Egypt’s Women’s Troupe

10 Nov

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In continuing the Awad theme I have translated an article by Ramses Awad, who I believe to be Luwis Awad’s brother (or at least Luwis Awad did have a brother called Ramses). It is about a all-female theatre troupe in Cairo in the early 20th century and is from his book “The Secret History of the Theatre Before the 1919 Revolution”.

Here it is:

Egypt has experienced a unique experiment, no-one can say whether it was a success or a failure – but, in any case, its success or failure is not the important thing. Because the appearance of this experiment on the Egyptian stage in itself is a phenomenon worthy of attention, and it is worth scholars investigating and examining it too. Al-Mahrousa of the 3rd of May 1910 shed light on a very strange item of news under the title A Word on the Women’s Troupe. It reported the formation of a women’s acting group that did not let men join.

               The critic who published the piece in al-Mahrousa started by saying:

               “I went to a performance of The Passion of Kings last Saturday night, the 22nd, at the Egyptian Theatre, as soon as I heard that those acting it would be a Women’s troupe, containing no men, and that it was the first troupe of its kind to act in the Egyptian capital. I was very happy beforehand because I was about to see something amazing, and I hoped that I would leave delighted at the end of the performance.”

               Afterwards the critic said the that his hopes were disappointed when he saw it but, at the same time, he hoped that the women’s troupe would perform another, better play. We see him say:

               “The play had a beautiful story, even though it was an old model, and it showed real soul. The name of the original [it was based on] is Mithradate or To the Door of Passion. The troupe changed the name to deceive people into thinking it was a new play. I think it was more suitable to choose a play which is considered great, and not a play set in an old time, instead of faking it, because people will have doubts about the next performances.”

[Awad then gives a summary of the story of Racine’s Mithradate, which the play is based on]

Now that we have given a summary of the important events of the play, we should mention the women in the play. There were no more than six – professional actresses as that critics tells us:

               “It is left for me to talk about the six women who played the roles.  All of them were from the troupe of the ‘Acting company’ led by Amelia Dayan, except for one who was fron Rifa’at Effendi’s troupe. This was a travelling troupe. I know that she split from it a short while ago but I don’t know what she is doing now.”

               Without doubt this increases the uncertainty surrounding the formation of the women’s troupe and the motive for it. For someone may find that it is natural to agree that, if there were a number of women who wanted to act in a conservative society that considered the appearance of women on the stage immoral and disgraceful, the a group of amateur women would forbid men to take part. However, it is not natural for professional actresses to get together in a troupe whose activities are independent from men. Especially when, due to their small number, one of the actresses had to take on more than one role at a time and they had to cut some of the roles from the play, since the troupe was unable to find people to play them.

               The critic attacks the women’s troupe “because the governor took the role of the gatekeeper on one occasion and the general took the part of the servant. Shrewder people might also note that the troupe did not realise that the king could not possible be on the battle field by himself with his general, unaccompanied by any soldiers or officers so we see the battle field desolate and empty of enemies.” To say nothing of the fact that “they didn’t notice that the prison that is full of prisoners should have a guard when the governor comes to free them and bring them to the king on his order. Nor did they realise that the palace should have gatekeepers, attendants, and soldiers.”

               Despite the criticism that the writer in al-Mahrousa directs at the faults which tarnish the play, he does offer some kind of excuse for them:

               “The problem is that the troupe has no more than six women playing the roles of the king, his two sons, the governor, the general and the king’s lover. However, I think that it would not be hard to improve it if only there were four extra women acting the roles of the characters they cut from the play: the first playing the role of the prison guard, the second in the role of the gatekeeper in the royal palace, the third and forth as attendants and all four could be on the battlefield as soldiers with the king.”

               But the critic should have held back a little in criticising the actresses who did not remember their lines very well. It is hard for anyone to memorise two parts at the same time. The writer in al-Mahrousa attacks the woman who was playing the part of the king because she did not remember her lines and attacks the woman playing the part of the governor for the same reason, but he admits that this was not a big problem because of the small part that she played. He praised the woman who played the king’s lover. He does not deny that she remembered her lines well and had a certain acting proficiency. Though he reproaches her in strong terms when “she went around in a way that was incompatible with the etiquette of theatrical society, to say nothing of her constant laughing at the smallest movement from anyone present or the smallest reason … as for the fifth woman in the role of Pharnace – one of the king’s sons – we could not see any fault in her performance. She acted her role very well and one cannot deny the effect she produced in the songs, which we enjoyed a lot. However, I hoped that her acting might have been perfect, considering it would not be hard for her. As for the sixth woman, who played the role of Xiphares – the second son of the king – I can only express my amazement at her mastery of her role and quality of her acting. I really imagined that she was a man when she was throwing those strong, powerful punches.”

               Let us make a final observation – concerned with the gender issues. Let us ask about the unconscious motives why this strange troupe of women wanted to copy [or perhaps act as] men and put on this play. I will avoid a psychological explanation and make a short attempt to investigate the social dimensions of the theatre.

               My opinion is that, whatever the impetus that spurred the women’s troupe to act this play and whatever the results were from a practical or artistic angle, this unique experiment in Egyptian theatre had a social motive. It was, at the end of the day, an expression of the unity of women, an opposition to the domination of men, and a desire to liberate themselves from men’s power. The formation of this women’s troupe, to a certain extent, is nothing but a challenge to men, their competition, and their interaction with other people. This is – in my opinion – whence the importance of this experiment comes. If we look a little at the meaning of this play itself we find – in addition to glorification of patriotism – that it includes a veiled argument for an equitable form of love which eastern women, in general, are lacking. It was not normal for a king to marry a girl his daughter’s age but it would be normal for his son to take her as a wife.

               It seems to me that this women’s rebellion, which we get an idea of when we look at the formation of this troupe of women to compete with those of the men, stumbled. I was not able to follow news of this strange group for a number of years until some people tried to replicate their activities in 1914, i.e. after almost five years had elapsed, and we get a little information from this story published in the newspaper al-Afkar on the 4th of August 1914 (page 2):

               “Women on the acting stage: On the evening of the Thursday and night of the Friday 6th August [traditionally in the Muslim calendar one day ends and a new day begins at sundown. I assume this is what this means] a troupe of women actors, who are very famous in the acting world, are performing the play Lover Number Three. It is a new romantic play and all the actors from the king, to the governor, the generals, the people and the servants are women. The famous, Greek comedy actress ‘Andronike’ will close the night with a new comedy act. This is in addition to the romantic poems and comic monologues, which the women’s troupe will give during the acting of the play which will be in the Theatre Britannia, behind the Egyptian telegraph office on 1 Boulaq Street.

               This is the first time that women have appeared on the Egyptian stage acting the roles of kings, generals, enemy warriors, defenders of the nation. We hope that there will be a lot of interest in this night, which is unprecedented in Egypt”

               If we ignore the mistake in the article, because we know that the women’s troupe which was formed in 1910 preceded this troupe by about 5 years – though it is possible that there were other similar attempts in this period, or before it – a social researcher in Egypt should study this pioneering experiment and find an interpretation for this unique phenomenon. Especially in a society that is extremely conservative, which makes just talking about women acting a moral issue, as is made clear in an article written by Mustafa Ismail Qashashi under the title On the Issue of Women in Dramatic Roles in al-Afkar on 22nd June 1916.

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