By Dr. Katherine Hennessey
Though little known outside the country, Yemeni drama has a rich history that spans the 20th century, and continues to flourish in the 21st. A surprising number of Yemeni authors have written original works of drama, just as they have translated and adapted scripts by Western playwrights like Shakespeare, Brecht, Shaw, and Pirandello. In fact, according to Yemeni theatre scholar Yahya Mohammed Saif, at last count Yemen had produced 65 theatre troupes, 125 dramatists, and 500 scripts presented by 43 directors.
The seminal work on the history of Yemeni theatre is Saba’un ‘Aaman Min al-Masrah fi al-Yaman (Seventy Years of Theatre in Yemen) by Sa’id Aulaqi. His history of theatre in Yemen, the source of much of the information presented in this article, begins in 1904 with the arrival of an Indian acting troupe in the southern city of Aden, at the invitation of the city’s community of Indian expats. The audience’s amazement at the wondrous world evoked by their theatrical performance inspired Yemenis to form their own acting troupes. In 1910, a student group at a British government school gave the first public performance by Yemeni actors: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in Arabic. This was followed in 1914 by an Arabic Romeo and Juliet.
Given British colonial domination in the south, Shakespeare was a logical choice for Yemen’s first plays. Since local social strictures encouraged the segregation of men and women in public, these plays were performed as they were in Shakespeare’s day, with male actors playing women’s roles. Yemenis quickly realized that theatre could also be used to criticize the colonial administration; they wrote political satires and dramatizations of triumphant moments in Arab, Islamic, and Yemeni history, which served the burgeoning anti-colonial movement.
These political plays coexisted with romantic comedies and tales of action and adventure, and soon gained a devoted local following. There were no buildings dedicated solely to theatre; performances took place in schools, public squares, and later in cinemas. Plays drew audiences from miles around, at a time when people’s modes of transport were limited to animals or their own two feet. The crowds and the content gave rise to censorship; performances would be shut down if suspected of inflaming the populace.
Yemeni authors continued to adapt Western plays as well, including George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and other works of Shakespeare. Othello proved too tragic for Yemeni audiences’ taste, however; director Muhammad Abduh al-Duqmi bowed to popular pressure and re-wrote the play’s final scene, reconciling Othello and Desdemona and condemning Iago to be beheaded. Al-Duqmi’s new version, performed under the title The Punishment of Treachery (1948), met with fervent acclaim.
Drama began to take root in other parts of South Yemen, like the Hadramout and Lahj, in the 1940s and early 50s. In 1941, the ‘Aruba Acting Troupe from al-Houta (Lahj) performed the first full length comedy produced in Yemeni dialect: Masrour Mabrook’s Tarfisha and Shorban, about two lovers entangled in a power struggle between the rival princes whom they serve. There are other linguistic experiments as well: bilingual (English and Arabic) plays, and plays performed by Yemeni students entirely in English. A girls’ school in Aden performed plays with all-female casts.
In 1956 Nabiha ‘Azeem became the first Yemeni actress to appear in a public performance, and in 1962 Queen Bilqis became the first production to feature a Yemeni actress in the starring role. The early 1960s saw productions of plays by the great Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim and by Yemen’s most prolific playwright, Ali Ahmed Ba Kathir, in Aden and other southern cities (Ba Kathir was born in Indonesia, and lived much of his life in Egypt, but was of Hadrami origin and lived for a decade in the Hadramaut).
In North Yemen, the evolution of theatre followed a different path. Despite the Imamate’s suspicion of foreign influence and cultural innovation, performances did occur sporadically during the reign of Imam Yahya: generally in schools, for didactic purposes, focusing on significant events in Islamic history. Theatre for public performance did not occur in Sana’a, Ta’iz, and Hodeidah until the 1940s. The preference for plots drawn from Islamic history remained, with Yemeni legends and the Arabian Nights also providing dramatic material.
Between 1947 and 1957 plays in the North depicted Cleopatra, the Kalila wa Dimna animal fables, and the stories of Juha; some theatrical activity took place in villages as well. But theatre sparked controversy: an influential group of religious leaders condemned even Islamic history plays, for making actors wear “infidel” costumes—in the role of Crusaders, for example, in a play about Salahuddin.
With the fall of the Imamate as a result of the 26 September Revolution, many barriers to public performance were lifted. Both the President and the Prime Minister of the newly-established Yemen Arab Republic attended a performance of Ibrahim Sadiq’s Playing With Fire, a play that portrays the corruption of the Imamate, during the 1963 celebrations of the Revolution’s first anniversary.
Up till this point, theatrical productions, both north and south, had possessed certain unique charms: witty improvisation, elaborate costumes, the incorporation of Yemeni songs and poetry. But performances suffered from actors’ lack of training and technique, from rudimentary lighting, sound effects, and set design, and from a tendency to prioritize narrative at the expense of dramatic action.
