Risse, M. “Acting Your Way to Better Spoken English,” TESOL Arabia Conference, Dubai. March, 2007.
(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)
It is difficult to find culturally appropriate plays to teach in the ESL classroom in the Middle East, but working with plays is a beneficial way to help students improve all aspects of their language ability. When students read a play, they have the advantages of practicing reading aloud, as with any literary text, and generating questions for class discussions. Why is the character doing that? What will happen next? How will the story end?
But when reading a play, students also have the chance to practice not just vocabulary but intonation – how to modulate the voice to show emotion, i.e. more realistic target language usage. In addition, students have the chance to present parts of the play in front of the class, increasing their comfort with public speaking. Lastly, while studying a play, students can write their own dialog for the characters, imagining what a character might do or say – improving their writing ability and enhancing their creativity.
One play that I have found useful for teaching English is a translation of Princess Sunshine, by the famous Egyptian writer Tawfiq Al Hakim. This play gave my students a chance to improve their speaking, listening, reading and writing English skills while studying a fun and culturally-appropriate text. Students ended our unit by acting out, with costumes and props, memorized lines from several short scenes to the general hilarity of all involved.
Tawfiq Al Hakim was one of the most important authors in Arabic in the twentieth century, writing dozens of plays produced first in Egypt, then throughout the Arabic-speaking world. He was born in Alexandria in 1898. After earning a Bachelor’s in Law in 1925, he went to Paris to get a doctorate in law. Instead of studying and attending classes, he spent his time attending plays, circulating in the artistic milieu and writing plays and short stories. He returned to Cairo without his law degree, but with a significant exposure to Western art, which he then adapted into Egyptian culture.
At first he worked both in law, as a deputy prosecutor, and literature. When the National Theater Troupe was founded in 1935, his play The People of the Cave was the first production (“Tawfiq al-Hakim,” 2006). In 1954 he was elected as a member of the Arabic Language Academy, more honors followed until his death in 1987. Naguib Mahfouz, who counted him as a friend for 40 years, said that al-Hakim “was the first Egyptian to become a professional writer” (Mahfouz, 1998). Al Hakim is said to have introduced dialog and diary writing into Arabic literature and in the words of one article “made the play a literary work read for its own sake, not just for acting” – his term was “the theater of ideas” (“Tawfiq al-Hakim,” n.d.).
Although he wrote many plays, I have found a translation of Princess Sunshine to be the best-suited for the ESL classroom. Some of the plays are based on surah from the Qu’ran, such as The People of the Cave (1933); some are reactions to contemporary events in Egypt, such as Soft Hands (1954), and thus would require more religious or historical information. Some plays deal with controversial subjects, such as Death Song (1956), about a family who are waiting for the oldest son to return home to carry out an honor killing (“Tawfiq al-Hakim,” 2006).
Princess Sunshine, however, has an easy plot, fairly simple English, many repeated words, and a theme which captured my students’ imagination. I taught the play in an “Introduction to Literature” class which covered this play, 10 poems, and three short stories.
As the play opens, we find ourselves in the realm of the fairy-tale. The sultan wants his youngest daughter to marry a wealthy prince; her two older sisters have already made “good” matches to wealthy noblemen. Sunshine refuses and insists on making her own choice of husband; in fact, she wants to interview all the suitors herself. The sultan and his vizier comically try to dissuade her. They fail but get her to agree to a caveat that the men who fail the interview will be whipped.
Many suitors appear, fail and are lashed. Then a suitor comes who promises that if Sunshine marries him, he will obey her “every request” (1981, p. 180). Sunshine replies:
God’s will be done indeed. This is very lovely. I order and am obeyed. I request and my request is honored.
Suitor: Whatever the request may be. I have much gold. It will all be spread at your feet. I will make happiness like a pillow under your heard. Felicity will waft over you like a fan of ostrich feathers.
Sunshine: My goodness!
Sultan: Really this is splendid.
Vizier: Very splendid.
Sultan: Now… what is your decision?
Sunshine: Lash him!
Sultan: What are you saying?
Sunshine: Lash him! (1981, p. 181)
This passage is a good introduction to the play. It shows the frequent repetition of words (“request,” “splendid,” “lash”); the short, staccato pace; and the sense of humor. In terms of reading, the students felt comfortable with the short lines. Looking at a long paragraph, they shied away from volunteering but they were happy to read these rapid dialogs, even if they ended up reading as many words as a full paragraph. The format, i.e. the placement of the words on the page, looks less intimidating so students are more relaxed.
In terms of plot, the students found the sultan’s puzzlement at his daughter’s strange refusal amusing. Some agreed with the sultan – what more could a person want than a spouse who promises to obey every request? Other students thought the suitor was “boring” and not right for Sunshine, which led to a discussion of who a good suitor for the princess might be.
The next suitor promises to place Sunshine in his eye. She answers, “Do you think your eye is large enough for me for a fit residence for me? Look at me closely. I am not a grain of sand or dust that you can stick in your eye” (1981, p. 182). He is lashed.
