Praxa or The Problem of Power

29 Apr


Well the computer mouse is back working so I’m back into the blog. I’m sure you’ve all been dying without it.


This excerpt comes from Praxa (sometimes written Braksa) by Tawfiq al-Hakim. The play is based on Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae, in which women take control of power. Al-Hakim begins with a very brief adaptation of the Aristophanes play (act. 1) Afterwards he continues the story to examine what would happen after women have taken control of the government. The first three acts were published in 1939 and then in 1960 (when it was translated into French) three more were added. Here I translate the third act. Before this Praxa has already been forced out of power by her tyrannical lover Hieronymus and several people have been arrested. The scene is in a prison where a philosopher who previously had the ear of Praxagora has been thrown in jail.


The play begins with the dedication:


To Aristophanes!…

Lord of Ancient Greek Comedy!…

I present my sin!…

And ask:

Forgive me!…


Act Three has its good parts. It starts to really get going near the end but the discussion of reality and leopard’s claws is a little strange.



Act Three


Dark prison. A little light comes through a barred window. “The Philosopher” is sprawled on the floor, shackled in chains. The jailer walks in carrying a piece of bread and a jug of water.


Jailer: The Philosopher’s asleep?!…


Philosopher: I’ve got nothing to do today but sleep.


Jailer: (puts the bread and water in front of him) Welcome to the feast!


Philosopher: Feast!… So the age when things are not called by their true names has come at last.


Jailer: Shh… don’t say anything more… We are in the age of luxury and good health when every house has a feast.


Philosopher: (pointing at the bread and water) What, like this?


Jailer: won’t you keep your mouth shut?


Philosopher: Shut it for me!


Jailer: It would be better for you to eat in silence


Philosopher: Your master needs me to be silent does he?


Jailer: No voice should be raised in the state except his.


Philosopher: He talks to the people by himself then?


Jailer: The people worship him


Philosopher: Hieronymus!


Jailer: Say Hieronymus the Triumphant


Philosopher: Triumphant in what?


Jailer: He will, without doubt, triumph in the wars with the Macedonians. He has sent them an army as vast as the sea.


Philosopher: He’s declared war?


Jailer: He has gathered crops from the people and sent them, alongwith some money, to supply the soldiers!


Philosopher: So all the people are eating feasts just like this one!


Jailer: We can tolerate any deprivation… Our real food is “Victory”


Philosopher: Yes… yes… What rich food for the people these vainglorious words are!


Jailer: Now it is time for me to go (He makes to leave)


Philosopher: One more word, jailer… Where’s Praxagora now?


Jailer: What concern is it of yours?


Philosopher: She wouldn’t like it if I stayed in here a long time


Jailer: Don’t mention that woman’s name


Philosopher: So the Triumphant leader has imprisoned her too?


Jailer: In his embrace!!!


Philosopher: She has no opinion on the matter any more?


Jailer: Nor even a voice.


Philosopher: And the council [of women]?


Jailer: The swords of Hieronymus the Triumphant have bound it, as your feet are bound by those shackles.


Philosopher: How poetic!


Jailer: (moving away) And now…


Philosopher: And now… tell me about yourself


Jailer: What else do you want to know?


Philosopher: Do you have any sons?


Jailer: In the army…


Philosopher: And your wife and daughters?


Jailer: In the house


Philosopher: And what do they do there?


Jailer: They pray.


Philosopher: And we pray with them to the gods


Jailer: (raising his eyes to the sky) AAAHHHH (he is silent)


Philosopher: Do you really think people are happy at the moment?


Jailer: Shhh….Shhh….


Philosopher: What’s wrong?


Jailer: Quiet for Zeus’s sake!


Philosopher: Don’t worry!… No-one will hear us here.


Jailer: (moving quickly) I’m leaving (exit)


Philosopher: (going up to the food) Right, let’s eat and drink well since everyone’s in the same boat. (he lifts up the jug of water and takes a deep swig. A voice whispers outside the window)


Voice: My friend, Hippocrates.


Philosopher: (turning round) who is it?


Voice: Don’t you recognise my voice?


Philosopher: Who are you?


Voice: I’m Praxa.


Philosopher: (joyfully) Yes … Yes …. I felt a gentle breeze blowing on my face from between the bars.


Praxa: Ah … it causes me great pain to see you behind bars


Philosopher: and it causes me great pain to see you behind bars.


Praxa: Yes, I am like you … at least this is some consolation.


Philosopher: I am better off that you for my prison is only enclosed by these walls.


Praxa: Don’t remind me how I live


Philosopher: I won’t remind you either how we used to live.


Praxa: It was a beautiful dream


Philosopher: We are still in that dream


Praxa: What sacrilege! How can you call this a dream too?


Philosopher: Would you prefer we called it “reality”.


Praxa: Agreed. Truly “reality” must be better than what we have fallen into now.


