The Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights

Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman
Adapted from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night
Translated by Powys Mathers
Special Presentation · Thrust Stage
December 11–30, 2010

Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

Two seasons ago, Arabian Nights inspired nightly standing ovations and whoops and hollers from Berkeley Rep audience members. Now the show returns for a special, ultra-limited holiday engagement December 11–30. Director Mary Zimmerman, the remarkable Tony Award-winning creator of Argonautika and Metamorphoses, once again breathes new life into the legend of the 1,001 nights. To save her life, a beautiful bride must spin hypnotic tales of genies, jesters, thieves and kings—winning her freedom by eventually winning her husband’s heart. He falls under Scheherazade’s spell, and Zimmerman enchants the audience as well with her signature style that transforms simplicity into the sublime. Amid a thousand tales of honor, revenge and humor, only love emerges victorious. Calling Arabian Nights one of 2008’s best shows, Robert Hurwitt raved in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Zimmerman and her cast transport the audience through hilarious and poignant tales of greed, sex and revenge, each tale opening into another and another, to a lingering, redemptive and provocative end.”

Creative team

Mary Zimmerman · Writer and Director
Heidi Stillman · Assistant Director
Daniel Ostling · Scenic Design
Mara Blumenfeld · Costume Design
Andre Pluess & The Lookingglass Ensemble · Original Composition & Sound Design
T.J. Gerckens · Lighting Design
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager
Stephanie Klapper · Casting
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Tyler Albright · Assistant to Ms. Klapper
Lauren O’Connell · Assistant to Ms. Klapper
Alec Bernstein · Assistant to T.J. Gerckens


Barzin Akhavan · Harun al-Rashid / Others
Terence Archie · Greengrocer / Robber / Others
David DeSantos · King Shahryar
Minita Gandhi · Slave GIrl / Others
Allen Gilmore · Scheherezade’s Father / Ishak of Mosul / Others
Susaan Jamshidi · Butcher / Sympathy the Learned / Others
Ronnie Malley · Poor Man / Musician / Others
Luis Moreno · Clarinetist / Sage / Others
Jonathan Raviv · Madman / Others
Maureen Sebastian · Dunyazade / Azizah / Others
Nicole Shalhoub · Perfect Love / The Other Woman / Others
Louis Tucci · Jafar / Sheik al-Fadl / Others
Stacey Yen · Scheherezade
Evan Zes · Sheik al-Islam / Abu al-Hasan / Others

“A spectacular retelling of the old ‘1,001 nights’ tales staged so wonderfully well that you feel better off just to have been in the theater that night. This rare and breathtaking piece of theater made it into my all-time Top 10 list maybe 15 minutes after it started, and it just kept climbing the chart as its 2 1/2-hour production flew along.”—Contra Costa Times

“Zimmerman and her cast transport the audience through hilarious and poignant tales of greed, sex and revenge, each tale opening into another and another, to a lingering, redemptive and provocative end.”—San Francisco Chronicle

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One Thousand and One Nights

The endless unfolding of a living document

By Alex Rosenthal

Dawn is deadly for Scheherezade. The sun’s rising each day marks the scheduled hour of her execution, which she can only defer with one tool: the cliffhanger. This device saves Scheherezade repeatedly, and in the process buys her the time she needs to spin together the story she will tell the following night. In this way she creates the series of stories collectively known as The Arabian Nights. These stories have been translated and adapted scores of times over the last millennium. In fact, the history of The Arabian Nights is as full of twists as the narratives within its pages. But the original collection and its subsequent retellings would have never held together without a binding frame story, which Scheherezade’s predicament has provided for the entertainment of countless cultures and generations.

The basic frame story is as follows: King Shahryar, having walked in on his wife in the throes of passion with another man, has begun marrying a virgin every night and killing her the next morning to ensure he’ll never be betrayed again. When it is Scheherezade’s turn, she devises a plan to save herself and the country’s dwindling population of virgins. She will tell the king a series of sexy, magical, action-packed stories and be sure to leave off at crucial moments, thereby forcing Shahryar to keep her alive for one more day so that he can satiate his burning need for resolution. Scheherezade has everything riding on the success her stories; if she loses Shahryar’s interest or finishes a story too soon, her life is forfeit.

Scheherezade’s conundrum dates back over a thousand years, and, much like Homer’s Odyssey and other classical works, finds its origins in an oral storytelling tradition. This makes it essentially impossible to trace a particular story within the collection of The Arabian Nights to its inception. However, one of the first recorded references to Scheherezade’s story was found in the writings of 10th century Arab historians. They described collections of stories, framed by Scheherezade and broken into divisions of nights, much like The Arabian Nights which we are familiar with. These early collections, which have since been lost, provided the foundation for a 13th century document from the vicinity of Syria and Egypt, which is the definitive ancestor of what we have today. In the centuries since the publication of this document, the collection that is The Arabian Nights has accrued stories from a variety of cultures in a sort of literary snowball effect.

