|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line|
9 -15 November 2000
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (363)
For several years after the turn of the century, Egyptians were treated to stage plays that had more than a Western tinge to them and little to do with Egypt. Egyptians wanted original theatre that was not simply an adaptation or translation of works from abroad but which genuinely reflected their society. World War I, however, had virtually frozen all forms of entertainment. The public was too engrossed in the 1919 Revolution to think about much else. Only with the advent of the Declaration of 28 February 1922, when political activism subsided, did drama, and which form should it take, see a revival. Al-Ahram gets in on the act and Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* sets the stage
To be or not...The Theatre Revival Group was founded in January 1925, just over a decade after the formation of the Society of Theatre Devotees in January 1914. Because both bodies had many of the same members, the revival group became a natural extension of its predecessor which would become defunct.
Suffice it to say that many members of the Society of Theatre Devotees were among the founders of the Theatre Revival Group, and their goal was very much the same -- to Egyptianise the art of drama. According to its statement of purpose, the 1914 society was dedicated to "the promotion of the creation of plays inspired by contemporary and historical events in Egyptian and Arab society." The 1925 society declared as its objective, "the quest to create an Egyptian theatre in view of the fact that this art, at present in Egypt, is manifestly dominated by Western taste." The new society did add another component to its agenda, inspired by the events of the intervening period, which was to work towards safeguarding the rights of playwrights and to establish ties with foreign organisations concerned with the dramatic arts.
The impact of the previous decade on those involved in the theatre, as in all other cultural and social activities, cannot be underestimated. World War I had had the dual effect of putting the fine arts on hold while generating what is known as "war art," geared primarily to the masses and aimed more at rousing passions than at honing critical and aesthetic senses. Then followed the 1919 Revolution, during which Egyptians were engrossed in the events that would shape political and social realities over the next few years. And that would culminate in the Declaration of 28 February 1922 which ended the British protectorate regime and recognised Egypt's independence. The lull in political activism that came about as a result of newly acquired independence allowed Egyptians to return to a more serious form of drama. Indicative of the thirst for better quality theatre was Al-Ahram's commentary on the return in early January 1923 of Youssef Bek Wahbi from a tour of Italy. The homecoming of the stage star was enthusiastically greeted by a public that "yearns for serious theatre, having grown bored with Emadeddin Street, which had become one large unending exorcism of drums and tambourines, dancing emporiums and frenzied songs performed in the musical revues that proliferated in that area."
Of course, the intervening decade would also bring a host of new theatre enthusiasts to the association, as is revealed in Al-Ahram of 29 January 1925 in an item announcing the composition of the board of directors of the Theatre Revival Group. Mohamed Masoud, Ibrahim Ramzi, Zaki Toleimat, Mohamed El-Tab'i, Abdallah Fikri Abaza, George Tannous, Ismail Wahbi, Mohamed Helmi Hakim and Mohamed Abdel-Quddous are names that not only made their mark in theatre but in other literary works as well.
It was not long before the newly created theatre society ran into problems with a government ministry -- the Ministry of Public Works. Under the headline "Promoting Arab Theatre," Al-Ahram reports that the Advisory Dramatic Council, headed by Hussein Sirri, the secretary of that ministry, met to discuss "proposals related to the advancement of Arab theatre." Not only did the council contain some influential figures in government and the arts, including Abdel-Hamid Badawi, the poet Khalil Motran and Ibrahim Ramzi from the Ministry of Justice, but it also clearly enjoyed strong government support, to the tune of LE2,000, to fund its activities. In February, this government arts council decided to hold an acting competition, appointing Sirri, "Dean of Arab Poets" Ahmed Shawqi, and famed artist Abdel-Rahman Rushdi as organisers. The rules of the competition appeared in Al-Ahram of 13 February. Actors were required to perform roles from Arab plays that, whether previously performed or not, had been submitted to the Publications Department of the Ministry of Interior in 1924. Six copies of the play were to be submitted to the contest committee. Preference would be given to original plays, then to adaptations and finally to translations on the condition that the adapter or translator submit the original texts on which his work was based. Finally, the plays themselves had to "observe proper language and style."
