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Theatricality, Natalie Zemon Davis, and the pre-modern Muslim world

This past Wednesday, in front of a room filled to the brim with scholars from numerous departments and surrounding institutions, Natalie Zemon Davis, a renowned historian gave a talk on theatricality in pre-modern and early modern Muslim society. Irked by insistence that pre-modern and early modern Muslim societies had no concept of theatricality, Davis set to work to prove these deniers wrong or at least to figure out what else filled that cultural void.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait of a Humanist (Leo Africanus), Italian, 1485 – 1547, c. 1520, oil on panel transferred to hardboard, Samuel H. Kress Collection

She turned to her work, Trickster Travels (2006), on the life of al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, also called Joannes Leo Africanus, a 16th-century traveller who had been captured by pirates and after freeing himself went on to write one of the most comprehensive geographies of Africa of his time. While tracing the often elusive and contradictory threads of this life, Davis had discovered a rich history of theatricality in the Muslim pre-modern and early modern world, and from this she launched her investigation.
A lively speaker, Davis easily immersed us in the theatrics she had discovered in the course of her research. These theatrics were often grounded, for the pre-modern and early modern Muslim world, in poetic comedy. And it was oftentimes raunchy comedy, which for live plays – the plays that took place on the streets – was meant to mock a certain person or group of people.
Other more sophisticated forms of comedy were less crass, but still found humor in the foibles of love and other human conditions. Davis shared stories of love, conquest, and travel all of which had been dramatized in various forms and traditions throughout the Muslim world.
I found the shadow puppets of 10th-century Turkey intriguing as well as the predominance of hobby horses in other theatrical forms. At one point she told us a joke she had uncovered about a bird who when the tax collector came around would dive into the sea and live as a fish until the fish tax collector came around, and then it was back to the sky.
Davis ended her talk with the story of Leo’s affiliation with a Jewish scholar, who desiring to read Arabic, contacted Leo, a Muslim, for help. Until his return to Rome, Leo helped his colleague, writing a glossary of sorts for him. Given the current political climate, it was refreshing to learn of a scholarly exchange that transcended religious difference.
All in all, it was a fantastic talk given by a scholar who was herself somewhat versed in performativity. As I listened to her passionate explanation about why she chose this topic, I couldn’t help but think of Neil Patrick Harris’s Barney Stinson’s catch phrase, “challenge accepted!”
Cordelia Ross, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in the Department of English

This page was last updated: February 13, 2017



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