The Egyptian theater is always on the throne of theaters in the Arab world. It had a great position even compared to international theaters, and what many might be unaware of is that the Egyptian theater did not start in the last century. It rather went through a long history of continuous evolution, which spanned long ages that started from the Pharaonic era passing through the Greeks, the Mamluks in addition to the French campaign and the era of Khedive Ismail.
This long history contributed greatly to the flourishing of the idea of Egyptian theater, to suit the cultural and technological development that took place after that in the modern era. Therefore, in the following article, we give you a glimpse of the history of the Egyptian theater from its inception, evolution, and up to its place in the modern era.
In this ancient era, artistic scenes were related to religious rituals. They were shown only in front of kings and princes. The priests of Amun performed poetic plays on certain occasions. Perhaps the most famous literary story presented on the Pharaonic theater is the story of “Isis and Osiris”, which was found in papyri containing theatrical texts from 40 scenes, which mix poetry and music.
The Greco-Roman era
The kings of this era took advantage of the foundation stone laid by the ancient Egyptian for theater. They established the first Greek theater in the city of Alexandria, which began in the palaces of kings and princes. There they plays from the Greek culture were performed. Then a well-known traditional theater was built in the popular commercial squares. One of the most important of those theaters was the great impact of the Roman theater in Alexandria, which was discovered in 1964.
But with the introduction of the Christian religion to the Roman Empire, Christians were keen to eliminate those theaters, due to the ecclesiastical prohibition of this art, especially since they were performing pagan theatrical performances, which made the art of theater disappear in Egypt for a long time.
Arabs and the Mamluk era
The Arabs also did not know the theater at the beginning of the Arab Islamic civilization, despite the mixing of Arabs with many and varied civilizations. They then became open to the various arts that these civilizations offered, but theater was not an original part of the Arab culture that was more interested in poetry and literature.
With the entry of the Mamelukes to Egypt in the 13th century, shadow fantasy theater was common, which is a type of art that relies on a white screen. Someone moves the characters behind them to reveal their shadow to the people, introducing a meaningful short story using music and poetry, an art that later developed for puppet shows. The most famous plays that was presented in the shadow theater was “The Spectrum of Imagination,” by Ibn Daniel Al-Kahhal.
With the entry of the French invasion to Egypt in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte established a comedy theater troupe called “The Comedian Frances”, with the aim of entertaining his soldiers, who used to meet every 10 days in the theater built by Napoleon in the Azbakeya region, to attend a comedy theatrical performance that lasts for 4 continuous hours.
However, the art of comedy theater disappeared again after the exit of the Finnish campaign from Egypt in 1801. It did not appear again until many decades later.
The era of Khedive Ismail
In 1869, Khedive Ismail established the opera house in Ataba Square, with the aim of presenting operatic performances to the kings and princes who came to attend the opening ceremony of the Suez Canal. The Khedive wanted to dazzle them with an Egyptian opera for the first time, as this art was not known at that time in Egypt.
The Khedive asked the Italian musician Verdi to write an opera on the Egyptian historical, so he composed “Aida Opera,” which was not completed in time, so the Khedive was forced to present “Opéra Rigoletto,” and then “Aida Opera” was presented after that.
Since opera performances were presented at this time in the Italian language, which was not widespread in Egypt, the opera house was closed for a very long time until “Aida Opera” was translated into Arabic and presented to the Egyptians.
During that period, the Khedive established another theater in Azbakeya Park, which was considered the first national theater, in which the plays of the Abu Khalil Qabbani troupe were performed in 1885, and the Sheikh Salama Hegazy troupe in 1905.
Egypt knew the theater in its modern form in 1876, thanks to the artist Yaqoub Sanu’a, who translated a lot of international literature, established the first Arab theater in Egypt, and presented 160 theatrical performances on its stage within two years, with the help of Salim Al-Naqqq and Maroon Al-Naqqq theatrical troupe.
Yaqoub Sanaa performed many plays in front of Khedive Ismail in Qasr al-Nil, including the modern girl, Ghandourah Misr, and Al-Dharatain, which he admired. Therefore, the Khedive named “Molly of Egypt” to Yaqoub Sanaa, due to the similarity of works with what the French playwright “Moliere” presented .
Yacoub Sanaa wanted to reform the political situation in Egypt, so he performed bold plays that mocked the princes and nobles, criticizing the government and the Khedive Ismail, and the most famous of those plays was “The Homeland and Freedom”, which angered the ruling class, so he ordered the Khedive to close the theater.
Abu Khalil Al Qabani
The Egyptian theater witnessed a great development at the end of the nineteenth century, specifically in 1888, at the hands of Ahmed Abu Khalil al-Qabbani, who is considered the pioneer of Arab theater and lyrical theater, as he left the idea of translation and quoting from international novels, and began to compose theater novels in the Arabic language.
He performed with his band many important plays that influenced the history of Egyptian theater, such as Antara bin Shaddad, Harun al-Rashid, Prince Mahmoud, son of Shah al-Ajam, and others.
Egypt knew a new type of theatrical art at the beginning of the twentieth century, which is the musical theater, or the so-called “operetta”. It was based on the musical performances of which Salama Hegazy and Sayed Darwish were famous.
At this time, a new pioneer of theater pioneers appeared on the scene. The great artist Youssef Wahbi, who was interested in the dramatic theater founded by the artist George Abyad, and made many successful plays in Egypt and the Arab countries.
The competition increased after the emergence of comedy theater and its pioneers such as Naguib al-Rihani and Ali Al-Kassar, who were keen to present a sophisticated and purposeful comedy affecting the Egyptian citizen. This increased the calls for the establishment of an Egyptian national theater away from international literature and translated plays, so the beginning of the national theater was in 1921.
With time, poetic theater began to impose itself on the scene, after writers and poets such as Ahmed Shawqi turned to theatrical authorship, and he presented important plays such as Majnun Lili, the death of Cleopatra and others. As well as the writer Tawfiq al-Hakim in plays such as The People of the Cave and Isis.
With the entry of the middle of the twentieth century, specifically in the sixties, the state began to be interested in art and the emergence of the national theater, so many large theater troupes appeared, such as the National Theater Company and the Modern Egyptian Theater Troupe, and Egypt at that time witnessed the emergence of a large group of great authors such as Youssef Idris, Saad Eddin Wahba. Salah Abdel-Sabour, Ali Salem, and others. Including directors Jalal Al Sharqawi, Samir Al Asfouri, and Karam Mutawa.
Twenty first century
The nineties of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century witnessed the prevalence of the private sector on theater. The producers were interested in material gain rather than presenting a sophisticated and purposeful art, so a kind of theatrical performances called “the knight’s comedy” appeared. It depended on the situation comedy. Its slogan is laughter for laughter only. What was initially acceptable as a different kind of theater.
But with the increase in the domination of producers and businessmen over the private theater, which targeted certain classes of the people with high economic income, the decline of government theaters, or the theaters of the folk people as they came to be called, expectations increased that the art of theater would finally disappear from Egypt. Particularly, with the rapid technological development. Then, the emergence of electronic platforms have captured the interest of Egyptians more than theater and perhaps cinema as well.