21 - 27 November 2002
Issue No. 613
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (469)
The inauguration of the Egyptian Drama Institute in 1930 was a landmark in the country's history. As Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* uncovers from the pages of Al-Ahram, it was received with enthusiasm by the literati, but also by fervent opposition from conservative quarters
On 3 November 1930 Al-Ahram's front page carried the headline "The opening of the new drama institute". Below was a large photograph with the caption, "At 5.00 o'clock yesterday afternoon the official inaugural ceremony of the Institute of Drama took place at its premises on Fouad I Street. Presiding over the ceremony was the Honourable Mohamed Hassan El-Ashmawi, assistant secretary for the Ministry of Education, on behalf of his excellency the minister of education." The photograph featured some of the most important guests. In the centre was the noted educationalist, Miss Munira Sabri, to her right were El-Ashmawi and Dr Taha Hussein, to her left was the actor-director Georges Abyad and among those seated in the front row was the actor and theatre critic Zaki Tulaymat.
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To understand the importance of this landmark event one ought to begin with the evolution of the relationship between the state and the dramatic arts. Although this beginning is marked by the opening of the Royal Opera House in 1869, the activities of that institution were limited to hosting European theatre companies. It was only after the establishment of the Department of Fine Arts and Antiquities in the Ministry of Education that we can speak of an official relationship between the government and the Egyptian dramatic arts. This ministerial department took upon itself the task of encouraging the development of the dramatic arts, initially by offering stipends to actors, theatre company owners and playwrights.
Eventually, it was decided that a committee was necessary to ensure the proper channelling of government resources. The committee was formed of the "Prince of Poets", Ahmed Shawqi; two foreign professors from the Faculty of Humanities; the poet Abbas El-Aqqad, Tawfiq El-Diab, who had studied elocution in London even if he, himself, used this art in politics rather than theatre; the poet Khalil Matran; and two actors: George Abyad and Zaki Tulaymat, who recently returned from Paris where he had studied the principles of acting with the Odeon Theatre Company. The committee's mission was "to investigate proposals for encouraging Egyptian dramatic arts, whether through financial assistance, the training of actors or promoting the writing and production of plays". However, such goals could not be attained without founding an educational institute for that purpose, long a dream of Zaki Tulaymat's.
Six months after the creation of the committee, on 7 September 1930, Al-Ahram announced that the Ministry of Education would open an institute for the dramatic arts the following month. Applicants had to be between 25 and 28 years old and hold a secondary school certificate. However, since at that time it would have been unrealistic to stipulate the latter condition for female applicants, it was decided that "priority will be given to female applicants holding a school degree".
Such an exception reflected the Ministry of Education's concern that the new institute would not attract a sufficient number of applicants, for which reason it offered a number of incentives. Financial rewards would be offered to students who excelled during their two-year programme of study and the admissions committee would waive some or all of the conditions for acceptance if an applicant demonstrated special aptitude in his or her admissions test.
Albert Ammoun, an Al-Ahram reader, felt the latter concession was fair and proper. In a letter to the editor he wrote, "In order to obtain a baccalaureate one does not have to be endowed with that artistic gift that enables one to become a great actor. A student's ability to comprehend a scientific theory or solve an algebraic equation is no evidence of his capacity to act. The sciences and the arts are two separate courses that neither begin at the same point nor converge in the end. The proof of this is that the world's greatest actors began their careers without ever having obtained a single educational degree." Indeed, Ammoun felt that the institute should drop the school qualification altogether and restrict admissions screening to a talent test. Applicants would be required to recite one or more dramatic parts and "if they demonstrate an aptitude or talent then they should be accepted."
On 24 September, the Ministry of Education announced that the new institute would be accepting applications. Applicants would be required to perform two sketches, in Classical or in Colloquial Arabic, selected from two different, but well-known plays. "Each presentation should not be longer than eight minutes and candidates may not use a prompter." Following these performances, the selection committee would present candidates with a passage that they would have to interpret dramatically extemporaneously.
