The Arabian Nights
Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman
Adapted from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night
A co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Main Season · Thrust Stage
November 13, 2008–January 18, 2009
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika was a sold-out, seven-week sensation. Now she returns to Berkeley Rep with her remarkable take on The Arabian Nights. The Tony Award-winning creator of Metamorphoses made her career by reanimating ancient myths, and here she breathes new life into the legend of the 1,001 nights. To save her life, a beautiful bride must spin hypnotic tales of genies, jesters, thieves and kings—winning her freedom by eventually winning her husband’s heart. As he falls under Scheherazade’s spell, Zimmerman enchants the audience as well with her signature style that transforms simplicity into the sublime. Amidst a thousand tales of honor, revenge and humor, only love emerges victorious.
Mary Zimmerman · Adapter and Director
Daniel Ostling · Scenic Design
Mara Blumenfeld · Costume Design
Andre Pluess & The Lookingglass Ensemble · Original Composition & Sound Design
T.J. Gerckens · Lighting Design
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager
Stephanie Klapper · Casting
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Jeremy Bloom · Assistant Director
Jennifer Pardilla · New York Casting Assistant
Carrie Virginia Lee · Assistant to Ms. Klapper & Ms. Pardilla
Barzin Akhavan · Harun al-Rashid / Ensemble
Alana Arenas · Butcher / Sympathy the Learned / Ensemble
Ryan Artzberger · King Shahryar
Ari Brand · Poor Man / Boy / Ensemble
Noshir Dalal · Madman / Greengrocer / Ensemble
Allen Gilmore · Scheherezade’s Father / Ishak of Mosul / Ensemble
Sofia Jean Gomez · Scheherezade
Melina Kalomas · Perfect Love / Ensemble
Ramiz Monsef · Clarinetist / Sage / Ensemble
Jesse J. Perez · The Pastrycook / Robber / Ensemble
Nicole Shalhoub · The Jester’s Wife / The Other Woman / Ensemble
Louis Tucci · Jafar / Sheik al-Fadl / Ensemble
Pranidhi Varshney · Slave GIrl / Ensemble
Stacey Yen · Dunyazade / Azizah / Ensemble
Evan Zes · Sheik al-Islam / Abu al-Hasan / Ensemble
“Enchantment…Stories are flying carpets in Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights. Performed by 15 resourceful actors and staged with a maximum of invention by Zimmerman, the ancient tales magically transport the Berkeley Repertory Theatre audience from a king’s bedroom in Baghdad through markets, harems, courts and a crowded privy, and from heights of hilarity to sobering affirmations of shared humanity…Zimmerman has a genius for building stage spectaculars from the most basic, old-fashioned materials [and] the actors transform themselves into an exhilarating panoply of expertly etched characters.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A sultry fantasy that refreshes the senses…Berkeley Rep’s Arabian Nights casts a spell of myth and whimsy…Tony-winning theater alchemist Mary Zimmerman has become famous for breathing fresh life into primal fables, from Metamorphoses to Argonautika. Time and again, she reconnects us to the myths and fables dancing at the edges of our collective subconscious…It’s a celebration of the craft of the storyteller from which we too emerge recharged, renewed.”—San Jose Mercury News
“Berkeley Repertory has opened a magnificent production of The Arabian Nights, written and directed by Tony Award-winning Mary Zimmerman…Tales of romance, intrigue and betrayal, brilliantly performed by a superbly talented cast of 15. And it’s all backed by traditional music and a fabulous open set…It’s truly a spectacle to behold, and it’s just perfect for the holidays.”—KGO-AM
“a magical night of theater…wildly funny, touchingly emotional, highly dramatic, visually captivating, madly energetic…There is a grand-slam, winning-the-World-Series sort of exhilaration to seeing top-notch theater performed by actors working at the peak of their game. You could feel it Wednesday night in the intermission buzz at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights, a spectacular retelling of the old ‘1,001 nights’ tales staged so wonderfully well that you feel somehow better off just to have been in the theater that night. This rare and breathtaking piece of theater made it into my all-time Top 10 list maybe 15 minutes after it started, and it just kept climbing the chart as its 2 1/2-hour production flew along.”—Contra Costa Times
“One thing that makes Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights so special is that it conveys a sumptuousness of aesthetic and imagination, yet might enchant nearly as much if performed by these actors in ordinary street dress on a patch of lawn. Like Scheherazade herself, the show conjures storytelling magic out of thin air; the true production values here aren’t material, but human…Positive appreciation of Islam and the Arabic world is particularly welcome. Not to mention nearly three hours of exhilarating, imaginative theatrical escape.”—Variety
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Art, now more than ever
When I was in the ninth grade, I remember watching some newsreel footage in my history class about WWII. The film depicted life during wartime in various European cities, including several scenes of large audiences attending concerts and plays. “How could they?” I thought, feeling shocked and upset that people could be enjoying some artistic event while the world around them was in such turmoil. “How could they possibly enjoy some frivolous form of entertainment while the war was raging?”
