AN EXCURSION IN THE TURKISH THEATER
It is rather difficult to fit a 150 year theater history, in other words, the development of Republican modern theater in a few pages. Where do we stand today? In order to answer this question we have to get back in history and take a look at the distance we have covered, in brief, we have to consider pre-Republican and Republican theater in a continuum. This essay aims to outline the milestones in Turkish theater history until present.
The fact that the Ottoman Empire adopted a western orientation in the 19th century brought about a change in the fields of culture and arts and theater was shaped as an extension of this orientation during the Tanzimat Period, between 1839 and 1876 (the Ottoman Reformation). Within the first few years of the Tanzimat movement a French actor was given permission to perform in his own language in Beyoglu (Pera) and this provided new opportunities for impresarios to work with European opera, ballet and pantomime companies. These visiting foreign groups generally performed in Beyoglu district, while entertainment in the old city was still dominated by popular traditional shows such as Karagoz, Meddah and Ortaoyunu. In the Tanzimat years the Armenian community in Istanbul enjoyed an active theater life. The troupes formed by the Armenian youth soon started to perform first in Armenian, then in Turkish to reach a wider audience. In 1868, Gullu Agop founded the Osmanli Dram Kumpanyasi (Ottoman Dram Company) and started to work at Gedikpasa Theater situated in the old city. Gullu Agop's theater was the first company presenting plays in Turkish language in continuum. He played a significant role in the emergence of Turkish theater in the Western style. Those years were marked by a public discussion over theater imitating the Western style versus traditional forms. The important theater critic of the era, Teodor Kasap strongly emphasized the need for creating an original Turkish theater based on traditional forms and brought forth severe criticisms to imitations of Western styles. On the other hand, an opposition was formed by famous literary figures including Namik Kemal, a playwright, who considered traditional forms rather primitive and suggested that we had to turn to the West and its 2500-year theater tradition in order to produce good Turkish plays.
The first original Turkish play "Sair Evlenmesi / The Marriage of the Poet" was written by Ibrahim Sinasi (1860) in the liberal atmosphere of the Tanzimat period. It was a comedy criticizing the established marriage system based on female go-between. The same period also marks the beginning of Moliere translations and adaptations made by Bursa Governor Ahmet Vefik Pasha. He holds a significant place with his adaptations which still have a place in classic Turkish theater repertory and with his efforts to introduce performing arts in the Western style to Anatolia.
On the other hand, Namik Kemal, besides his romantic and patriotic plays, has left his mark on the period with his essays on the art of theater. During the Tanzimat period, essays on theater put strong emphasis on the selection of plays to be staged and encouraged the productions which would reflect the life style of the Turkish society. Patriotic and nationalistic contexts were the characteristic traits of the plays. In the meantime use of an unpretentious language on stage was underlined and correct Turkish was required from the performers who were mainly Armenian. Training of the audience as well as that of the actors stands as an outstanding issue in those essays.
The treaty of Ayastefanos (1878) marks the beginning of the dark days in the Ottoman history and the Tanzimat period ended giving way to a rather depressive era: the "Period of Autocracy". Censorship became the biggest influence on Turkish theater up to the Second Constitution in 1908. All performances had to have the approval of the Security Directorship. This implementation was based on the enthusiastic public reaction received by Namik Kemal's nationalistic and sentimental play "Vatan Yahut Silistre" in 1873. As a consequence, the play was banned and the playwright was sent for exile. Thus, the event has yet another significance as of first censorship in Turkish theater history.
The Second Constitution in 1908 brought about a resurgence in the field of theater. Censorship physically existed yet neither the theaters nor the press felt bounded. Once banned play, "Vatan Yahut Silistre" returned to the stage. Furthermore ; a young, educated and enthusiastic generation became closely concerned with theater. Among them, Muhsin Ertugrul (1892-1979) would devote his life to theater and would later be mentioned as the founder of the contemporary Turkish theater. During his 70-year career, he remained a pillar in the country's artistic field with his contributions to the modern Turkish theater, his vast knowledge, faith, tenacity and training ability. As Ataturk restructured Turkey as a modern nation Muhsin Ertugrul was a full supporter with his reformist personality. Yet, another positive attempt during the Second Constitution period was the establishment of a conservatory by Istanbul Municipality. Andre Antoine, the founder of Theater Libre in France, was invited to Istanbul in 1914 to work at the conservatory which was named "Darulbedayi", meaning "The house of beauty." However, the 1st World War broke out, and Antoine had to return to his country only in two months. Another significant event of the period was the first appearance of a moslem Turkish woman on stage.
