Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous can still reach his audiences two decades after his death

The 'Sentence to Hope' anthology is the first widely distributed anthology of Wannous’s plays in English

Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous reads a message, assigned by the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) on Theatre Day March 27. Wannous delivered his message in a ceremony held in his honour
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It was March 1996 when the first Arab author was invited to give the World Theatre Day address. While Saadallah Wannous's message was read out on stages around the world, the renowned Syrian playwright was fighting cancer. He died the following year, aged 56.

The day of the address, March 27, was a double celebration, as it was also Wannous's birthday. The great playwright was born in 1941 in Husayn Al Baher, a village west of Homs.

The prestigious World Theatre Day address has been given by Nobel laureates such as Dario Fo, Pablo ­Neruda and Wole Soyinka.

Writing to combat cancer

In his speech, Wannous said that we are "mahkumun bil-amal", first translated as "condemned to hope". The phrase gained fresh currency after the mass uprisings across the region in 2011, and was expressed as "doomed to hope," which became the title of a 2012 collection of essays on Arab theatre. Now, in the first widely distributed anthology of Wannous's plays in English, the phrase has been reworked once more to "sentenced to hope".

The Sentence to Hope anthology, edited and translated by Robert Myers and Nada Saab, gives only a glimpse of Wannous's oeuvre: he wrote about 20 plays and a wealth of critical essays. The last five years of his life, after the writer was diagnosed with cancer of the pharynx, were perhaps his most productive. "Writing has been one of the most important means I've had to fight [cancer]," he said in his World Theatre Day address.

Yet despite this global platform, Wannous's plays remained little-known in the English-speaking world. The first translated collection was a 2014 specialist publication, Four Plays from Syria, co-edited by Marvin Carlson and Safi Mahfouz. The editors of Sentence to Hope also worked on that book. Their expanded anthology not only contains translations of Wannous's plays, but a handful of his insightful essays and interviews. The anthology also sketches a portrait of a relentlessly self-critical playwright, always searching for new ways to imagine theatre. The first work in the collection, An Evening's Entertainment for the Fifth of June, was written after the 1967 Arab-Israeli Conflict, when about 100,000 Syrians fled their homes in the Golan Heights.

Writing for change

In An Evening's Entertainment, Wannous seems to be trying to shake his audience into action. It's a play about a play, with a director as one of its central characters. This beleaguered director tries to get on with the evening's patriotic revelry while "spectators" come to upend the power dynamic, going on to the stage to talk about the war. The play was banned, and it was several years before it could be staged in Syria.

In an essay at the end of the collection, The Dream Falls Apart, Wannous explained his disappointment at the response to the play after it was belatedly performed in Syria. He said that the literary critic Adonis wrote that the play was "amazing", ­particularly "on a technical level".

After the play ended, people would applaud and then leave the theatre as they always had after any other performance. They would whisper, laugh, or express amazement. But then what? Nothing. Nothing at all.

He added: “After the play ended, people would applaud and then leave the theatre as they always had after any other performance. They would whisper, laugh, or express amazement. But then what? Nothing. Nothing at all. The audience did not erupt in demonstration.”

For a while at least, Wannous continued to write plays with a similar aesthetic. The next play in Sentence to Hope is a 1970 work, The Adventure of the Head of Mamlouk Jaber, which Wannous suggested could be set in a cafe. A traditional storyteller sits among the cafe's customers and relays the mamlouk's tale as listeners occasionally interrupt. In an interview published at the end of the anthology, Wannous talked about how this work, which bristles with autocracy and opportunism, was received passionately by audiences in Soviet-era Russia.

Writing for pleasure

The major shift in Wannous's writing is found in 1977. The change was not immediately clear as, for the rest of the 1970s and most of the 1980s, Wannous was "in the crypts of depression". During those years he didn't write, although he said he read a great deal. His next play, which came in 1989, was radically different. It was less focused on broad social movements and looked more at individuals. In a 1996 dialogue with Mary Ilyas, which is also in the anthology, Wannous talked about this new phase of his writing. He sounded both grimmer and more optimistic, and he told Ilyas that he found this new sort of writing a personal liberation. "For the first time I feel writing is a pleasure," he said.

The collection's final plays, Wretched Dreams and Rituals of Signs and Transformations, are both from that period. These works don't foreground the struggle for democracy and freedom writ large, but instead it is the lives of individuals oppressed by various social hierarchies that are prominent. In Wannous's earlier works, female characters are few and nameless. By contrast, the play Wretched Dreams is all about the hopes of two women, Mary and Ghada. Those two richly imagined characters, both of whom want to murder their husbands, are the heart of the play. Their husbands are both grotesqueries, but they're also compelling characters. Faris is a manipulative buffoon while Kazim is a thug who doesn't understand why his wife can't simply fall in line and love him.

The last play in the collection, Rituals of Signs and Transformations, is set in Damascus during the late 1800s. Here, social and political liberation is not about storming the stage and driving off the director. Instead, it takes a Sufi-esque path. Throughout the play, core characters give up their old lives and undergo humiliations on their way to finding new hope, although their new lives remain a work-in-progress.

More than two decades after ­Wannous's death, his plays retain their ability to surprise and connect with audiences. He lives on in other ways, too. His daughter, Dima, who was only 15 when he died, is now a successful novelist, and the English translation of her book The Frightened Ones will be published this year. Wannous also encouraged his niece, Mai Skaf, to become an actor. She died unexpectedly in Paris last summer, and her last public words, posted on Facebook, were an echo of her uncle's: "I will not lose hope, never lose hope."