By Nouran Maamoun
“Women in Council” was a Greek comedy by Aristophanes and it was played in 392 BC, then after more than two millennia, that ancient play inspired one of Tawfiq Al-Hakim’s most brilliant works; Praxa, or ‘The Problem of Ruling’.
The book is only a little more than a 100 pages, but it is a small book with a gigantic idea that leaves readers with even more wanderings and questions. Al-Hakim takes us across time and space to ancient Greece; to that wonderful place during these wonderful times of democracy and, of course, philosophy.
The strange thing about this play is that, although it takes place in ancient Greece, people across history and in any place in the world can still relate to it and find reflections of their own societies in the models of ruling described by Al-Hakim.
Praxagora, or Praxa is the name of the first woman to rule Athens, according to the play. She, and her fellow Greek women are fed up with the empty words of the Greek male leaders, so one day they sneak into parliament and Praxa convinces the whole parliament that women are more fit than men in ruling the country.
When she is actually in power, however, she discovers how hard it really is to please everyone, satisfy the needs of the people, and meet their conflicting demands. She discovers how inexperienced she really is and that absolute democracy can easily turn into chaos. When she does understand, it is already too late; the people have revolted against her.
At that moment steps up the glorious war hero and military leader, the handsome Hieronymus. He is the distinguished Chief who is the only hope of order in the country. He rules by an iron fist, throws Praxa in prison, and mute all the voices of opposition, and the people accept that because he promised that it was all for the sake of winning the war and bringing victory and glory to Athens.
But what happens when he loses the war? He no longer has a reason to stay, and the people no longer see him as the hero, they only see a traitor and tyrant, so he decides to kill himself, but then another idea is presented.
Here we have to shed the light on the central character of the play, it is not the leaders or the heroes; it is the philosopher, the sarcastic, bitter, wise philosopher. He has been with Praxa since her first day in rule, and was imprisoned with her when Hieronymus came to power.
The philosopher always warns Praxa about her wrong methods of ruling, and he then gives Hieronymus a long speech on how Tyranny cannot continue. So at this critical moment, the philosopher, Praxa, and Hieronymus decide to execute a plan which the philosopher thought was best; they will all rule the country, all three of them, but yet none of them would be king.
They decide to make Praxa’s fool husband, Blepyrus, king. They decide to make him a mere front while the three of them rule the country without rage from the people. However, things do not continue on so smooth. The idiot comes to know he was only chosen to be a muppet, so he and some his fiends throw the philosopher, Praxa and Hieronymus in prison.
This leaves Athens in the hands of Blepyrus and his friends, who do nothing but steel from the people. They have the tyranny of Hieronymus without his heroism, they have the poor knowledge and experience of Praxa without her good hear and her democracy, and they have nothing at all from the wisdom of the philosopher.
When Praxa’s husband puts her and Hieronymus on trial for adultery, and throws in the philosopher as well for not preventing it. The trial is public.
During that trial, the philosopher talks to the people and shifts their opinions as he explains how the current rulers have the tyranny of Hieronymus without his heroism, how they have the poor knowledge and experience of Praxa without her good heart and her democracy, and how they have nothing at all from the wisdom of the philosopher.
The philosopher makes the people understand that only they can rule themselves; a ruling by the people for the people, and the story ends with the masses of the Greek people marching to the castle to force Blepyrus to step down.
The communist approach is of course undeniable, it is clear that the thoughts of Al- Hakim had their inspiration from Karl Max’s communism as much as Aristophanes has had his inspiration from Plato and his master piece “The Republic”.
Of course, since the play is in Greece, motherland of philosophy, and since the writer in Tawfiq Al-Hakim, a great enthusiast of philosophy, the story line and the dialogue all revolve around the philosophy of ruling, and the wisdom and wits of the philosopher.
Some readers have criticised the play’s stance against women, saying that it patronised them in the figure of Praxa; the woman who ruled but knew nothing of politics or ruling, the naive woman who thought running a country was as easy as running her household.
Al-Hakim’s language in this book is both simple and strong, it makes reading it very smooth and profound at the same time, which is exactly the effect of the story itself; it is powerful and exceptional, but yet normal and understandable by the simplest of minds.
The dialogue is also very entertaining and quick paced, leaving you no pause to put down the book and it will never bore you. The descriptions of the scenes takes the readers to Athens as if it is in front of their eyes, with no excessive detailing, but just enough to make them feel like they are part of the story.
The brilliant and most devastating thing about this play is its ending, the sort of open end devastates readers who seek an answer; a solution to ‘The Problem of Ruling’. But that is not something they find in the pages of this book, because, although the last scene ends with the people revolting against yet another failed ruler, there is no guarantee that what comes next would be better.
Nevertheless, it is clear that in their plays, Aristophanes and Al-Hakim attempt to search for the perfect city, joining a long line of writers, thinkers, and philosophers who all searched for it but none ever found it.