Arabian Nights, Story Telling and The Magic of Theater

The dying firelight dances on the cave wall. A candle pierces the darkness. The nightlight is flicked on in a child’s room. Someone says, “Let me tell you a story,” and the magic begins. When Shahrazad says this to the troubled king, she begins to restore his humanity and melt the ice that has encased his heart – to make him, “not as alone” as he believes. 

Storytelling is the essence of humanity. We are our stories. Stories contain the surprises, the tensions, the disappointments and the achievements of our lives and are as real as actual experience. Stories have always been a primal form of communication – timeless links to ancient traditions, legends, archetypes, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and to universal truths. Storytelling is as old as humanity and as universal.

Storytelling may have its roots, at least in part, in the most ancient and universal of human experiences – our mistakes. There are scholars who believe that storytelling had its beginnings with the hunter who returned empty-handed. The need to explain about the bison not killed, or the spear that just missed that giant elk (through no fault of the hunter himself, naturally) may be the most ancient of tales.  The 17,000 year-old paintings on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France may be the oldest story illustrations – meant to help the hunter tell the tale of “the one that got away.”

By 2000 BC, our ancestors had settled into a more sedentary lifestyle. The birth of agriculture itself gave birth to more time – time to tell stories. Four thousand years ago, Sumerians wrote the first epic, Gilgamesh. Chinese and Indian societies were writing down stories not long after they were first created.

While Europe struggled through the Dark Ages, the Middle East was experiencing a glorious renaissance equal to any in human history. The tales that comprise Arabian Nights had their origins in this era. The earliest of the stories date to about the early 8th century and come from India and Persia, with the earliest translations into Arabic taking place soon thereafter under the title Alf Layla or “The Thousand Nights.” By the ninth and tenth centuries, there were added Arabian stories, and the first collection, called the Fihirst, was made by Ibn al-Nadim, in Baghdad.

Al-Nadim is the first to provide the frame story of the tales – that of the despondent king ordering the execution of a succession of wives after their wedding night until one, Shahrazad, has the wit and intelligence to save herself by telling a story every night and providing a “cliff-hanger” until the next, thus delaying her demise. It is generally believed that this story frame is Persian in its origins. Interestingly, the original compilation contained only two hundred stories. It isn’t until the 19th century, and the collaboration between Maxmilian Habicht and Murad Al-Najjar, that we reach the total of 1,001 stories, compiled to add authenticity to the works’ title.

These 1,001 stories were published in eight volumes, and by the time Dominic Cooke began his research for the play Arabian Nights, he used as his source the eighteen-volume set at the British Library.  (Cooke admits that the adaptation process in creating this “family-friendly” version was daunting: “there was so much to choose from that I wanted to do an adult version, but got distracted!”) So, at least some of them were quite lengthy. But there is a huge variety in the stories – some of them comprising only a few lines. More importantly, the stories vary greatly also in theme, subject matter and style. They include the whole of storytelling: fables, romances, parables and legends. And they explore the essence of humanity – from the earthy and ridiculous (How Abu Hassan Broke Wind) to the epic and redemptive (The Story of the Envious Sisters).

The stories of Arabian Nights have been likened to a precious jewel that, when it comes into contact with people, actually changes them, in the same way that King Shahryar is changed. This “jewel” is really the art of storytelling itself – the great sense of adventure, truth, fantastic imagination, justice and faith embodied by the great civilizations that contributed stories and ideas to the collection.

What is it that makes the stories of Arabian Nights, and all great storytelling, so transformative? It must have something to do with the shared experience of being human – that even though the tales of Arabian Nights were collected long ago by people of vastly different cultures, the essence of their humanity comes echoing down through the centuries and across the barriers of place. One of the most famous and successful of modern storytellers, J.K. Rowling, pointed to this shared sense of humanity in a commencement address at Harvard a few years ago:

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Arabian Nights works on another level as well, the shared experience of hearing a story together, which is the essence of theater. While we might recognize ourselves in the stories, we also have the experience of sharing that sense of recognition with others and, as Steinbeck noted, we come to the realization that we are not as alone we sometimes believe. Not only are we not alone when we discover a world of shared humanity, but we also get to make the discovery in the presence of others, something the written word alone can never achieve.

That’s part of the reason that Arabian Nights works so well in the theater; it brings us into the world of our commonality. And the theatrical version of the stories has a magic of its own, bringing the stories to life in front of us; not supplanting the use of our individual imagination, but enhancing it with the delight of theatrical magic. Puppets, fanciful costumes, actors changing character in an instant, all of these can be enchanting moments that reinforce and enhance the transformative power of the stories.

So Arabian Nights, with all due apologies to Candide, might be the best of all possible worlds. Rich, imaginative stories from a world of myths and legends coupled with the delight of the theatrical experience to fire our imagination and deepen the bond of common humanity. Through this experience, we can also, like King Shahryar, find ourselves and our place in the world. As noted by the famous mythologist, Joseph Campbell:

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us – the labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

By David Allen, Manager of Artistic Operations