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Re-writing Theatre History, Performing Forgotten: Three Examples from Istanbul Stages

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I’ve chosen these plays not only because they are biographic-historical plays dealing with the same historical period (around 1915), mixing real documents and fictive scenes, but also because they tell the story of leading theatrical figures through the eyes of Armenian artists, and open a larger debate about the role of history in the making of this theatre, and criticizing the field named “modern Turkish Theatre.” Despite the big blind spots in theatre history that have not seen the constitutive role of minorities, especially the Armenian theatre and its actors, these performances shed light on unseen and hidden points. These works re-value the role of Armenian actors who appeared on stage only as comic figures up to now; the challenges of appearing on stage as a Muslim or Armenian woman are shown through many people’s stories we did not previously know, our theatre historiography has been shaped without them. Still, such key concepts as “collective memory,” “theatre historiography,” and “minority and women’s issues,” draw attention to the forgotten, untold, and hidden things at the heart of the theatrical and cultural life through the history of the republic.

Imagined Performance

Imagined Performance (Hayal-i Temsil), composed of imagination and memory, tells the story of Muslim women’s struggling to exist on stage. Having premiered in 2014, the hundredth anniversary of Darülbedayi, and still being staged in this theatre season, it brings together two famous actresses from the recent past: Afife Jale (1902-1941) and Bedia Muvahhit (1897-1994). They encounter the audience in a imaginary-theatrical universe as a reflection of their shared Armenian make-up artist Dikran’s (Yiğit Sertdemir). Afife and Bedia were noted actresses known as the first Muslim women who struggled to appear on stage. They became actresses at Darülbedayi, which was transformed into the Istanbul Municipal Theatre after the foundation of the Republic. Afife, who said “if theatre exists, so do I,” had a painful life because of her passion for theatre. She became an actress in hard times when Muslim women were forbidden to appear on stage. However, Afife managed to do this by using a pseudonym, “Jale.” But when Ottoman authorities became aware that she was a Muslim, she was dismissed from her job at Darülbedayi. The following years brought her poverty, pain, and lasting melancholia, even though in 1923, at the foundation of the Republic, Atatürk removed the ban on Muslim actresses. Meanwhile, Bedia Muvahhit appeared on stage and became a new star.

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