The third suitor, in typical fairy tale fashion, is different. He has an attitude. When she inquires about his name, he replies “Moonlight.” She then asks, “Is this your real name?” He answers, “And you? Sunshine?… Is this your real name? If you are the sun of the day, then I am the moon of the age” (1981, p. 186). When she wants to know what he will “do with her” if they get married, he says “What will I do with you? I won’t do anything with you. You are the one who will act on yourself and for yourself. What are you good at?” (1981, p. 186).
We expect this sort of verbal sparring, in the manner of Beatrice and Benedict in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, but then the plot takes an unexpected turn. When Sunshine agrees to marry Moonlight, he says he is not yet a man, therefore he can not marry. His solution is that she must make a man out of him, something that is not possible in a castle. Therefore, the two of them must leave the castle. And because a man and a woman can not travel together, she must dress as a man. Sunshine agrees and walks off with Moonlight, to her father and the vizier’s consternation. This is the point where class discussion took off. Should she leave the castle? Should she dress as a man? What will happen next?
At the beginning of Act Two, the two travelers come to a small brook and decide to halt for dinner. There is the expected scene in which the princess, who has always lived in a castle, has to learn to make her own dinner, but there is an intellectual twist in that Moonlight is not only demonstrating the need for self-sufficiency (he teaches her to catch fish) but a more subtle lesson: to only take what you need. While Sunshine is fishing, he approaches a near-by apple tree musing:
One apple for you and one for me. No, this is not enough. Two apples for you and two for me. Yes, this is reasonable. I will harvest four apples…no more and no less. Shaking the branches is a wasteful approach, for one more might fall off than we need. So I must pick them on at a time… attentively and carefully… Like this… and this… (1981, p. 198)
When Sunshine goes to gather flowers to “set the table,” Moonlight says “pick only as many as are needed! No more and no less” (200). Moonlight then scolds her when she brings back too many. She decides to toss the extra flowers away and he lectures that the flower was “on its stalk enjoying the sun…then you came and plucked away its life without it serving any mission” (200). Every living object, according to Moonlight, has a mission which must be respected, not wasted.
Moonlight can be a little tendentious but the play makes an interesting point – rather like with Bertolt Brecht, you always feel that you are watching a play which examines a theoretical stance. My students liked the idea of using only as many apples/ fish/ flowers as you might need. I liked that they were able to understand both the plot action and the theme.
The arc of the play now seems set: Sunshine will learn to live in the “real world,” self-reliant and self-restrained, but there is another unexpected twist: two embezzlers sneak onto the stage and set about burying their loot. As Sunshine is dressed as a man, Moonlight convinces her that they must do the correct thing and arrest them. They try to convince the robbers to give up the gold for “the jewels which are worn inside,” i.e. honor (211). The treasury inspector and his aide laugh them off so Sunlight and Moonlight decide to bind their hands. When the robbers promise to not try to run away, Moonlight agrees not to tie them up, instead he begins to teach them the same lesson about self-control.
Moonlight: Here’s the tree! Each of you can have two apples.
Inspector: Two apples!
Aide: Just two?
Moonlight: That is all. This is the reasonable quantity for the stomach. The stomach is comfortable when the quantity is appropriate.
Aide: But I’m not comfortable.
Moonlight: Your stomach is more intelligent than you are.
Inspector: There are many apples on the tree.
Sunshine: Everything must fit in its place.
Inspector: Like putting the bag [of gold back] in the treasury. (1981, p. 216)
This passage shows Sunshine’s acceptance and understanding of Moonlight’s ideas, as she takes part in teaching the robbers. Also, it is a good place for students to practice intonation: Moonlight sounding strict, the inspector’s surprise, the aide’s plaintive “just two?” and Sunshine’s firm retort.
The third act begins with a dialog that is similar to the play’s opening, Prince Hamdan and his attendant are musing over their problems. The country is going to ruin because no one is taking responsibility for their work; cheating, robbing and embezzling are running rampant. In addition, Prince Hamdan is in love with the mysterious Princess Sunshine who he has heard so much about.
Moonlight and Sunshine, still dressed as man, enter and hand over the sack of gold. The robbers have broken their word and ran off but the two honest people have decided to return the gold anyways. The prince calls his treasurer and the guard; both men declare nothing is missing. Upon further questioning, it becomes clear that everyone has been robbing Prince Hamdan’s treasury; in fact, everything in the country, even down to the street lamps, is being stolen. The prince is in despair when the two robbers, the treasury inspector and his aide, are announced. They have come back on their own accord to face their punishment.
Moonlight’s lesson about responsibility did have an effect. The robbers agree to work in the stables as their punishment. The play now appears over, but the Prince asks Moonlight where they are from. When he finds out they worked (as Moonlight lies) in the castle of Princess Sunshine, the prince betrays his interest and starts to question them about her.
My students really enjoyed this exchange as the prince begins by demanding Sunshine (now called “Moonbeam”) act as a servant, but she uses his desire for the unknown Princess to teach him a lesson.
