Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
11 - 17 June 1998
Issue No.381
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Brecht in Egypt

By Nehad Selaiha

Brecht In his brilliant book, Brecht; A Choice of Evils, Martin Esolin astutely observes that while Brecht intended his theatre to be popular and address the masses and the working classes, he, ironically, ended up as the pet of elite theatrical circles and "the daily coinage of dramatic critics." This actually describes the situation in the sixties, when the first Brecht play ever performed in Egypt burst upon the scene. The Exception and the Rule (translated by Abdel-Ghaffar Mekkawi and directed by Farouk El-Demerdash) was presented in 1963 at the Pocket Theatre, which catered for a small, elitist audience. It would have been even more of an irony had Brecht received his Egyptian premiere at The Royal Automobile Club, the Pocket Theatre's former home. Luckily (for Brecht), it had burnt down a few months earlier. The company's new home, at the Pharaonic Garden Theatre in Zamalek, where the play was presented, was equally small, but, at least, it was not forbiddingly smart, and overlooked the Nile, to boot. (The building still stands but is used at present as a TV studio.)

The person responsible for bringing Brecht to Egypt and popularising his theories is director Saad Ardash. He first came across Brecht's works in 1961 while on a scholarship in Italy. "I felt I had stumbled upon a treasure," he says describing the impact of the discovery; "his theatre seemed perfectly suited to the needs of the moment and the national goals of the '52 Revolution." An inveterate socialist, with a deep-seated belief in the political role of theatre, Ardash still maintains that Brecht's epic theatre, with its pronounced socialist slant, is the most appropriate theatrical mode for the third world "where people are still fighting for their freedom and rights."

It was at Ardash's instigation that El-Demerdash undertook the production of The Exception and the Rule in '63 (it opened in December the same year). At the time, Ardash was the artistic director of the Pocket Theatre (which he was instrumental in founding), and had launched the company, a year earlier, with the Arab premiere of Beckett's Endgame, which he directed (in a sombre vein); it was followed by the Arab premiere of Ionesco's The Chairs, directed by Mohammed Abdel-Aziz. Two absurd plays in a row seemed a curious choice for a socialist and committed artist, and the word "turncoat" was mentioned. But then, Ardash's commitment is not of the bigoted, narrow-minded type. "When I came back from Italy," he says, "there were two things I wanted to do: to introduce the new trends in world theatre by way of experiment through the Pocket Theatre, and to try out the epic theatre to test its potential and appeal to the audience here." Brecht young

Why The Exception and the Rule in particular?

"It is short and straightforward; for an audience bred on traditional realistic drama, it would not be too shocking, we thought."

But social realism, which had established itself on the Egyptian stage (at the hands of No'man Ashour and Saad Wahba, among others) as the theatrical mode most favoured by the public since the beginning of the fifties, put up a good fight. It was not until three years later, after Brecht's theories had been translated, explicated, controverted and propagated (and quoted in support of a multitude of contradictory causes) that another Brecht play found its way to the Egyptian stage -- precisely to the stage of the Pocket Theatre, and two years after Ardash had resigned his post as its head.

Drums in the Night (translated by Abdel-Rahman Badawi, to whom we owe most of our Arabic versions of Brecht's plays, and directed by Kamal Eid) appeared in 1966, and gave Egyptian critics and audiences a different glimpse and taste of Brechtian writing. The play, which was written in 1918, belongs to Brecht's early nihilistic, anarchic stage: the critics could relax, take a holiday from ideological criticism, and dwell on the novelty of its expressionistic techniques. The production was like "a big stone thrown into stagnant waters," Ardash says. It must have been wonderful not having to talk about propaganda and didacticism, but about theatre art and expressionism.

Ardash was quick to capitalise on the success of Drums; within a few months he was staging Abdel-Rahman Badawi's translation of "The Good Soul of Setzuan" (Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan), with that redoubtable actress, Samiha Ayyoub, in the lead, and with a prestigious artistic crew which included Salah Jahin (lyrics), Sayed Mekkawi (music) Awatef Abdel-Karim (sets) and Layla Gad (choreography). Reading through the old, 1966, numbers of the Theatre Magazine, one is infected with the same sense of urgency and excitement that marked the reception of this play so long ago.

Brecht's precepts, Ardash admits, were not adhered to to the letter. "I was aware I was dealing with an Egyptian audience, well-tuned to realism." So, as one gathers from the reviews (I did not see the production), Brecht's "Alienation-Effect", particularly where acting and stage-design were concerned, became the focus of critical controversy. As Dr Farouk Abdel-Wahab, who translated Brecht's A Short Organum for Theatre, and published it the same year, said: "Critics and academics squabbled over the method of acting chosen by Ardash: was it too emotional? too naturalistic? or simply 'demonstrational' as Brecht had advised?"

