Theatre of the Probable: Saʿdallah Wannous, Rabih Mroué, and the spectator

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Since the 1951 establishment of the Syrian Writer’s Collective and the consequent consolidation of the doctrine of socialist realism, modern Syrian literature has been defining its own parameters as an autonomous entity that nonetheless is committed to social and political critique. After 1967, the inward turn of Syrian intellectuals resulted in a more militant equation of the literary field with doctrinal socialist realism. But there was a counternarrative in other cultural work such as that of the Syrian playwright Saʿdallah Wannous (1941–97) who in the 1960s began publishing short one-act plays inspired by Brechtian aesthetics of alienation. As a form, drama was less familiar to his audience and Wannous admits in Bayanat li Masrah ʿArabi Jadid (1988) that in this phase he was writing with no conception of an audience. This article examines Waanous’s aesthetic of alienation in relation to his manifestos and critical writings on the nahḍa or Arab renaissance of the late 19th, early 20th centuries. I then compare his dramatic aesthetic to contemporary Lebanese visual artist Rabih Mroué’s (b. 1967) work. I examine Mroué’s theatrical and video works in conjunction with his manifestos. Like Wannous, Mroué engages perpetrator and victim, drawing attention to the violence implicit in representation. In comparing both playwrights’ use of violence and relationships to previous articulations of realism, I focus on the reimagined position of the spectator and how it extends (not discontinues) earlier debates on committed art.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)39-53
Number of pages15
JournalContemporary Levant
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2022


  • Arab drama
  • Lebanese visual arts
  • Rabih Mroué
  • Saʿdallah Wannous
  • commitment
  • socialist realism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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