Marina: The third and final form of traditional theatre that we’ll talk about today is Meddah, which translates simply to “storyteller,” and it is just that: a single storyteller depicting the entirety of a play. Meddahs would perform at public or private venues as well as at special occasions like circumcision celebrations. Some meddahs were like celebrities, and people had their favorite meddahs in town that they would try to see perform. Some Sultans even had their own personal meddah. The meddahs would perform a breadth of stories depicting legends or daily life. They were comic, dramatic, literary, or moral, or a blend. Some stories were well known, and others were brand new.

During the month of Ramadan, meddahs were even more popular. After Iftar, people would go to the Tarawih prayers where a portion of the Qur’an is read every night and then to the closest coffee house to watch the meddah. The meddah would appear on a tall chair so everyone could see him. Then. as Ekrem Buğra Ekinci describes,

He threw his printed fabric handkerchief on his shoulder, hit his stick on the ground three times, clapped his hands, and began to tell a rhyme starting, ‘Hak, dostum, Hak!’ meaning, ‘it is true, my friends, Allah’s truth.’ He tried to stress that his words were the truth and indirectly used to use God as a witness for what he was about to tell. Hak is one of the names for Allah in Islam.

Then the meddah began telling his story. He often used the stick in his hand to either silence the crowd or imitate certain sounds or objects such as a saz, broom, rifle, or horse. And he had headgear or a tambourine in his basket or jacket to be used according to the person whom the meddah was impersonating.

And this is very similar to the hakawati that we would talk about in other storytelling traditions, so the meddah we see existing differently throughout different countries.

Nabra: There were also known meddahs who each had their own mannerisms and signature phrases, like using certain headwear to impersonate different cultural groups prevalent in the empire, or well-known for their poetry or perhaps their jokes or even a certain story that they would often tell.

In his article in the Daily Sabah, Ekinci ends with this intriguing story of one famous meddah:

Following a military mobilization, Meddah Süruri was called up and began his drill at the Bayezid Tower. When the commander aligned soldiers and put heavy Süruri at the front, soldiers laughed boisterously. The soldiers would listen to his imitations, and when they saw him, they could not help but laugh. Even his movements made them laugh. The commander got angry, but even with Süruri standing in proper position, soldiers continued to laugh. When the commander realized that he could not deal with him, Süruri continued his military service as a typist. It is unknown what the other clerks did with him.

That story, although again, bringing up some ableist connotations, shows that this Meddah Süruri would’ve been known for his particular form of physical comedy. And he was so famous that these soldiers immediately knew him and thought he was hilarious just from looking at him. And so, even trying to be in the military, this meddah was unable to escape his comedic reputation.

So you can just imagine how much of fun and famous celebrities these meddahs were. I really wish I could have heard one of them telling their story.

Armenian influence at this time. Armenians played an important and widely recognized role in the development and spread of theatre in the Ottoman Empire, especially shifting theatre from an upper-class or royal activity to one that included the general public.

Marina: Prior to the 1800s, traditional theatre forms like Ortaoyunu, Karagöz, and Meddah were seen across the Ottoman Empire. The nineteenth century marked a new era in Ottoman theatre due to major political reforms and treaties at that time, which led the greater European influence mixed with various censorship laws that shaped the future of Turkish theatre.

We’ll mostly be drawing from two articles, “The Ottoman Theatre 1839 to 1923,” by Nermin Menemencioğlu and “The Rise in Development of the Modern Theatre in Istanbul” by Mehmet Fatih Uslu.

Menemencioğlu summarizes this period in this way:

The destruction of the Janissary Corps in 1826, the Reform Edict of 1839 and 1856, the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Crimean War, which admitted the Ottoman Empire into the concert of Europe, each inaugurated a new phase in Turkish theatre, while the ascension of Abdulmejid to the throne brought about a period of censorship and repression during which the theatre survived, but made little progress.

Nabra: While we were avoiding too much discussion of non-Turkish theatre in the Ottoman Empire, we would do a disservice not to talk about the Armenian influence at this time. Armenians played an important and widely recognized role in the development and spread of theatre in the Ottoman Empire, especially shifting theatre from an upper-class or royal activity to one that included the general public.

