Pulitzer Playwright Ayad Akhtar on Aristotle and Islam
“Character as related to us by Aristotle is defined by what a character does, not by who a character is,” Pulitzer prize-winning dramatist, Ayad Akhtar tells students during his playwriting seminar at Emerson College in Boston. When students pose their own questions about the differences between developing character and plot and the tensions between crafting language and giving the plot its due, he asks, “Isn’t Anna defined by her affair with Vronsky, her decision to give up her child and her act of throwing herself under a train?” referencing Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Later Akhtar, who finds Aristotle’s analysis of what comprises a good and riveting story timeless, talks about challenging the boundaries between entertainment and academic thought in a college classroom. “My students are learning that the gap and the friction between the academic and commercial is where the work is going to breathe.”
Akhtar was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer for his play Disgraced: a terrific portrayal of the post-9/11 zeitgeist in which disguised trauma, feudal sentiments, extreme behaviors, and racial pathologies amongst a group of educated New Yorkers rise to the surface with tragic consequences. Akhtar, who was in Boston for a month-long artistic residency at Emerson College in March and is in the middle of rewrites for his newest play The Who and the What, shares with the class his personal journey toward revelation about character in his play. The play, which is about the division and overlap between traditional Islamic culture and contemporary lives, recently had its world premiere at LaJolla Playhouse.
The battle lines in the family get drawn over the Muslim American feminist writer character’s impending book on Prophet Muhammad and her conservative father who also feels guilt for his role in ending her relationship with the Irish Catholic man she was in love with four years earlier. He talks to students about discovering, through numerous drafts, the true protagonist of The Who and the What. “Some writers are good at a deconstructive analytic approach to their play. I am not. I wrote the play in a paroxysm of creativity not analysis,” says Akhtar.
The Who and the What will have its New York debut at the Lincoln Theater Center on May 31, 2014. According to Akhtar, the play emerged from “a long-standing preoccupation with the Prophet in the Muslim community, how we relate to and understand the Prophet, and the stories we tell about the Prophet.” He has also just finished a twenty-five-character play based on Wall Street and is currently at work on a second novel about post 9/11 Muslim-American life.
In conversations, Akhtar is both intellectually agile and thoughtful, patiently explaining his process of playwriting and how he doesn’t see an inconsistency between his work as an artist and the demands of the market. Does that mean he has turned away from his earlier absorption in a body of literature famous for its rejection of the market and the conventions of realism? He replies, “Beckett is not telling a story,” referring to the key figure of literary modernism. “I admire Beckett and I am infinitely richer for having read Beckett. But I don’t want to go see a Beckett play. What I wanted was to find some way to have a real engagement with the world around me not some kind of separation from it.” Akhtar emphasizes that he “falls a little more profoundly on the commercial side of things” and sees his own work as a form of entertainment with the goal being to connect with “the simply human aspect of every single person in the audience.”
In the early 2000s and in the aftermath of 9/11, Akhtar turned toward an exploration of the personal and political dynamics of being Muslim in America and, invariably, a different sort of aesthetics took shape.
Akhtar told Britain’s Guardian that before he found an audience and success with his portrayals of Muslim American life, he spent seven years writing an unpublished novel about a poet working in the databases of Goldman Sachs as well as screenplays and “fragments of plays”—most were written under the influence of modernist classics. “I thought writing meant writing existential parables about the meaning of life,” he said. In the early 2000s and in the aftermath of 9/11, Akhtar turned toward an exploration of the personal and political dynamics of being Muslim in America and, invariably, a different sort of aesthetics took shape.
Akhtar, who graduated from Brown and Columbia universities with degrees in theatre and film directing, taught acting throughout his twenties alongside such figures as Jerzy Grotowski and Andre Gregory, but didn’t write a full-length play himself. “I was around the practice of making theatre for so long, I think I always wanted to write for theatre, but for some reason it never felt like the right time.”
All that changed during a teaching trip to Vienna where Akhtar and a group of nineteen actors sat around a table poring over a Pinter play for three weeks. “I came back home and after that it just felt like it was the time for me to write a play.” Within a mere eight months Akhtar had written his three plays: Disgraced, Invisible Hand, and The Who and the What. “I had been with the theatre for so many years, been reading plays, been writing screenplays for so many years. I think it just coalesced.”
His first novel, American Dervish, published a month before the Chicago premiere of Disgraced in 2012, tells the story of a young Muslim American boy in Wisconsin whose life and religious identity are profoundly affected when his mother’s best friend Mina arrives from Pakistan. The multi-faceted playwright co-wrote and starred in the films The War Within (2005) and Too Big to Fail (HBO 2011); the former portrays a young Pakistani man whose unfair torture and interrogation in an anti-terrorist cell propels him toward an act of terrorism on American soil.
