April 2005  | This Issue

A Little
Oil Lamp

Adapting A Novel
for the Stage
Part 2

by Ned Bobkoff


Part 1

Part 2: Dramatic Momentum
reviously I wrote about the initial excitement I felt writing a play while still reading the novel, "Ali and Nino"; and the decision to divide the narration between the mysterious author, Kurban Said and Ali Kahn - the hero. Whoever the author is, he or she was tuned in to the historical, architectural, and geographical details of the settings in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, Karabagh, Daghistan, and Persia. By dividing the narration, and cutting the story down to its skeletal connections,  I was able to switch perspectives, add dramatic contrast and focus, and follow the novel towards its inevitable historical climax.

Since the struggle for identity is at the heart of the action of "Ali and Nino", I felt that the action should be both continuous and contiguous. Performers moving from one locale to the next, by simply walking into a scene. To keep everyone close to the action, I saw the production crew as being incorporated into the play as minor characters and in crowd scenes; allowing for rapid scene and prop changes. An  inherently dramatic contract between everyone concerned -  including the audience.  When everything is out in the open, drama takes place in unexpected ways. Attention is riveted not only on the story, but how the story is made. A choreography of simultaneous action that helps propel a play to its climax.   

 I tracked how Ali and Nino changed their viewpoints: the clash of their beliefs and cultures, the interplay of shadow and light between them, the stress and storm of historical events upon them. Ali Kahn grows from a believer to a truer believer. His deep seeded spiritual needs are tested by the reality of his love for Nino. Needs that eventually clash and coincide with his growing independence, and lead to the tragic climax of the play. Along the way there is much humor and periods of adjustment between the couple. They are forced to make decisions that count; a cartilage of decision making that holds the body of the play together.   

Overwhelmed, by his feelings for the Christian girl Nino, Ali goes to see his spiritual advisor, his respected friend, the Shiite mullah, Seyid Mustafa.  Seyid Mustafa is found studying the Koran, under a little oil lamp smoking – a detail that has metaphorical and political resonance. "I see in your eyes," he says, "that you want to marry Nino. Nino is a Christian. A Christian who does not like me". "Well, what do you say?" replies Ali, surprised at Seyid Mustafa's  insight into his dilemma.  "I say yes," Seyid Mustafa replies. "A man must marry the woman he likes. She need not like him in return. A wise man does not court a woman.  The woman is just the acre on which the man sows.  Must the field love the farmer? It is enough that the farmer loves the field. Marry. But never forget: the woman is just an acre. "Are you saying that a woman has neither soul nor intelligence?" Ali tentatively asks. "Why do you ask? Of course she hasn't a soul! It is enough for her to be chaste and have many children. The law says that the evidence of one man is more than the evidence of three women". Ali: "Must she become a Muslim?" "Why should she?" Seyid Mustafa replies, without hesitation. "A creature without soul and intelligence has no faith anyway. There are no women more beautiful than the woman of Georgia.  There is no law against it.  The prophet has promised his devout followers: go, take them if you wish". He closes The Book and shuts down the oil lamp.  Oil smoke drifts into a full moon over the desert; like a smoke signal of events to come.  

I was struck by the relevance of Seyid Mustafa's comments today; especially for a western reader, like me. Is Seyid Mustafa just another blindfolded male who sweetens his advice to Ali with sour grapes? Is he in the same boat as the rabbi who strictly reads from the Torah, the Christian minister who gives but one voice to the New Testament, or anyone else with strong religious beliefs founded on The Book – whatever that Book may be? I felt it was important to let the character speak for himself. Seyid Mustafa, like Ali, is charged, and changed, by events in the novel - but in a rigidly self-collected way. His worth as a seminal dramatic figure in the play has to do with setting his presence on firm ground and letting him speak for himself. The novel was originally published in Vienna in 1937. It is  prophetic about religious differences and the clash of cultures between East and West – as well as every one stuck in between. That is the given. The given does not bear false witness. It is just there.     

"When Seyid Mustafa said women have no souls, I laughed," Ali says later. "But when Nino wanted me to discover her soul, I felt annoyed. What kind of thing is that, a woman's soul? She should be content that the man does not want to understand the bottomless well of her soul!" Ali has yet to make a full turn to what he most truly feels. When the couple visit Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Nino's home country, she tells Ali of the historical destruction of Tbilisi by the "blood soaked" Shahs of Persia, the Turks, the Arabs and Mongols. "And what do you love me for?" Nino asks. " Your voice, your fragrance, the way you walk,"  Ali replies. "Surely love is the same in Georgia as in Iran?" "You love my eyes, my hair," Nino resumes. "Have you forgot my soul?" Silence. "Seyid Mustafa says that women have no soul," Ali replies.  Then he says, passionately: "Yes, I love your soul!" Silence, once more. "And what do you love me for, Nino?" Nino struggles with her feelings. "Forgive me, Ali.  Here I am, on a street in Tbilisi, behaving as if Genghis Khan's wars were your fault. How stupid of me to make you responsible for every Mohammedan who ever killed a Georgian! Yes I love you. But I am afraid of your world.  I am a tiny piece of this Europe that you hate. In Tbilisi I feel it more than ever. I know that you love me.  But I love woods and meadows and you love hills and stones and sand. And that's why I am afraid of you. Of your love. Of your world". And then: "In three months we'll be married". Ali reaches for her hand and kisses it with great feeling.  

