As fire swept the main hall of the Egyptian National Theatre in Downtown Cairo last Sunday, the catastrophe went far beyond the loss of the building. The blaze broke the hearts of the theatre lovers, who looked up to the National Theatre as a precious Egyptian heritage. I hastened to call theatre critic Amin Bakeer, whose voice was strangled with tears. He says he had first stepped onto the threshold of the National when he was seven, when George Abyad, the great actor and vanguard of Egyptian theatre, was its manager. Youssef Wahbi succeeded Abyad and in 1922 the theatre took its current shape and was named the “Modern Egyptian Theatre”.
After the 1952 Revolution, Bakeer says, the name was changed to the “Egyptian National Theatre”. It was ranked first among theatres of the Middle East, and many of the great theatre figures of the Arab world began their careers on its stage. Among these are Assad Fadah, the head of the Syrian Theatre Institution along with others from Libya, Bahrain and Sudan.
Works of Shakespeare, including King Lear, Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet were played on the National’s stage, as were works by Tawfiq al-Hakim and other renowned Egyptian playwrites. All the great actors of the 1930s including Fatma Rushdy, Shafiq Noureddin, Aziz Eid, and Estefan Rosty began as members of the National Theatre. The same was true for the most prominent, dedicated actors of the second half of the 20th century: Naima Wasfy, Samiha Ayoub, Sanaa’ Gamil and Nadia Al-Saba who were also members of the National. “What a heartbreak that such great disaster has befallen the Egyptian home of theatre,” Bakeer lamented. “And all because of gross negligence.”
The National Theatre
A gem of a building
The National Theatre lies in a spot of Mamluk Cairo, a part of Cairo which dates as far back as the 15th century. The theatre, which overlooks al-Azbakiya garden in today’s Attaba Square, started off in the early 19th century as Azbakiya Theatre.
Theatre as we know it
Until Napoleon’s military campaign against Egypt in 1799 and up to1801, Egyptians only knew shadow theatre. The French introduced Egyptians to many arts of the Western world, including theatre as we know it. The first theatrical troupe formed in Egypt was formed by the French and was called the Comédie Française.
In 1869 Khedive Ismaïl established the Opera House to celebrate the inauguration of the Suez Canal, for which occasion he had invited world celebrities and the royal figures in Europe. He also established another theatre in Azbakiya Garden in 1870 to replace the old Azbakiya Theatre. On the stage of this new theatre the first Egyptian theatre began in 1885.
Egyptian comedy flourished in the first half of the 20th century, when troupes such as Naguib al-Rihany’s and Ali al-Kassar’s gained wide popularity. In 1935, The Egyptian National Troupe was established under the leadership of the poet Khalil Motran. It presented its performances on the “National Theatre”. It also opened a theatre institute and sent students to study abroad, until a decree was issued in August 1942 to disband the troupe since it presented performances that were critical of the British occupation.
The building of the National Theatre is of a charming, classical design, the interior as well as the exterior. As is usual in case of buildings of that era, it is made mainly of wood. Its famous dome has, alas, been lost to the fire. A wide hall is named after the Egyptian theatre pioneer George Abyad, and a smaller one is named after director Abdel-Rahim al-Zarqani. Other small halls house the costumes, technical equipment and lights, as well as offices.