Although Akhtar wrote his first complete play Disgraced only two years ago, he has been involved with theatre since his late adolescence and credits it as the source of many fundamental rites of passage in his life. “I actually feel I discovered what it is to be an American through the theatre,” says Akhtar, who was born to Pakistani parents in New York City and raised in Milwaukee. He professes an attraction to the theatre above and beyond film: “As a fundamentally religious person the theatre appeals to me; we gather together in a room and we experience something that actually happens in front of us. You can do something in the theatre that you cannot in any other art form and that is to reveal the face of the divine in a way, to reveal the collective energy of some source that unifies us all.”
When Akhtar talks, it appears he is on a mission to reclaim the classical dramatic form for the common man. “It is going to sound odd but the more classical the form the more comfortable I feel relating to it,” says Akhtar, referencing Aristotle’s belief that a plot must be structured in such a way that it evokes within an audience as much identification and anticipation, pity and terror as possible. Quick to point out that he is not making a universal statement but just articulating his prescription for himself, Ayad speaks persuasively about how a rigorous approach to classical storytelling can indeed lead to a heightened drama of mass entertainment and the full blown satisfactions of having theatre that is emotionally affecting, philosophically astute, and politically risky. And yet this investment in the author of Poetics also has its roots in the personal:
I grew up in a Punjabi household—a loud, operatic culture. There is a degree of attunement to the extravagant polarities that humans are capable of that I witnessed as a young boy and that formed my view of the world. It is a pretty good perspective to have if you are a dramatist. It just isn’t as much fun to watch a story that doesn’t go there. If a story goes there, we experience something Aristotle calls catharsis. Catharsis is only possible when the full dimension of our pity and our terror are aroused by what we see. If the volume dials down to two or three you can’t really have catharsis. Catharsis isn’t about feeling sorry for a character or shedding a few tears. It is a very specific process having to do with identification, anticipation, pity, and terror. I just think the bigger the story the more compelling that process can be.
Disgraced will be on Broadway this fall. While it tells the story of the tragic fall from grace of Muslim-American lawyer Amir Kapoor (as it turns out his name isn’t really his own), it is also a triumphant demonstration of the Aristotelian paradigm of an engaging play, as Akhtar explains it.
“Aristotle talks about Aeschylus’s play whose furies so terrify a pregnant woman in the audience that she miscarries,” says Akhtar. “That’s not sitting around watching Pinter. It’s a completely different relationship to the spectacle and the collective. And the audience is relating not to a work of art but to an experience and that experience is a shattering and primal experience.”
At the Bush Theatre in London, which staged Disgraced last summer, Akhtar witnessed his modern day version of the Aristotelian spectacle. While loud gasps, vocal responses, and shocked hands flying to the mouths had accompanied performances of Disgraced in Chicago and New York, the most unrestrained reaction came in London. During the pivotal scene of the play, when the protagonist Amir hits his wife Emily, a woman seated next to Akhtar cried out, “Oh my fucking god!”
“She was a really cultured woman who had been quiet throughout the play but at that point lost her self-consciousness entirely.” Akhtar pauses for a moment and then continues, “I’d like to think that it has to do with the fact that they are so involved, so absorbed that when this thing happens they have a reaction that is not so dissimilar to what Aristotle is talking about.”
Fortunately for him, Akhtar has found a way to impose order on the seething chaos of Muslim and Western identities.
In the past thirteen years since 9/11 the world of Islam itself as well as the conflict between Western capitalist societies and Islam have spawned discourses and cataclysmic, traumatic events that seem to ask for a massive representational canvas. Fortunately for him, Akhtar has found a way to impose order on the seething chaos of Muslim and Western identities. “We still have that overarching desire to get a piece of that big pie. What I am trying to do is fracture that ambition into many different works because they are points of view, pictures of the importance of being Muslim today—over time perhaps what it might really be like to be Muslim today in the West can emerge from the plethora of representations.”
Notwithstanding the pervasive theme of Muslim identity in his creative work, Akhtar doesn’t want plays like Disgraced slotted into a narrowly defined ideological niche. He stresses that religious identity is not just a Muslim preoccupation.
I believe that American history and psyche are deeply, deeply fuelled by the tension between these two things: the Enlightenment rejection of religion and the profound search for oblivion in the rapture or passion for God. So I think my play is an expression of a deeply American dynamic. One of the things that people find so surprising about it is that they think, “I am going to watch something about the Muslims by the guy with the Muslim name.” But at some point they realize, “I am watching a play about my own family or my own experience.” I think that’s my intention.
Ultimately, the specific universality of Akhtar’s plays expresses what it is to live in a time of enormous cultural and political upheaval whose dramatic possibilities are rich and endless. “As I write more and more about different kinds of people I am able to inhabit different politics and I am less interested in my own politics and more interested in the ways in which politics of others intermingle to create a complex reality that is our world.”