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Manifold Oedipus: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex at the National (2001)

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After two successful seasons, however, Abyad, who was equally proficient in Arabic, was instructed by the minister of Education then to use his knowledge and experience to improve the state of the Egyptian theatre by joining the theatrical mainstream, seeking a wider audience, and offering them the great European classics in Arabic. The French company was disbanded, and with generous financial help from a wealthy benefactor and theatre-lover, by the name of Abdel Raziq ‘Inayet, Abyad fonned another in his name; it opened its first season at the Opera on March 19th, 1912, with a production of a verse drama by the famous Hafez Ibrahim, ‘the poet of the Nile’ (as he was nicknamed), called The Wounded Lover of Beirut. Oedipus Rex and Othello, followed and, in subsequent years, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew were added to the repertoire, as well as Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and a dozen French classics, including Molière’s Don Juan, Les Femmes Savantes, Tartuffe and L’Ecole des Femmes.

The company survived for twenty years, despite frequent lack of funds, the avid popular taste for vaudevilles, farces, musicals and violent social melodramas (invariably performed in the accessible colloquial rather than the forbidding classical Arabic), and notwithstanding the fierce competition offered by Yusef Wahbi and Fatma Rushdi who followed Abyad’s example and helped themselves liberally to the classics (with Wahbi at one time playing Iago to Abyad’s Othello when the latter, in deep financial straits, joined the former’s Ramses troupe for a brief spell in 1923.) It was a hard but rewarding struggle, which continued with few brief interruptions, until 1932; and throughout, Oedipus Rex remained a regular and frequent item in the company’s repertoire, with Abyad always the eponymous hero and Dawalat Qasabgi (who joined the company in 1918 and married him in 1923, becoming Dawalat Abyad) as Jocasta. So enamored of the play the couple seemed that when they joined the Egyptian National Theatre Company, founded by the government in 1935 (when almost all the private companies had gone bankrupt and closed down), they took ·it along with them, together with a few other favorites.

Unfortunately, given the notoriously inaccurate available records of the Egyptian theatre, not to mention their many gaps and lapses of memory, one cannot find out when the last performance of Oedipus Rex by the Abyads took place. One may be sure at least that it wasn’t after 1944, when the couple left the National company – the wife to pursue her career in cinema, where she was much in demand, and the husband to become professor of acting and elocution at the newly founded Acting (later, Theatre) Institute. Although we know that Mrs. Abyad rejoined the company briefly, first, in 1948, then in 1952 (the year it was rechristened The Egyptian Company for Acting and Music and George Abyad was appointed its general manager), it is extremely unlikely they attempted Sophocles’s masterpiece another time. For one thing, they were too old; for another, Abyad’s health was failing and he resigned his post as company manager in July, 1953, within less than a year of his appointment.

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