Contrary to the expectations of the officials of the new institute, however, more than 120 people applied. Among these were a considerable number of higher degree holders and some 40 women -- many of whom daughters of prominent families.
On 12 October, Al-Ahram featured three photographs on its front page. The first was of two young men performing their sketches in front of the judges' panel in the Oriental Music Club. The second was of "a group of Egyptian women, among whom are daughters of well-established families". The third was of the examinations committee, headed by the secretary of the Ministry of Education and which included Ibrahim Ramzi, Zaki Tulaymat, Taha Hussein and George Abyad.
Alongside the pictures, the newspaper reported that it had learned from the members of the admissions committee that they had discovered many talented young people "from whom we can expect great things". However, it added, because so many had succeeded, the committee decided to hold a final screening, which would be held on the stage. On 22 October, the newspaper announced the final results. Out of the 30 students admitted, 20 were male -- "among whom are two licentiate holders, two with diplomas in craft and industry, one with a certificate from Al- Azhar, six baccalaureate holders, four with BA equivalency, three with elementary school degrees, an Iraqi and a Syrian" -- and 10 were female -- "among whom four possess school certificates". Many of the institute's first class would go on to acquire considerable fame: Abdel-Salam El-Nabulsi, Mohamed Abdel- Quddus, Rafia El-Shal, Ruhiya Khaled and Zuzu Hamdi El- Hakim.
It was not long before their studies began, at the hands of an academic elite: Taha Hussein, professor of the history of theatre; Zaki Tulaymat teaching elocution, lighting, scenery, costumes and theatrical makeup; Munira Sabri, dance; Major MacLore, fencing; and Ahmed Effendi Ahmed as head of physical education. Tuition was free and courses were held from 5.00pm to 8.00pm so that students who had daytime jobs could attend.
From the outset, the drama institute was keen to balance theoretical with practical instruction. This shows in the following item published in Al-Ahram of 29 November 1930: "Students of the Institute for Dramatic Arts visited the Royal Opera House the day before yesterday in order to learn how a theatre is constructed, to observe such crafts in progress as the hanging of curtains and the construction of scenery, and to acquaint themselves with various stage machinery and equipment. Accompanying the students on this educational outing was Zaki Tulaymat, who explained the details of the work in progress as application of the lectures he has given them to date on the theatrical crafts. It is anticipated that more exercises of this nature will be forthcoming."
The press was so interested in the new institute it sent correspondents to cover the lectures. Readers of that day must have found the ensuing reports both entertaining and useful. Al- Ahram's correspondent made one of Tulaymat's lectures the subject of his report. The actor and drama critic declared that he intended to explain systematically the ways that actors project their voice, the physiology of the vocal apparatus and the fundamentals of articulation. Armed with this know-how, actors should be able to speak in a normal voice, without strain and without their voices sounding forced or false. "Air is the raw material of the voice; the actor's ammunition. Breathing, here, plays a fundamental role. By virtue of the actor's profession, breathing, which is an ordinary function for normal people, becomes a faculty to be developed and honed, because he must speak for two or three hours before spectators."
In his discussion of the principles of articulation, Tulaymat drew on both the Islamic science of Qur'anic recitation and the principles of theatrical delivery in French theatre. Evidently, the drama professor elucidated on his subject in extensive detail for the Al-Ahram reporter remarked, "For the first time we discover in Egypt that the art of drama has been elevated to the level of a distinct science with its own rules and systems that students must learn. This science is known as the mechanics of the art of elocution, which is the preliminary component whereby the actor equips his voice so as to enable him to perform his roles without strain or shortage of breath, much as the wrestler or boxer builds up his muscles to fight for extended periods in the ring."
The journalist was clearly impressed by Tulaymat's style as a professor. He was a sure-footed, energetic lecturer who "never let his students' minds stray, constantly asking them questions while encouraging them to sound their voices and vary their sounds. It was easy to appreciate at first hand that enormous effort he exerts with such dedication and modesty, and I realised that we can expect much good to come from his hands for this beautiful art."