Philosopher: And reality is more complete


Praxa: More beautiful


Philosopher: More durable


Praxa: Agreed. What else can this be but a brief but horrible dream.


Philosopher: It must be


Praxa: Ah, my friend … really our fates, mine and yours, are in the same scales, they rise together and fall together.


Philosopher: That’s true, all this going up and down’s making me dizzy


Praxa: Yes!… Your intellect sees all.


Philosopher: In the dark and in the light.


Praxa: I am not forgetting that you called me beautiful!


Philosopher: But I wasn’t dazzled by your shining beauty, I saw your bad side too.


Praxa: I have a bad side?


Philosopher: I also saw you how you never saw you yourself.


Praxa: You were my mirror that I looked in every morning.


Philosopher: What did this mirror tell you?


Praxa: That I was beautiful.


Philosopher: Then what?


Praxa: Nothing else.


Philosopher: Ah… What use is that mirror then, if all a person sees in it is what they want to see.


Praxa: Hippocrates… don’t be nasty to me today.


Philosopher:  Do you need me today?


Praxa: Yes… There is no-one left to whisper me the words I used to hear from you.


Philosopher: So that’s why you’ve come here tonight?


Praxa: No, I’ve come for your own sake.


Philosopher: Don’t lie. I can see deep into your soul. Tell me … Does Hieronymus the Triumphant not whisper words like these to you? Doesn’t he tell you that you’re beautiful sometimes?


Praxa: He’s a beast.


Philosopher: He’s a handsome beast.


Praxa: He’s a beast.


A hand in the darkness rests on Praxagora’s shoulder and a voice rumbles


Voice: What are you doing here?


Praxa: (turning in alarm) Hieronymus!


Hieronymus: What are you two talking about?


Praxa: Just things, things that you can’t talk to me about.


Hieronymus: Are you plotting something?


Praxa: Why do you always think about that?


Hieronymus: Come on … this man will tell me the truth.


(Hieronymus beckons her with his hand and they both step away from the window. A a few moments they enter Hippocrates’ cell)


Philosopher: (sarcastically) What an honour!… Hieronymus the Triumphant has graced me with a visit.


Hieronymus: Don’t flatter me … You know that I despise you.


Philosopher: It is an honour that someone like you despises me.


Hieronymus: (doubtfully) What do you mean?


Philosopher: I need to ask myself: what do you hate about me: my mind or my mouth.


Hieronymus: Both of them are ugly.


Philosopher: (turning to Praxa sarcastically) Wow!… He knows about ugliness, and whoever knows ugliness also knows beauty. So there is no need for great despair.


Hieronymus: Yes!… I know beauty!… Beauty is power.


Praxa: (sighing) What a shame.


Hieronymus: What ugly sighing.


Philosopher: What beautiful sighing!


Hieronymus: Haven’t you seen how easily I imprisoned you. You don’t see what I see at all.


Philosopher: This isn’t my fault.


Hieronymus: You know that I don’t like quarrelling… but… and I will treat you courteously as you are still my guest … and I’ll ask you calmly: Where’s the beauty in this sighing?


Philosopher: It is a sound that speaks to the soul of a prisoner.


Hieronymus: I don’t think this sound speaks to anything!


Philosopher: That doesn’t surprise me…


Hieronymus: Why do you philosophers fill the world with delusions, for what is the world in front of us except for reality. The earth under our feet is real. Everything around us is real.


Philosopher: What is reality?


Hieronymus: It’s.. It’s everything I can lay my hands on.


Philosopher: But you can’t lay your hands on everything


Hieronymus: What I can’t grab, for me, is not reality.


Philosopher: The “reality” which you can lay your hands must be quite a small “reality”.


Praxa: Like the reality that a leopard in the jungle grabs with his claws.


Hieronymus: Yes! The reality that the leopard grabs with his claws… wait… why the leopard my dear Praxagora? Why are you speaking to me kindly? Why didn’t you say “monster”


Praxa: (confused) You heard me?


Hieronymus: Yes I heard… and I wasn’t angry … As you can see Mr Philosopher, I never get angry when talking about things that are real.


Philosopher: Yes!… but there are a few things left to know … “The monster” is one of them. There is, at least, one reality we do know about.


Hieronymus: Yes… this is something the leopard’s claws seize!… but, you philosopher, Do you know exactly what this reality is?


Philosopher: Blood?


Hieronymus: Power!


Philosopher: So you imprisoned the mind and covered the mouth. Power, in fact, lies in blood.


Praxa: I never hated the mind or the mouth.


Hieronymus: This is true… You left those with brains to think and those with mouths to cry out. So the demands increased and shouts were raised.


Praxa: I was obliged to do that. For what do I represent but wonderful freedom, as the great philosopher said.


Hieronymus: What are you but chaos? 


Praxa: (sarcastically) And you?


