Masks of ontology: A comparative study of representative contemporary British and Egyptian drama

Date of Completion

January 2003


Literature, Comparative|Literature, Middle Eastern|Theater|Literature, English




Ontological and metaphysical issues are rarely associated with theatre because theatre emphasizes performance while questions of Being have been addressed primarily by philosophical inquiry. But philosophy and literature have traditionally intersected, because the meaning of existence, the relationship between self and other, and the purpose of human life, have often been implicit in great drama, and have become a dominant preoccupation for modern dramatists. ^ This comparative study analyzes the representation of ontological and existential issues in British and Egyptian drama in order to show that theatre can serve as a bridge between esthetic and philosophical inquiry and sociopolitical realities, as it can also serve as a laboratory for cross-cultural understanding. A cross-cultural comparison between British and Egyptian societies, during the 1950s and 1960s respectively, shows that these two societies experienced a similar malaise. The frustration of the young British people with the elitist class system and with the psychologically deflating effect accompanying the collapse of the British empire was similar to the frustration of the Egyptians at the failure of nationalism to achieve its promised goals. ^ The study sheds new light on cultures that have been largely ignored or misconceived in the West. The research examines the role of theatre as an agent of cultural transformation in the dramatization of both metaphysical and social concerns, by analyzing the works of four playwrights: Pinter and Stoppard represent the British situation; while Farag and Derbalah represent Egyptian drama. In four chapters, each of the various ontological concerns is analyzed in selected plays, with particular focus on: meta-drama, ritual, time, and language. These aspects are viewed by means of an eclectic methodology that issues directly from the ontological debate. Hermeneutic analysis, taawil in Arabic, is combined together with phenomenology, and reader-response theories. ^ In short, ontological concerns lurk as undercurrents in many sociopolitical issues in much contemporary British and Egyptian drama. A careful analysis of the plays reveals the palimpsestic nature of interpretation whereby sociopolitical concerns act as masks for ontological anxieties present in two disparate cultures, which none the less experience similar malaise due to historic changes in societal values and political conditions. ^