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Articles, Essays, Volume 6

Manifold Oedipus: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex at the National (2001)

Manifold Oedipus: Sophocles' Oedipus Rex at the National (2001)
By Nehad Selaiha
Arab Stages, Volume 6, Nehad Selaiha Memorial Issue (Spring, 2017)
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publication

The earliest record of a production of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex in Arabic dates back to 1912, when George Abyad (1880-1969), the greatest classical tragedian in the history of Egyptian theatre and as much a monolithic figure as the legendary Yusef Wahbi, presented it with his newly-founded company at the old (now defunct) Cairo Opera house in Ataba Square. It was a bold, unprecedented step, and not just on account of the play’s dodgy plot, which combines patricide with an incestuous marriage involving mother and son. The classics of the European theatre, whenever staged, which wasn’t often, were either presented in hacked and patched, or thinly diluted musical versions – like Sheikh Salama Higazi’s Martyrs of Love, a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (first staged in Alexandria in March 1888, according to a notice in Al-Ahram), or performed in their original language by visiting companies, from Europe, or amateur dramatic societies, made up of members of the foreign community in Egypt and Egyptians with a foreign education.

Abyad himself, had been active in such groups since he arrived in Alexandria in 1898 as a Lebanese emigre to join his uncle and work as station-master for Sidi Gaber Railway station. Indeed, it was while acting with a French amateur group in 1904 that Khedive Abbas spotted his talent and sent him, at his own expense, to study acting in France. Abyad’s five years at the Paris Conservatoire, plus one year on the road, touring the provinces with his teacher, Silvan, and his company, molded his taste and acting style for life. For two years after his return to Egypt, in 1910, he acted exclusively in French, forming a company for that purpose and taking the lead in such famous classics of the French stage as Louis XI, Racine’s Andromache, and Molière’s Tartuffe, among others.

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