Armenian amateur theatre began in 1810, and Armenians became the majority of the actors on stages in Istanbul. One of the reasons was because women, and especially Muslim women, were not allowed to perform, so Armenian women did. Also, Armenians performed Western plays in both Armenian and Turkish languages to public audiences. Three Westernizing sultans at the time, Selim III, Mahmud II, and Abdulhamit, were very interested in European performance, and the general rule of the empire was what the sultans like is what thrives.

There were hundreds of Armenian actors and a professional Armenian theatre troupe. Armenians were the pioneers of Western-style theatre in the Ottoman Empire, which became a major influence on the development of Ottoman theatre as a whole throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Marina: The Arevelyan Tadron, or Eastern Theatre, is thought to be the first professional theatre in the Ottoman Empire established in 1859. The Vartovyan Theatre performed bilingual plays in Armenian and Turkish. It is notable especially because it increased the number of original Turkish and Muslim plays being performed in Istanbul.

The Asian Theatre, which was renamed the Ottoman Theatre, is widely considered the most important theatre of the empire. It was established in 1867, and in 1870, the government provided its founder, Güllü Agop, a ten-year monopoly to perform Turkish plays in Kadıköy and Üsküdar, two major districts in Istanbul. Güllü Agop was unsurprisingly of Armenian heritage. As we said, the Armenian influence on Ottoman theatre cannot and should not be ignored. The theatre had three tiers of seating, including a box for the sultan. The foyers served coffee before these performances with live alla turca music playing. There were even stables for the horses and carriages for audience members, so free parking.

The first play in Turkish was a translation of Cesare Borgia by an Armenian, Karabat Papazian. The actors were all Armenian. The second play was Laila and Mecnun by Mustafa Efendi based on the Turkish folk tale that is the focus of another episode in the season of this podcast.

Nabra: Güllü Agop’s monopoly on theatre in Istanbul did have some important provisions though. Berkay Comert says in an article for Medium,

Opera and similar musical genres would be excluded from this monopoly. Also, according to the specification, he had to establish a theatre within six months in Üsküdar, within three years in Galata, Tophane, and Beyoğlu, within six months in Istanbul, and if he did not do so, the monopoly would be removed. Ten different games would be played in the first year, which would be increased in the following years. Regardless of profit and loss, at least 50 performances would be given every year in Üsküdar, 30 in Galata and Istanbul. The last three provisions of the contract were that compulsory demonstrations for the benefit of the poor would be made, a gendarme would be in the theatre, and ticket prices would be regulated.

This was the exact opposite of the government’s stance on theatre in the past, that it was exclusive to the elite class. Now, they were mandating that it would be accessible to the people.

Marina: The first, original theatre texts in Turkish were by Azerbaijani playwright Mirza Fatali Akhundov, but many consider the first genuine Turkish play script, meaning written by a Turkish playwright in Turkish, to be The Marriage of the Poet by İbrahim Şinasi in 1859, originally written for DolmabahçeSaray Theatre. It’s a one-act comedy first released in serial form in the newspaper that Şinasie ran. In fact, newspapers were generally important to the growth of theatre in the empire since newspapers started around the same time that stage plays began. So, the reviews and articles about theatre and newspaper popularized the art form further.

The play came about shortly after Sultan Abdulmecit’s 1856 reforms,

In which he pledged again equal treatment of all Ottoman subjects regardless of race or creed. As dress, social ritual, and family life were transformed, so the values of traditional Diwan poetry of the medieval tale of rhyming couplets, the play in the round for which no written text existed were questioned. The stage was now set for the Turkish innovators.

Soon after signing the new edict, he began to build himself a new palace at Dolmabahçe. It was for the theatre in his palace that Ibrahim Şinasie Effendi wrote the first Turkish play, Şâir Evlenmesi, The Poet’s Marriage. The plot and characters were not unlike those of the old Turkish theatrical show or Ortaoyunu, except that the play was meant not only to entertain, but also to point out a moral, that the marrying of an unseen bride could have unpleasant consequences.”

And that was from one of the aforementioned articles, which we’ll include here.

Nabra: According to Wikipedia, because I couldn’t get access to the original source, “Şinasi employed a Turkish language that was closer to the vernacular rather than the vocabulary and structures previously used by the cultural elite. He intentionally distorted the way he spelled words in order to make the language more phonetic and to aid in the performance of the play.” He wrote this play for the people instead of for the elites, which was a testament to how theatre had expanded and gained broad engagement at this point.

Our good friends at Wikipedia summarized the play in this way.

