The Arabian Nights at the Lookingglass Theatre

WhenJun 20, 2009 from 12:00 pm CT
Location Lookingglass Theatre
821 N. Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
Event Details


A review of The Arabian Nights at the Lookingglass Theatre by Suzanne Ross

The Raven Foundation outing to the Lookingglass Theatre’s 2009 staging of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights left all of us with a new appreciation of the beauty and spirit of Persian culture. At Raven we support events like this one because our mission is to make religion reasonable, violence unthinkable and peace a possibility by exposing the myths that allow us to justify violence in the name of God, country or our own goodness, the kind of justification that we saw in the performance as Sultan Shahryar slays his brides each night without any feelings of remorse or self-doubt. We at Raven believe that when you use violence to achieve your ends, you must surrender your claim to being good. Guiding our work is René Girard’s mimetic theory, which offers insights into human identity and behavior that, when brought to bear on these stories from Persia, opens our eyes to the often overlooked and misinterpreted wisdom of this ancient culture. The Arabian Nights is the story a sultan whose wife betrayed him with another man. He kills them both, sinks into grief and self-pity, and resolves that he will marry anew each day and kill his bride each night, something he does without remorse for three years. But his new bride named Scheherezade has courage and a plan. As the Sultan holds a sword to her throat, she distracts him from his murderous intent for a thousand and one nights by telling him stories about a just ruler who pardons his storytellers, about women of virtue and wisdom and self-sacrificing love, about men caught up in foolish pride who mistake these women for monsters or dismiss them without cause. The play ends with the Sultan, in a spirit of repentance and humility, professing his love and devotion to Scheherezade.


If ever there was a story about the power of narrative to save and transform human life, it is The Arabian Nights. This production is a raucous celebration of narrative’s influence on us and its ability to soften even the most hardened of hearts. When at the end of 1,000 nights and 1,000 stories, Shahryar says “Scheherazade, marvelous girl, you have lifted the veil from my heart” we do not doubt him, because we have experienced the lifting of a veil from our own hearts. Ironically, The Arabian Nights tells us that the veil itself is the result of narrative, one that has enabled Shahryar to justify violence against women on behalf of his wounded pride and broken heart. Artfully, at the opening of the show, Shahryar and Scheherezade speak overlapping lines – Shahryar says she is “filled to the mouth with deceit” as Scheherazade says, “filled to the mouth with stories.” But deceit itself is a story. Stories, it seems, can be deceitful or truthful but all stories contain the power to shape us into their image and likeness. What we witness in this play is the gradual replacing of a deceitful story with a truthful one within the heart of the sultan as he is coaxed to release his hold on a self-justifying narrative to embrace a self-critiquing one.

Scheherezade has a simple though seemingly impossible goal: to save her life she must induce the Sultan to change his reflexive behavior – marry the girl, kill the girl, marry the girl, kill the girl. At the opening of the show he has no desire to change. So she must produce one in him and she does this by telling stories. Why this method? According to mimetic theory, desires do not arise spontaneously within us, but are modeled for us by something or someone outside of ourselves. This understanding of desire was developed in dialogue with classic literature, both ancient and modern, and it is the understanding of desire that infuses Scheherezade’s approach to her problem. This daughter of her culture knows that if she wants to change her sulky Sultan, appeals to his compassion or generosity will not work for she cannot call forth what is not within him. A change in his response to his brides, all of whom he falsely perceives as monsters, will not come from the inside out because he is being ruled by an internal narrative of wounded pride, of deceitful women and honorable men. Transformation will only come from the outside in, if she can offer him a new more truthful narrative, one that allows for the possibility of humble men and honorable women that he will imitate.

Using all her wits, Scheherazade tells her aggrieved and violent sultan the story of another sultan listening to stories, and this frame is critical to her ultimate success. The sultan of her stories is not just any sultan – it is the beloved Harun al-Rashid. It would be like invoking Abraham Lincoln for President Obama. On the very first night, Scheherezade tells Shahryar that the great Sultan al-Rashid consented to hear stories, thus making it possible for Shahryar to consent as well. When time after time, al-Rashid pardons the storyteller, Scheherazade is offering a series of examples of compassion for Shahryar to imitate until finally, he too pardons his storyteller, Scheherazade. The new model of a willingness to listen to the voices of those who appear contemptible to us with a spirit of humility is the constant thread that unites these seemingly disparate tales and is an insightful dramatization of the key insight that all our desires, even our Selves, are given to us by others.

