QORNET SHEHWAN, Lebanon: Raymond Gebara is one of the country’s most distinguished playwrights, an observer and critic of Lebanon – a country, he says, full of “thieves and liars” – which has been his main source of inspiration.
As a professor of fine arts at the Lebanese University, Gebara has worked with several actors who have since risen to the firmament of Lebanon’s stage and screen.
Though he says he doesn’t “take part in any political parties,” Gebara is also recognized for his satirical political columns in Al-Nahar newspaper, and in March 2012 the municipality of Gebara’s hometown of Qornet Shehwan paid a tribute to his career.
Though his physical stature is nowadays diminished due to hemiplegia (a disease that induces paralysis), Gebara’s wit is still vigorous and his opinions still cut a wide swath through the country’s arts scene.
The playwright spoke to The Daily Star while preparing to direct Antoine Ghandour’s impending play “We Offer You a Nation,” which is due to be performed at the Casino du Liban. The play tells the story of Patriarch Elias Howayek – the Maronite cleric who some regard to be the father of modern Lebanon.
Q: Why did you return to writing plays after your long years of “abstinence?”
A: During the Civil War I wrote plays. I have written 13-14 plays. I never stopped writing.
Q: What’s the difference between writing a newspaper column and writing a play?
A: There is not a lot of difference. There is always theater in my articles. I don’t deal with theater but there is always a sum of theater in them.
Q: Do you feel your political positions have prevented your art from reaching a wider public?
A: Official censorship is good. But now ... there is censorship from the fanatical parties. I know a stage director who had to stop his play because he was threatened.
When we had a state and a government, there was a possibility to present things. I showed a play on Abraham and Isaac. Abraham takes his son to sacrifice him to God. He tells his son, “Put your head here.” [gesturing to his lap] God then tells him, “No, don’t kill him. I’ll give you a sheep to sacrifice.”
Abraham waits for God to say something. He looks at the audience and says, “Do you think he didn’t hear me?” and he says [to God] “Oh! I am here!” No one answers.
“Do you think he changed places?” Then God tells [Abraham] “Slay him.” Abraham answers, “But we agreed you had a sheep for me?” [God] comes down on the stage in a big basket and says, “If I had one, I would have eaten it myself.” [Gebara laughs] I can’t do this play now.
Q: What is your opinion of Lebanese theater?
A: In general it is commercial theater and it is sometimes stupid. There are students who study theater in universities who have valuable plays, but they don’t come from theatrical families.
Q: Would you change anything about Lebanese theater?
A: Each person has his/her own style. The old generation used to tell me, “You’re crazy” When I showed [one of my plays], Roger Assaf said, “Gebara changed all the data.”
Because I didn’t study theater, I do theater how I feel it. I don’t imitate anyone. The first thing I teach my students is to never imitate. I put a ladder against a wall and tell a student to go up that ladder. He goes up. Then, I ask another student to go further up. He climbs [the ladder] and asks, “How can I go further [than him]?” I tell him, “You can’t. You need another ladder.”
We should never copy. [It’s like] these young girls who get a nose job. They all look alike.
Q: What are the key facets of theater?
A: Theater should not be a manifesto for political parties. The function of theater is to move people’s conscience. Many who watch a play forget it as soon as they leave the venue. For mine, they never forget.
I did a play about the Civil War but indirectly, about mankind. A militia chief [later] told me, “I saw your play, but I didn’t understand a thing. I did not sleep for two weeks!” I told him, “That’s good!” ... My plays make people think but not with a direct text. I throw ideas out and leave the spectator free [to interpret them].
[Lebanese] plays all play the national anthem at the beginning. I don’t have it. We need to keep the atmosphere, just like when we go somewhere to pray.
Q: What are the criteria of a good play?
A: When there aren’t a lot of spectators, it means the play is good. The Lebanese audience likes stupidity and national slogans. Someone who sees my plays is disturbed. Lebanese don’t like to be disturbed.
A doctor who earns $1,000 per day won’t go to the theater to think. He’ll go there to laugh. I could go [find] an Egyptian at a gas station, say, “give him $100 and ask him to make people laugh.” For me, this isn’t theater. I have a special audience for Raymond Gebara’s plays. I do theater for them.
Q: During an interview in this newspaper some time ago, [Lebanese actress] Julia Kassar said that when you write a play, you imagine her, Gabriel Yammine, Rifaat Torbey and Antoine Achkar playing the roles. Why?
A: Because they were my students at the university. I don’t write like Arab playwrights. To write a play, you have to write from the [character’s perspective]. When you read a play, you have the character’s name on the side. If you hide this name, it is a man who is talking. It isn’t the character talking, but the author. This is why there are no good playwrights.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
A: I am ... a mountain of regrets. It is because I think the human condition is not good. Civilization, or what we call civilization, is wrong. In the prehistoric age, when they were afraid of a wolf or a wild beast, they used to light a fire [to frighten it off]. Now, we cannot do anything about this fear, because this fear of wolves is in our veins.
I think fear is worse than death. During the wars, those who were shot dead in the head were better off than the kidnapped. These people knew fear, which is worse than death.