London’s Theatre of the East (Dr Johnson’s House) Back

Artists’ collaborations with galleries and museums add depth and creative energy to an exhibition. The artists serve both as our mediators because they have spent time and effort engaging with and responding to the subject, and as our ambassadors because they represent a view of the subject beyond the individual skills of curators and push the boundaries of meaning to enrich the experience for all. This is certainly true of the current exhibition at Dr. Johnson’s House. Artists associated with the Arab British Centre, a neighbour of the House in Gough Square, have responded and contributed to a celebration of the 270th anniversary of the staging of Johnson’s only play Irene, a first edition of which is on display in the Parlour alongside one of his The Prince of Abissinia; A Tale (1759), known as ‘Rasselas’. In 1749 the play ran for nine nights at the Drury Lane Theatre but after this came to an acrimonious end there were no further productions until the twentieth century.

The project has resulted in exciting interpretations of the play and its context and has highlighted issues of gender, religion and ‘belonging’ as well as the complex history of Anglo-Islamic relations from the sixteenth century to the present. It offers surprises and prompts re-evaluation of what we thought we knew about our history. This is no small achievement for a modest venue like Dr. Johnson’s House. It pays to spend time examining the displays carefully. Their economy of presentation is at the same time provocative in scope and originality. Interestingly, there are resonances with the larger exhibition currently at the British Museum until the end of January, Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art. Not least is the fact that responses to the themes by contemporary Middle Eastern women artists are also important features of the British Museum exhibition, where they extend the discussion and challenge the assumptions and prejudices which originally informed the works of art selected. Women seem to be at the forefront of such participation.

Johnson based his Irene mainly on Richard Knolles’ Generall Historie of the Turks (1603). Knolles describes Sultan Mahomet’s 1453 capture of Constantinople and his taking of the Greek Christian Irene as his mistress. His obsession with her leads to neglect of his kingdom, but after riots alert him to the dangers for his rule, he kills Irene to prove his commitment to his people. Johnson’s version alters this and dwells on the dilemma Irene faces when she is offered mercy if she converts to Islam. A conspiracy against her leads to her death and Mahomet’s remorse when he learns the truth. The exhibition dwells on the ‘female voice’. The curator, Celine Luppo McDaid, discusses how this interested Johnson in her contribution to the Essays accompanying the exhibition.

Novelist Saeida Rouass interprets the play as offering an alternative narrative. She has used a ‘cut-up literary technique’ which physically manipulates the play to reveal hidden themes which might otherwise not be apparent, particularly ‘Other’ and womanhood. The mysterious strips of paper and green highlighting of the disassembled text on display require concentration and explanation to make them comprehensible to the visitor and point to the difficulties of translating a complex and imaginative literary theme into a visually accessible presentation. The display description makes important connections apparent. It points out that the cut-up technique was pioneered by author William Burroughs who lived in Morocco in the 1950s. There he wrote his best known novel Naked Lunch (1959), the chapters of which were designed to be read in any order and to reflect chaotic dreamlike states, ‘an example of unseen influences of the Arab world on English literature [which] resembles the technique used by Johnson to compile his dictionary (1755)’. We quickly envisage Johnson amidst the papers and ink in his garret, and Rouass’s analogy becomes clear.

Hannah Khalil’s contribution centres on the first publication of the Alcoran in 1649 by Margaret White who continued her husband’s printing business in London after he died. As a playwright, Khalil uses the spoken word to shape her response to this, a project which reflects the surprising female engagement with this printing initiative. Khalil has constructed a monologue by Margaret White which she hopes will one day become a play. Visitors can listen to this using headphones, though this unavoidably limits access to the recording. It is a shame it cannot be made available through the Dr Johnson’s House website.

Nour Hage uses her fashion designing skills to interpret the important connection between England in the reign of Elizabeth I and the Arab world. One of the consultants involved in the exhibition is Jerry Brotton whose book This Orient Isle (2016) outlines the diplomatic, artistic and trading relationship which flourished, partly as the result of Elizabeth’s excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church in 1570 and the need to pursue new commercial opportunities beyond Europe. As Brotton writes: ‘[Elizabethan England] regarded Islam, with its refusal to worship icons and its venerating of a holy book, as a faith with which it could do business’ (p.13). This facet of sixteenth-century English life may well be new to visitors. Hage’s display explores the subject through the many ‘exotic’ dyes and foodstuffs which first became available at the time, such as turmeric, indigo and sugar. An elaborate ruff on a manikin set at the diminutive height of Queen Elizabeth has been dyed in turmeric yellow and indigo blue to represent these developments in the spice trade. Other recent exhibitions at the House have similarly exploited the potential of incorporating textile art, such as last winter’s Curious Travellers: Dr. Johnson and Thomas Pennant on Tour which featured  Louise Whittles’ magnificent oversized ‘Dr. Johnson’s greatcoat’. Perhaps Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture and textile projects are the best known artworks of this type but Hage’s delicate structure has an understated beauty which is compelling and unexpected. It neatly encapsulates Elizabethan commercial interests while also hinting at the dramatic engagement with the Arab world by Shakespeare and Marlowe and later by Johnson himself.

The final contribution to the exhibition confronts the issue of identity and belonging, the shaping of the Arab-British exchange through a long and complicated colonial and imperial history which Lena Naassana, a documentary photographer and filmmaker, explores through images of a seventeenth-century map of the Ottoman Empire. These are projected onto a series of six portrait photographs with the title Ipso (facto). Her wall label poses the questions:  ‘Are we, ipso facto, shaped by maps, or even products of maps? How do we as individuals respond to the burden of history? And to what extent is our response constructed and performed?’ These questions are relevant for us all. The portrait subjects claim their own place in the exhibition through personal statements and family snapshots to document their own lives, shaped through family narratives played out between Britain and the Middle East. They bring the cross-cultural story of the exhibition into the present and demonstrate the personal impact of the burden of history which still imposes a strain on the borders between the Arab and Western world.

London’s Theatre of the East is at Dr Johnson’s House, London from 8 November 2019 until 14 February 2020.