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Saad Ardash: Life in the Theater and in Exile
By MICHAEL TEAGUE
One would be hard-pressed to overstate the role of Saad Ardash as a pioneer of modern Egyptian theatre; indeed, throughout a five-decade career he was unarguably its principal architect. As a young man and founder of Egypt’s Free Theatre he was the first to introduce both traditional and experimental forms of western theatre to Egyptian audiences. Indebted to the ancient Greek idea of the theatre as a means of public enlightenment, Ardash adapted the themes and mechanisms of European absurdist and epic productions to the context of Nasser’s revolutionary Egypt. His artistic activity included all aspects of the theatre – writing, producing, directing, acting – as well as film and television acting and the writing of criticism. As a committed leftist, Ardash set a standard of moral and artistic excellence that was essential to the period known as the Golden Age of Egyptian theatre.
In considering the many accomplishments of Ardash, the numerous awards he won, and the events of his life related to his political convictions, it is perhaps best to begin with the most basic: Ardash raised the artistic standards of the actor. Egyptian theatre acting in the 1950s and 1960s was constricted by a lack of versatility. Actors relied almost completely on the use of the voice, hand gestures, and contrived emotions in order to translate stories into physical performance. Ardash’s approach was much wider and more flexible and he brought new and more inclusive means of expression to actors, challenging them to express themselves more richly. For this accomplishment he won the State Appreciative Award in 1990.
Ardash’s technical revolution in the theatre is composed of several critical elements. The 1954 military coup by Gamal Abd-el-Nasser and the Free Officers was an extremely joyous occasion for the arts and education in Egypt. This period coincided with Ardash‘s formative years as an artist and intellectual. His inclination for acting and directing as well as his ability to work constantly and tirelessly that were apparent early in his life were to benefit greatly from the regime’s indulgence towards cultural and educational activity. After studying at the Theatre Institute and at Ain-Shams University law-school, in 1958 Ardash applied for and obtained a grant to study directing in Italy.
Returning from the academy of theatre art in Rome four years later, Ardash came back to Egypt thoroughly inspired by two prominent strains in the European theatre of the time. The epic theatre spearheaded by the German Bertolt Brecht proposed a model for the social responsibility of the artist which was to remain foundational in some way to all of Ardash’s subsequent activity. Brecht, an unapologetic Communist, was critical of the de-facto Freudian catharsis-based interpretation of classical Greek theatre, and sought instead to base his epic mode on what the Greeks themselves stipulated – namely that the principal function of art was to educate the public. He took this idea a bit further along, seeking to make of his work an opportunity for self-reflection and criticism that would tear the veil from the forces of social injustice and oppression, and spurn the audience to meaningful action. Theoretically, this was quite similar to the aspirations of Nasser’s revolution and the socialist policies which it sought to implement.
The other European movement that profoundly impressed Ardash was the theatre of the absurd, represented by such playwrights as Heinrik Ibsen, Euegene Ionesco, Samuel Becket, Luigi Pirandello and others. The theatre of the absurd was not so much a “movement” with its own coherence as it was a category, a loose collection of playwrights who were themselves inspired to various degrees by many elements, including but not limited to surrealism and existentialism. Though not all of these plays were so overtly political, they all shared a propensity for radical experimentation (Antonin Artaud, for example, who was one of the most radical critics and theoreticians of the time, wrote plays with no characters, or that were otherwise not even meant to be performed). This willingness to experiment became an essential aspect of Ardash’s artistic output weather it was a question of theatre or of film. While in Europe the two different modes of theatre were susceptible to some theoretical squabbling, for Ardash in revolutionary Egypt they complimented each other very well. As a result, after returning from Italy he persuaded the ministry of culture to help him set up the Pocket Theatre, an organ through which he introduced the Arab world’s first productions of Beckett and Ionesco.