The same reporter also attended a lecture by Taha Hussein, then dean of the Faculty of Lettres, on the origins of the theatre. Present was the "Prince of Poets, Ahmed Shawqi", not to mention a crush of students eager "to drink at the font of Taha Hussein's Sorbonne culture" as he put it. Theatre, Taha Hussein told his audience, matured in Greece, the land of Homer, in the sixth century BC when "a system was established for the various branches of drama and remained largely unchanged thereafter".
Hussein, the "Dean of Arabic Letters", proceeded to discuss the Greek art of tragedy -- "by which the lecturer refers to a narrative of the distressful aspect of life", the journalist explained to his readers. Under Greek law actors-playwrights would present their works in an annual competition. The head of the nine- member government, organised the festivities, which involved no more than 30 poets, each of whom submitted three plays plus a fourth, a satyr so called "because the actors all wore goat skins".
In that same century, Taha Hussein continues, the theatre became mobile. "The poet-actor would load his costumes and equipment on a cart and travel from one village to the next. Upon arriving in a village he would set up his stage as people gathered around to watch and then perform one of the stories from Greek myth or legend." By the Roman era, however, the temple had become the centre of drama and huge amphitheatres were constructed into the hollows of hillsides, seating up to 20,000 spectators. Spectators had to pay an entrance fee, the state would pay for the poor either in coinage or in the form of a piece of pottery.
The ancient Greek stage, as the lecturer described it, consisted of a semicircular platform with entrances on the right and left wings. "Behind the stage was a simple hoisting machine used to create the illusion that the protagonist was flying or that a god was descending from the heavens."
Plays would open with the chorus, "moving with rhythmic steps and gestures". Until the beginning of the fifth century BC, casts consisted of no more than three actors who would recite their lines very slowly, "addressing another actor who would respond, while the chorus remained silent or visa versa". Plays were divided into acts, separated by breaks to allow the actors to rest. "Greek actors were required to wear masks that would not reveal the expressions of their faces, apart from two features that are invaluable in acting: the mouth and eyes." As women were not allowed on stage, "men had to perform the female roles, impersonating feminine ways of moving and female voices". Given the conservative attitudes that prevailed in Egypt towards women, one imagines that this piece of information proffered by Taha Hussein would have stirred heated debate over the composition of the student body in the new drama institute.
Indeed, the new institute was not as universally welcomed as the fanfare in the press might have suggested. A contributor to Al-Ahram, signing himself as "A man of letters", listed the detractors. Firstly, there were those in the acting profession who felt that the new institute would threaten their livelihoods as it produced a new generation of professionally trained actors and actresses. However, he observes, "such competition was never an aim of the institute, which envisions that its graduates will work alongside their highly talented colleagues who are currently engaged in the field towards the promotion and advancement of the theatre."
He noted, secondly, some of the owners of theatre companies, although he could not understand why this camp should be so hostile since the new institute was there precisely to furnish new and proficient talent. "Every company needs new members every year. Certainly, companies would prefer to recruit from an honest home with a scrupulous and knowledgeable hand in training than from the streets."
Finally, there were members of the Muslim ulama who regarded the institute as an abomination, especially as it taught modern dance. In an attempt to address the concerns of this group, the "man of letters" argued that the type of dance that was taught in the institute was not "indecent or licentious, nor is it couples dancing where men and women embrace one another". Rather, he continues, "students are instructed in individual movements, and, as such it is a form of modern physical education, which has been on the curriculum of government schools for girls for years without ever having stirred religious or moral criticism." He further contended that drama, in general, had religious origins and that it evolved into an important stay for the dissemination of culture, knowledge and moral rectitude in a stimulating and memorable way.
Also taking the defence against religious criticism, another reader welcomed the fact that now Egyptian women could stand side by side with Azharite students in the new institute. "This is the law of progress and the fruit of science and the rational mind," he maintained, adding, "The tenets of Al-Azhar contain nothing to prohibit its students from enrolling in this institute."
