How Western Theatre Has Portrayed Islam

How did theatre become the way it is today? This blog series will look at aspects of our present-day theatre that we take for granted and explore where they came from. It will also feature interviews with theatre archivists about their work and how it relates to new theatrical productions.

The horrific November attacks in Paris by supporters of Islamic State, as well as the December shootings in San Bernardino, have revived fear and distrust of Muslims in many Western countries, and the rise of Donald Trump has exacerbated the situation. Some citizens in Europe and the United States have engaged in ugly debates about whether or not they ought to welcome refugees from places like Syria, while their political leaders wearily contemplate the possibility of getting further involved in yet another war in the Middle East. The place of Muslims in Western society has also recently been a hot-button issue in the theatrei. According to American Theatre magazine, the play most frequently produced by regional companies this season is Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, the Pulitzer-winning drama about the struggles and dilemmas faced by Muslim Americans.

Although mainstream theatre’s opening up to voices like Akhtar’s is relatively recent, there is still a long history of playwrights attempting to engage with Islam in ways that might make us uncomfortable today. For instance, as this piece by Isaac Butler on Othello’s blackness points out, one of the underlying fears that Shakespeare was tapping into in that play was the worry “that Muslim converts to Christianity were incapable of fully changing.” This, of course, brings in an additional complication by conflating race and religion.

vintage photo of actors on stage
Scene from 1956 production of  Tamburlaine  with Anthony Quayle as the title character. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library.

While Shakespeare made widespread suspicion of Islam one of the implicit concerns of Othello, his contemporary Christopher Marlowe engaged more directly with the religion, or at least with the fears that his culture harbored about it and its adherents. The most shocking example of this comes in Tamburlaine the Great, Part 2, the sequel to Marlowe’s hit play about a lowly shepherd who turns into a brutal conqueror. The first play ends on a triumphant note, with Tamburlaine victorious over his enemies, who all happen to be Muslim. Although Tamburlaine himself is not Christian, he openly proclaims himself to be the scourge of God sent to chastise the “heathen” forces that were threatening the eastern flank of Christendom. The second play takes a darker turn with Tamburlaine slaughtering members of his own family as well as countless external enemies. His anti-Islamic tendencies also become more pronounced, culminating in a scene in which he burns a Koran while taunting “Mahomet” and declaring him “not worthy to be worshipped.”

This scene has become a major problem for anyone who undertakes a revival of Tamburlaine, for obvious reasons. A production at the Barbican in London a decade ago made headlines when director David Farr substantially altered the scene and subsequently had to fend off accusations that he’d tampered with a classic because he somehow wished to appease Britain’s Muslim community. Still, others have kept it in, notably the 2014 production directed by Michael Boyd and starring John Douglas Thompson, at Theatre for a New Audience.

an actor wearing a crown
John Douglas Thompson in rehearsal for  Tamburlaine, Parts I and II. Photo by Gerry Goldstein.

Although mainstream theatre’s opening up to voices like Akhtar’s is relatively recent, there is still a long history of playwrights attempting to engage with Islam in ways that might make us uncomfortable today.

a group of actors carrying someone on stage
A whip-cracking John Douglas Thompson forcing former world leaders to pull his chariot in  Tamburlaine, Parts I and II. Photo by Sara Krulwich for  The New York Times.

For English playwrights like Shakespeare and Marlowe, the relationship between Islam and Christianity was of mostly theoretical interest, since England was far removed from the Muslim-dominated portions of the world. For other countries, such as Spain, there was more of an immediate threat since cultural memories of the Reconquista (and subsequent expulsion of Jews and Muslims) still lingered. The Spanish and Portuguese still battled with Muslim rulers over the possession of territories in North Africa. These conflicts obviously lent themselves to drama, with perhaps the best-known example being Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s El principe constante, usually translated as The Constant Prince.

Today, the play largely owes its prominence to the legacy of Jerzy Grotowski’s production in the 1960s, which served a showcase for his ideas about “Poor Theatre.” However, it’s also a grueling examination of religious conviction, in which the title character Ferdinand allows himself to be starved and worked to death by his Muslim captors, rather than allow himself to be exchanged for a city held by the Christian Portuguese. Although Calderon was writing in a deeply Catholic society, and would himself become a priest later in life, the play doesn’t depict Muslims in a uniformly negative light. Ferdinand’s sometime jailer Muley was captured by Ferdinand in a previous battle and treated well, which throws him into a conundrum over where his loyalties should lie. In the end, Ferdinand dies, but Muley’s kindness to him leads to a happy ending in which he is allowed to marry the princess whom he loves as a reward for his goodness.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that one of the most positive views of the relations between the Muslim and Christian worlds in the Western dramatic canon was written during the Enlightenment. In addition to creating the role of the modern dramaturg, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was also one of the most well-known Germany playwrights of the eighteenth century. His Nathan the Wise, which is set during the Crusades, offers an optimistic outlook on our ability to reach out across religious divides. The action of the play begins when the title character returns from a journey to discover that his house has burned down. Luckily, his adopted and much-beloved daughter Recha has been saved from the flames by a Templar, a Christian warrior-monk who is being held captive (albeit very loosely) by the sultan Saladin. It turns out that all of the main characters are somehow related: Recha and the Templar are actually long-lost siblings, and Saladin is their uncle. However far-fetched this might seem, it fits the play’s overall function as a parable about the close ties between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Lessing underscores these ties in a scene in which Nathan, asked by Saladin which of the three faiths is the true one, tells a story about a father who loved his three sons so equally that he made indistinguishable copies of a precious family heirloom for each of them.

Of course, this brief rundown of plays dealing with relations between Muslim cultures and the West only tells one side of the story. Akhtar’s recent popularity is an encouraging development, but it’s striking how little attention other work from Muslim Americans has received. (As an unscientific measure of this, try Googling “Muslim playwrights” and note how Akhtar’s name dominates the initial results). As the presidential campaign in this country continues to raise worries about how Muslims are treated in the United States, it would be worthwhile to examine the work of playwrights such as Heather Raffo and Rohina Malik, whose one-woman shows 9 Parts of Desire and Unveiled examine the lives of Muslim women both here and abroad; and plays like Yussef El Guindi’s Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, which looks at Arab-American life in the years since 9/11. By bringing newer works such as these into dialogue with the older plays described in this piece, we can hopefully begin to change the conversation.

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Michael Lueger dissects different topics from theatrical history.

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