Although Arab theatre - in the sense of stage plays - did not develop until the 19th century, the region has other dramatic traditions dating back hundreds of years. These include puppetry, storytelling and Ta'ziyah - a type of religious passion play performed in Shi'a communities.
For a variety of reasons, including censorship, theatre has never become an especially popular art form in the Arab countries and the limited number of theatres has led to the development of theatrical troupes who travel in search of audiences.
Probably the best history of Arab theatre available online is by Roger Allen, extracted from "An Introduction to Arabic Literature" (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Khayal al-zill ( "shadows of the imagination" or "shadows of fancy") was a popular form of puppetry in medieval Cairo. The plays could be simple or elaborate, serious or farcical, and were appreciated by all classes.
One of the key figures in shadow puppetry was the Iraqi-born poet/playwright Ibn Daniyal (died 1311), three of whose plays survive.
Shadows of fancy
Shadow theatre in old Cairo, and a modern revival. By John Feeney (Saudi Aramco World, March-April, 1999).
Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation
Based in Lebanon, the Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation functions as a puppetry school and theatre. It is a non-profit organisation founded in 2008 with the mission "to encourage puppetry practices throughout the Arab world, advance new developments in the field".
Widespread illiteracy led to the development of oral folk literature throughout the Middle East in which professional storytellers recounted popular tales - often adding individual touches in the hope of collecting more money from their audience. Some story-tellers would accompany themselves on musical instruments or make dramatic gestures at appropriate points in the tale.
The last hakawati
Barbara Nimri Aziz visits a surviving storyteller in old Damascus
Ta'ziyah (or Ta'ziyeh) is usually described as a passion play. It is performed in Shi'a communities during the month of Muharram to commemorate the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussain, at the battle of Karbala in AD 680.
"During the first nine days, religious notables recite, with great emotion, details from Hussain's life, while groups of men dance wildly in the streets inflicting wounds upon themselves with chains. On the tenth day, a symbolic coffin is carried in procession, followed by horses, bloodied men, and a steed representing Hussain's war-horse. The long performance, consisting of some forty to fifty scenes, is introduced by lamentations chanted by a male choir, answered by the mourning wail of a female choir." - The Mewar Encyclopedia.
Ta'ziyah has not always been regarded favourably by the authorities, since Hussain ccan be regarded as the spiritual leader of the dispossessed.
Report on a modern version of Ta'ziyeh staged in Rome (The Guardian, 14 July, 2003)
Birth of Arab theatre
Beginnings in Syria and Egypt
By Roger Allen
Beginnings elsewhere in the Arab world
By Roger Allen
Playwright extraordinaire (al-bab)
Theatre in the Arab world
A collection of articles on the qantara.de website
Middle Eastern drama
(Drama Online Library)
An online journal "devoted to broadening international awareness and understanding of the theatre and performance cultures of the Arab-Islamic world and of its diaspora".
Acclaimed Palestinian theatre in Jerusalem risks closure
Reuters, 27 November 2015
Cultures and Cockroaches
A review of Tawfiq Hakim's Fate of a Cockroach by Pat McDonnell Twair
Theater traditions of the desert lands
"The stage play is almost a newcomer to the Middle East, but a rich theatrical tradition is not." (Saudi Aramco World, May/June 1964)
The Ashtar School for Theater Education and Training in East Jerusalem. By Annette Kramer (Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1995)
Under the Big Top in Cairo
The Egyptian National Circus, by John Feeney
The oldest independent theatrical group in Egypt
Article about the Palestinian theatrical group by Hadani Ditmars (New Middle East magazine)