THE EARLIEST FORM OF THEATRE IN EGYPT COULD BE TRACED TO
the Pharaonic Era, in religious ceremonies that incorporated music, expressive body movement and a primitive form of impersonation. The various legends of ancient Egypt also provided an inspiration for Greek theatre.
Modern Egyptian theatre began to take shape in the 17th century, when impersonation became a popular art form, initiated by small companies that held their performances in public spaces across the region. Puppetry and shadow play also spread during the time, expressing the trepidations and anger of the lower classes toward their tyrannical rulers in a sarcastic fashion that often used symbolism to avoid a direct clash with authority. Similarities to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed are abundant, and a combination of the Brazilian theorist’s concepts and old Egyptian folk traditions continue to inform the theatre of post–Jan. 25 Egypt.
But the real beginning of contemporary Egyptian theatre occurred in the second half of the 19th century. Aspiring to transform Cairo into the Paris of the East, the Ottoman ruler Isma’il Pasha invited French and other European companies to perform their works in Egypt. He established the Cairo Opera House in 1869 and the country’s first national theatre, the Tiatro Al-Azbakeya, in 1885, opening the door for a grand cultural renaissance that was, nonetheless, consumed predominantly by the rich. Among the first indigenous playwrights to emerge in that period was Yaqub Sanu, whose theatre would end up shut down by Ismail after one of Sanu’s plays criticized the social injustice caused by the country’s rulers.
Already the cultural center of the Middle East by 1850, Egypt was a place where artists from across the Arab world migrated, searching not only for fame and fortune, but for artistic and social freedom. A number of troupes with distinctive and atypical visions began to emerge at the end of the century, the most prominent of which were Abyad and Hijazi, a hugely popular company comprised of playwright George Abyad and composer Salama Hijazi.
Two brands of theatre with characteristically different appeals attracted the masses: the comic theatre, represented by the companies of Naguib Al Rihani and Ali El Kassar, and the dramatic theatre, represented by the legendary company of Youssef Wahbi, which incorporated the biggest stage performers of the time.
The policies of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which emphasized the national identity of Egypt following the 1952 revolution that put him in power, led to a major cultural renaissance that spilled over into theatre. A new generation of playwrights steered away from classical texts to produce uniquely Egyptian works that tackled different facets of Egyptian reality. Tawfiq al-Hakim, Youssef Idris, Alfred Farag and No’man Ashour, among others, set the cornerstones for modern Egyptian theatre. In addition to poetic theatre and political theatre, comic theatre continued to prosper, peaking with the brilliantly realized plays of Fouad el-Mohandes and Abdel Moneim Madbouly. Theatres across the nation sprang up as Egypt steadily cemented its reputation as the home of the most prosperous, accomplished and popular arts scene in the region.
Then things changed. Despite the proliferation of texts rooted in the Egyptian social reality╤and a thriving private comic theatre driven by star actors such as Adel Imam, Mohammed Sobhi and Samir Ghanem, consumed predominantly by tourists from the Gulf region╤dramatic theatre started to lose steam by the mid-’80s. Within a few years, Egyptian theatre began to disintegrate.
Introduced in the mid-’70s, then-president Anwar Sadat’s ill-calculated open-door economic policies changed the face of Egypt for good. The one million migrant Egyptian workers to the Gulf returned home, charged with the ultraconservative Wahhabi ideologies that found a fertile ground in a land ravaged by increasing corruption, poverty and chaos. Birth rates boomed; the middle-class started to perish as the nouveau riche started to rise, altering forever the socioeconomic makeup of the country.
The biggest cosmopolitan metropolises in the Middle East, Cairo and Alexandria, became shadows of their former selves. In the face of a rapidly changing society where culture came to be seen as a luxury, theatremakers began to lose touch with the public. Theatre education remained stuck in outdated Soviet methods, companies were taken over by governmental employees with little interest in pushing new artistic boundaries, and the numerous stages across the nation were left to rot by an impotent Ministry of Culture.
Egypt’s large theatrical infrastructure has decayed over time, and is left unused to this day. The quality of performances has reached an all-time low as theatremakers have grown lethargic and careless. Egyptian theatre is now at a standstill.