On 22nd April 1910 in Cairo, 6 women came together for an unprecedented performance at the Egyptian Theatre: an all-female performance of a play called “The Passion of Kings” (Gharam al-Muluk). On 4th May a critic in the newspaper al-Mahrusa wrote a long note on the event, describing his reaction.
Reading through Ramses Awad’s 1979 book on pre-1919 theatre, this event jumped out at me. He reproduced the article in some detail. The literary world of 20th century Egypt that left its mark in paper and print was often extremely male. Literary circles and scholarly debates were depressingly phallo-centric. The theatre world was different, men and women worked together and women often had considerable power and influence in troupes. Mounira al-Mahdeyya, Rose al-Youssef and Milia Dayan were the most famous early 20th century actresses but there were many others. Badia Masabni (pictured below) made her name as both an actress, a dancer and a nightclub impresaria.
Still, it is a little unexpected to see an all-female troupe formed as early as 1910 (Ramses Awad is certainly shocked).
The play that the women performed (“The Passion of Kings”) was an Arabic version of Racine’s Mithridate, a story based on the king of Pontus, Mithridates, the great enemy of the Romans. I have to admit that I do not know Racine’s version but apparently it is based on his conflict with his two son’s for the love of one woman. All this happens as the Romans launch an offensive against Mithridates’ kingdom of Pontus.
The review in al-Mahrusa had a few criticisms. Since there were only 6 actors, they had to double up with a lot of roles. Perhaps, for this reason, they had not perfectly memorised their roles, he said. He also had praise for some of the actresses, such as the woman who played Mithridates’ son Pharmaces and the quality of her singing (most plays at this time included singing roles). But he singled out the woman who played Mithridates’ other son, Xiphares; he was “amazed at her mastery of the role”.
(This is a photo from the 1930s. I guess it is from a girl’s school and it may be of a theatre troupe but it may just be a single set piece)
The 1910 performance of Racine’s Mithridate was not the only time in the 1910s that an all female troupe appeared on the Egyptian stage. Later in his chapter, Ramses Awad talks about another article published 4 August 1914 in the paper al-Afkar. It says that “On the 6 August a troupe of female actors who have a great fame in the art of drama will act the play ‘Three Lovers’.” The performance was scheduled for the Printania theatre in Cairo at the beginning of Sharia Bulaq.
There is no particular reason to think that this is the same troupe as the one that performed 4 years earlier. Even though the reviewer says that they are famous, he also adds that, “this is the first time that women will appear on the Egyptian stage acting the parts of kings and general, fighting their enemies and defending their fatherland.”
Unlike the 1910 performance, this play was newly written. Also the performance there was a comic skit by the “famous Greek [Rumiyya] comic actress Andronike”. Unfortunately there are no more details about “Andronike”, whose name means “defeater of men” (if one is a little creative in translation). She sounds like a fascinating character.
Nor have I found any more details on these two performances from 1910 and 1914 but I am keeping my eye out.