By Alisa Soloman / The Nation
The opening of Mona Mansour’s engrossing three-part epic about Palestinian displacement, The Vagrant Trilogy, was postponed for the last two years. But there’s also a sense in which its run at New York’s Public Theater was delayed by 33 years. In 1989—two and a half years into the First Intifada, which had brought the violence of the Israeli occupation into American living rooms via the nightly news—Joseph Papp, the Public’s founder and, at the time, its head, abruptly canceled a touring production of a play called The Story of Kufur Shamma, an elegiac drama about a Palestinian man on a 40-year quest to find the relatives and neighbors who’d been forced to abandon their village in 1948. Papp withdrew the work, by a theater company from East Jerusalem, because, he said then, he didn’t want to offend Jewish audiences, and because he hadn’t presented any Israeli plays at his theater.
The myriad false and bad-faith assumptions underlying Papp’s reasoning—among them, that simply to tell a Palestinian story is to bash Israel and, by extension, Jews; that audiences should be protected from uncomfortable feelings; that all Jews think alike about Israel; that works of art can or should be “balanced” by other works—have persisted as rationalizations for the cancelation of plays, exhibits, author events, and academic appointments in the three decades since. But while the political effort to muzzle pro-Palestinian expression and support has only intensified—just a month ago, the Anti-Defamation League announced that Palestine solidarity groups are “the photo inverse” of white supremacists, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is pouring millions of dollars into defeating progressive congressional candidates through its new super PAC, the United Democracy Project—many cultural institutions have caught on over the years to the fallacies beneath such suppression and the aggressive, often mendacious campaigning behind it, and they have gone ahead and programmed works despite possible attack or repercussions.
The Public, for one, made a commitment to Mansour’s work more than a decade ago when it presented her one-act Urge for Going—which, through a commission there, eventually became The Vagrant Trilogy’s third section. Individual pieces of the trilogy have also been performed in Kentucky, California, and Massachusetts. The complete three-part play, which ran until May 15 and is already being considered for productions elsewhere in the coming season, was the Public Theater’s first full-length, main-stage production to address the aftermath of the Nakba. It played to full houses. And what audiences were invited to do, among other things, was to confront the very pretexts that have squelched such stories in the past.
A work of complex ideas and deep emotion laced with droll humor, the play presents two possible outcomes to a crisis of displacement. The first act, titled “The Hour of Feeling,” takes place in June 1967. A budding literary scholar named Adham (Hadi Tabbal), just out of college, and his new wife Abir (Tala Ash) visit London, where he is delivering a university lecture on William Wordsworth. War breaks out back home, and the couple must decide whether to return to their village outside Ramallah or remain in England. Act II, “The Vagrant,” set in 1982, shows Adham and Abir, now divorced, having stayed in the UK, with Adham vainly hoping for a promotion to professor and befuddled by his department’s expectation that his scholarship—which continues to focus on Wordsworth and the Romantics—take a postcolonial approach because of his identity. “Your work would be more interesting to us,” a pompous senior colleague tries to explain, “if you could, be more, you.” The third act, “Urge for Going,” leaps ahead from the premise that Adham and Abir made the opposite choice at the end of Act I: It’s 2003, and having returned together to the West Bank 36 years earlier, they now live in a cramped tent in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon along with their two teenage children and the children’s two uncles.
While advancing briskly through its three-and-a-half-hour playing time, The Vagrant Trilogy gracefully probes the meaning of home, the function of literature, and the inexorable impact of grand historical forces on the smallest details of our personal lives. Richly intertextual, it portrays a range of characters with clashing views, each fully delineated. In Tabbal’s and Ash’s finely drawn performances, we see youthful energy and bravado fray into the late-middle-age dejection of shredded hopes. Through the play’s three settings, we see the disastrous roles that Britain, Israel, and Lebanon have all played in the Palestinians’ plight.
To create each act’s world, a cast of six actors nimbly performs a total of 18 roles. Period-specific clothes and a savvy soundtrack evoke movement across the decades. Furniture and panels wheel in and out through the first two acts to establish place, even as gorgeous projections render the location markers abstract, evoking Adham’s sense of placelessness: a collage of skewed London street signs as he makes his anxious way to the lecture hall; blades of grass in enormous close-up swaying in the breeze when he visits Wordsworth’s beloved Lake District. The last act features a single setting: the living room of the refugees’ tent. Thick, multicolored fabrics layering its walls underscore the stifling stasis of what Adham’s brother, Hamzi, calls “our temporary home for sixty years”—a different kind of dislocation. The family, and refugees in general, resemble (to cite one of the many Wordsworth passages quoted in the play) “vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods.”
As Adham’s research subject, Wordsworth functions as a source of both tension and inspiration. On the one hand, Adham identifies with the pull that a beloved terrain exerts on Wordsworth’s imagination, one that he need not physically inhabit to carry in his mind and heart. The “great poet of nature,” Adham explains, “comes to know himself as part of the grand scheme of Spirit only when he lets go of his attachment to the very landscape that inspired him to write in the first place.” We come to know Adham as carrying both experienced and inherited trauma: His demanding mother fled from the Galilee to Lebanon in 1948 with her husband and two boys, but refusing to stay in the refugee camp, she made her way back to the West Bank with only the infant Adham, where she strived to give him an education and better life chances. And we see how Adham seeks to inhabit a Romantic spirit that extols nature and transcends the historical specificity of place; he yearns to be seen as an individual in the universal swell of humanity.