In the play, a poor young man became infatuated with a beautiful woman, but according to Muslim tradition, grooms were unable to see the faces of their brides until after the marriage contract was finalized. The family of the beautiful woman used the stipulation to their advantage when they secretly replaced the young poet’s beloved with her highly unattractive older sister. The young man was eventually reunited with his darling through misdeeds of his own.

Okay, a little bit problematic, but the play was a satirical criticism of traditionalists through the criticism of arranged marriages. From the preface to Edward Allworth’s translation, the play shows “the impatience of the new men with old practices satirizing go-betweens and arranged marriages, but it also chides the emerging self-styled intellectuals and poets for their pontificating about thiyator, artistic pretensions among the ghost of a towering literary heritage, and pseudo-liberalism coupled with snobbery toward the less educated.” And yes, they decide to write theatre as T-H-I-Y-A-T-O-R. So unless that’s some type of Turkish term, I think that’s just Edward very well-articulating the kind of snobbery of theatre in a brilliantly re-spelled word.

Marina: Yeah, like “theatre.”

Nabra: So I could not help myself, “Theatre, thiyator.” So here is the opening of the play we’re going to perform for you in the translation, which is the most famous translation by Edward Allworth. The scene is between the groom and his friend. Do you want to be the groom, Mr. Ardenthack, or his friend, Master Wise?

Marina: I will be Master Wise.

Nabra: Amazing. Get ready for the best cold read you ever heard.

At last, this evening I become a bridegroom. Luckily, I signed the marriage contract today. If I hadn’t, passion and excitement might have made me an unwed bridegroom.

Marina: Is such a thing possible?

Nabra: Why not? If it’s a love match, as they say.

Marina: Shocking.

Nabra: Now, see here, if a husband can get along without passion or affection, fine for him. But what am I marrying Miss Dove for? Because… Because… She’s my darling, and nothing else. Wasn’t I sane to fall in love with her so madly?

Marina: Maybe so.

Nabra: Ah, the freshness of her beauty, the sweetness of her disposition. Everything about her pleases me. Now, if my poor Dove just did not have a big sister with a face like a crow.

Marina: Oh, a shame. What do they call her?

Nabra: Ugh, Miss Placid, I believe. Even the name of the wretched woman bothers me.

Marina: Why is that?

Nabra: When it comes to good looks, she is destitute. But forget about that. Besides staying out of circulation until forty-five, her brains have gone bankrupt too. I guess there’s nothing to her except an overinflated hulk. Ah, I’m ashamed to be seen with such a sister-in-law.

And end scene.

As I said, politically incorrect, but admittedly kind of amusing.

Marina: Well, also, I just want to point out, so whenever I was doing research on this episode, I was talking to the aforementioned Turkish friend Deniz, and she said, “Oh, growing up in school, we learned a lot about Ottoman theatre in the classroom.” And I said, “Oh, great. Can you send me the resources?” And she was like, “Yeah, Marina, they’re in Turkish. Do you still want them?” I was like, “Oh, great point.”

But Nabra really liked this scene, and so I was trying to find different translations of it, and found one that was, I mean, honestly baffling, and then found this one, and we were able to sort of put them side by side and say, “Okay, I think we see what they were doing,” but this one makes a lot more sense. So the labor of finding it, Nabra, we really appreciate it because it’s interesting to see how we’ll be able to piece some of these sources together in English, but also a need for a more coherent and cogent narrative to be constructed in English. And I know that there are plenty of scholars who are working on this now, but it’s just, I think, something that we continue to point out on the podcast and it’s interesting.

Nabra: Yeah, it was amazing how difficult it was to get my hands on this. I ended up going to the LA Public Library, shout out public libraries, and had to scan it because it was not in circulation, but it also showed me the importance of translation because the preview of some random version had such a bad translation. It was so bizarre, and we just wanted to do as much justice as we could to these very important playwrights of the Ottoman Empire, even though it doesn’t translate as well culturally, I guess, to the present day where there’s this very difficult misogynist narrative, really, in this play. And without knowing that it was a critique of traditions and that this character was not supposed to be likable, it could be taken very differently by modern audiences.

And I think that’s also why Allworth has these stand-in names, instead of the other translation I found had actually the Turkish names that were in the original play as the names of the characters. But instead, Allworth has these terms, Mr. Ardenthack and Miss Dove and Miss Placid, instead to show what they were supposed to symbolize. And maybe that goes back to origins like Ortaoyunu, which had a lot of stock characters, and even Karagöz had these stock characters that were really of the culture and of the art that they were performing.