Woods, meadows, hills, stones and sand, the howl of jackals and wolves,  clusters of colorful descriptive and geographical references in the novel, follow the line of action like a cloak of a weather beaten mystery.  Opportunities for both musical and transformational effects emerged : the haunting, indigenous Baliban music of Azerbaijan; perhaps even the traditional "Ashug" music of Karabagh - song by both men and women; "bayats" (love songs in Persian rhyme); and, not least, suggestive sound effects that add to the tonal expansion of the novel into a play (the falling of rocks like the distant sounds of war, the wind in the trees that lead to Ali's nightmare about his wedding night). I began to see performers working with puppetry, mask, and mime that blend with the remarkable images native to the arts in Azerbaijan. Images that intrigued me in the publications of Azerbaijan International Magazine. All of this, of course, is a dream – perhaps even an unrealizable dream, but one that heightened my imagination, and brought me down to earth to work at the play with renewed confidence.  How do you transform a dream into a stage reality? A place where anything can happen? Where action is vital, viable and intrigues the audience?  

In the second act, Nino leads Ali by hand through the stumbling "cobblestone streets" of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. They step from one stone to the next with increasing sensitivity towards each other. Nino preys at the candle lit site of her namesake St. Nino - for forgiveness. "What did you ask the Holy Nino to forgive you for?" Ali whispers. "You", Nino replies, "and all that has been between us. Walk through Tbilisi. Do you see women wearing the veil? No. Do you feel the air of Asia? No. I feel very wise here".  It is a new world for Ali. As  much as Tehran, Persia will be for her, where they escape war – temporarily.  Now they sway with the bump and grind of a "funicular railway" climbing up a hill to the Monastery of St. David. As they rise up, Nino tells Ali the story of St. David; a holy man who raised his hand in prayer, after he had been falsely accused of violating a young woman. When St. David  touched the Princess with a wand to prove his innocence, Nino relates, she gave birth to a stone. From the stone sprang the fountain of St. David. Later, Nino picks up a pebble, presses it to a wet gravestone. If it sticks for a moment, she will marry within a year. It falls. Nino is crestfallen. Ali laughs, adds: "Isn't our Prophet right when he says 'Do not believe what dead stones say?" Clearly Ali has made the turn towards Nino that she is looking for.

At the end of this sequence of touring events, the couple run into the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevitch, the Czar's Governor of the Caucasus , in a big park with "beautifully wrought iron railings". Railings that separate Ali and Nino from the figure of authority with a face like a "large, noble wild animal". It is just before the opening salvos of the First World War. The scent of an onslaught between the Czarist Russians and the Turks, with Azerbaijan and Georgia caught in between, is everywhere:  

NINO: The Grand Duke...I wonder what he's thinking.

ALI: Of the Czar's crown, Nino.

NINO: It would look good on his grey hair.

ALI: They say he is going to overthrow the Czar.

NINO: Come away….


You mustn't speak so badly of the Czar and the Grand Duke.  They defend us from the Turks.

ALI: They are one half of the hot claws that crunch your country.

NINO: And your country?

ALI: We are lying on the anvil and the Grand Duke holds the hammer. We hate him.

NINO: And you love Enver Pasha, the Turk. You'll never see Enver coming into our town. The Grand Duke will win.

ALI: Allah Barif. Only God knows...

(The Grand Duke disappears into the fog.)

What compels a story to move on and give it meaning? A singular event that draws a composition together. Dramatic momentum, the ties that bind, unleashed: contraction and release. A major crisis in the novel, and a crucial moment in the play, occurs when Nino is abducted. That abduction, Ali and Nino's marriage, and the climax of the invasion of the Bolsheviks into Azerbaijan is the central focus of Part Three.  It feels good to get back to the importance of theatrical events that effect characters over and beyond every day and local concerns. Those cloying sensations of small time hang-ups that so dominate our airways and stages today. How do we see ourselves in the crunch of history revealed on stage? The urgency, the dramatic momentum, comes from the sense that the world and its history is larger than ourselves. Shakespeare and Brecht knew that…

Book cover - Rissian Edition (2004)  courtesy of Azerbaijan International. Photos by Betty Blair
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©2005 Ned Bobkoff
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Ned Bobkoff is a director and writer who has worked with performers from all walks of life, throughout the United States and abroad.
And he still doesn't know how he managed to do that.
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