Imperialism and Theatre


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Artaud understood theatre's power of fascination and communication: "The mind believes what it sees and does what it believes: that is the power of the fascination" Thus, he called theatre a "disease" and a "delirium" that could externalize the terrors within and lead to "extreme purification" Clearly, theatre's power to fascinate can be anything from perverse to empowering -- it's all a question of whom, why, and when it fascinates. The emotional undertow of fascination that makes participants of observers and encourages them to "transcend" their individuality by succumbing to the larger whole has a terrifying potential which fascist leaders have consciously exploited.

Gunter Berghaus, editor of an important collection of essays, Fascism and Theatre: Comparative Studies on the Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, , argues that fascination is the sin qua non of fascism: "without the fascinum the terror system of the fasces would not have worked" This volume owes its admirable coherence to the fact that it begins with, and builds on, Roger Griffin's definition of fascism in his opening essay, "Staging the Nation's Rebirth.

Fascism is fascinating and has to be because it depends on a charismatic leader seducing "his" public into an emotional state of total identification with him and, by extension, his project. The various essays in the collection focus on what Griffin calls the "fascist minimum" -- those characteristics that all fascisms have in common.

The British Empire and the stage, 1790–1930

However, as Griffin argues that there were only two "truly" fascist states, the volume limits itself to Mussolini's fascism and German Nazism, with some essays on what one supposes is a "para-fascist" state, Spain's Falange. Interestingly, Fascism and Theatre illustrates that for all the "fascination" routinely attributed to fascism, and for all of its disturbing potential to manipulate spectators, there are few fascinating examples of fascist theatre.

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Even though Hitler recognized empathy as a political resource in Ever since, this idea about the cultural component of imperialism has played a dominant role in scholarship on empire. But the question is an empirical one, and history tells us a more subtle and interesting story. In these two decades, capital, technology and foreigners flowed into Cairo, and from Cairo across Egypt.


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The works of the Suez Canal, British-French competition, rich pashas and Ottoman intrigues all jammed together. He was watching the Rossini opera Semiramis. He immediately grasped the connection between theatre, language and patriotism.

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Because this is the sum of the patriotic components that facilitated the advancement of the European countries and helped to enhance their internal conditions. So, can the arrival of Western culture in the Middle East be equated simply with European imperialism?

First, let us consider the question of power. The Khedivial Opera House and other new Western-style cultural spaces represented authority to ordinary people in the streets of Cairo. The intention of European states to enforce their economic interests on the Ottoman Empire, Egypt included, is also crystal clear throughout modern history: just look at the Suez Canal.

The 1950s - Cultural Imperialism

The danger in attributing ultimate change to Europe, though — be it military, cultural or technological — is that one might underestimate and, ultimately, deny local agency. Indeed, in s Egypt, the opera house symbolised the power of the local Ottoman ruling elite. It was the governor Ismail Pasha, the local Muslim ruler, who ordered and paid for it — much before the British occupation of Egypt. Second, the use of these cultural spaces by local intellectuals and ordinary people ultimately defines whose visions the performances embody.

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The social history of the institutions and the ideas that they stir shed more light on their ultimate function in society than does their founding moment. At first glance, what could better please the exotic, Western Orientalist imagination than a Muslim journalist watching an Italian opera in Cairo? We have to look deeper to avoid exoticism and discover whose power directs cultural processes. Unsi was a passionate teacher of Arabic and an enterprising minor businessman who experimented in the booming printed-book market in Cairo in the s. In , Unsi teamed up with an Italian teacher and proposed to the government a drama school for young Egyptians.

Was Cairo’s grand opera house a tool of cultural imperialism?

Meanwhile, James Sanua, a now-legendary Egyptian-Italian Jew, submitted a proposal for an ad-hoc Arabic theatre troupe. Neither of these rival projects came to fruition, not because of European colonialism but because Ismail Pasha was not interested, perhaps judging them too disturbing, too patriotic, too potentially political. This background shows our man, not in a blind fascination with elite European products, but as an active, confident agent of change who finally did not receive support from his own government.

L et us step outside the opera house. Technological inventions, especially increasingly cheap and fast Mediterranean steam ships, made both Italian, French and also Ottoman and Arab theatrical tours more possible by making it easier to move actors, singers, instruments and ideas across the sea. Culture is also business.

Due to this acceleration, in the lateth century a hybrid Arabic and Turkish and Greek, Armenian, French and Italian cultural economy of musical theatre developed. Arabic music made European acting acceptable and contributed to the acceptance of the new performance genre. Indeed, modern Arab political propaganda makes ample use of performance culture. Culture in the 19th century was thus a multilevel social domain in which symbols and practices of leisure constantly circulated due to the new imperial technologies and routes.

Within this frame, Unsi can be seen as only one active hub among the milliard buzzing connections. European domination, privileges and interests are still clear, as are hierarchies of power.


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Imperialism and Theatre Imperialism and Theatre
Imperialism and Theatre Imperialism and Theatre
Imperialism and Theatre Imperialism and Theatre
Imperialism and Theatre Imperialism and Theatre
Imperialism and Theatre Imperialism and Theatre
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