As I got older I gradually came to understand the many functions of art. I came to see what it is that we human beings need, what sustains us, what feeds our spirits and relaxes our minds. I began to see that in times of crisis and change, there is a special role that art can play: that performance can serve to create and bind a community, that when we are surrounded by ugliness it is important to remember the essential beauty of the world, that our imaginations are the greatest tool we have in any fight against despair. I began to think about communities trying to survive any number of hardships from war to poverty to illness, and how the act of watching a movie or a play or listening to some piece of music can in some small way serve as a form of healing, a connection to something larger, a conduit to life itself.
Mary Zimmerman believes that theatre has the capacity to heal our spirits. Her work is infused with a kind of incandescent light; a kinetic sense of transformative magic that communicates a feeling of possibility, of surprise, of the sheer delight of being alive. By reminding us that within the deepest darkness there is always some reservoir of luminosity, some way to get back home, she gives us hope. Not the simplistic hope that things will automatically get better or that our problems will instantly vanish, but that the keys to dealing with the enormous issues we encounter in this life are carried within the wellspring of our humanity.
There are no Nazis invading our country. Many people still enjoy a wide array of comforts and are surrounded by toys of every variety. But the problems we face as a society, as a nation, and as a planet have become increasingly present during the past eight years. All of us are confronting the reality of diminished expectations and an increasingly anxious world. We yearn for greater clarity, a greater ability to grasp the complicated problems that threaten to engulf us. We need as much light as we can get.
So, along with Mary Zimmerman, I say: art, now more than ever.
Enjoy The Arabian Nights.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
A gift you can’t put in a box
All of us are feeling it. Prices are up, and stocks are down, and uncertainty is everywhere. We’re certainly in a different economic climate than just a few months ago.
It’s overwhelming, I’m sure—the number of requests you’re receiving to contribute to worthwhile causes in a time of financial need. And you may have just received a similar request from Berkeley Rep. It’s difficult to ask people to make contributions, knowing that we’re all experiencing such uncertainty. Yet we need your support now as much as we’ve ever needed it in the past.
I know that times are tough. Berkeley Rep, just like every home and business, is tightening its belt. We’re making cuts in our budget and postponing new projects, scaling back in ways which we hope will only minimally impact your experience at the Theatre. But the fundamental fact remains that Berkeley Rep will have two enormous challenges this season. Fifty percent of our budget comes from ticket sales; fifty percent comes from contributions. For the Theatre to be stable over the next few years, we truly need people to purchase tickets and make donations.
It’s easy to forget, as the house lights go down, that Berkeley Rep is a nonprofit. It’s easy to forget that the price of your ticket only covers 50% of what you see on stage. In fact, most of you in the audience paid even less than that for this beautiful show. If you’re a subscriber, you enjoy the benefit of significant savings on every play. And if you’re seated in Section A or Section B, you’re enjoying the lower prices we instituted last season, when we realized that tickets had become out of reach for theatre-lovers of limited means. But these discounts are only possible because half of our costs have been supported by donors. Without donors like you, the show would end at intermission. Or every ticket would cost $100! I can’t imagine that in our community.
