A new play inspired by the controversy over Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" opens in London next week to counter what one of its two authors, himself Moslem-born, refers to as a "climate of fear."
"Iranian Nights" begins a 10-day run on April 19 at the Royal Court Theater. It was written by Howard Brenton, the left-wing English playwright, and Tariq Ali, an Oxford-educated Pakistani who, like Rushdie, was born a Moslem.Ali said the three-character play, inspired by the "Arabian Nights" stories, aims to promote a fuller, more "educative" vision of Islam than the fanatical image conveyed by Islamic fundamentalism.
It was written as a direct response to the plight of Rushdie, a naturalized British citizen born in India. His novel, "The Satanic Verses," has been widely condemned as blasphemous, and it provoked a death threat against the author Feb. 14 from Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"My feeling is that if the play goes as successfully as I hope it will, it will enable people to lose some of their fear," said Ali, who believes reasoned discussion is still possible among Moslems despite the extremist actions advocated by Khomeini and his followers.
Describing himself as "a lapsed Moslem," Ali said: "The aim of the play is to open up debate, clear the air, move forward with ease" in examining the many facets of Islam.
He also hopes the play will be seen in the United States, and he said producer Joseph Papp "has been informed about it."
"Iranian Nights" marks the playwriting debut of Ali, 45, a writer, broadcaster, and political analyst who emigrated to Britain from Lahore, Pakistan, in 1963. Brenton, 46, co-wrote with David Hare the 1985 hit satire "Pravda." His other plays include "The Romans in Britain," "The Churchill Play," and last year's "Greenland."
Their play will run for 10 performances prior to the theater's main production, Caryl Churchill's "Icecream."
But its debut follows some concern over subject matter that led to the resignation prior to rehearsals of two of its three actors, a change of title, and exhaustive board meetings at a theater that is no stranger to controversy.
Roshan Seth and Art Malik, known in the United States from their performances in "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "The Jewel In the Crown," respectively, pulled out of the production due to what theater publicists said were scheduling conflicts.
But Ali said the actors had succumbed to pressure that appearing in the play was ill-advised. Neither performer could be reached for comment. The three roles are being played by Nabil Shaban, Paul Bhattacharjee, and Fiona Victory.
Ali said the title provoked "a slight dispute with the theater management," who requested that its original name, "A Mullah's Night Out," be changed so it did not give offense. A mullah is a Moslem cleric.
"I thought it was a very funny title which puts us firmly within the camp of a skeptical tradition of Islam itself which is hostile to mullahs and the clergy," Ali said.
But the Royal Court came under severe attack two years ago for producing a play, Jim Allen's "Perdition," which was accused of being anti-Semitic, and it was clearly reluctant to enflame Moslem opinion as it had earlier enflamed British Jews.
London's Islamic community had no reaction to reports of the play's debut.
"We don't know what it (`Iranian Nights') is all about; nothing was sent to us," said Muhammed Ebrahim, executive secretary of the Islamic Council. "What we don't know, we cannot be concerned with.
"It's Ramadan, and during that month we're not interested in any other activity," he added.