The Play

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The peculiar convolutions of a plot which transmutes mysteries into unanswerable riddles are set forth in the initial dialogue, in which a police detective, in questioning a household maid, is apprised of some unusual domestic concerns. A woman has disappeared while she was on a shopping trip, even though habitually she has gone on errands of that sort to buy yarn for the dress of her daughter, who, during a previous marriage, was aborted forty years ago. Her present husband, Bahadir Efendi, who retired from railway work five years before, spends much of his time in their garden with Lady Green (Shaykhah Khadra’), a lizard which he claims has maintained a sanctuary in an orange tree; however, the maid has never seen any indication that such an animal has ever existed. The elderly couple hardly have anything to do with each other, according to the maid; as if to demonstrate her point, even as she is talking to the detective, the wife appears suddenly at the window of the house and calls out to her husband; when he responds, they launch into a series of statements that virtually seem to be parallel monologues. Each one’s thoughts are turned around to suit the other’s preoccupations. What to the husband is the growth of the orange tree, to the wife is the growth of her unborn daughter; as Bahadir Efendi muses upon green foliage, his wife interjects her fond thoughts about the child’s green dress that she has constantly been knitting.

When the detective summons the husband, he is surprised to hear Bahadir Efendi announce that something completely out of the ordinary has taken place: The venerable lizard which has lived in the garden for nine years inexplicably has disappeared. As the questioning proceeds, matters take a new turn when Bahadir Efendi admits to contemplating the murder of his wife, and then, after a few bizarre and befuddling exchanges, he divulges that her body has been buried at the foot of the orange tree; however, when the detective proposes that they dig there, the husband protests that any injury to its roots would be tantamount to a blow against his person. Then he suggests that perhaps she has not been killed after all.

When the husband holds forth on his past work as a railway inspector, they are spirited away to a train coach. Bahadir Efendi, after upbraiding an assistant inspector who has been, he claims, lax in his duties, comes upon a mysterious dervish who proffers his birth certificate in place of a ticket and then points out that, since at present he does nothing, and he will do nothing if he is imprisoned, there is nothing to be gained from instituting proceedings against him. Nevertheless, as the inspector and the detective look on in astonishment, the dervish produces ten valid tickets out of empty air. In an oracular fashion, the dervish maintains that either the husband has killed his wife, or he has not yet killed her; for a motive, the detective suggests that Bahadir needed her body as nourishment for the tree.

As the second act opens, the detective is seen supervising efforts to unearth the wife’s body; this operation is suspended once Bihana appears and—in a state of some amazement—asks the investigator what is happening. For her part, she can make little sense indeed out of the investigator’s account of police actions in this case; she maintains that Bahadir Efendi would hardly have any reason to kill her since they have remained an affectionate couple and have never seriously disagreed about anything. Somewhat ominously, Bihana points out that...

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because of their reliance on suspicion and circumstantial evidence the police would have kept Bahadir in prison, and, had she not returned at this time, quite possibly he would have faced charges arising from her supposed disappearance. When the husband comes on the scene again, he embraces Bihana; then, after some scattered comments about her daughter and his tree, the husband announces that his beloved lizard has returned.

For Bahadir, his wife’s recent whereabouts still present a conundrum, in that he has not seen her for three days; whenever one has been present the other has been absent, and they have been together since the police inquiry began. Doubts and uncertainty like those that have clouded others’ dealings with Bahadir Efendi now are directed against his wife; dark suppositions suddenly seem possible, and her assertions that she was somewhere do not assuage her husband’s mounting and morbid curiosity. He names fifty-seven separate sorts of places, asking her one by one whether she was in any of them; each time she answers “No,” without any explanation. Later he inquires whether she thought of staying away, or whether she did not think of staying away, and in both instances as well she responds “No.” Infuriated by her apparent evasions, he seizes her by the throat and shakes her; as she still will not answer, his agitation gets the better of him, and he throttles her until apparently she is dead.