So, when you go home tonight and see those requests for money in your mailbox, I hope you’ll remember that Berkeley Rep wants to be there for you over the long haul. We want to continue producing theatre that you crave, art that makes life meaningful, entertainment that celebrates the good times and brings light into the darkness. We want to weather this storm with you. And we can do that…with your help.
Here’s wishing you (and all of us) a better 2009,
One Thousand and One Nights
The endless unfolding of a living document
By Alex Rosenthal
Dawn is deadly for Scheherezade. The sun’s rising each day marks the scheduled hour of her execution, which she can only defer with one tool: the cliffhanger. This device saves Scheherezade repeatedly, and in the process buys her the time she needs to spin together the story she will tell the following night. In this way she creates the series of stories collectively known as The Arabian Nights. These stories have been translated and adapted scores of times over the last millennium. In fact, the history of The Arabian Nights is as full of twists as the narratives within its pages. But the original collection and its subsequent retellings would have never held together without a binding frame story, which Scheherezade’s predicament has provided for the entertainment of countless cultures and generations.
The basic frame story is as follows: King Shahryar, having walked in on his wife in the throes of passion with another man, has begun marrying a virgin every night and killing her the next morning to ensure he’ll never be betrayed again. When it is Scheherezade’s turn, she devises a plan to save herself and the country’s dwindling population of virgins. She will tell the king a series of sexy, magical, action-packed stories and be sure to leave off at crucial moments, thereby forcing Shahryar to keep her alive for one more day so that he can satiate his burning need for resolution. Scheherazade has everything riding on the success her stories; if she loses Shahryar’s interest or finishes a story too soon, her life is forfeit.
Scheherezade’s conundrum dates back over a thousand years, and, much like Homer’s Odyssey and other classical works, finds its origins in an oral storytelling tradition. This makes it essentially impossible to trace a particular story within the collection of The Arabian Nights to its inception. However, one of the first recorded references to Scheherezade’s story was found in the writings of tenth century Arab historians. They described collections of stories, framed by Scheherezade and broken into divisions of nights, much like The Arabian Nights which we are familiar with. These early collections, which have since been lost, provided the foundation for a 13th century document from the vicinity of Syria and Egypt, which is the definitive ancestor of what we have today. In the centuries since the publication of this document, the collection that is The Arabian Nights has accrued stories from a variety of cultures in a sort of literary snowball effect.
This accumulation of stories began when the meaning of the title was lost in translation. Originally, “a thousand and one” translated to an uncountable number, such as we might say “infinity plus one” today. In actuality, the 13th century document had far fewer than a thousand and one night’s worth of stories. When the text was copied and translated into later editions, popular outcry rang out for a full body of text with the promised quantity of tales. This demand compelled the authors to add tales from Indian, Persian, Turkish and other oral and literary traditions. The frequently adapted tale of Sinbad the Sailor is one of these late additions. Of perhaps even more dubious origin is the story of Aladdin, which purportedly was one of the original Arabian Nights stories. However, Aladdin did not appear in print until the first European translation of The Arabian Nights was written by Antoine Galland in early 18th century France. Galland claims to have heard the story from a Syrian storyteller, but some critics contend that he may have fabricated the tale himself, making Aladdin French in origin. Translators in various western cultures continued the tradition of cutting and adding stories to fit their needs and audiences, thus contributing to the colorful pastiche of anecdotes, moral tales and lascivious encounters that comprise most modern editions of The Arabian Nights.