This changed with the advent of the first Yemeni television station. Whereas in many countries television and theatre are seen as rivals, in the south of Yemen the advent of TV provided theatre practitioners with a previously unimaginable access to material and technical resources, as well as a huge potential audience, through the Masrah al-Televisiun (Television Theatre) program. Every week for four years between 1965 and 1969, Television Theatre broadcast a live performance of a new script, in genres from satiric comedy to melodrama to murder mystery. The quality of these TV productions greatly exceeded that of the typical Yemeni performance, and the program strongly encouraged female participation and new Yemeni writing.
Off the screen, theatre in the post-revolutionary periods, both north and south, was often employed as pro-revolution propaganda. One particular plot repeated in numerous plays of the period features a corrupt, despotic sheikh-landowner who exploits his naïve peasant tenants, until the peasants band together and revolt against him, afterwards forming a just and autonomous government (if the play was performed in the North) or a just and autonomous commune (if in the South). Part of the reason that this type of plot recurred was that, on both sides of the border, newly formed Ministries of Culture were providing state support for dramatic productions.
The 1970s witnessed some significant milestones in the South: the first conference of Yemeni theatre practitioners in Aden in 1973; the first-ever large-scale Yemeni theatre festival in 1974, the establishment of a Theatre Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Aden, and the formation of a National Theatre Troupe. The North likewise founded a National Troupe (1974), which benefited from the talents of provocative poet-playwrights like Mohammed al-Sharafi and Palestinian director Hussein al-Asmar, a driving force behind many of North Yemen’s best productions. Zahara Taalib made history in 1976 as the first northern Yemeni woman to appear on stage in a starring role, in Al-Sharafi’s Tariq ila Maarib (The Road to Marib), about Yemeni women’s lack of access to education.
Also produced in North Yemen in the 70s are The Mouse in the Dock by ‘Abd al-Kafi Muhammad Saeed, a courtroom trial of the mouse that destroyed the Marib Dam, featuring prominent figures from Yemeni history; al-Asmar’s adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s La Giara, re-written in Yemeni dialect and set in a Yemeni village, and Jean Racine’s only comedy, Les Plaideurs (The Litigants), performed as al-Mutaqaadun, a pointed critique of the Yemeni judicial system. There were also numerous Northern plays about the 1948 and 1955 revolts against the Imamate, the 1962 revolution, the issue of Yemeni emigration, and even a pioneering attempt to dramatize ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Maqalih’s poem “Letter to Saif Bin Dhi Yazen.”
But the flourishing of Yemeni theatre in the 1970s was fueled in part by the economic boom, and by remittances sent home by expat Yemeni workers working in oil and construction in the Gulf. The drop in oil prices in the early 1980s decimated remittances; the economic deterioration resulting from the 1979 war between North and South Yemen and the 1986 civil war in the South occurred in tandem with the rise of Islamist groups in northern Yemen. The ideological impetus of the socialist South foundered with the crumbling of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989. The euphoria of Yemeni unification in 1990 was tempered by the Gulf War, the expulsion of Yemeni workers from Saudi Arabia, and the civil war in 1994.
This economic, political, and intellectual uncertainty had a suffocating effect on Yemeni theatre. Massive public spectacles were organized to showcase the ruling regime, but politically provocative performances risked reprisals. In the widening gap between rich and poor, theatre became increasingly associated with wealth, power, and leisure, rather than with popular culture.
Fortunately, the first decade of the 21st century has seen a resurgence of theatre in Yemen. Basic difficulties, like finding appropriate rehearsal and performance spaces, remain, but so do enthusiastic directors and performers. Adeni director ‘Amr Jamal and the Khaleej Aden troupe have won national and international acclaim, particularly for Mak Nazl (I’m Coming With You). In this Yemeni adaptation of a German musical, catchy tunes and humorous dialogue intermingle with sharp criticism of the corruption and exploitation that characterize current Yemeni society. In Sana’a, talented young theatre practitioners like Saleh al-Saleh and Nabhan al-Shami have begun to follow in the footsteps of dedicated directors such as Amin Hazaber. Actors have bravely taken on the challenges of public performance; Yemeni women, especially, are finding opportunities in the theatre to express their aspirations for and dissatisfactions with contemporary Yemen.
The long history of Yemeni theatre is thus a tale of determined struggle against a series of unrelenting economic, social, and political obstacles–and of a staunch and courageous refusal to allow those obstacles to stifle creative expression.
Dr. Katherine Hennessey is a Fellow at the American Institute for Yemeni Studies (AIYS), where she researches and writes about Yemeni theatre, from its origins in the early 20th century to the present.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect La Voix du Yémen’s editorial policy.
This article by Dr. Katherine Hennessey is republished with the kind permission of ABC-CLIO. It also appears in the book Yemen (Middle East in Focus) (ed. Dr. Steven C. Caton, 2013); permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.