For six months the hottest show off Broadway has been the Libyan drama "To the Shores of Tripoli." Playing to enthusiastic houses on Capitol Hill, it has been deluged with rave notices from the media, whose reviewers have suspended their usual critical faculties to praise the unfolding spectacle.
While the show has been received in the United States with uncritical acclaim, the reaction has not been the same among overseas audiences. One European critic complains that he cannot tell whether it is a comedy or a tragedy. Not that it is difficult to indentify elements of farce: the idea of a midget terrorizing a giant certainly is a promising theme and is particularly well exploited by the exaggerated response of the giant. On the other hand, there is an aspect of danger to the actors and the audience as well, since the players are brandishing real weapons in a flamboyant manner.
The play has met with mixed reaction in the Arab world. A Kuwaiti spectator enjoyed the melodrama but could not decide who is the hero and who is the villain. Obviously, Muammar Qaddafi is supposed to be the bad guy, and yet he also appears to be the underdog--the leader of a ragtag country of 2.5 million against the most powerful nation in the world. Qaddafi is also presenting himself to his own audience --some 250 million mostly Moslem Arabs in 21 countries from Morocco to Kuwait-- as a defender of the Islamic faith and the Arab nation. Qaddafi is claiming that it is Libya that is being terrorized by the hero's powerful navy just offshore, and that the drama is really about the struggle against American imperialism.
A body of conservative Arab critics, to be sure, is skeptical of the Libyan leader's credentials, pointing to the ruthless and oppressive nature of his regime toward Libyans themselves--yet they are puzzled by the United States' failure to exploit this point in its long bill of particulars against Qaddafi. The average Arab audience is less concerned about these fine points and instead applauds the Libyan as he baits the American Goliath.
Most Arab critics find it difficult to identify with the American president, ostensibly the hero of this Middle East western, though none doubts the power of the United States, and most respect its material achievements. They wonder how they can be expected to support an American administration that is more supportive than any of its predecessors of their worst enemy, Israel, at a time when Israel--with renewed fervor--is closing schools and universities in the occupied West Bank, shooting and jailing Palestinian Arabs and establishing new illegal settlements. The Arab audience is by now well aware that the Reagan administration either is abysmally ignorant of the history of the Palestine problem or else has simply adopted the Zionist thesis as to whose land is Palestine. It knows also that the American government has decided to subordinate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to what it sees as the global struggle with the Soviet Union, a struggle in which certain Arab regimes have been invited to participate in return for guarantees of support against the internal subversion that such participation doubtless will encourage.
The Libya show understandably has received more favorable reviews from Israeli theatergoers. No problem for them in telling the good guys from the bad guys. Indeed, there are rumors in Israeli drama circles that they would like to get into the act themselves, possibly in a co-production with Egypt. The Egyptians, however, are keeping a lower profile at this time, preferring to be spectators rather than actors. Besides, they are looking to get back on the all-Arab stage in a few months, and they know that Libya is just a sideshow that could detract from a return to the big time.
Soviet reaction to the Libya show has been generally enthusiastic, although for reasons different from the American response. Whereas Americans see it as a serious morality play, Russian theatergoers have acclaimed it as slapstick. Their special amusement stems no doubt from the fact that one of the main objectives of the American protagonist is to discipline or even remove Qaddafi because he is a Soviet client. Soviet foreign policy officials in particular appreciate the irony that the Libyan leader, apostle of an austere form of Islam and author of a theory that condemns communism as well as capitalism, is seen as their friend; and those Russians who have had the difficult task of actually dealing with him are probably even more amused. But what makes the play even funnier for the Soviets is that every move made by the Americans actually forces Qaddafi closer to them.
The only critical quarters to register clear disappointment with the production are the American oil companies operating in Libya, who wonder whether they will be able to get back into Libya on the same good terms as before when the world oil glut disappears next year; and the growing number of Libyans in opposition to Qaddafi, who fear that the Americans have greatly strengthened his position.