Al-Hakim’s Fate of a Cockroach was first published in 1966. In my opinion, al-Hakim asserts that man has no control over his own fate as the central theme of his play. The belief that one can control his or her fate consequently leads to an obsession with attaining knowledge and power. Through his male characters, Al-Hakim intended to describe the nature of man as presumptuous, self-centered and obsessed with scientific pursuits. Alternatively, the women in his play closely epitomize the humbling phenomena of nature.
Within the play, the Queen cockroach and Samia are characterized as ego effacing in events of their husband’s self-aggrandizement. Similarly, we are all confronted with our insignificance in the world when the powerful hand of nature crashes down upon us in the event of a natural disaster. Thus, it can be concluded that al-Hakim believes nature is where ‘power’ truly lies in our world. In terms of Fate of a Cockroach, man’s greatest flaw is the created ideology that we are significant enough to control our own fate.
Al-Hakim’s play is separated into two instances within different worlds, yet both play a significant part in what happens in the other. Act I is set in the bathroom of Adil and Samia, his main human characters, but seen through the eyes of the King and Queen cockroach and their subjects. Act II centers around a hectic morning between husband and wife as they each prepare for their day. Adil proves to be Al-Hakim’s ‘personified cockroach’, as he finds himself captivated by the struggle of the King cockroach to climb up the slippery walls of the porcelain tub, as well as connected to it’s persistent will to live.
With this knowledge, the audience can infer that the cockroaches’ world is a microcosm of modern human society. Therefore, any conclusions made about the nature of the cockroach and his kingdom can be paralleled to the nature of humans and civilization. The beginning of the play illustrates the distribution of power within the king and queen’s marriage. The King cockroach thinks his long whiskers to be inherent proof that he is better than all the other cockroaches, including his wife.
Though he asserts his authority over his ‘royal’ subjects (the Savant, the Priest and the Minister), the Queen shows she cannot be so easily domineered by her husband. The first example of this can be seen in a conversation between the two in the immediate opening of the play,
“Queen: I’m exactly the same as you- there’s no difference between us at all!
King: There is a difference.
Queen: And what, prithee, might this difference be?
King: My whiskers.
Queen: Just as you have whiskers, so have I.
King: Yes, but my whiskers are longer than yours.
Queen: That is a trifling difference.
King: So it seems to you.
Queen: To you rather. It is your sickly imagination that always makes it appear to you that there is a difference between us. ”(pg. )
Through this conversation the audience sees the King argues that his supreme authority is obvious to whoever looks at his whiskers, though the difference is trivial. On the other hand, the Queen cannot see the validity in this argument because it merely based on his perception that there is any difference between the two of them. She demeans her husband, belittles his boasting and questions his authority to keep him mindful that he is as insignificant as the rest of them. The play goes on to introduce more characters; the Minister, the Savant and the Priest.
Not only are these three servile to the king, but he has also appointed them all for their unique “talents”. For example, the Minister was nominated for his “consummate concern with proposing disconcerting problems and producing unpleasant news. ” This is actually proves to be very true as he enters the play bearing the terrible news that the ants have killed his son. Though seen as inferior to cockroaches, as stated by the Savant because they are solely concerned with acquiring food, the ants pose the greatest threat to the existence of the cockroach.
When a cockroach slips onto it’s back, the ants immediately attack and carry it away to be stored for food. I find this to be ironic because even though the ants are seen as insignificant in the cockroaches’ world, they prove to be integral components in deciding the fate of the cockroach. After the Minister announces the death of his son, it is the Queen who asserts that a solution to the problem of the ants must be pursued and the King who says that no solution exists.
Again the King’s significance is undermined as he cannot rise to this challenging occasion or “fulfill [his] official functions”(pg. 8). As exemplified throughout the play by the cockroaches, an air of superiority keeps them from adapting the ways of the ‘inferior’ ants and, in turn, possibly finding a solution to their problem. In a moment of clarity, a suggestion is made by the Minister, “Armies. [The ants] attack us with huge armies. Now if were able to mobilize ourselves and assemble in great numbers we’d find it easy to attack them, to scatter and to crush them under our great feet. ”(pg. ) Immediately the King applies his ‘authority’ and rebukes the Minister’s notion, cutting him down because it is a “stupid” idea; in the “long history” of cockroaches they have never gathered together in a group big enough to form an army. This declaration by the King upholds that the nature of the cockroach is to be self-centered and, so, they live a life of solitude. By sticking to themselves, they are not constantly reminded of the fact that they are all the same and should be working together to solve the problem of the ants. This individualistic mentality keeps them from taking control over their lives.