The Theatre Revival Group was disturbed by government interference in the arts, and on its behalf one of its members wrote a lengthy article to Al-Ahram. "The Arab Theatre Contest" appeared in Al-Ahram on 15 April 1925, the day after the gala the Ministry of Public Works had sponsored to announce the winners. It was signed, "Handas," the stage name of a man who would become Al-Ahram's critic for the forthcoming theatre season.
There are many reasons to suppose that Handas, in fact, was Mohamed Abdel-Quddous who, after retiring from the stage in the 1940s in order to devote himself entirely to writing, signed himself Kandas. Moreover, there was no mistaking the similarity in style, humour and imagery between the writings of Handas and Kandas. In addition, Abdel-Quddous was perhaps the only member of the Theatre Revival Group with the combination of stage expertise and the communicative efficacy to express the society's views, already having to his credit a number of published plays, all charged with his particular brand of wit and sarcasm.
The awards ceremony had been held the previous evening in the Opera House. Evening dress was mandatory, which caused Handas quite some discomfort. "I was sweating profusely and all I could think of was my collar button, which through some mysterious gymnastics movement of its own had detached itself from its buttonhole and started to slide downwards so that whenever I tried to get a hold on the stud, my shirt front jumped up."
Casting his eye around the auditorium, Handas was shocked to find that the vast majority of guests were "notables, personages of great distinction, senior officials and golden-cuffed youths," while "men of letters and those more intimately involved in Arab theatre were in the very small minority." Handas attempts to explain this baffling mystery: "My suspicion is that irrigation and drainage officials in the Ministry of Public Works had simply used the same guest list for such functions as the Day of the Nile Inundation Celebration, having overlooked the difference between the two occasions and the fact that in a function dedicated to the theatre, most of the guests should have consisted of writers, critics, prominent actors, journalists and musicians."
More disconcerting was that the gala organisers had squeezed the handful of literary and artistic figures into the two or three back rows, leaving the front seats for "those who have no conception of the theatre, or discernment, or for those for whom theatre is at best an occasional pastime." As a result, "I did not see Omar Aref, Saleh Gawdat, Abbas Allam, Badie Kheiri or even Kamel El-Khalaee or Sami Shawa" -- prominent names in theatre circles at the time.
His acerbic remarks aside, Handas was pleased with some of the panel's decisions. Foremost among the award winners was Rose El-Youssef, "whose friends and admirers -- and they are many -- were delighted at her stunning success." He continues, "The panel's verdict has corroborated what I have said many times before on the pages of Al-Ahram, which is that she truly merits the title of Egypt's number one actress. Although my claim met with mockery and derision, the judge's word has finally come to silence the jesters." Not that the mockery and derision had been without some grounds. It was well known that the stage star was Handas' wife.
It also pleased Handas that the famous Munira El-Mahdiya had shone so brightly although he would have wished that instead of the elegy with which she had concluded the performances, she had chosen a eulogy in tribute to the king, "which would have been a more appropriate end piece."
Mohamed Abdel-Quddous and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab in Al-Warda Al-Baida (The White Flower)
Youssef Bek Wahbi
Handas reserved special praise for Zaki Toleimat, "the second prize winner." This young man, he writes, "has been infatuated with the theatre and everything connected with it since his childhood. Nevertheless, fate has ordained that he work as an employee in the zoological gardens!"
Other Al-Ahram readers echoed Handas' sentiments about the contest and the surrounding fanfare. In fact, one -- Ali Khater -- criticised the very concept of the competition. The money that the government had allocated to this affair, he wrote, would have been much more wisely spent on encouraging Egyptian youth to become involved in the theatrical arts. "If the government is determined not to make more than a token show in support of theatre, this art will certainly not develop beyond its current stage."