The historical continuum of fascination with these stories begs the question: why do people keep returning to them across generational and cultural lines? Husain Haddawy, translator of a recent edition of The Arabian Nights, suggests that their original purpose was as “a collection of tales told to produce aesthetic pleasure in the Arabic reader.” This notion of the tales as providing pleasurable entertainment is a primary attraction of the text shared by readers across history. The stories are delightfully fun; each provides a rollercoaster ride of descriptive passages that build tension and heighten anticipation interspersed with thrilling freefalls of heroic exploits and adventures. Action unfolds with magical twists and emotional reveals on top of humorous and often sexual situations. And there is a pervading feeling of constant unfolding: everything and everyone has a story to tell, each more wondrous than the last, until we find ourselves in a frame within a frame within a frame within a frame, every level commenting and interacting with the others. Scheherezade is, after all, quite good at her job, and manages to ensnare her king and reader in the same tantalizing web of stories.
People keep coming back to these tales for more than just the thrill of the ride, however. For 18th and 19th century European readers, much of the appeal came from a fascination with the Eastern “other.” One of the primary Victorian translators of the text, Edward Lane, proffered the work as a travel guide to Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, supposedly providing an accurate account of both the contemporary Middle East and the original period of the tales. In this way the Nights was used to exotify the social values and customs of Eastern culture. In contrast, other works inspired by The Arabian Nights such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories employ the stories as a lens through which cultures may examine themselves. Poe’s story comments on the technological boons of the industrial revolution, and Rushdie’s is an analogy for present-day India. There are also instances of the tales being used as a vehicle with which to stereotype another culture; look no further than Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves for an example.
The richness of the stories and the compelling nature of their structure have inspired many adaptations, and the versatility of the text has given artists a great deal to explore and expand upon. Into this mix of narrative and historical frames comes Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights, a dramatization of a select few of the hundreds of stories which have come to be associated with the complete canon in its variety of manifestations. In a way, the history of The Arabian Nights has turned it into a living document, one that encourages artists to engage with it as participants and become folded up in its pages. The adaptor takes on qualities of both Shahryar, the listener, and Scherezade, the storyteller. As Shahryar, the adaptor must first soak in the existing stories as told by prior generations of authors and translators, all the while demanding reasons to continue the collection’s life. Then, as Scheherezade, the adaptor seeks to entertain and enlighten her audience with something new and pertinent to them. Zimmerman fills the role of adaptor by bringing a new dimension of life to the text. Present here are the narrative frames, the love-addled characters, the wind-swept deserts and the flowing verses that make the original document instantly recognizable. Layered on top of this are sensory experiences which provoke the imagination in ways that only live theatre can achieve. For instance, in the original document, the text reminds us that every morning Shahryar intends to kill Scheherezade but holds off in order to hear the end of her story. Zimmerman, however, actually shows Shahryar pressing a dagger to Scheherezade’s throat, adding a sense of immediacy and visceral danger. Throughout the play, live music and physical movements supplement the textual rhythms and repetitions already present. Flurries of activity and explosions of color assault the senses and remind us that this is a present and animate storytelling event, not one securely bound in dusty tomes.
As a living collection, storytellers have carried The Arabian Nights down the road from its oral origins to this production today, half a world and many centuries away. When we see Mary Zimmerman and her actors taking up the storytelling mantle, our lives briefly intersect this bustling, magical, timeless thoroughfare. We encounter a world that is both foreign and recognizable at the same time—a product of distant cultures from different ages, with emotions and themes that are so intrinsically human that they speak immediately and directly to us. This unfamiliar familiarity gives us the gift of perspective and reminds us that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. We are citizens of the world and participants in history, inhabitants of an interconnected global community.
One thousand and one adaptations
The hundreds of stories contained within The Arabian Nights have inspired many artists to create adaptations in a wide variety of media. A number of prominent poets, novelists and playwrights have put their own spin on the narratives, characters and world of the Nights, while others have simply taken inspiration from the collection.