Hieronymus: I am order!… Since I took power have you heard of any section of society make a demand?… Has anyone expressed his opinion?… Or opening in mouth in protest?… Or raised his voice in chanting? … All that has past. The age of partisanship has faded away. Gone are arguments, rivalries and controversies. The whole community has come together and the country is united.  It is as if everyone were one … The people are like a single person.


Philosopher: That person is you.


Hieronymus: Yes… he is I. There is nothing but me. No desire but my desire. No hand but my hand. With this hand I will give the people eternal glory.


Praxa: What is this glory.


Hieronymus: Triumph and victory!


Praxa: Those are just words


Hieronymus: (laughing) Ha… You are the one saying this? … The only power you had was in words.


Praxa: Yes, I gave the people words but I didn’t take anything from them. You took their freedom and their desire and gave them words.


Hieronymus: Triumph and Victory are not just words…


Praxa: And if you weren’t victorious?


Hieronymus: Then I should die.


Praxa: Then the people would die with you.


Hieronymus: And thus it would be their fated to die. It is better to die at the hand of a hero than to die from weakness and chaos.


Praxa: Have you give the people a choice between these two deaths?


Hieronymus: They wouldn’t hesitate in that decision.


Praxa: So, you’ve asked the people what they think of your rule?


Hieronymus: (mocking) No … As if they were happy with yours!


Praxa: My dear friend philosopher … Judge between us with your outstanding intellect.


Hieronymus: You think that this judge can make a decision when he is shackled in chains.


Philosopher: Your chains are on my feet not round my head!


Praxa: Talk then! Which of the two governments is better?


Philosopher: Or rather, which of the two is worse!


Praxa: (reprimanding him) Are you talking about my government like this?


Philosopher: You ruled alone… and alone you were called: “Chaos”.


Hieronymus: (cackling) Very good… Very good, Mr Philosopher. Finally we have agreed on something. Did you hear that my dear Praxa.


Praxa: (pointing at Hieronymus) What about him?


Hieronymus: (to Hippocrates) Yes, what about me?


Philosopher: You also ruled by yourself. You were called: “Barbarism”


Praxa: (laughing) Did you hear that?


Hieronymus: What about you, you prattling philosopher.


Philosopher: I would never rule alone.


Hieronymus: (scoffing) So you would share power with me then?


Philosopher: As long as Praxagora is with us!


Hieronymus: The three of us!


Philosopher. Yes. The three of us. Together we could be called: “Civil Government”


Praxa: My friend Hippocrates … Will we be able – you and I – to protect ourselves from his tyranny if he was with us?


Hieronymus: Will I be able to impose order on the state, when you two are with me?


Philosopher: That’s how it has to be. It is necessary that we march side by side and that not one of us dominates the other.


Praxa: How is that going to happen then?


Philosopher: We need a finger to guide our three threads, that knows the secret of making us work together, and that can play that circus game with three apples: throwing them in the air and collecting them in his hands, making sure that none of them knock into each other.


Praxa: Who going to do this for us?


Philosopher: That’s the problem!


Hieronymus: (laughing scornfully) Philosophers!… Words that are great like clouds in the sky, but when it comes down to it they amount to: Nothing!


Philosopher: There are some thing that men must entrust to the sky. The problem of power is one of these things!


Praxa: Indeed. It is sometimes the gods who grant kings earthly power.


Philosopher: Sometimes humanity takes a break and hands over the responsibility of earthly power to the choice of the heavens.


Hieronymus: (shouting) Enough!… I don’t believe in divine right nor in any divine intervention in the world.


Philosopher: This is also true… The great god Zeus created the world and placed in it all the laws that control it and the secrets of its life. He is able to sleep peacefully on Olympus as he pleases. The world carries on by itself. Inside everything he places the seeds of everything too. Inside the weak is the germ of strength. Inside strength is the germ of weakness. Everything is born from everything. Everything interacts and follows on in a constant cycle. Yet there are certain rare moments, when there is a movement and the opposites come closer together. In these moments, meetings and interactions create a kind of balance between the elements. Then the apples dance an ordered dance above the hand of a happy juggler and humanity takes rare, Herculean steps to oppose these cyclical laws, like a rebellious drunkard.


Hieronymus: Whoever said that strength has the seeds of weakness in it? Do I carry inside me the germs of weakness?


Philosopher: No doubt about it… The first signs had begun.


Hieronymus: The first signs are that I am wasting my time listening to your gibberish. Yes, I definitely see the germs of weakness around me: you and this woman! You alone are the germs of my weakness. This will be one of the great distinctions of my ever-vigilant government: that I put people like you in prison. What they call a skilled philosopher is nothing more than a dangerous plotter against the security of a strong government!


Praxa: Even me?


Hieronymus: Yes… you too… after what I have seen and heard today of yours ambitions and the ambitions of this philosopher. I won’t have security or serenity until I see you here at his side. Jailer! … Jailer!…


Jailer: (enters) Hieronymus the Triumphant?


Hieronymus: Chain up this woman’s feet.





















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