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A Feminist Tuberculosis Melodrama: Melek By Theatre Painted Bird

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The Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 under the leadership of President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Turkey’s formative years, known as the Kemalist Era (1923-1938), were characterized by a combination of secular modernization and Turkish nationalism. Women played an important role in this process. On the one hand, women’s bodies were perceived as symbols of national identity and markers of the difference between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey. On the other hand, women — conceptualized primarily as mothers— were seen as the key agents who could create a new Turkey by transforming the households and raising the younger generations according to the ideals of the Republic. Moreover, the power of the discourse of honor continued, regulating the gendered behavior of both women and men. As such, women’s citizenship was defined at the intersection of multiple and conflicting expectations. In this context, theatre, film, and performance served as venues where the new codes of gender could be promoted, and female actors emerged as important public figures.

Melek Kobra came of age in the Kemalist Era and joined the ranks of the first Muslim and Turkish women actors. She was a member of Turkish theatre and performance royalty: Her father, Muhlis Sabahattin Ezgi, was a composer and director known as “the King of Operettas.” Her husband was the actor Ferdi Tayfur, known as “the King of Dubbing.” Her cousin was Keriman Halis, who was crowned Miss Turkey and Miss Universe in 1932. Growing up among these celebrities, Kobra was, in a sense, destined to fame. Her professional career started at the age of 16 with her father’s company Muhlis Sabahattin’in Çocukları (Muhlis Sabahattin’s Children). Later, she joined Darülbedayi (later, Istanbul Municipal Theatre), which was the major publicly funded theatre company at the time. Nevertheless, Kobra failed to negotiate the impossible expectations that defined women’s lives in the Kemalist Era. Like some other prominent female actors of the period such as Afife Jale and Cahide Sonku, she developed a drug addiction, which was later followed by tuberculosis. She spent the final years of her short life under treatment at hospitals and sanatoriums, funded by her paramours, and died at the age of 24.

Melek tells the moving story of Melek Kobra with an unabashedly queer sentimentality. Written and staged as a powerful melodrama, it nevertheless contains strong political subtexts. Reflecting research that goes far beyond Kobra’s memoirs, Melek presents a vivid portrayal of the theatre and performance scene in the Kemalist Era as well as the gender politics of the time. Thus, the play exposes the limits of the Republic’s promises to women as well as their experiences of citizenship.

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