Clever girl that she is, Scheherazade also offers her sultan alternative stories to tell about her, indeed about all women. The story of the virtuous man and the un-virtuous woman, the one Shahryar has been telling himself, is put in the mouth of a Madman in the story of the merchant who rejects Perfect Love. When the Madman eventually confesses to the sin of pride and humbly consents to follow Perfect Love’s plan to escape his unfortunate betrothal to the shapeless, hideous lump, we see that the Madman is most sane when he is most humble. And his humility is rewarded with playful and insatiable love making. Certainly an intoxicating reward for Scheherazade to be dangling before her Sultan!

As Shahryar succumbs to the dizzying succession of story, he is re-formed within a new narrative. His heart is transformed by the model of the listening and forgiving Sultan Harun al-Rashid so that Shahryar becomes a man who listens and forgives. And his very vision has been transformed, from eyes that saw monsters, to eyes that can see human beings in all their beauty and wonder. And where once he was content to nurse wounded pride, he has abandoned all pretense of independence and admits his absolute neediness and indebtedness to Scheherazade.

All this seems to be the perfect ending for the story, but Scheherazade insists on telling Shahryar one more tale, the one that all the others have prepared him to hear. It is the tale of Ishak of Mosul and The Forgotten Melody which reveals that it is God who tells the truthful story and we who distort it. God’s story is that everything good and beautiful that we might be tempted to take pride in, from our ability to create a melody to our own virtue, comes from God. Foolish Ishak of Mosul wanted to possess the most beautiful melody and keep it for himself. How little he shared, even of his own songs, even with his own students. Such selfishness closed his mind and shuttered his memory so that the very thing he wanted so desperately evaded him. Within the heavenly narrative of God’s story, pride becomes foolishness and greed leads to emptiness. It is only through letting go of our pride in our possessions, our accomplishments, and our reputations that we can clear our vision to see the truth about ourselves and others. So this last story that brings the total to one thousand and one is the first among them all, for it is the story that leads to truth, to love and to life.

This play of 1,001 stories begs the question of all of us: What story do we tell? For now we know that it is not an idle question. We are indeed filled to the mouth with stories which, whether deceitful or truthful, will mold our hearts, shape our vision, and govern our responses. What a privilege it has been to be shaped by the words of Scheherezade in this wonderful play and to echo the words of Shahryar, “By Allah, I will remember that story.”

Suzanne’s discussion of another courageous Iranian girl, Neda, can be viewed here.


Lookingglass Theatre


Lookingglass formed in 1988 when a group of ambitious college graduates created a process-driven theatre company and unique theatrical experience for the public. Their signature approach to developing plays involves long-term dedication to the development process, presenting work in a theatre with a configurable stage and seating that can change depending on the needs of the production. In 1992, the Lookingglass ensemble extended its vision to serve traditionally underserved populations by reaching out to Chicagoland’s diverse constituency through the creation of our education and community programs department. To date, they have produced 50 world premieres and have received 42 Jefferson Awards and citations and the 2011 Tony Award for Excellence in Regional Theatre.

The Lookingglass Theatre Company combines a physical and improvisational rehearsal process centered on ensemble with training in theatre, dance, music, and the circus arts. They seek to redefine the limits of theatrical experience and to make theatre exhilarating, inspirational, and accessible to all.

Two Convenient Parking Options

Discounted parking is available the day of the performance at The John Hancock Center Self Park and The Olympia Centre Self Park. Bring your parking ticket to the box office, and our staff will validate it.

– Park at The John Hancock Center Self Park, 875 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611 for up to six (6) hours for only $10.00.

– Park at The Olympia Centre Self Park,161 E Chicago AveChicago, IL 60611, for up to six (6) hours for only $10.00.

These special rates for for Lookingglass patrons and are valid only on performance days for paying ticket holders. Parking spaces are subject to availability.

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