Apparently, religious opposition to the new institute was strong; the secretary-general of the Ministry of Education, responsible for the administration of the fine arts, felt compelled to release a lengthy statement to the press. The curriculum of the new institute was designed to be comprehensive with the aim of generating a new mode of artistic and literary culture in Egypt, "which is in dire need of such a culture by virtue of the laws and systems of progress and development". Consequently, in addition to the arts of acting, the institute taught Arabic, the history of Arabic literature and the history of drama. However, as dance was the major cause for outrage among the critics, the Ministry of Education official dwelt at length on this issue. The purpose of dance instruction, he maintained, was "to develop in students the sense of rhythm and coordination". He continues, "Instruction is given, not in contemporary dance, but in something akin to the traditional Arab dance known as the dabka. This is performed to the accompaniment of the piano, not a jazz band as some imagine. In addition, the instructor is an Egyptian, Muslim woman, and there is nothing in the movements that can be construed as immoral or indecent. Rather, all that is involved are rhythmic steps and patterned rounds, none of which involve anything offensive to modesty."
Unfortunately, official statements and the arguments of readers such as "the man of letters" did little to appease the opposition, which, if anything, grew more vehement, perhaps compelling Al- Ahram to allocate space to this camp of opinion. In December, the newspaper published a letter from Sheikh Mohamed Abul- 'Uyun, known for his conservative views, in response to the Ministry of Education official's statement. "It is not our habit, nor one of our native customs, nor part of our national morals for maidens to leave the sanctity of their homes for an institute in order to learn dance, licentious or otherwise," he wrote. He added that girls may play innocently in the protection of their homes, but to take part in dancing lessons in which they hold hands with young men in a circle constitutes a breach of morals.
In the sheikh's opinion the fact that women already appeared on the stage was not sufficient justification for the ministry to promote the phenomenon. "That some women have insinuated themselves before the public in that fashion does not condone the reality nor furnish a proper basis for correct judgement regarding the honour of the course chosen by the actress or the shame that her appearance on the stage has caused her entire family." Abul- 'Uyun went on to charge that the Ministry of Education was merely emulating Westerners, although some European countries realised the ill in those practices. Mussolini, for example, had issued a decree penalising women whose dresses exposed their legs and the clergy in Greece issued an order forbidding women from entering the church in short dresses and with arms and head exposed.
One suspects Al-Ahram had a game plan in mind when publishing Abul-'Uyun's letter, because a response to this letter appeared only two days later. The writer was the lawyer Hussein Afif, perhaps actively solicited by Al-Ahram for this purpose, who based his argument on the notion of "mutual dependency". The law of nature, he wrote, stipulated "the mutual need between members of the human race, whether between man and woman, one country and another or one continent and another. Such cooperation is inconceivable without the existence of bonds of association between the members of the human race." After applying this concept to the spheres of politics and scholasticism, he proceeded to the relationship between men and women. To exclude women from public life, he maintained, deprives them of its splendour and vitality whereas, conversely, their presence inspires in men joy, activity and sensitivity.
He went on to charge that Abul-'Uyun was excessive in his determination to cling to tradition. One's assessment of whether a phenomenon was right or wrong should not rest on the extent to which that phenomenon conforms with tradition but on the extent to which it is conducive to human progress. The traditions of the Egyptian people were subject to the laws of progress, which could be demonstrated by the fact that public opinion, or the enlightened majority of public opinion, did not condemn any of the manifestations that betokened the liberation of women.
Hussein Afif further accused the sheikh of being inconsistent; while Abul-'Uyun had conceded that the theatre was a social necessity he refused to recognise that dance movement was a prerequisite for acting. In addition, the sheikh refused to acknowledge that Egyptian women had already established their presence on the stage and that the participation of women in the dramatic arts had become a social necessity.
The conflict between the two camps of opinion championed in 1930 by Abul-'Uyun and Afif remains unresolved -- the recent phenomenon of "repentant" actresses who have resigned from the stage and screen and donned the veil is a contemporary mutation of that old debate.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.