At the same time, not even Wordsworth can outrun history. In a pivotal scene in his classroom, Adham and three pupils parse the section of the poet’s “Prelude” treating his time in France during the French Revolution. They discuss the passage in which Wordsworth writes, “I who with the breeze / had played, a green leaf on the blessed tree / of my beloved country—… / Now from my pleasant station was cut off, /And tossed about in whirlwinds,” and we can’t help but hear echoes of Palestine. The British students tune into different ones: To Adham’s disapproval, they argue for the role of “extra-textual” information in interpreting the work, particularly the passage in which Wordsworth writes, “I rejoiced / Yes, afterwards, truth painful to record, / Exulted in the triumph of my soul / When Englishmen by thousands were o’erthrown, / Left without glory on the field, or driven, / Brave hearts, to shameful flight.” Adham, with irritation, tries to push them toward what he regards as an absurd endpoint of their analysis, and they debate the Irish Republican Army’s recent bombings in London. “We abhor the means but not the cause,” says one student. “Who is ‘we’?” another fires back. The classroom contretemps ends up costing Adham his promotion after a student complains to a superior, who accuses Adham: “Are you, as a Palestinian, rejoicing over this atrocity?” Meanwhile, Israel was bombarding Beirut.
Mansour shrewdly depicts the slippage between resistance and terrorism here, while also giving the lie to the frequent charge that Arabs are preternaturally inclined to attack civilians. At the same time, she lets the audience understand more about how Adham is being perceived than he does himself. In painting a textured protagonist who would defy the rising academic fashion of the 1980s, she thematizes the very accusations often launched at works about Palestine. “Look, to them, no matter what you do, you’re political. You being Palestinian,” a fellow junior faculty member tells Adham, referring to their senior colleagues. It makes no difference to them that, as Adham says in reply, “I don’t think about that.” This moment plays contrapuntally against an earlier exchange, when Adham’s mother complains about Israel’s holiday fireworks exploding near their home. “How can they call it Independence Day and not choke on the words?” she asks. “They celebrate forcibly removing people from their homes? Killing men, women, children?” Adham admonishes her not to “get political.” “Who’s getting political?” she retorts.
From these different vantage points, the play asks us to consider whose stories count as tales of particular experiences and whose are regarded as overwhelmed by the “extra-textual”: historical events, social upheavals. And the answer, The Vagrant Trilogy suggests, lies in the gaze of the viewer rather than the situations of the characters. The family’s tragic yearning for return in the third act is no less affecting, and no more political (though in vastly different ways), than the fruitless longing of Chekhov’s three sisters to go back to Moscow. Exile, as Edward Said famously noted, is the “fundamental condition of Palestinian life.”
Though he is never named in the play, Said hovers over it, swooping close especially in the second act. In 1982, Orientalism had been out for a few years, long enough for the vulgar readings of Adham’s younger colleagues to have taken hold, and influential enough for today’s audiences to have a ready label for the assumptions the older ones make about Adham.
But it’s a different set of Palestinian writers who provide the imagistic bedrock beneath The Vagrant Trilogy, men more attached to the hills and stones and gnarled olive trees of the landscape: the human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh, whose Palestinian Walks invites readers to accompany him on hikes through the West Bank as he observes its transformation by the roads, electrical grids, flattened hilltops, and ever-expanding buildings of the Israeli settlements; and Mourid Barghouti, whose I Saw Ramallah, a memoir of returning to the West Bank in 1996 after a 30-year absence, is downright Wordsworthian in its interrogation of the sensory memory of landscape, the remembered green slopes covered “with trees and shrubs and wild flowers” now “bare and chalky.”
Mansour takes her play’s epigraph from that work: “Politics is the family at breakfast. Who is there, and who is absent and why. Who misses whom when the coffee is poured into the waiting cups. Where are your children who had gone forever from these, their usual chairs?” And she interpolates some lines by the great poet Taha Muhammad Ali in the third act, giving them to Hamzi as a plangent monologue. They are drawn from one of Ali’s poems, told from the perspective of a character forced to leave his village in 1948 and still living inside Israel, a simple everyman called Abd el-Hadi: He ”didn’t cut down a single tree, / didn’t slit the throat / of a single calf,” the quoted passage goes. “Nonetheless his case is hopeless, / his situation / desperate. / His God-given rights are a grain of salt / tossed into the sea.”
These references quietly root The Vagrant Trilogy in a landscape both literal and figurative, between reality and representation, the shrinking Palestinian territory and the expansive vista of the mind. “The long Occupation,” Barghouti writes, “has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine.”
But it’s Joni Mitchell who gets the last word, as the third act takes its title from a song of hers that insists on the inevitability—but also the near-impossibility—of moving on, as surely as summer gives way to “vagrant winter.” Its melancholic melody surges up at play’s end after Jamila, Adham and Amir’s daughter, prepares to leave the refugee camp to study at university. The promise of Adham’s academic success and widening horizons in the play’s opening scenes has been transferred to Jamila in its closing ones, and one can’t help but feel a rush of hope for her as she bids her family and dreams of a homeland farewell. Alas, she is on her way to Damascus.