Handas himself gives an inkling of some of the problems affecting Arab theatre at the time. In Al-Ahram of 16 May 1925, he pans the George Abyad troupe's performance of Michelle Estragov in no uncertain terms. The famous actor and theatre director, he said, has failed once again to give audiences anything new. "We have tried to wake him from his slumber, tried to get him to change the criteria he uses in choosing his plays, but to no avail. For 12 years writers have encouraged Abyad with their praise, but he is set in his ways and going from bad to worse, financially and artistically." The only advice Handas could offer Abyad was to stop lamenting his poor fortune: "Bad luck is the weak excuse of the weak-willed. You should always ask yourself first whether you have done your duty to the best of your ability and whether the work you have done is as good as it could possibly be. If the answer is yes, then you will have every right to bemoan the lot your exquisite art has met in Egypt and to shoot the arrows of reproach at the audiences who have shunned you. However, the answer to that question is a resounding 'no', a fact to which you should concede along with us, unless you want to stand charged of pigheadedness as well."
Handas goes on to suggest that the only reason most members of the audience turned up at all was because Umm Kulthoum was scheduled to sing at the end of the performance. And, it was a long, drawn-out affair indeed -- six acts but, the critic observed, the audience stayed glued to their seats to the end in order to hear the voice of the rising "Star of the East." Although he also observed that a good many people among the audience appeared to be friends and relatives of the famous singer, it was also true that the entire crowd was thoroughly overwhelmed by her performance, including the caustic critic himself, who wrote, "If I were more knowledgeable about music and its laws and conventions, I would allow my pen to venture into some detail. However, I am not, and, therefore, I find myself at a loss for words that would do justice to the effect the voice of Umm Kulthoum has on me... What is most beautiful about her voice is its purity, its faithful rendition and the emotion that is vested in every word of the poetry to which the music is set." There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of this praise, although one is given to suspect that the critic's rapture came partly from the release from the stupor he felt after the endless hours of George Abyad's play.
As the 1924-25 theatre season neared its end, Al-Ahram featured a series of articles, which together constituted a form of retrospective. Once again Handas, who appears to have become the newspaper's theatre columnist that year, was the author. In his assessment of that season's performances of the major theatre companies he had nothing kinder to say of the George Abyad Company. His previous article, "A Frank Word to George Abyad," had offended the actor-director's fans who thought Handas was unjustifiably cruel, while other readers felt the author was not as frank as he should have been. The latter group, he wrote, "have asked me to be sterner, to censure him for the bankruptcy of his artistic personality, for his failure to produce anything new and for his refusal to encourage new playwrights. They also believe I should fault him for not having an artistic director in his company in order to help the actors understand the characters they are to play, for he, too, is an actor, a master actor, but not a teacher."
His pen dripping its customary sarcasm, Handas concludes his criticism of Abyad. "It is most unfortunate that he was unable to pay the electricity bill for the 50 nights he played this year in the Royal Opera House. Now, as I bid him and his troupe farewell as they board the train for Upper Egypt, I fervently hope that something in the heat of that climate will ignite his talents and that the reception he receives down there, between Edfu and Ikhmim, will not keep him away from Cairo too long."
Youssef Wahbi, head of another theatre company that played that season, received entirely different treatment. Following his return in 1923 from a European tour, the famous actor-director mounted such a successful promotional campaign that "hardly had the doors of the Ramsis Theatre opened than its hall and stalls were filled to the brim." But unlike Abyad, "Youssef did not allow the reception to go to his head. Rather than sitting there yawning and stretching, he scrutinised the psychological make-up of his audiences and worked to please them, capture their attention and gain their confidence. He succeeded in this without a doubt."