Marina: Don’t forget that I was aptly named Master Wise.

Nabra: Yes, please don’t call me Mr. Ardenthack from now on unless I deserve it.

Marina: Now that the idea’s in my head…

Nabra: No, she’s so mean to me.

Anyways, to return to our narrative on Ottoman theatre—I hope you enjoyed that artistic interlude—Menemencioğlu tells the story of another important local production in very compelling detail, so I’m going to give you a long quote by her. The play is by the very important Ottoman playwright, Namık Kemal. So Menemencioğlu says, “Within two months of the formation of this committee,” which was this literary committee that was very important that we’ll talk about shortly,

Namık Kemal had completed a play whose production was to be the great dramatic event of the century, Vatan or The Fatherland or Silistra. The play is based on an episode in the defense of Silistra on the lower Danube, which the Russians were unable to capture during the Crimean War. Hubb Ul-vatan, or love of the fatherland, an ideal advocated by Kemal in many articles and letters, motivates the action.

A noble young man forms a group of volunteers to join the war. The girl he loves disguises herself as a soldier and follows him to the front. Trumpets sound, guns are fired, martial songs are sung, all ends well. The lovers are united, and the enemy is defeated.

Güllü Agop imported Russian uniforms from Odessa and ordered elaborate stage sets. News of the forthcoming production filled the city with excitement. On the evening of Tuesday, first of April, 1873, the theatre was packed with members of the higher bureaucracy, writers, intellectuals, and students. From the very beginning, the impassioned tirades were interrupted by applause, and when the curtain fell, there were calls for the author to appear. He had already left the theatre. A group of spectators carrying lanterns to see by in the dark streets marched to the offices of Tasvir-i, or the Example, of which Kemal was the editor, shouting, “Long live Kemal! Long live The Fatherland! This is our wish! God grant our wish!”

So exciting. Theatre needs to be this much of an event again all the time, and people marching through the streets chanting afterwards. I just love that.

Due to the original oral tradition of Turkish theatre in the past, there was not initially a desire to preserve texts in this way. That started to change, however, with the establishment of professional theatre companies who were starting to perform and develop Turkish plays in the Turkish language.

Marina: Well, and I want to add quickly that the more that I’m learning different Turkish words, I’ve taken two Turkish lessons now, so two whole hours of Turkish, is that when Nabra was reading, you said “Vatan”—“The Fatherland”—Nabra, but the similarities to Arabic are quite striking, right? So in Arabic, we would say “vatan” is homeland, and then “hubb,” she said, “Hubb Ul-vatan”, love of the fatherland in Turkish, and I’m sure our Turkish friends, perhaps our pronunciation is not perfect, but “hubb” in Arabic is also love.

So it’s just always interesting to see these connections of language. And of course, there are particular reasons for that, which is not the aim of this podcast to discuss right now, but I wanted to point them out.

Nabra: By 1867, there were three professional groups in Istanbul, and the circus could be considered the fourth. According to Uslu, “During this period, Muslim intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire saw playwriting as an important sector of artistic production, and there was a boom in both copyright and performance, especially regarding Turkish playwriting,” which is a change from the more improvised versions of theatre.

Marina: Yes. So generally, original plays were not published since they would be the subject of censorship from the Ministry of Education if they were. Censorship was especially intense during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid from 1876 to 1909. Censorship at times was absurd and difficult to navigate, which we see today too. Some words that were outlawed in print were “Yildiz,” “Cyprus,” “Crete,” “Macedonia,” “Bosnia,” “Herzegovina,” “Murat,” “dethronement,” “socialism,” “strike,” “anarchy,” “freedom,” “equality,” “constitution,” “explosion,” and “nose.” That is correct: “nose.” The last one was to ensure that the sultan’s nose was not insulted, especially due to the popularity of the play Cyrano de Bergerac, which was not allowed to be performed.

But due to the original, to the oral tradition of Turkish theatre in the past, there was not initially a desire to preserve texts in this way anyway. That started to change, however, with the establishment of professional theatre companies who were starting to perform and develop Turkish plays in the Turkish language, instead of European plays from non-Turkish playwrights. There were more Turkish actors on the stage, and theatre was an art form for the public, not just the sultan.