Ardash did more than simply translate Western epic and absurdist dramas into Arabic. These plays influenced his original works and productions as well as those of his colleagues such as Mahmoud Diab and Saad Eddin Wahbe. Traditional Arabic theatre was re-interpreted in a manner analogous to the manner in which Brecht approached traditional Western theatre. In Ardash’s view, the theatre was essentially a reflection of society and as such the evolution of both could not be viewed separately. It was the theatre’s responsibility to explore the most significant questions of the time. The artist, using whatever medium and whatever style, was necessarily committed to representing the most pressing issues. For Ardash, the latter included first and foremost questions of social justice and anti-colonialism. In one interview in his later years, he also discussed the importance of the theatre’s ability to appropriate technological advances at the same pace as other sectors of society. This extended to the manner in which theatre was advertised. If marketing was to be a central means of disseminating information, then the theatre must take it upon itself to use this medium to pry people from their televisions and sit them down in front of the stage.
The insistence on employing marketing technology in the service of the theatre surely arose from the days of Egyptian society’s first encounters with that much hailed phenomenon now commonly referred to as globalization. After Nasser’s death, his successor Anwar al-Sadat re-established Egypt’s role as a military power in the 1973 War against Israel. However even before this initial success Sadat was already making unprecedented changes to Egypt’s role in the Middle East, most notably with the policy of “infitah,” the opening up of the Egyptian economy and political system to Western models based on privatization. This was a drastic departure from the Nasserite socialist policies that had held primacy for almost two decades, and one of the first sectors of society to suffer as a result was the arts. Though Sadat ostensibly paid for this with his life in 1981, Ardash and the Egyptian theatre as a whole were to be the first victims. In 1970, when he was the director of the National Theatre, he was asked by deputy prime minister Abdul-Qader Hatem to consider changing the programme of the National Theatre to accommodate a more consumerist and entertainment-based paradigm.
Thus, in 1971 began Ardash’s 10-year exile from his home country. He would spend the first five years working in Algeria, and the next five in Kuwait. During this time, the Egyptian theatre suffered greatly from the introduction of the common-denominator entertainment formula, a situation that was exacerbated by the absence of Ardash as the watermark of its intellectual integrity. By the time of his return during the first year of the regime of Husny Mubarak in 1982, tensions between the artist and the state had cooled considerably. However, the theatre had suffered greatly in his absence, and though Ardash spent the rest of his life engaging in the socio-political criticism that had come to be synonymous with his work, the golden age of stage performance in Egypt was a shadow of its former self.
In Ardash’s view, this was situation in keeping with his basic view of the theatre as a reflection of the evolution of a society. The infitah of Sadat was just one of many examples of a situation where artistic meaning is subordinated to, indeed eviscerated by the neo-liberal economic policies which had come to replace the more bald aggression of Western colonialism. The decline of Egyptian theatre was in some sense a dramatization of this process, and this explains his belief that modern advertising techniques should be used to the benefit of the theatre. From the 1970s onward, Ardash would become increasingly critical of the role of “globalization” in the third world and the Middle East specifically, onstage and off. For example, his last production in 2007 was of Brecht’s 1929 play called “The Network,” in which themes of ruthless capitalism and globalization were explored and criticized in a manner that was, to say the least, ahead of its time. His exile of the 1970s was no doubt the crowning moment of a disappointment with the revolutionary promise of Nasser’s leadership, but Ardash never abandoned his principles and remained true to his vision of a certain instrumental function of the theatre as a means of enhancing the critical capacities of the greater public.
The career of Saad Ardash was as long as it was diverse. The virtuosity of the man lead him not only to every aspect of the theatre, but also to the writing of art criticism, and acting in some of the most contemporary television programs and films that Egypt had to offer (one example being the great Yussuf Shahin’s 1970 masterpiece “Ikhtiar”). Staying true to his principles, he preferred to live in exile rather than debase his vehicle of expression. Ardash went to the United States in 2008 to receive treatment for cancer, and shortly before his 84th birthday passed away while in recovery from treatment. He had not yet retired, and had certainly not stopped receiving awards for his work. His passing is a reminder of the days when cultural production in Egypt was central to a revolutionary ideology of social change.