Adapted by Dominic Cooke
director Michael Najjar
What you are about to experience is not Arabian Nights. Instead, what you are about to see is our interpretation of Arabian Nights. These stories are ancient, handed down by oral tradition from generation to generation, and finally written and compiled by many historians, academics, orientalists, and dramatists. The difficulty lies in the fact that these stories were transformed over time—sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.
In the academic setting, as theatre practitioners and scholars, we constantly strive to reconcile our research and our practice. During the term this play was being conceived, I was teaching Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism. In it, Said writes about how orientalist writings and teachings created an artificial distinction between “the Orient” (the East) and “the Occident” (the West). Orientalist writing was also a way to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient. In many ways, the tales of the Arabian Nights, as they’ve been handed down to us by French and British orientalists, have only perpetuated our view of the peoples of the Middle East and South Asia as mysterious, timeless, strange, and utterly foreign to our ourselves. In their writings, teachings, and artworks, the orientalists succeeded in creating an “Oriental other” which we still view as exotic, dangerous, and contrary to “our” values.
When I was asked what I wished to direct for this year’s University Theatre season, I looked for scripts that had strong female protagonists, required large, ensemble casts, and potential for great stagecraft. After looking over many scripts, I found Dominic Cooke’s Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Arabian Nights. There have been several interesting adaptations of these tales recently, such as Mary Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights, Hanan al-Shayk’s One Thousand and One Nights, and Jason Grote’s contemporary version, 1001. I opted for the version you’ll see here for a few reasons: its humor, its theatricality, and its depiction of normal people who go through extraordinary circumstances. Even the more fantastical stories are questionable, as, they are recounted as “inventions” themselves. What you will not see are flying carpets, snake charmers, sexualized belly dancers, and smoke-filled harems. You will meet rich people and poor people, good people and bad people, going through dramatic and comedic circumstances—just as you would in plays from any culture.
We’ve worked hard to incorporate the best of “Western” theatrical techniques with “Eastern” stories. The design team and I have tried to make specific decisions that are theatrical while avoiding the traps of other historical Arabian Nights productions. (In other words, if you’ve come to see a stage version of Disney’s Aladdin, you will most definitely be disappointed!) What we ask is that you enjoy this play not for its “exotic” or its “Oriental” nature. Instead, experience this production like you would any other—for the sheer joy of coming to the theatre, of having a communal experience, and sharing in the trials and tribulations that we, as humans, have dealt with since we heard the very first storyteller whisper the word “Listen!”