Tawfiq al-Hakim Essay - Critical Essays


Although Tawfiq al-Hakim’s dramatic imagination ranged across at least three millennia of human experience, touching down at particularly evocative points along the way, some generalizations may be made about common features in much of his work. Characterization has been important, but something less than a vital issue in his efforts; for that matter some leading personages have been typecast as abstract categories, such as war and peace, while others have been significant not for their intrinsic qualities but as participants in seemingly irrational situations. Characters in the plays based on medieval themes might possibly be interchanged with others from similar works. The domestic dramas also feature some stock types who seem to appear under various names in works of this kind. The author never claimed to have developed a florid, polished style—indeed, he purposely avoided such tendencies—and his dialogue has a crisp, staccato ring that often serves to heighten dramatic tension. There are, in many of his works, series of exclamations and interjections that, particularly in the absurdist dramas, merge with scenes taken up mainly with the exchange of questions. Even the most carefully constructed plays have been meant as much for the reader as for the theater audience. Although some works have enjoyed considerably more success on the stage than others, the structure of al-Hakim’s major dramatic efforts has been determined more by his thematic concerns than by the requirements of actual production. Many plays have long sequences of brief scenes, or sometimes present lengthy acts alternating with short, abrupt transitional passages. On another level, regardless of whether, during his classical or his absurdist phases, al-Hakim resolved the perennial questions of love, art, guilt, and social division, his works have posed these issues in unusual and distinctively original variations. Although at times he complained that during thirty years he attempted to accomplish for the Arab theater what it had taken Western civilization two thousand years to achieve, the freshness of his works, and the extent to which he has realized the conjunction of diverse aesthetic and moral concerns, should signify the magnitude of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s efforts within and indeed beyond the limits of the drama as he had found them.

The drama of al-Hakim displays a remarkable diversity of outlook, and his breadth of vision inspires respect mingled slightly with awe. His cosmopolitan standpoint, coupled with his relentless quest for the new and untried, was in evidence across the span of his career. He was extraordinarily prolific; one recent count yielded eighty-four titles of dramatic works that he has composed, quite apart from his writings in other genres. His plays have been set in historical periods from the times of King Solomon of the Old Testament, through the age of classical Greek drama, across early and medieval periods of Islamic history, on to modern times in Egypt, and beyond, into the space age. He depicted the rustic peasant landscapes of his native country, the courts of great monarchs from the past, and the cosmic scenery of new worlds to come. It may well be argued that his work is uneven, both in its technical execution and where depth of characterization is involved. It would seem that his penchant for the unexpected and the unusual at times may have affected the direction of his dramatic efforts; any facile attempt to devise categories for his works is doomed to frustration. Nevertheless, although even a chronological approach would be subject to anomalies and overlapping impulses may be observed in many areas, there are some broad elements of thematic continuity that may be discerned in the development of al-Hakim’s repertory.

The People of the Cave

The historical contexts for major early works were derived from Islamic religious and literary traditions. The People of the Cave, the work that in 1933 was hailed as heralding the onset of a new era in Arab drama and that elicited stormy protests on the part of subsequent audiences, deals with the Christian legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, which is also cited in the Qur՚an. In this play, visions of the miraculous, hope, and despair are presented in a light that is broadly consonant with the convictions of Muslim believers, but without prejudice to the Christian values that are also affirmed by Islam.


Shahrazad was al-Hakim’s effort to supply a continuation of Alf layla wa-layla (15 c.e.; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, 1706-1708); when the fabled storyteller survives and marries the monarch from the tale, some poignant and revealing reflections on nature, beauty, and mortality are recorded.


Muhammad, which serves as a sort of Muslim Passion play, is a sweeping pageant that was meant to demonstrate al-Hakim’s belief that suitable dramatic forms could be found to evoke themes from the life of the Prophet. This play may also point to the author’s contention that the drama is meant to be read as much as it is meant to be viewed: In one edition there are a prologue, three acts, and an epilogue, comprising, in all, ninety-five scenes.

The River of Madness

Absolute power and helplessness are treated in plays taken from past epochs of Oriental despotism. In The River of Madness, a one-act production, a monarch’s subjects drink mystical waters that render them impervious to his commands. At the end, the unnamed ruler also seeks wisdom in this form of supposed madness. It is not clear who is sane and who is not, or whence real authority springs.

The Wisdom of Solomon

For all of his powers, the biblical King Solomon is unable to win the favor of a beautiful woman, in one of al-Hakim’s longer works, The Wisdom of Solomon. This effort, which draws on characters depicted in one of the author’s earliest plays, Khatim Sulayman, opens when a jinni appears to a humble fisherman and informs him of his quarrel with the king. He hopes for reinstatement into Solomon’s good graces. When the Queen of Sheba, the most beautiful of all women, is brought before the mighty monarch, Solomon in all of his glory is unable to win her favor. He is tempted to enlist the spirit, but is reluctant to summon unearthly powers. The queen remains demure as ever, and for all of his countless treasures and innumerable wives, the great ruler falls prey to the frailties of the flesh; he becomes old and dies. At the end, the jinni warns that love and power will provoke struggle on this earth for centuries and ages to come.

The Sultan’s Dilemma

Themes of punishment and justice converge with concerns about past politics in some of the author’s later plays. In The Sultan’s Dilemma, which is set in late medieval Egypt, a man is sentenced to death for maintaining that the sultan is a slave; a lady intervenes on his behalf, demonstrates that the condemned man is indeed correct, and in the end the ruler’s place before the people must be redeemed by a complicated process of manumission. By emphasizing the absurdities of a bygone...

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