A major step in the development of playwriting as a recognized form of literature in the Empire was the establishment of the Ottoman Theatre Literature Committee in 1873. The stated objectives of the committee were, one, solving the Armenian actors’ pronunciation problem, which was seen as the most problematic issue of Turkish theatre at the time. Despite the major Armenian influence on theatre across the empire, there was still a strong nationalist sentiment that discriminated against them in certain ways, and newspapers often criticized Armenians’ “poor pronunciation of the language on stage.” But this committee did lead classes for Armenian performances, which resulted in what some have written about it say led to a more positive, popular opinion of their performances.

The second stated objective of the committee was enriching the theatre literature with the help of the translated works from European languages. And the third goal was correcting translations and adaptations made in a superficial manner. And four, improving the national theatre literature by writing as many plays as possible.

And I think it’s always just useful to point out when we’re talking about Armenians generally, that this nationalist rhetoric did eventually then lead to the Armenian Genocide, which is being foreshadowed here in many ways. So I just did not want to skip over and ignore that, especially currently in times of genocide, it’s always worth pointing out these things as we’re seeing them in different texts.

Nabra: Absolutely. Throughout the researching for this episode, it was actually really difficult to figure out this balance of the popular theatre and the interest and excitement around Armenian performers and writers and playwrights, and also this strong nationalist sentiment of trying to push Turkish theatre and the Turkish language work and Turkish actors. So it’s strange and it’s hard to figure out what really the atmosphere was at the time through scholarly articles. So thank you for pointing that out, Marina.

So in the late 1800s really, theatre boomed. The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama describes plays that focused on heroism and nationalism, historical plays, plays based on mythology and folktale, biblical themes, protests against polygamy, commentary on superstitions, plays about contemporary life, works that satirize neighboring countries, romantic comedies, comedies of mistaken identities, marriage controversies, class commentaries, tragic romances, and more.

In 1884, the Ottoman theatre Company was abolished by order of Sultan Abdulhamit, and this coincided with the increased censorship that we mentioned earlier, and theatre as a whole nearly disappeared a time until the next revolution.

Marina: The Young Turk Revolution of 1908 greatly changed the social, and thereby artistic, atmosphere of the empire. Censorship was ignored and forbidden plays were performed to large crowds. The Fatherland was widely performed. According to Menemencioğlu, “Theatres mushroomed. There was a sudden plethora of plays with titles like, in translation, Morning of Freedom, The Last Days of Abdulhamit, and Intrigue in the Palace. What gradually emerged in this rather confused period was that a truly national Turkish theatre was being created. The plays of this period concerned themselves with the political and social problems of the day, and with the projection of a new concept of “Turkishness” in place of the old Ottomanism.

During this period, political theatre was a way to express dissatisfaction with the previous regime, as well as enthusiasm towards the new social period, which came to be known as the Second Constitutional Period. From the Young Turks Revolution in 1908 through the Turko-Italian War of 1911, the Balkan War of 1912, World War I, and finally, the Turkish War of Independence that led to the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, theatre reflected the politics of the time and dealt with topics related to the struggle of the Turkish people against their enemies in war or historical Turkish war heroes. One company called Osmanli Donanma Cemiyetti was formed specifically to raise money for the purchase of warships.

Nabra: In 1914, the liberal mayor of the time, Cemil Topuzlu Pasha, inaugurated the music and drama conservatory called Dârülbedayi. It was a huge moment in Turkish theatre history. World War I interrupted the school, of course, but it started up again after the war, operating mostly as a theatre group rather than an educational establishment. And eventually, it led to the establishment of the Istanbul Municipal Theatre, which still operates today.

Very notably, young women were allowed to study at the conservatory. And in 1920, the first Turkish Muslim female actor, Afifa Jale, played the lead in a Turkish play entitled Yamalar. And that brings us to the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922.

This overview was incredibly brief and obviously does not cover the entirety of theatre history in the empire. The empire was bursting with creativity and artistic expression and had so many impactful and influential plays, performances, playwrights, actors, directors, and theatremakers of all kinds from so many different backgrounds. But I hope this overview gives you an idea of the rich atmosphere of theatre in the Ottoman Empire, and like all of our episodes, encourages you to do your own research and learn more about this robust theatre culture.

Marina: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of Kunafa and Shay and other HowlRound podcasts by searching “HowlRound” wherever you find podcasts.

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Yalla. Bye!

Nabra: Yalla. Bye!

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