When Bahadir Efendi, distraught and remorseful, realizes what he has done, he calls the detective, who, proceeding on his earlier assumptions, concludes that the wife has disappeared again and urges Bahadir not to become disturbed. As he prepares to bury the body, Bahadir suddenly is confronted with the dervish, who, instead of offering to bear witness against the husband, poses another puzzle for him: If the tree cannot smell its own flowers, see its own colors, or eat its own fruit, then it seems consigned to an existence that, from its own standpoint, is futile. However, the dervish has asserted that it actually can bear four fruits in season and is the sort of tree for which no name yet exists. If scientists later investigate its secrets the body of Bihana certainly will be discovered and Bahadir will return to prison. Captivated nevertheless by the thought of his association with this wondrous tree, Bahadir goes back into the garden; in the place of his wife, who somehow has taken leave of them once more, he finds the body of Lady Green, the lizard he has regarded as his peculiar benefactor.

Dramatic Devices

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Although the philosophical issues posed by Tawfiq al-Hakim in this work may seem perplexing, if not daunting, there are some indications that the playwright did not mean them to be taken too seriously. To be sure, the presentation of weightier issues is supported by a certain number of specific devices which create an atmosphere that is suitable for unnatural events. The stage directions call for no sets and no fixed props; the players are to bring accessories such as tables and chairs with them. Evidently other effects, such as those suggesting a railroad car, are to be conveyed obliquely by inference from the dialogue and deportment of the characters. Some individuals remain unseen by the audience; the man hired to dig in Bahadir Efendi’s garden, for example, remains offstage while he does his work. The playwright has also arranged it so that, with only a few exceptions, at any time only two characters will be speaking to each other; in effect, it is left to the audience to decide which one has the greater credibility. Thus the impression of multiple illusions, where inexplicable events follow one another, is heightened by some of the limitations that the author purposely has imposed. It would not, however, appear to be a difficult work to perform, and indeed since it first appeared, productions have been staged both in the original version and in translation.

Part of the appeal of The Tree Climber lies in its use of playful motifs drawn from regional folklore, which leaven some of the more abstruse passages in the work. The title was taken from a children’s nonsense song, and ostensibly refers to Bahadir Efendi’s green lizard. In keeping with the wife’s concern about her unborn daughter, she sometimes sings verses that are used at the parties which traditionally are given to celebrate the seventh day after the birth of an infant. At certain times, and notably at the end, the sounds tend to merge and resemble each other. Some representational forms have been likened to those from the Arabian Nights tales and other classical works, in which magic, soothsaying, and mysterious appearances and absences were freely utilized. Thus a certain number of whimsical and lighthearted touches may be found where Tawfiq al-Hakim has combined ideas and material from several sources.

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Audebert, C. F. “Al-Hakim’s Ya taliՙ al-shajara and Folk Art.” Journal of Arabic Literature 9 (1978): 138-149.

Badawi, Muhammad Mustafa. “A Passion for Experimentation: The Novels and Plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim.” Third World Quarterly 10, no. 2 (1988): 949-960.

Badawi, Muhammad Mustafa. “Tawfiq al-Hakim.” In Modern Arabic Drama in Egypt. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Cachia, Pierre. “Idealism and Ideology: The Case of Tawfiq al-Hakim.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 100, no. 3 (1980): 225-235.

Gella, Julius. “Marginal Comment on Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Symbolic-Intellectual Drama Ya taliՙ al-shajara.” Graecolatina et Orientalia 7/8 (1975/1976): 251-264.

Long, Richard. Tawfiq al-Hakim: Playwright of Egypt. London: Ithaca Press, 1979.

Starkey, Paul. From the Ivory Tower: A Critical Analysis of Tawfiq Al-Hakim. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Ithaca Press, 1998.

Starkey, Paul. “Philosophical Themes in Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Drama.” Journal of Arabic Literature 8 (1977): 136-152.

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