Peer Gynt by the Pyramids in Giza
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Before the 1950s, Henrik Ibsen was virtually unknown in Egypt; very few had heard of him, and even fewer had read him. For close on a century, the major infl uences on the Egyptian theater had been English, French and Italian, and the most popular genres were melodrama, comedy, vaudeville and gory classical tragedies. Though many comedies and melodramas used realistic settings and character types and strove to tackle some glaring social injustices and prejudices, realistic social drama of the kind Ibsen attempted in the second phase of his career did not exist. The tradition of consigning the critical debating of serious social issues to the comic genre was so deeply entrenched that even No’man Ashour, who has been consensually nominated the father of realistic social drama in Egypt, could not escape its sway. Ashour was a Marxist who studied English literature at Cairo University and initially admired the works of George Bernard Shaw. From Shaw, it was a short step to Ibsen, and, being a diligent, avid reader with an insatiable curiosity where drama was concerned and a good command of English, Ashour soon discovered Chekov and Gogol in English translations. Nevertheless, though his early plays, particularly his two chef-d’oeuvres-El Nas Elli Taht (The People Downstairs, 1956)
and El Nas Elli Fawq (The People Upstairs, 1958)—evidence a remarkable degree of ideological kinship with Ibsen, Shaw and Chekov, and their defi nite infl uence on him in matters of characterization and dramaturgy, Ashour remained a faithful disciple of the long-established Egyptian comic tradition, particularly the brand of hilarious, sweet-and-sour social satire produced by Naguib El-Rihani and Badee’ Khayri between 1935 and 1949, the year El-Rihani died. Like that great comedian, Ashour wisely realized that to put across any social or political message effectively, one had to coat it with thick layers of humor. In this respect, Shaw and Chekov served as better models than Ibsen.