Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A thousand and one nights at the panto

An old article but a good overview of the Nights and its relationship to stage and screen (and mention of the cool pinball machine), by Robert Irwin:


A thousand and one nights at the panto

How did the yarns spun in the alleys of medieval Cairo and Damascus turn into the pantomime and movie tales known to every child in the West? Robert Irwin tells the amazing story of the Arabian Nights

Saturday, 22 December 2001

It is getting harder and harder to find good pinball machines in London. I doubt if it is still there, but a few years ago The Man in the Moon pub in the King's Road, Chelsea, west London, used to have one of the classic Williams machines. This was the "Tales of the Arabian Nights" model. One looked down on a (mostly cinematic) iconography of the Nights, divorced from particular Arabic stories, spread out on the machine's gaudy playboard between the flippers and the buffers. This visual clutter, suggestive of opulence, adventure and magic, will register with people who have never opened a volume of the Nights: the Roc's egg, harem girls in diaphanous trousers, scimitars, genies, minarets, the Cyclops, the prince disguised as a beggar, the basket full of serpents, the rope that turns into a ladder, and the all-seeing eye.

These days The Arabian Nights (or The Thousand and One Nights) is generally considered a book for children. It was not always so. The audience for the medieval Arabic story collection probably consisted of male adults. The earliest substantially surviving manuscript is Egyptian, and probably dates from the 14th or 15th century. It perhaps represents the repertoire of a professional storyteller.

Though manuscripts circulated in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, the collection was not well-known until the 18th century. Then a scholarly French antiquarian and classicist took Europe by storm with his bestselling translation into French. Antoine Galland had served as secretary of the French embassy in Istanbul in the 1690s. His special mission in Istanbul was to collect documents from Eastern Christian churches with a bearing on the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, but Galland's interests ran wider. Having learnt Arabic, he collected manuscripts of all kinds.

In 1701 he published a translation of the stories of Sinbad the Sailor. These stories never formed part of the early manuscripts of the Nights. However, Galland's translation was an instant success and in 1704 he started to publish translations of the Nights stories that he had been working on to pass away the long dark evenings. The Sinbad stories thereafter were assimilated into the collection of Nights stories, the supposed repertoire of the storytelling Queen Scheherezade.

Galland's Les Milles et Une Nuits was a hit with both courtiers and scholars. His versions of the stories, as well as his learned glosses, offered a window on an oriental way of life, as well as a new and unfamiliar pool of storytelling motifs. Other writers set about producing adaptations, imitations and satires of oriental tales.

Even before Galland had finished his French translation, the early parts were being translated into other European languages. From the first decade of the 18th century, Grub Street versions circulated in Britain. They were to exercise a strong influence on such diverse writers as Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole, William Beckford and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1838-41, Edward William Lane produced a fairly comprehensive translation made directly from the Arabic. However, Lane prudishly omitted episodes and stories that he judged improper. In 1885-8, the explorer Sir Richard Burton produced a translation that not only included all the bawdy bits omitted by Lane, but exaggerated the obscenity in some tales.

The early pantomime versions of Aladdin, Sinbad and other stories were adapted from unscholarly chap-book versions. The first pantomime of Aladdin was staged in 1788, but the most successful version was a burlesque scripted by H J Byron in 1861, Aladdin or the Wonderful Scamp. Byron's laboriously rhymed and pun-laden Aladdin was the first to feature Widow Twankay, (the reference being to a kind of green tea from Tun-chi in China).

In the 19th century, music-hall turns and allusions to contemporary events were added to the stories. In 1882 the staging of Sinbad the Sailor was adapted to celebrate Sir Garnett Wolseley's victory over Arabi Pasha in Egypt. A toy-theatre version of Aladdin or the Wonderful Lamp appeared as early as 1811. Paper cut-outs produced for this and other toy-theatre scenarios faithfully recorded the sets and costumes of early stage productions.

The early silent films also serve as a kind of record of stage versions. The history of the Nights on film is nearly as old as film the history of film itself. In 1902, Thomas Edison produced a film version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, directed by the comic actor Ferdinand Zecca. This was based on a popular stage production and used dancers from the Paris Opera. Soon after came Georges Méliès' Palais des Mille et Une Nuits, (1905), in which the oriental setting served as a licence for special effects, as well as display of the plump legs of a troupe of chorines. Zecca did an Aladdin or the Marvelous Lamp in 1906. Thereafter the floodgates opened.

There is a Popeye version of Aladdin, a Douglas Fairbanks junior version of Sinbad the Sailor, and Phil Silvers starred in A Thousand and One Nights (1945) as the bespectacled Abdullah the Touched One. There have been Nights films starring Dorothy Lamour, Abbott & Costello, Eddy Cantor, Mickey Mouse, Gene Kelly, Steve Reeves, Micky Rooney, Christopher Lee, Gipsy Rose Lee, Tom Baker, Patrick Troughton, Krazy Kat, Woody Woodpecker, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, Lucille Ball, Bugs Bunny and Elvis Presley. Hundreds of Arabian Nights have been made, and most have been deservedly forgotten.

But among the rich mulch of mock-exotic trash there have also been some masterpieces, including some of the classic silent films. Ernst Lubitsch's Sumurun (1920) reproduced Max Reinhardt's pantomime fantasy, which was in turn very loosely based on the Nights story of The Hunchback. Lubitsch himself hammed it up as the erotically thwarted hunchback. In 1926 Lotte Reiniger completed Die Abenteur des Prinzen Achmed. This film, with its delicately cut silhouette figures, was the world's first full-length animation picture. (It has recently been released as a video by the British Film Institute.)

Some of the most artistic film adaptations were produced in Germany and, when Douglas Fairbanks senior started to plan his masterpiece, The Thief of Bagdad, he went to Germany to study the works of such German film-makers as Lubitsch and Fritz Lang. The look of Fairbanks's film, released in 1924, has clearly been influenced by the design and effects of earlier German productions. However, Fairbanks gave his adaptation of "Prince Ahmed and the Peri Banou" a characteristically American stress on the work ethic: "Happiness has to be earned". The original medieval Arab storytellers were quite happy with the notion of unearned happiness.

Alexander Korda's 1940 production of The Thief of Bagdad, though it borrowed the Fairbanks title, had a quite different plot and other preoccupations. The story made intensive use of special effects and spectacular colour photography to create the land of oriental enchantment that might be imagined by a child. That outstanding director Michael Powell worked on it and Conrad Veidt, better known as Major Strasser in Casablanca, was a superbly villainous vizier.

Veidt's interpretation has influenced the performances of almost all subsequent villainous viziers, including those in the swashbuckling Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films and the Disney animated Aladdin. The Disney Aladdin (1992) has more wit and energy, as well as a more logical plot, than the original story found in Galland.

However, perhaps the best and most intelligent of Nights films, Il fiore della Mille e una notte (1974), was directed by the Marxist intellectual, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini filmed unknown actors in spectacular location shots. He sacrificed none of the eroticism of the original tales and, unlike earlier film-makers, he preserved the bemusing story within-a-within-a-story structure. As he observed in an epigraph to the film, "The truth is to be found not in one dream, but in many dreams".

Robert Irwin is the author of 'The Arabian Nights: a companion' (Penguin). 'The Arabian Nights', translated by Husain Haddawy, is an Everyman's Library hardback; there is also a Penguin Classics 'Tales from the Thousand and One Nights', trans N J Dawood. 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' is on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve, and 'Aladdin and the King of Thieves' on BBC 1 on Boxing Day

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