- 1704—Antoine Galland (French)
- 1814—British East India Company (Arabic)
- 1835—Bulaq version (Arabic)
- 1838—Torrens (English)
- 1838–1840—Edward William Lane (English)
- 1882–1884—John Payne (English)
- 1885–1888—Sir Richard Francis Burton (English)
- 1889–1904—J. C. Mardrus (French)
- 1984—Muhsin Mahdi (Arabic)
- 1990s—Husain Haddawy (English)
- John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and The Tidewater Tales
- Jason Grote, 1001 (play)
- O. Henry, A Bird of Bagdad and A Night in New Arabia
- Robert Irwin, Night and Horses and the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature
- Naguib Mahfouz , Arabian Nights and Days
- Nathalie Mallet, The Princes Of The Golden Cage
- Vera Nazarian, Dreams of the Compass Rose
- Edgar Allan Poe, The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade
- Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa
Other authors who have cited The Arabian Nights as an influence include
- Jorge Luis Borges
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Charles Dickens
- H. P. Lovecraft
- Sir Walter Scott
Selected film and television
- The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
- Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926)
The oldest surviving feature-length animated film.
- Chu-Chin-Chow (1934)
- Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936)
- The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
Remake of the 1924 The Thief of Bagdad
- Kismet (1944)
There have been numerous versions and remakes of this film.
- Sinbad the Sailor (1947)
- Thief of Damascus (1952)
- Babes in Bagdad (1952)
- Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs (1954)
- The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
- 1,001 Arabian Nights (1959)
- Il Ladro di Bagdad (1961)
Remake of the 1940 The Thief of Bagdad.
- Volshebnaya lampa Aladdina (1966)
- Le Amorose Notti di Ali Baba (1973)
- Arabian Naitsu: Shinbaddo no Bôken (1975)
- Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
- Les 1,001 Nuits (1990)
- Aladdin (1992)
- The Return of Jafar (1994)
- Scooby-Doo in Arabian Nights (1994) (TV)
- Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1995)
On working with Mary Zimmerman
A conversation with actors Jesse J. Perez and Sofia Jean Gomez
Both veterans of past Mary Zimmerman shows, Jesse J. Perez (Argonautika and Pericles) and Sofia Jean Gomez (Argonautika and Mirror of the Invisible World) return to her fold to join the cast of The Arabian Nights. We had a chance to chat with the two of them about working with this incredibly inventive and inimitable director.
What’s different about working with Mary from working with other directors?
Jesse J. Perez: She truly trusts her actors. I mean, most of her shows are made from scratch. You have an enormous piece of literature, and that’s it. Not a single page of a script. She adapts every day, and out of games, physical improvisations, playing instruments and dancing, a theatre piece is created. Pages start to appear, but the first spark happens in the rehearsal room. She looks at the company she has assembled and she tries characters on you and she sees how it fits. And if that combination doesn’t work, she tries another one. She’ll cut scenes and add little passages here and there, until she wraps her head around what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. It’s a really playful environment with really big complicated ideas.
How would you describe her style? Her personality in the rehearsal room?
Sofia Jean Gomez: Her style demands a unique physical approach to text. One must be skilled in flexibility and fearlessness for stunt/acrobatic work. Mary asks specifically for actors’ own sense of poetic body movement to come into the work. It also changes within each piece or culture she decides to investigate.
She also likes to pull from a rep of different theatre forms. I remember one instance in rehearsal where I had the impulse (as a Russian princess telling a story to a king) to keep going down a route of the tale being like an aria in an opera. It opened the story into a rich, hearty, chocolaty playfulness that suited what Mary was exploring with our live musicians for the Russian sequence. Then, the next story was like a slapstick fool-and-clown show. Her personality is very playful and full-ranged. I’m not going to lie—we debate, we challenge her as much as she challenges us. She says when she’s lost, and loves when she’s inspired—which is a lot of the time.
JP: The rehearsal room is very playful. At times I look at her and I see a really smart little girl playing with her toys. Of course, she treats us like human beings, but a little silliness never hurts a rehearsal process. Especially when her shows have a big clown influence. She also expects us to be really serious in those moments of tragedy. She tells us to continue to look for the dark heart of the play. Her plays shift rather rapidly from comedy to tragedy, and sometimes she combines the two. It’s a full theatrical experience. It feels like we’re all having a good time, while working on something very difficult. They don’t call it a “play” for nothing.