But Handas never forgot his primary cause, which was to promote original plays instead of the adaptations and translations that prevailed at the time. Even in the Ramsis Theatre, he lamented, out of the more than 50 plays that had been presented on its stage, "I would wager that no more than four were original creations on Egyptian themes, which is the worst charge one could level against the Ramsis." Apart from this, however, Wahbi merited the highest praise. "He restored serious theatre to its proper stature and rescued it and those involved in it from almost certain extinction at the hands of musical revues. Towards this end, he produced play after play, totalling in almost a year and a half some 35 new productions on contemporary themes that enthralled audiences and set the rules and standards for contemporary Arab theatre. To his credit, too, is that he has compelled the Okasha brothers to move in the same direction."
Wahbi also changed the general caliber of acting on the stage. Up to then, he suggests, the usual run of actors and actresses were down-and-out drug or alcohol addicts with little left in them to contribute to the development of the theatre. Wahbi, however, "opened the doors to an elite group of educated youth who did not ascend to the stage for lack of any other means to earn a living but rather because of their love for the theatre and their desire to promote it. Moreover, he raised the salaries of actors and actresses to a level at which the professional can truly afford a dignified standard of living. By raising the market price for actors he has forced other companies to follow suit, thereby lifting the acting profession to a status that would not discourage educated youth as had been the case in the past."
Handas described Wahbi as the greatest factor behind "the improvements and innovations we see in the theatre today because of the competition he triggered between the various theatre companies." This was all the more reason why the Al-Ahram theatre critic voiced concern over rumours that Wahbi had been complaining about financial losses and was consequently contemplating leaving Egypt to work in the US or Italy. In the hope of dissuading Wahbi from such a course, Handas appealed to the actor's spirit of patriotism and reminded him of Caesar's famous saying, "I would rather be the first in my village than second in Rome."
If Handas did not write about the Okasha Brothers Company another Al-Ahram reader did. Ali Khater had also written artistic critiques for Al-Ahram before, so his name was not unfamiliar to the newspaper's readers. In his opinion, the Okasha Brothers were the only company to be "sincerely dedicated and committed to the advancement of Arab drama." He continues, "It has elite celebrities of the stage and is a thoroughly Egyptian company devoted to reviving the customs and traditions of our ancestors and to resurrecting their oriental pre-eminence and noble glory."
Apart from Khater's observations, the remainder of Al-Ahram's comments on the 1924-25 theatre season came from Handas' pen. It is interesting that Handas changed his opinion of the Ministry of Public Works when he learned that his protégé Zaki Toleimat had been selected for a government-sponsored grant to study acting in Paris. In so doing, the ministry had "done its duty and acquitted itself." This, of course, did not keep the critic from urging the ministry to undertake further reforms in this direction. He writes, "We can have no hope of elevating the theatre in Egypt unless the largest possible number of our youth receive proper instruction in the fundamentals of this art from its masters. Among those currently engaged in this profession, only very few in Egypt had studied it formally. The rest are the professors who graduated from the coffeehouses of Emadeddin Street."
During the summer lull, Handas treated Al-Ahram readers to occasional snippets on developments in the theatre world in Egypt. Stage and song star Munira El-Mahdiya, he informs them, "made a very generous offer to the upcoming talent Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, but he refused, and wisely so. For the time being, at least, Abdel-Wahab should not abandon the serenity of his current work for the frenzied life of the theatre." Hussein Effendi Riad, he writes in another item, is an excellent actor. But before the beginning of last season he left the Ramsis Company to join the George Abyad Company and just after that season closed he left Abyad to return to the Ramsis, "without having given any explanation or advanced warning." Handas believed that the Actors Guild should take some action before such free-wheeling behaviour plunged the theatre world in Egypt into chaos. In spite of the fact that Handas' insights came in very small doses that summer, they kept Al-Ahram readers tantalised in anticipation of the return of his acerbic wit the following theatre season, an impression that the newspaper's management must also have shared, for Handas/Abdel-Quddous continued to serve as the newspaper's theatre critic for some time to come.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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