Artists Mostafa and Amr Eissa have been gearing their artistic talents toward political activism of late. Last week, they showed a 20-minute play titled “On Compliance and Anger” at the Creative Youth Festival, hosted by the French Cultural Center in Mounira.
The play, which is written and directed by Mostafa, with his brother Amr working as set director, explores the status of young revolutionaries who are held back by social and political norms in Egypt.
“On Compliance and Anger” is inspired by the work of Romanian and French dramatist Eugene Ionesco, and as Mostafa explains, the play seeks to highlight the pressures placed on young people by societies living under oppressive regimes, molding them into a socially acceptable and “sane" people.
Mostafa is a political activist, and has been campaigning recently against military trials for civilians. His brother, Amr, was among those detained on 9 March when the military dispersed the Tahrir sit-in.
Amr was given a five-year sentence, which was later reduced to a one-year suspended sentence. Upon his release in late May, Amr immediately started working on the play as set director.
“Although I’d imagined concentrating on political activism after my release, I felt that I – as well as other artists – have a duty to continue making art. The cultural scene has been dominated by low-quality productions for so long,” Amr says.
In the first half of the play, Jacques, a young worker, celebrates his receipt of a new bride, a gift sent to him by the “Rule Maker”. The bride is, in fact, a naked mannequin made of fried chicken and eggs, symbolizing the primal needs for food and sex that the Eissa brothers argue are deployed by society to control individuals, along with the threat that these staples of life will be withdrawn from anyone who breaks the rules.
Along with the bride, the Rule Maker sends a young woman whose features have been blurred. The “girl”, as Mostafa names her, is a messenger delivering the gift, yet she stays to watch over Jacques, making sure he abides by the rules. Whenever he utters a forbidden word, she gives him a sharp reprehensive look, prompting him to apologize and go back to his obedient self.
“The ‘Rule Maker’ represents authority. But it’s of the worst kind, because it’s the people who force it upon themselves,” says Mostafa. For the young playwright, authority means social traditions and customs that control society and marginalize those who don’t abide by them.
With his long hair and irregular job, Mostafa has suffered from social pressures himself, an experience he reflects on through his protagonist Jacques. As Jacques repeatedly and mechanically introduces himself to his bride, he mentions his name, age and address. This is Mostafa’s comment on the way society identifies people based on their backgrounds rather than on their personalities and interests.
Like many young Egyptians, 21-year-old Mostafa has been through difficult experiences that make him feel older than his age. Again, he reflects on this through Jacques, who was born at the age of 14, making him 20 years old, but with 34 years of experience.
The play was written prior to 25 January, yet it seems to foresee a spontaneous rebellion of the oppressed.
Jacques finds a fly in his tea every morning. One day, upon seeing the fly, he transforms from a robotic and obedient person to a passionate rebel, angrily declaring his hatred for both the bride and Rule Maker, while acknowledging his love for tea. In his rant, Jacques asserts that he has feelings, yelling, “I hate, love, feel and get angry.”
The play was written with a social rather than a political meaning. However, as Mostafa looks retrospectively at the script, he draws new meanings. “The police played the role of the fly in the teacup before the revolution, causing a continuous and persistent nuisance that would inevitably lead to a rebellion,” he says.
Echoing the common belief that the rebellion of the Egyptian people has been tamed, Jacques’ outburst ends with submission to “the girl” who manages to calm him down and return him to his original state of surrender.
“As long as people are held back by a need to secure food and shelter, the revolution will never be complete,” explains Mostafa, citing the persistent call by people to end protests for fear that they endanger their livelihoods.
Simple and open to multiple interpretations, “On Compliance and Anger” reflects on the state of Egyptians at this turning point in history, caught as they are between making revolutionary reforms and preserving their daily livelihood. In the face of such a dilemma, of course, many opt for the status quo.