Brecht's essays on acting were diligently consulted by some and glibly quoted, parrot-fashion, by others; but since no one at the time had actually seen a production by Brecht or had first-hand experience of how this new technique of acting works, the controversy could not be resolved. Dr Lewis Awad, however, highly commended the show and, more importantly, the audience loved it. Unlike the two former Brecht plays, The Good Soul was presented at the much larger and more popular (now defunct) El-Hakim Theatre in Emadeddin Street.

By that time, the influence of Brecht's theories had already begun to manifest itself in the work of Egyptian directors and playwrights, such as Karam Metaweh, Alfred Farag and Naguib Sorour. In 1965, Farag's epic play Suliman Al-Halabi was followed by Sorour's Yasin and Baheya, a long narrative poem, staged by Metaweh. The same year, Ardash gave Sophocles's Antigone a pronouncedly Brechtian production, and two years later, Mahmoud Diab, who had displayed in his earlier plays a marked bias for the kind of drama evolved by the Italian Pirandello (another important influence on Egyptian drama in the sixties), switched loyalties and joined Brecht's disciples with his magnum opus Bab Al-Futuh (Conquerors' Gate) which Ardash directed. None of these works, and many more, would have been possible without Brecht's liberating influence. Of his generation of playwrights, Farag says: "Realism had begun to pall on us, and we had two alternatives: the theatre of the absurd and Brecht's epic theatre. We opted for the latter. We needed a theatre that could grapple with our social problems and such hot political issues as capitalism, fascism, colonialism and justice. We rejected the absurd on ideological and artistic grounds. Brecht offered us a new theatrical formula that enabled us, without direct preaching or hectoring, to make the spectator adopt an attitude of inquiry and criticism and, in Brecht's words, to purge the stage and auditorium of everything magical and hypnotic."

There was also the natural affinity between the type of theatre Brecht advocated and the indigenous Egyptian forms of popular entertainment, as Ardash perceptively adds. The Egyptian temperament has a natural inclination for comedy, song and dance, and Brecht's theories sanctioned their use and made them ideologically respectable. No wonder Brecht's recipe for a popular theatre was eagerly embraced by the regional companies and has been functioning quite well up until now. For many provincial theatres, such essays as On Unprofessional Acting, The Street Scene, Notes on the Folk Play, Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction, The Popular and the Realistic, provided the kind of legitimation they needed and were the stuff out of which they spun their manifestos.

In 1968 Ardash wanted to give the Egyptian theatre a further, and stronger injection of Brecht: a theatre director from East Germany (his name is Kurt Viet, if I remember correctly, Ardash says) was invited to direct The Caucasian Chalk Circle for the Pocket Theatre. But soon enough, the German's punctilious sense of time clashed with the Egyptian lax and elastic comprehension of time; he left in a huff, and Ardash ended up directing The Chalk Circle.

It was not until the eighties that another Brecht play was performed in Egypt. Mother Courage and her Children was premiered at the Citadel, and Ardash tells me that Layla Abu Seif's production was quite riveting. Others whisper that she had a hard time putting up with the loud calls for prayer vociferously issued during the performance by the mu'azzin of the mosque nearby. I was not in Egypt at the time, and by the time I came back, Abu Seif had left for the States for good.

Nevertheless, Brecht survived: not just in Naguib Sorour's Egyptian version of The Three-penny Opera (re-christened The King of Beggars (1968), which was re-adapted by poet Izzat Abdel-Wahab and directed by Abdel-Rahman El-Shaf'i in 1986, and re-adapted once more by Farag in his Atwa Abu Matwa (Atwa the Jack-Knife, in 1995) but in a multitude of plays, including a provincial production of He Who Says No and Who Says Yes (directed by Hossam Atta for the Children's Theatre in Assyout), and, more recently in Hani Ghanem's controversial production of The Seven Deadly Sins, at the House of Zeinab Khatoon in 1997.

One has to admit, however, that Brecht in Egypt has been adapted out of recognition. What Egyptians have consciously or unconsciously chosen to forget was his insistence that moral values are historically determined. In a deeply religious country, with a deeply-seated hang-up about absolutes, it was, perhaps, inevitable. Rather than using humour, song and dance, and ham acting to provoke a mood of criticism and inquiry in the audience, a plethora of provincial productions reduced Brecht to an Islamic Communist propagandist. More importantly, his great talent as a poet is, almost always, nearly forgotten.

Several original posters from performances of Brecht's plays are on show at the Goethe Institute. For full details see Listings