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Exhibit: Of Love and Madness

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layla and majnun production
Photo: Layla and Majnun, the new production by Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silk Road Ensemble. At Power Center October 13-15, 2016.

Inside the Hatcher Graduate Library’s Special Collections, a set of display cases houses several manuscripts with gilded pages and splendidly illuminated text. These brilliant pages tell an age-old story of passion and divine love.

The Story

Layla and Majnun is an Persian romance ending in tragedy, not unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In the story, the poet Qays (Majnun) falls in love with the beautiful Layla. The lovers’ parents forbid them to wed, and instead Layla is married to another. Majnun, whose name derives from an Arabian word for “mad”, goes crazy upon hearing this. He escapes to the wilderness, half-naked and starving, to write poems about his beloved.

Majnun’s father takes him on a holy pilgrimage to Mecca to cure his obsession, but Majnun prays only for his love and passion to intensify. Layla and Majnun finally meet again, but both perish before they can express their passionate love for each other.

Origins and Themes

While the legend’s exact origins are unclear, the earliest known versions of Layla and Majnun come from anecdotal sources passed down by oral and written tradition. However, the complete story exists in many poetic versions.

Authors would recreate the story to emulate their contemporaries’ versions and to emphasize different themes. Common themes include elements of mysticism the moral of a pure and idealized love based in religion. Through his madness, Majnun’s love transforms from simple affection for Layla to an unattainable love of the divine—in other words, a love of God.

Many scholars regard Nizami Ganjavi’s 12th century epic poem as most popular version of the Layla and Majnun story. Nizami’s rich narrative and psychological complexity inspired readers and poets alike. His contemporaries imitated his poetic meter, structure, and thematic emphasis for many years.

From Verse to Opera and Beyond

The 16th century poet Fuzuli composed his own version of the poem in 1536, incorporating rich allegory and mystical elements inspired by Nizami and the Persian poet Hatifi. The intensity, sincerity, and compelling narrative of Fuzuli’s work inspired the first Azerbaijani opera composed by Üzeyir Hacibäyli, which in turn inspired the production of this weekend’s performances by the Mark Morris Group and Silk Road Ensemble.

The exhibit is offered in conjunction with UMS and the Mark Morris Dance Group and Silk Road Ensemble’s production of Layla and Majnun, presented this weekend, October 13-15. Exhibit curator Evyn Kropf has taken great care to compile a collection of manuscripts and editions that show a rich literary history of a timeless story.

Be sure to visit the exhibit on the 7th floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library October 7, 2016 – February 22, 2017.

See Layla and Majnun at Power Center in Ann Arbor October 13-15, 2016.