How does Mary being both writer and director affect the rehearsal process?
JP: At times she comes in with a really clear idea or sequence and she puts it on you. I mean every detail, the shape of your hand, the tilt of the head, the speed of your walk. It comes from an idea she got from a passage she read the night before, or a dream she had. It’s fully Mary’s world. Sure she gets stuck and she has no idea where the work is going, or so she says, but I feel she knows exactly where she’s headed and where she is guiding us. She is just working it out with us. A lot of her theatre is movement-based. So lots of ideas come from the body. Listening to your body informs the character a lot. She gives you the shell of a world, and it’s the actor’s job to fill in that world she’s throwing at you.
What’s the most challenging thing she has ever asked you to do?
SG: Uh…I usually meet her challenges—not to be an egotist here, but I relish them. As an actor, I thrive on challenges, and believe that it’s that moment where you have to answer the question of whether you will jump to the other side with this character that makes an actor. I mean there’s the typical being flipped upside down off of a 6’4” guy while holding a spear, or singing a solo, or playing an instrument (if you have never in your life!). But I dearly love the simple challenge of her saying, “I want you to play…” That’s the ultimate challenge; the one I really I get a thrill out of.
JP: One of the most challenging things Mary has made me do is sing. I’m not a singer, and her shows are full of music and song. Even certain chorus passages that are in unison have a specific rhythm and pitch. I’ve never had a singing solo, thank God, but it’s some of that unison stuff that is most difficult. It’s hard to have a group breathe as one.
What are some of your favorite moments from working with her?
JP: One of my favorite moments of working with Mary happened the first time we worked together. We were in tech in Washington, D.C., and although we had already been through a long process together she was still getting to know me as an actor. Now, in the play, there was this narrator part that was divided among cast members to tell the story. So my section comes up and I was really struggling with it because I really wanted it to sound like this story was coming out of my character even though it wasn’t written for my character. It was much more sophisticated and poetic. So, here I am trying everything I can to find it, and I’m literally bouncing off the walls. I’m all over the stage, and TJ Gerckens, her longtime lighting designer, comes up to her and says, “Mary, I can’t light Jesse. He’s moving around so much, and I don’t want to reveal the scene change going on behind him. Is that what he’s going to do?” And Mary, without taking her eyes off of me said, “I don’t know what he’s going to do. Keep following him until he finds it, and then we will set it. He’ll get it.” She let me go through what I needed to go through to get where I thought I needed to get. She trusted me.
SG: Eeee. Here we go. We were working on a scene where I played a crazed, greedy merchant. Mary said, “He’s sleazy and sly.” That comment created this picture in my mind of a creature of man who slithered up to you. You couldn’t look him square in the eye to make a deal because I made him have only one eye, and an eye patch! But, I didn’t have an eye patch. So for that first go at it, I took a post-it note, wrote “Eye Patch” on it, and pasted it to my eye. I had a cape as well. At my first entrance, the actress I was working with said, “Who are you?” I turned. Then she said, laughing, “And why are you wearing a post-it note?” Mary lost it. First because I was wearing a post-it on my eye, and then, because she realized it was an eye patch. I kept yelling “Believe, damn it! Believe!” And Mary said, “We do. That’s why we’re laughing.” That’s my favorite—when we believe in the power of imagination—as cheesy as that sounds. Mary is a fighter for that, in a world that sometimes can narrow the view.
If you got to choose the subject of Mary’s next show, what would it be and why?