This accumulation of stories began when the meaning of the title was lost in translation. Originally, “a thousand and one” translated to an uncountable number, such as we might say “infinity plus one” today. In actuality, the 13th century document had far fewer than a thousand and one nights’ worth of stories. When the text was copied and translated into later editions, popular outcry rang out for a full body of text with the promised quantity of tales. This demand compelled the authors to add tales from Indian, Persian, Turkish and other oral and literary traditions. The frequently adapted tale of Sinbad the Sailor is one of these late additions. Of perhaps even more dubious origin is the story of Aladdin, which purportedly was one of the original Arabian Nights stories. However, Aladdin did not appear in print until the first European translation of The Arabian Nights was written by Antoine Galland in early 18th century France. Galland claims to have heard the story from a Syrian storyteller, but some critics contend that he may have fabricated the tale himself, making Aladdin French in origin. Translators in various western cultures continued the tradition of cutting and adding stories to fit their needs and audiences, thus contributing to the colorful pastiche of anecdotes, moral tales and lascivious encounters that comprise most modern editions of The Arabian Nights.

The historical continuum of fascination with these stories begs the question: why do people keep returning to them across generational and cultural lines? Husain Haddawy, translator of a recent edition of The Arabian Nights, suggests that their original purpose was as “a collection of tales told to produce aesthetic pleasure in the Arabic reader.” This notion of the tales as providing pleasurable entertainment is a primary attraction of the text shared by readers across history. The stories are delightfully fun; each provides a rollercoaster ride of descriptive passages that build tension and heighten anticipation interspersed with thrilling freefalls of heroic exploits and adventures. Action unfolds with magical twists and emotional reveals on top of humorous and often sexual situations. And there is a pervading feeling of constant unfolding: everything and everyone has a story to tell, each more wondrous than the last, until we find ourselves in a frame within a frame within a frame within a frame, every level commenting and interacting with the others. Scheherezade is, after all, quite good at her job, and manages to ensnare her king and reader in the same tantalizing web of stories.

People keep coming back to these tales for more than just the thrill of the ride, however. For 18th and 19th century European readers, much of the appeal came from a fascination with the Eastern “other.” One of the primary Victorian translators of the text, Edward Lane, proffered the work as a travel guide to Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, supposedly providing an accurate account of both the contemporary Middle East and the original period of the tales. In this way the Nights was used to exotify the social values and customs of Eastern culture. In contrast, other works inspired by The Arabian Nights such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories employ the stories as a lens through which cultures may examine themselves. Poe’s story comments on the technological boons of the industrial revolution, and Rushdie’s is an analogy for present-day India. There are also instances of the tales being used as a vehicle with which to stereotype another culture; look no further than Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves for an example.

The richness of the stories and the compelling nature of their structure have inspired many adaptations, and the versatility of the text has given artists a great deal to explore and expand upon. Into this mix of narrative and historical frames comes Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights, a dramatization of a select few of the hundreds of stories which have come to be associated with the complete canon in its variety of manifestations. In a way, the history of The Arabian Nights has turned it into a living document, one that encourages artists to engage with it as participants and become folded up in its pages. The adaptor takes on qualities of both Shahryar, the listener, and Scherezade, the storyteller. As Shahryar, the adaptor must first soak in the existing stories as told by prior generations of authors and translators, all the while demanding reasons to continue the collection’s life. Then, as Scheherezade, the adaptor seeks to entertain and enlighten her audience with something new and pertinent to them.

Zimmerman fills the role of adaptor by bringing a new dimension of life to the text. Present here are the narrative frames, the love-addled characters, the wind-swept deserts and the flowing verses that make the original document instantly recognizable. Layered on top of this are sensory experiences which provoke the imagination in ways that only live theatre can achieve. For instance, in the original document, the text reminds us that every morning Shahryar intends to kill Scheherezade but holds off in order to hear the end of her story. Zimmerman, however, actually shows Shahryar pressing a dagger to Scheherezade’s throat, adding a sense of immediacy and visceral danger. Throughout the play, live music and physical movements supplement the textual rhythms and repetitions already present. Flurries of activity and explosions of color assault the senses and remind us that this is a present and animate storytelling event, not one securely bound in dusty tomes.

As a living collection, storytellers have carried The Arabian Nights down the road from its oral origins to this production today, half a world and many centuries away. When we see Mary Zimmerman and her actors taking up the storytelling mantle, our lives briefly intersect this bustling, magical, timeless thoroughfare. We encounter a world that is both foreign and recognizable at the same time—a product of distant cultures from different ages, with emotions and themes that are so intrinsically human that they speak immediately and directly to us. This unfamiliar familiarity gives us the gift of perspective and reminds us that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. We are citizens of the world and participants in history, inhabitants of an interconnected global community.