Prince: Carry my cloak, Moonbeam, and follow me.
Sunshine: Carry it yourself, your Majesty.
Prince: What did you say?
Sunshine: I said you should carry your cloak yourself.
Prince: Do you say this to me, Moonbeam?
Attendant: Did he say this to his Majesty the Prince?
Sunshine: Yes, because I want the prince to be a perfect man.
Prince: How’s that? What’s this talk?
Sunshine: A person who takes care of himself is more perfect. A person who requires another to do what he can is lacking.
Prince: Reasonable talk…but…
Sunshine: So long as it is reasonable, why don’t you act on it?
Prince: Carry my cloak myself?
Sunshine: Why not?
Prince: This is something I’m not accustomed to…
Sunshine: Learn how!
Prince: The cloak is light in any case, but this will set a precedent for other things.
Sunshine: Of course. If you say to me: “Give me a drink!”
Prince: You will say to me: “Get up and pour it yourself.”
Sunshine: Exactly. (1981, p. 239)
A few lines later, Sunshine says bluntly, “Sunshine does not want a defective man” (1981, p. 239). At the end of the play, Sunshine, now dressed as a woman, Moonlight and Prince Hamdan are outside, traveling back to the princess’s country. Prince Hamdan has started to learn the lessons of self-reliance and self-restraint, then comes the final question. Should Sunshine marry Moonlight, as they are now clearly in love, or the prince?
Sunshine wants to marry Moonlight, but he explains, “you should follow the same path as Hamdan…to return to your country and work to reform it” (1981, p. 250). When she asks “And our happiness?”, he replies, “Let’s think of the happiness of others” (1981, p. 250). She resists but eventually agrees to leave him for a life of service with Prince Hamdan. Her words are more tender, more longing than his and it appears that her affection for him is stronger than his for her; yet, the stage directions signal that as she walks off without looking back, he stands and watches her until she is gone. It is a wonderful scene to discuss with students how words convey emotions, but one must also look at characters’ actions to understand their emotions.
But the surprise is that, after the play was produced, “It was thought that the end should be changed to unite the two resolute lovers” so Al Hakim wrote another ending (1981, p. 299). In the second ending, the Prince and Moonlight come to blows over Sunshine. When she intervenes to explain to the Prince that Moonlight is the love of her life, he sadly acquiesces and leaves. Thus, you can choose which ending to read with your students. Or use both. My class was fascinated that a play could end two different ways and actively discussed which ending was “better.”
To briefly compare Princess Sunshine to other plays I have used, in another version of the same class, I taught The Importance of Being Ernest. In some ways Ernest was easier because of the humor. I cut out the opening scene and started with Algernon and Jack arguing about the cigarette case. The students were instantly captivated – who had given Jack the case? Who was Cecily? We then moved to the scene in the country between Cecily and Gwendolyn. My students understood the two girls “politely” fighting and had a great time reading the scene out loud. But some students complained that the story was about “bad people”; they asked me why we were reading about men who lied and women who did not behave well.
The issue didn’t split the class in two but it certainly created some tension between one camp saying “this is not good literature because it is not serious” and the other side saying “lighten up.” We had some good conversations about the definition of good literature and everyone was relieved that there was a “proper” ending. I also think talking about the movie, which shows up now and then on Channel 2, helped. Having a movie validates a book I have found, but some students were still unsatisfied.
“You are not supposed to read about bad people” was a line I heard several times. I think the reception depends a lot on how conservative your students are, how much Western literature students have been exposed to, and how willing they are to try something new. I would say Ernest evoked more emotion – both positive and negative, while Sunshine had universal, temperate approval.
I have also tried using the first act of Pygmalion in English classes in the Middle East. That play did not work at all. I thought the idea of someone learning English might be interesting but there were “too many words”: long pieces of dialog that lost my students. The theme of class structure being tied to accent did not resonate. The scene in which Mr. Doolittle basically tries to sell his daughter didn’t strike my students as either comic or horrifying; the class was simply confused.
In conclusion, I have found plays a very effective tool in the English language classroom. My students have really enjoyed the chance to discuss, to write dialog and to “act” in front of their classmates. I have enjoyed the improvements in their idiomatic spoken and written English
Al-Hakim, Tawfiq. (1981). Plays, prefaces and postscripts of Tawfiq al-Hakim: Theater of the mind (pp. 173-251) (Vol. 1). (W. Hutchins, Trans.). Washington, D.C.: Three Continent Press.
Mahfouz, Naguib. (1998, October 8-14). Playing with Narrative Style. Al-Ahram, 398. Retrieved January 12, 2007, from http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1998/398/cu4.htm
Tawfiq al-Hakim. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2007, from http://culture.infomideast.com/ tawfiq.html
Tawfiq Al-Hakim. (2005, August 24). Modern Arab Writers. Retrieved January 12, 2007, from http://www.al-bab.com/arab/literature/hakim.htm
Tawfiq al-Hakim. (2006, December 2). Wikipedia. Retrieved January 16, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tawfiq_alHakim.html