SG: Oooh! Twelfth Night. I haven’t worked with her—yet—on Shakespeare. But I hear great things. I think she would be quite lovely with this tale of mixed sexes, shipwrecked siblings, yellow stockings and tortured love. She has a great reservoir of clown actors for this piece. She also has great musicality and poetry to her own work that would translate brilliantly. I also think Mary is very smart about lending her style to doing other playwrights. I think she knows that by exploring a Shakespeare it inspires her own work that she plans to adapt later on. I would also love a Chekhov, Brecht, Lorca or Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata. Literature that is filled with magical realism. That combination of the abstract versus the reality.
JP: I want Mary to direct more Shakespeare. That was the first thing I worked with her on; she really makes those plays come to life. I would like to see what she would do with a play like Macbeth. I would also love to do Chekhov with her. The acting in her work is very human with all this magical stuff going on around it. I just feel that she’s well-suited for those beautiful Russian plays.
Is there anything else you’d like to say that we haven’t asked you?
SG: Yeah. In a society that can sometimes trap itself in pessimistic values, too cool for school to show our passion, Mary is the romantic with a big heart who is not afraid to show it. To show you how the heart can fail—can fall flat on its freakin’ face—and then, recover, whether through loss or regaining love again. Sometimes it’s in an old-school way of storytelling mixed with contemporary views. But the stories she chooses are timely and resonant because of the pulsing core of humanity they hold. We need storytelling for many, many reasons. Mary believes in that. I don’t think she’s alone either. Some of us just need to be reminded, watch. And let your imagination open up and play.
Five Questions for Mary Zimmerman on The Arabian Nights
What first drew you to this particular collection of stories?
The first production of The Arabian Nights was made by myself and the Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago in 1992 in the shadow of the first Gulf War. The project was inspired in particular by two things I saw on television: one was a military official boasting that we would bomb Iraq “back to the stone age;” the other was a report on the nightly news concerning infant mortality in the Middle East. The gist of this report was that women over there had a whole lot of children and expected to lose a few along the way—the implication being that an Iraqi mother would somehow experience the death of her child less acutely than, say, oneself.
Are you saying that you believe certain feelings are universal, or perhaps that we share an essential common humanity?
It is a precondition of war that we view other people as fundamentally different from ourselves; it is a precondition of literature that we view other people as fundamentally the same. All my life I’ve found myself in the ancient stories of faraway places and I’ve always drawn comfort from the feeling “it was ever thus” with all of us: that we will experience violent change and loss; that we will look for love and betray it; that we will make errors, both serious and trivial that make us feel embarrassed or ashamed all our lives; that certain things will always be funny and others always sad. Although this seems utterly self-evident, wartime works towards the erosion of empathy, explicitly delimiting the idea that all men are brothers.
How, specifically, did politics and current events enter your thinking when you actually sat down to envision what this play would look like?
Before beginning rehearsals for the first Arabian Nights (which, because of the way I work also means before beginning to write it) I was full of a great many theoretical and overtly political ideas for its staging that would call attention to is contemporary relevance. Yet the moment we began actually to embody these stories virtually all of these preconceived ideas went right out the window. The stories spoke more than loudly enough for themselves: their humanity, wisdom, humor, vulgarity and poetry were manifest, and with their tremendous will towards life they took over the rehearsal room as easily as they take over King Shahryar. Almost none of that original impulse towards overt commentary remains.
What can you share with us about your view of Scheherezade’s situation and her relationship with Shahryar?
Scheherezade knows the power of these stories. By populating the darkened, isolated chamber of Shahryar with imaginary characters she coaxes the murderous king back into the real world. Narrative alters the course of reality and “the daughters of the Musselmen” are saved.
What do these stories tell us about ourselves and our world today?
Although even the happy stories in The Arabian Nights often end with an evocation of the finality of death, the overall impression is the enduring, transformative power of narrative. In the tale of “The Mock Kalifah,” the great ruler Harun al-Rashid, disguised as a simple merchant, hides under a bridge and watches a simple merchant disguised as Harun al-Rashid drift down the Tigris on an illuminated boat. Each man aches to be the other. Since 2003 the ancient bridge whose shadows once hid Harun no longer exists, but the story, part of the eternal bridge to Baghdad, does.