One thousand and one adaptations

The hundreds of stories contained within The Arabian Nights have inspired many artists to create adaptations in a wide variety of media. A number of prominent poets, novelists and playwrights have put their own spin on the narratives, characters and world of the Nights, while others have simply taken inspiration from the collection.

Prominent translations

  • 1704—Antoine Galland (French)
  • 1814—British East India Company (Arabic)
  • 1835—Bulaq version (Arabic)
  • 1838—Torrens (English)
  • 1838–1840—Edward William Lane (English)
  • 1882–1884—John Payne (English)
  • 1885–1888—Sir Richard Francis Burton (English)
  • 1889–1904—J. C. Mardrus (French)
  • 1984—Muhsin Mahdi (Arabic)
  • 1990s—Husain Haddawy (English)

Selected literature

  • John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and The Tidewater Tales
  • Jason Grote, 1001
  • O. Henry, A Bird of Bagdad and A Night in New Arabia
  • Robert Irwin, Night and Horses and the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature
  • Naguib Mahfouz , Arabian Nights and Days
  • Nathalie Mallet, The Princes Of The Golden Cage
  • Vera Nazarian, Dreams of the Compass Rose
  • Edgar Allan Poe, The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade
  • Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

Other authors who have cited The Arabian Nights as an influence include

  • Jorge Luis Borges
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Charles Dickens
  • H.P. Lovecraft
  • Sir Walter Scott

Selected film and television

  • The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
  • Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926)
    The oldest surviving feature-length animated film
  • Chu-Chin-Chow (1934)
  • Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936)
  • The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
    Remake of 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad
  • Kismet (1944)
    There have been numerous versions and remakes of this film
  • Sinbad the Sailor (1947)
  • Thief of Damascus (1952)
  • Babes in Bagdad (1952)
  • Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs (1954)
  • The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
  • 1,001 Arabian Nights (1959)
  • Il Ladro di Bagdad (1961)
    Remake of 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad
  • Volshebnaya lampa Aladdina (1966)
  • Le Amorose Notti di Ali Baba (1973)
  • Arabian Naitsu: Shinbaddo no Bôken (1975)
  • Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
  • Les 1,001 Nuits (1990)
  • Aladdin (1992)
  • The Return of Jafar (1994)
  • Scooby-Doo in Arabian Nights (1994)
  • Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1995)

Five Questions for Mary Zimmerman on The Arabian Nights

What first drew you to this particular collection of stories?

I created the first production of The Arabian Nights with the Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago in 1992, in the shadow of the first Gulf War. The project was inspired in particular by two things I saw on television: one was a military official boasting that we would bomb Iraq “back to the Stone Age”; the other was a report on the nightly news concerning infant mortality in the Middle East. The gist of this report was that women over there had a whole lot of children and expected to lose a few along the way—the implication being that an Iraqi mother would somehow experience the death of her child less acutely than, say, oneself.

Are you saying that you believe certain feelings are universal, or perhaps that we share an essential common humanity?

It is a precondition of war that we view other people as fundamentally different from ourselves; it is a precondition of literature that we view other people as fundamentally the same. All my life I’ve found myself in the ancient stories of faraway places, and I’ve always drawn comfort from the feeling “it was ever thus” with all of us: that we will experience violent change and loss; that we will look for love and betray it; that we will make errors, both serious and trivial that make us feel embarrassed or ashamed all our lives; that certain things will always be funny and others always sad. Although this seems utterly self-evident, wartime works towards the erosion of empathy, explicitly delimiting the idea that all men are brothers.

How, specifically, did politics and current events enter your thinking when you actually sat down to envision what this play would look like?

Before beginning rehearsals for the first Arabian Nights (which, because of the way I work, also means before beginning to write it) I was full of a great many theoretical and overtly political ideas for its staging that would call attention to is contemporary relevance. Yet the moment we began actually to embody these stories, virtually all of these preconceived ideas went right out the window. The stories spoke more than loudly enough for themselves: their humanity, wisdom, humor, vulgarity and poetry were manifest, and with their tremendous will towards life they took over the rehearsal room as easily as they take over King Shahryar. Almost none of that original impulse towards overt commentary remains.

What can you share with us about your view of Scheherezade’s situation and her relationship with Shahryar?

Scheherezade knows the power of these stories. By populating the darkened, isolated chamber of Shahryar with imaginary characters she coaxes the murderous king back into the real world. Narrative alters the course of reality and “the daughters of the Musselmen” are saved.

What do these stories tell us about ourselves and our world today?

Although even the happy stories in The Arabian Nights often end with an evocation of the finality of death, the overall impression is the enduring, transformative power of narrative. In the tale of “The Mock Kalifah,” the great ruler Harun al-Rashid, disguised as a simple merchant, hides under a bridge and watches a simple merchant disguised as Harun al-Rashid drift down the Tigris on an illuminated boat. Each man aches to be the other. Since 2003 the ancient bridge whose shadows once hid Harun no longer exists, but the story, part of the eternal bridge to Baghdad, still does.



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