational as space. The playwright has “the present” on one area of the stage, while in another area scenes from “the past” occur, so that the same actor plays the past and present character simultaneously on different parts of the stage. Thus, the Husband, sixty years old, speaks with the Detective in the present, while, simultaneously, a conversation between the young Husband and the young Wife is taking place in the past.

To the disordering of past and present, the dramatist adds an irrational plot. A man, known only as the Husband, is accused of murdering his wife. He is closely questioned by the Detective, but the questions and answers—seemingly so rational when taken individually—lead only to continuing confusion. In exasperation, the Detective asks if there is any way of getting to the point. The Husband replies that he does not know the way.

The circuitous questioning of the Husband and the Housemaid is intercut with scenes from the past, scenes in which viewers discover that the Wife has continuously vanished and reappeared. At the end of act 1, the Husband is taken to prison for more questioning, while the police dig under a mysterious tree in the garden searching for the Wife’s corpse.

Act 2 begins with the appearance of the Wife. Since there is no murder, the Husband is returned from jail. He attempts to discover where the Wife has been, but his constant inquiries result only in the same baffling irresolution as the act 1 questioning. Maddened by a world without rationality, the Husband now murders the Wife.

Or does he? Is this a real world or a tissue of intangibles, of fantasy in which the murdered Wife will continue to reappear and the accused Husband continue to be jailed? Al-Hakim poses his question: Is not all of life an absurdity, an irrational ritual? His answer may be found in an exchange between the Detective and the Husband in which the Detective angrily accuses the Husband of twisting words to suit himself. The Husband replies that such is not the case at all, because the words become twisted to suit themselves.


The Tree Climber was published in 1962, almost immediately after its premiere production. Because it was written in classical Arabic, the play enjoyed wide circulation in the Arab world. It was and continues to be read by many who live in places where theaters never existed. For Arabic culture, al-Hakim’s accomplishment is in joining modern Western existentialism to ancient Islamic attitudes. There followed another absurdist play from al-Hakim, al-Taՙam li-kull fam Food for the Millions (al-Hakim) (pb. 1963, pr. 1964; Food for the Millions, 1984), and in 1964 he produced two more absurdist works.

Indeed, after 1961, al-Hakim employed absurdist themes and devices even in his stylistically realistic and renowned work Masir Sursar Fate of a Cockroach (al-Hakim) (pb. 1966, pr. 1969; Fate of a Cockroach, 1973). His embrace of certain aspects of the Theater of the Absurd and his ability to interweave these very Western techniques and ideas with the Islamic belief in a fundamental order in the universe influenced a new generation of Arabic playwrights, including Numan Ashur, Yusef Idris, Alfred Farag, and Ali Salim. These writers became aware of new trends in Europe and America and learned the value of importing dramaturgic ideas, even as they created a new, Islamic theater. Were it not for al-Hakim’s bold move in The Tree Climber, Egyptian theater may well have stalled in realism, for it is difficult for Islamic fundamentalists, even in the contemporary world, to accept the irrational.

Al-Hakim had always considered in his works the contradictions in human existence: the contradiction between things of the mind and things of the heart; the contradiction between life’s tangibles and mysterious, abstract forces; the contradiction between the desire to know and the inability to communicate. These contrary forces can sometimes get out of balance. Conflict ensues, and conflict is the essence of drama. Consequently, al-Hakim used drama to study the clash of contradictions.

In plays such as The Tree Climber, al-Hakim does not attempt to solve the conflict but merely tries to suggest a balance. The lives of the humans in the play are pointless, and their search for logic in their affairs proves futile. Powerful emotions such as the Husband’s love for the Wife cannot be made concrete, nor can they be made knowable. Hence the Wife is associated with a green lizard, which is always present in the garden whenever the Wife appears. The audience knows only that the lizard is attractive and mysterious, much as the Wife, and is left to accept the mystery. On the other hand, the Husband is associated with the marvelous tree in the garden, which grows out of a corpse and under which the Detective believes the murdered wife to be buried. The tree seems to promise some special knowledge, but the Husband cannot decipher its secret. Thus, the conflict between the desire to know and the impossibility of realizing that desire remains unresolved.

Finally, there is the character of the Dervish, who has puzzled analysts of The Tree Climber. He seems the personification of all that is abstract, ineffable. Yet he is there, promising at any minute to reveal a special secret about life. Even with his mysterious qualities, perhaps especially because of them, the Dervish remains attractive.

The lizard, the marvelous tree, and the Dervish are all drawn from the well of Eastern symbolism, as is the play’s title, which is taken from an Egyptian children’s song. These symbols suggest that though the intellect sees the absurd, the heart might sense a way to a greater order, that accepting present absurdities also allows one to gain a balance with the more abstract, more irrational forces in the universe. This is what the Wife does, while the Husband, seeking to resolve the conflict, only loses the precious balance, falls into violence, and solves nothing. Thus it was that al-Hakim wed the modern Theater of the Absurd to the traditions of Islam and offered a challenge for a new generation of Arabic dramatists.

Al-Hakim was not merely an importer and adapter of Western ideas to the Arab world. He exported his work as well. Within four years of its first production, The Tree Climber had been translated into English and produced in London and America. His ties with France have always been important, and The Tree Climber was well received in that country. After the first production of The Tree Climber, international interest in his works intensified. More than seventy of his plays, novels, stories, and essays have been published in various translations, including translations of forty-one pieces into English. Productions of his works, especially The Tree Climber and The Fate of a Cockroach, are frequent internationally. His memory is revered in Egypt, where a major theater in Cairo bears his name. In the West, al-Hakim has taught anew the route out of Western intellectualist dilemmas through Eastern mysticism. Theater of the Absurd Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] Tree Climber, The (al-Hakim)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Roger, ed. Modern Arabic Literature. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. A useful general discussion for background and for placing al-Hakim in the context of modern Arabic writers. Philosophic and theological issues of Islam discussed as these matters influence Arabic literature of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Badawi, Muhammed Mustafa. Early Arabic Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Forerunners of al-Hakim and his contemporaries. Sources of their tradition and what they often revolted against. Excellent review of various folk drama and festival performances and traditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Modern Arabic Drama in Egypt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Badawi discusses nineteen Egyptian playwrights, with consideration given to thematic issues and to each writer’s place in modern Egypt’s life and thought. For al-Hakim specifically, the discussion ranges from minor works written before The People of the Cave to the absurdist plays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hakim, Tawfiq. Plays, Prefaces, and Postscripts of Tawfiq al-Hakim. Translated by W. M. Hutchins. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1984. A relatively complete collection of al-Hakim’s dramatic works and his essays that were first published with each play. Includes other commentary and postscripts that al-Hakim later added concerning the plays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutchins, William Maynard. Tawfiq al-Hakim: A Reader’s Guide. Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner, 2003. Includes both a critical study of al-Hakim’s oeuvre and an extensive bibliography of al-Hakim criticism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Long, Richard. Tawfiq al-Hakim: Playwright of Egypt. London: Ithaca Press, 1979. Chronological description of al-Hakim’s life and works. First part is a biography; second part provides synopses and general comments on thirty-two plays. Plays are arranged thematically, with discussions of similarities and differences between various plays dealing with the same issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Starkey, Paul. From the Ivory Tower: A Critical Analysis of Tawfiq al-Hakim. London: Ithaca Press, 1988. A study of the themes and issues in al-Hakim’s novels, plays, and essays, with particular emphasis on contradictions that developed in the author’s thinking throughout his long career. Also offers a discussion of language, form, and structure. Particular attention is given to what the author perceives as structural shortcomings in the dramas.

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Categories: History