It was also during the Constitution period that Turkish operettas began to be composed and staged in Turkey and became highly popular. Still , the plays were originally adaptations from western texts with the general opinion that the Turkish playwrights could learn western techniques by extensive adaptations. The art of theater started to be debated on a wider scale. Acting skills, direction, policies for play selection, and the quest for national versus foreign plays remained on the agenda throughout the period. The outburst of such topics was not only owed to the free atmosphere that prevailed but also to Darulbedayi's contributions towards an active theater life in Istanbul.
After the proclamation of the Republic in 1923, adaptations were gradually replaced by translations. Plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Pirandello, Gorki etc. staged by Muhsin Ertugrul one after the other created a lively debate as to their effect on the audience who were accustomed to the adaptations of plays based on simple themes. Under the management of Muhsin Ertugrul the Darulbedayi encouraged Turkish playwrights and their works were represented in the repertory. Most of these plays were melodramas and domestic comedies. Yet, discussions were still revolving around the dichotomy of foreign imports versus traditional forms. Some suggested that the Turkish theater can find life in the works of the native playwrights and not in staging of the superior western examples. This debate, in the long run, implied a return to traditional forms such as Karagoz, Meddah and Ortaoyunu and the creation of a national theater concept.
In the meantime, Darulbedayi was attached to the Istanbul Municipality in 1931 and its name changed to Istanbul Municipal Theater. It became the first subsidized theater of the country. Today, the Municipal Theater has 6 stages in different locations of the city. The first Children's Theater was also established by Muhsin Ertugrul under the auspices of the Municipal Theater in 1935. Another important initiative of the time was the establishment of the drama branches of "Halkevleri / Public Houses" which helped to train the audience and enabled the emergence of amateur groups around the country. Unfortunately, "Halkevleri" were closed down during the Democrat Party government in 1950s due to political reasons hitting a heavy blow on the cultural and art life of the country.
In 1940s, the second subsidized theater, Ankara State Theater opened with the first graduates of the State Conservatory which was previously launched and headed by Carl Ebert who came to Turkey upon Muhsin Ertugrul's invitation. Currently, the State Theaters have 26 stages in 16 provinces. The third subsidized theater in Turkey is Bakirkoy Municipal Theater established in Istanbul, in 1994. The fourth subsidized theater, Izmit Municipal Theater opened in November 1997.
Private theaters in Turkey must be dealt with separately. A brief overview will show that it all started with Kucuk Sahne (The Small Stage) in Beyoglu in the 1950s. This theater was established partially under the sponsorship of a bank as part of its cultural services and it was run by Muhsin Ertugrul who at that time had resigned from Ankara State Theater as the General Artistic Director. Many renown actors and actresses have come out of Kucuk Sahne. This stage is known as "the cradle of private theaters." The private theater companies which flourished within the free environment encouraged by the 1961 Constitution gave a new dimension to the country's theater life. These companies which were located in larger towns such as Istanbul and Ankara both gave new impetus to theater activities and provided a ground for development for many distinguished playwrights. However, this intense activity led to an increase in the number of private theaters, which in turn deteriorated the quality. This rapid rise was followed by a period of decline. The cause of this decline was not only the inflationary increase in the number of theater companies, but the social, economic and political decline the country was experiencing. 1960s and 1970s are also the years marked by oppression and censorship in the theater field. The 1980s were a period of silence following the military coup. Nowadays, private theaters are gaining new impetus. In recent years, young groups have started breaking new ground with their experimental and research work. The state started to give financial support to private theaters in the 1980s. This support is not regulated by a legal frame and thus is subject to the political stances of ministers of culture.
If we evaluate the progress of play writing in our country after the declaration of the Second Constitution in 1908, playwrights focused on historical themes and on political subjects, clash of traditional and modern life styles etc. In the thirties and forties melodramas and domestic comedies within the 'well-made play format' were favorable. Starting with the 1950s the concern for social and individual problems replacing the previous realistic genre could be observed: the playwrights' quest was focused on the issues of rural migration, feudal social order and life in the slums. In brief, the system was questioned with all its aspects. In later years, influenced by the current political theater in Europe, the Turkish playwrights began to deal with the issue in a similar form and content. They employed the episodic form of epic and merged it with the traditional Turkish norms. Beginning from 1980, the sterility of the playwrights could be interpreted as a parallel development similar to the political and economical conditions prevailing in the country. Nevertheless, today, the works of the younger generation foretells the beginning of a productive new era.
Refik Ahmet Sevengil, "Tanzimat Tiyatrosu / Theater of the Period of Reforms", Milli Egitim Print House 1968
Refik Ahmet Sevengil, "Mesrutiyet Tiyatrosu / Theater of Constitutional Period", Milli Egitim Print House 1968
Metin And "50 Yilin Tiyatrosu / Theater of 50 Years", Is Bankasi Cultural Publications 1973
Sevda Sener, Aysegul Yuksel, Ozdemir Nutku "Theater in Turkey: An Introduction" Tiyatro...Tiyatro / Theater...Theater, June 1996, pp. 22-27.