etcetera | Obituaries Electronic Telegraph
Saturday 31 May 1997
Issue 736

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Sa'dallah Wannus

Syrian dramatist who satirised politics

SA'DALLAH WANNUS, the Syrian dramatist who has died aged 56, was known throughout the Arab world for his dreamlike allegorical plays that combine a cerebral and intensely political approach with the enchanted style of the Arabic folk-tale.

His best-known play, Evening Party for June 5th, first published in 1968, was a brave and bitter satire on the politics that led to the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. It expressed the mood of disillusion, anger and soul-searching that absorbed the Arab world in the aftermath of the war, and was an instant success.

In a series of experimental plays Wannus sought to realise his goal of a theatre that would educate his audience politically, using techniques inspired by Brecht.

In Evening Party for June 5th he placed among the audience actors who stand up and argue against the version of events being given on stage. Speaking as eyewitnesses to the war, they give a starkly different version, reflecting the contrast between the official account of the war given at the time by Arab governments and the ignoble reality. The ensuing argument is brought to an end when actors playing the authorities of the state enter the theatre and arrest the entire audience.

Sa'dallah Wannus was born in 1940 in a village near the port of Tartus to a family belonging to the Shi'ite Alawite sect. He studied journalism at the University of Cairo, graduating in 1963, and began his career at the Syrian Ministry of Education. In 1966 a bursary allowed him to travel to Paris where he encountered the work of Anouilh, Ionesco and Brecht.

Before Evening Party for June 5th, Wannus wrote a number of one-act plays employing the techniques of puppet theatre. Notable among these was The Elephant, O King of the World, an allegorical tale showing the corrupting effect of a tyrannical ruler. Everything Wannus wrote was political, though his targets were generally veiled in allegory, and he dealt with the excesses of power as something timeless and universal.

Wannus continued to write plays and criticism in his post as a teacher at the Institute of Drama in Damascus. His output in the last five years of his life, as he struggled with cancer, was more prolific than ever. His final play, Rituals of Signs and Changes, was critical of those Arab intellectuals who volunteer their services to autocratic regimes.

In 1995 he resigned in protest from the Syrian Writers' Union when the organisation expelled the leading Arabic poet Adonis for allegedly calling for better relations with Israel at a Unesco conference. Wannus made it clear that he was defending not so much what Adonis was saying as his right to say it.

In March of last year, he pronounced gloomily on the future of theatre in a speech for Unesco's International Day of Theatre.

He saw it as fighting a losing battle against "illuminated gadgets, coloured screens and other vulgar idiot boxes." Despite this, he said, "theatre will remain the ideal realm for man to reflect upon his history and existence".

He and his wife Faiza Shawish had one daughter.


Next report: Marion Welchman

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