Instead, they are preoccupied with rationalizing ideas of grandeur through scientific equations; like why the tub is filled when there is light and empty when it is dark. When a procession of ants marches by chanting a song of togetherness (“There is amongst us none who says ‘I am not concerned with others’”(pg. 16)), the cockroaches hear nothing. The ants’ voices are small, but their words hold a weighty philosophy; one the cockroaches cannot understand because they trivialize the ants’ significance. Close to the end of Act I, the Queens implores the knowledge of the “eminent” Savant.
She wishes to understand why, if the cockroach is considered superior to the ant, they still suffer because of “those other, inferior creatures”(pg. 19). The Savant responds that patience is the key since they “cannot bring those creatures who are lower than us up to the same standard of civilization as ourselves”(pg. 19). He continues on to say that unlike the ants, who care only for food, cockroaches touch things, other than food, with their great whiskers to “seek out their nature, to discover their reality…from curiosity, a love of knowledge, a desire to know. (pg. 19) It cannot be refuted that the cockroaches have high aspirations, but what they aspire to understand is not always in their realm of perception. Just like the voices of the ants, they cannot see Adil and Samia, whose bathroom they call their kingdom. They cannot see Umm Attiya’s wet rag, with which she uses to wipe cockroaches and ants out of existence while cleaning that very bathroom. Still, the cockroaches see it as their obligation to explain the “natural phenomena’s” when they occur.
Ironically, their egotistical view of the world leads them to believe that the link to the occurrence of these catastrophes lies in the fact that cockroaches were present in that moment of time(pg. 12). This unquenchable curiosity and itch for discovery, however, leads the King to his ultimate downfall. When exploring “the lake”, which is no more than Adil and Samia’s bath tub, the King loses control of his footing and slips into the abyss of the tub, where no one can, or tries, to save him. This concludes Act I and begins the play’s introduction of Adil, his wife Samia, their Cook, Umm Attiya and the Doctor.
Act II opens with the human characters, Adil and Samia, rising from bed and beginning their individual morning rituals. Hardly any time goes by before the marital bickering begins. Samia is extremely critical of and domineering over Adil; she barks out orders even while she’s preoccupied in the bathroom. It is clear she has most of the control in their relationship, but Adil finds comfort in justifying that his submission to Samia stems from the fact that, “[she’s] a woman, a weak woman, the weaker sex. ”(pg. 25) and so he entertains her delusions.
Just like the cockroaches and the ants, although he is unable to break free from tense hold she has on his life, he feels secure believing he is superior to Samia. As the play continues on, Samia finds the King cockroach inside their bathtub, still struggling to climb up the slippery walls. She screams for Adil, and he comes to her aid. While inside the bathroom, he strategically locks Samia out when she runs to the kitchen to get the insecticide. Adil becomes mesmerized by the King cockroach’s struggle and even begins to cheer him on, “Stick to it! Stick to it!
Struggle for your life! ”(pg. 32) Adil projects his marital strife onto the cockroach; through the beetle’s fight for life, he finds hope for himself. Adil identifies with the cockroach, whose struggle is tragic because it is beyond his strength, and rebels against Samia’s commands, “Open the door, Adil! Open up, I tell you! ”(pg. 32) He realizes that although she has emasculated him and has reduced him to the status of a cockroach, even a cockroach can rebel. Even though the struggle is futile, identifying with the cockroach allows him to feel human again.
This is quite a lesson learned because, unlike the King cockroach, Adil is finding significant purpose in something that might have otherwise seemed trivial and worthless to a man’s life. From that point on in the play, Adil feels secure with himself. He is no longer angered or affected by his wife’s harassing and he does not allow the Doctor, who Samia calls to the house, to dominate him with his scientific inquiries. In the end, it is the Cook who draws the bath water and in doing so, unintentionally drowns the King cockroach. The Cook symbolizes the external forces of nature that makes changes in life.
Just like natural phenomena’s on Earth are impartial to the fate of man, she is neutral to the struggle of the cockroach; she is only doing her job cleaning the bathroom. Al-Hakim’s message unifies the fate of a cockroach with the fate of a man. If man is to make it in this world, he has to recognize his limits. During the play we scoff at the cockroaches’ egotistical ignorance, but since a connection exists between the King cockroach and Adil, should we not also scoff at ours? We insist we are in control of our fate because we are scared to suppose there is something bigger than us, which actually does.
In the play, Nature symbolizes this metaphysical force much greater than us that makes real changes to the world. Men who are absorbed by the obsession of attaining knowledge and power should be quick to squash that part of them before they become infected with delusions of grandeur. As portrayed in the play through the fate of the King cockroach, even a man who attains absolute power over others, whether it be his wife or kinsmen, will eventually come face to face with life’s equalizer; death. Fate of a Cockroach Analysis Alayna Erhard 2/13/13 The Drama in Africa LIT 4194