On Tuesday from 4-5:30pm, I had the privilege to listen to guest lecturer Dr. Hazem Azmy, a dramaturg from Egypt. He talked about drama in Egypt before and after the ‘Arab Spring,’ and I soon noticed that humor played a significant role in the revolution. From satirical posters criticizing President Muhammad Morsi, to Bassem Yousef’s satirical news program “The Program” and YouTube puppeteers Masisi Mati, humor is a tool, not only as comic relief in a tragedy, but as it’s own dramatic form.
Dr. Azmy translated playwright/dramaturg Lenin El-Ramly’s work “The Art of Cunning,” in which el-Ramly outlines the importance of humor for dramatists in Egypt to navigate around censorship laws. Comedy is deeply ingrained in the national consciousness of Egypt, as some of their earliest dramatic experiences were productions of Western comedies. However as time went on, Western comedies dealt with issues deemed too vulgar for the Egyptian audiences. With Western plays no longer an option, Egyptian artists turned inward and began to write more Egyptian plays, but as the State’s censors became more hostile toward criticism of their policies, new and more subversive methods of criticism had to be embraced. Enter satire, a tool of cunning. Although censoring has loosened considerably recently, el-Ramly and earlier playwrights would use humor, because it was the only method of “voicing [their opinions], even if only in part.” In this instance, comedy’s value cannot be denied; at the time, it was the only way for playwrights to circumvent the censors, and as such, was an invaluable tool to playwrights like el-Ramly.
“When I set out to write a new script, it is the undivided attention of this audience, rather
than their admiration, that I crave above all else… it matters less to me whether they
support my opinion or not. Prominent Egyptian writer Anis Mansour once described
this comic strategy of mine as ‘tickling the spectator with the edge of a knife.'”
-Lenin el-Ramly, The Art of Cunning
Dr. Azmy went into detail describing two recent productions in Egypt, one of which was a satirical piece that is continually changing. In Arabic, its name is We Love This Land, but it has an English name as well, I Don’t Understand. The play is being produced by a State theatre, and began as simply a satire of Islamists and their political beliefs. As time has gone on, however, the show has expanded its satirical figures to include all of the figures of the Egyptian population: the Islamists, the liberal secularists, the youth, etc. The regime changes have had an interesting effect on Egyptian theatre: with so many different ideologies and with an incredibly diverse landscape of opposing ideologies in power, censorship has loosened greatly. As power has changed hands, the censors’ fists have loosened, so that staging more overt satire and State-critical drama has grown much easier. On the surface, this would appear to be good news: a sign of increased freedom. As a dramaturg, however, Dr. Azmy is hesitant to celebrate. He references el-Ramly’s ideas of cunning and notes that the censorship introduced into the humor a sense of care, because one needed to be careful. Now, however, the new freedom has resulted in less careful application of satire to sensitive subjects. Clumsy dramatists are dangerous, and Dr. Azmy is concerned, rightfully so, over the possible effects of this newer, looser comedy.
“Comedy transcends reality only to catch it red-handed with the truth. It pretends
to speak in jest while being the height of serious thinking. A joke is but a lie
that reveals part of the truth or at least insinuates it.”
– Lenin el-Ramly, The Art of Cunning
When asked about humor’s importance in Egyptian drama, Dr. Azmy refers to it as a double-edged sword. It is useful, he says, because it allows people to avoid the censors as an instrument of cunning. However, by using humor and satire, dramatists run the risk of obscuring the seriousness of the issues they satirize. He refers to Yousef’s “The Program,” saying that while it is humorous, viewers can, as a result of the humorous treatment, numb the viewer to the fact that the things being satirized should be painful to contemplate. Tragedy has similar issues as comedy, as Brecht knew: if poorly executed, the message is lost in sentiment, and the crowd is numbed to the real outrage they should feel by the mistaken catharsis they feel. In any case, any artistic form in the hands of either the corrupt or the clumsy becomes dangerous, and Comedy is no exception. Of course, what powerful art isn’t dangerous? Isn’t the very act of censorship an admission that art is one of the most powerful tools to challenge a tyrannical state?
There is a tendency in the artistic community to underestimate the value of comedy, with the mistaken impression that comedy is the sugar to drama’s substance. Comedy has been getting the shaft since the Greeks; there is a reason that Aristotle’s work on tragedy survived while his work on comedy did not. From our current perspective, we must reevaluate humor as a useful form in and of itself. We must become as proficient in its use as not purely entertainment, but as an instrument of change that can carry the same weight and importance as tragedy and other forms.
I formerly wrote a post focusing on theatre in the Middle East. Find it here.
A quick example of what’s going on in Egypt in more dramatic form can be found in The Square, a documentary about the protests in Cairo. The link only leads to the trailer, and it isn’t related to comedy, but is is fascinating just the same.