Announcements, Articles, Volume 3

An 1868 Egyptian Helen of Troy play published

An 1868 Egyptian Helen of Troy play published
Marvin Carlson
Arab StagesVolume 2, Number 1 (Fall 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

The current (October 10 issue of Al-Hayat announces that the first theatrical text translated and published in Arabic in Egypt, Beautiful Helen (1868), by Sheikh Tahtawi (1801-1873) has been discovered by Syed Ali Ismail, a professor of theater criticism in Helwan University. Published by the Egyptian General Book Authority, the Tahtawi text was commissioned by Khedive Ismail and was present on the occasion of the celebration of his ascent to the throne in January 17, 1869. This marked the opening of the first official stage in the Uzbek district in Cairo.

The French original is known as La belle Hélène (1864) by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and was set to music by composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). The play is preserved in an 86-page document and contains three acts. The Arabic version follows the events of the French original closely, although taking considerable liberty with the conventional version of the myth. The opening actions essentially follow the Greek tradition. Venus, the goddess of beauty, sends a message to Calchus, the High Priest of the Temple of Jupiter. She orders him to deliver Helena to Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, because she has blessed their love. Indeed Paris promptly falls in love with Helena, who is married to Menelaus, king of Sparta. However, in the occasion of her king and husband’s absence Helena sees Paris and falls likewise in love. At this point the French version inserts a series of alternative actions, rather in the manner of Euripides, but adopting, of course, a much more distinctly comic orientation. When Menelaus returns and discovers his wife in the arms of Paris, he calls in a chorus of other kings to bear witness to the scandal. Paris departs after vowing to return, and Helen remains with Menelaus, trying to convince him that what he saw only took place in his dream.

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