​Modern Yemeni Theatre: A Brief History

Yemeni novelists and playwrites  Nadiah al-Kokabany, Wagdi al-Ahdal, Ali al-Moqri and Samir Abdul-Fatah

by Sara Forcella

Over the past two centuries, Yemen has been the scene of an important literary flowering. Despite the never-ending struggle of play-writers against the socio-political difficulties of the country, the emergence of the Modern Yemeni Theatre doubtless represents an example both of an innovative and high value literary production. Continuously facing social, political and cultural problems, Yemeni authors and players have always shown a great capability of keeping up with the times. Their works talk about doubts, questions, passions and issues of the modern man, going beyond the “local” dimension and constantly dialoguing with their Western counter-parts.

Sa‘īd ‘Awlaqī

According to Saʿīd ʿAwlaqī (Sabʿūna ʿāmān min al-masraḥ fī-al-Yaman [Seventy Years of Yemen Theatre], 1983), the first information available about the early Yemeni dramas dates back to 1904 when the Indian acting company of Jamlat Shah came to Aden. The company went on stage with a mostly musical performance involving all its members, namely actors, dancers, musicians and circus animals. However, it was not until 1910 that the first Yemeni theatrical company was established in Aden, consisting of students that acted out a western play, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in Arabic. As al-Mubarak (Arabic Drama, A Critical Introduction, 1986) wrote, these first companies adopted the western model of playwriting once they came in direct contact with it during the 19th century, both in Greater Syria (the ancient region including Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestine territories till the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1918) and Egypt. Western models melded with previous forms of Arabic art performances, spanning the traditional shadow play, storytelling and poetry recitation.

According to Makalah (‘Yemen’, The World Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Theatre, 1999), since 1910 theatre started to be taught in schools by some teachers from the other Arab countries. The experiment didn’t last for a long time because of the oppressive policy of the religious and political power. After the First World War, the theatre companies – who were still amateur performing occasionally –  began to treat original themes both historical and romantic, mostly celebrating the glory of ancient Yemen to engage with current historical issues. A case in point was Salāḥ al-dīn al-Ayyūbī, a play performed in 1929 that unleashed the religious representatives’ anger because of its political message against their authority.

In 1950, new acting companies, made up not of students but by workers interested in staging their social and daily-life problems, arose. In the meanwhile, they drew the attention of both Arabic and Yemeni journals and newspapers getting a lot of coverage that encouraged and subsequently increased the theatre production. Following the revolution of September 1962 and the independence of south Yemen in 1967, acting companies became professional and state-founded and later on, in 1973, all plays were included into official performing seasons. In the 1971 the Firqat al-masraḥ watanī (National Theatrical Company) was established in Aden and two years later another one with the same name in Sanaa; in 1977 the department of Theatrical Arts was opened at the Faculty of Art in Aden. Today the Yemeni play-writers are gathering around the National Association of Yemeni Authors and Writers that includes the main representatives of the Modern and Contemporary Yemeni Theatre ,such as Saʿīd Awlaqī, ‘Abd al-Majīd al-Qāḍī, Muḥammad al-Sharafī, and so on.

Yemeni and the Europeans writers can be said to have a very strong relationship. Yemeni writers have combined original and typical Yemeni themes with a more universal dimension of values and feelings, in an osmotic flow among the two. Their plays show a great deal of originality and creativity, as well as a distinctive temperament that is part of the challenging, critical dialogue they entertain with the West.