If anybody earned the title Playwright, it would be Lenin El-Ramly. People like me grew up understanding what Egyptian playwriting means through his plays. I had known about him since childhood, through a friendship between his mother and mine. His mother, the prominent journalist and feminist Soad Zoheir, had explained to us why he had that strange name. His father’s and mother’s political principles were not just an adopted ideology, but rather a whole pedagogical approach to life that eventually shaped El-Ramly’s thinking and creativity.
Ahlan Ya Bakawat
El-Ramly never gave in to commercial values in his theatrical work. Even when he was on top of his game and the number one playwright in Egyptian theatre, he always stood by his political and social values, though never making naive theatre that worked as a vehicle for propaganda but a theatre where issues of oppression were discussed and laughed at. He was an Egyptian master of comedy, and a world master of political comedy. His play You Are Free, which was banned in the 1980s, is a lesson in criticising the pedagogy of the oppressed. The main character, played by the play’s director, Mohamed Sobhy, is continuously threatened by power. He gradually becomes paralysed and unable to commit any act or practise any social or personal autonomy. His mind is a microphone of the external power that has enslaved his being and thinking. How else can a playwright embody a system of oppression?
Al-Bidaya, directed by Salah Abu Seif
Unfortunately, in a society that glorifies lead actors, El-Ramly was mostly seen as a shadow to his artistic partner Mohamed Sobhy. The many theatre productions that they created together were attributed mainly to Sobhy, at least in the eyes of the crowd. The value and merit of being the mastermind-playwright was diminished by a culture of performance where appearance on stage hides and reduces the creative process that led to the performance. As an intellectual with integrity, El-Ramly never complained or expressed bitterness. He moved on after his partnership with Sobhy ended, directing his own plays and assuming full responsibility for his ideas and principles. In Alexandria, he created his own directorial version of his acclaimed play Bel-Araby Al-Faseeh (In Classical Arabic), and continued to invest in new generations of actors while many of his better funded colleagues failed to recognise new talents. El-Ramly spent his personal earnings on producing plays not guaranteed to bring in any money. His profits were mental, not monetary.
The only Egyptian playwright who won the prestigious Prince Claus Award (Netherlands) and was present on the international theatre scene, though he never took pride in any of his achievements. He dealt with his career as work, a duty and a responsibility towards society and the Egyptian theatre to which he belongs.
It seems El-Ramly also picked the right moment to depart, though the sadness will never go away. A man of principles, integrity and a powerful mind, a man who so honourably embodied the word “playwright”, El-Ramly does not belong to today’s theatre scene, which is not the best arena for playwrights. He belongs to an Egyptian theatre of socio-political criticism, of strong artistic merit in combination with popular narratives that connect with all audiences.
Bakhit wa Adeela, directed by Nader Galal
We should all remember Lenin El-Ramly as an icon of Egyptian theatre and of Arab playwriting, he should always be celebrated as the one man who worked relentlessly to tackle the question of our own behaviour towards our oppressors, and towards understanding the value of irony and sarcasm as vital political tools to criticise social and political systems. For El-Ramly, a play could be a way to bring about a revelation about one’s own life, a comedy could very well be a form of protest and a trigger for transformation. “Laugh till you cry, and do something to change the world” might be an appropriate epitaph.
God bless the soul of the playwright.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.