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Orientalism in the Victorian Era  

Valerie Kennedy

Orientalism in the Victorian era has origins in three aspects of 18th-century European and British culture: first, the fascination with The Arabian Nights (translated into French by Antoine Galland in 1704), which was one of the first works to have purveyed to Western Europe the image of the Orient as a place of wonders, wealth, mystery, intrigue, romance, and danger; second, the Romantic visions of the Orient as represented in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and other Romantics as well as in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh; and third, the domestication of opium addiction in Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Victorian Orientalism was all pervasive: it is prominent in fiction by William Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling, but is also to be found in works by Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others. In poetry Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat is a key text, but many works by Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning also show the influence of Orientalist tropes and ideas. In theater it is one of the constant strands of much popular drama and other forms of popular entertainment like panoramas and pageants, while travel writing from Charles Kingsley to Richard Burton, James Anthony Froude, and Mary Kingsley shows a wide variety of types of Orientalist figures and concepts, as do many works of both popular and children’s literature. Underlying and uniting all these diverse manifestations of Victorian Orientalism is the imperialist philosophy articulated by writers as different as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, supported by writings of anthropologists and race theorists such as James Cowles Pritchard and Robert Knox. Toward the end of the Victorian era, the image of the opium addict and the Chinese opium den in the East End of London or in the Orient itself becomes a prominent trope in fiction by Dickens, Wilde, and Kipling, and can be seen to lead to the proliferation of Oriental villains in popular fiction of the early 20th century by such writers as M. P. Shiel, Guy Boothby, and Sax Rohmer, whose Dr. Fu Manchu becomes the archetypal version of such figures.

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Pre-1952 Egyptian Drama, Popular Theater, and Cultures of Performance  

Raphael Cormack

There is a linear way to tell story of Egyptian performance history up to 1952: the country had not known theater in any serious way before the 1870s. As European culture entered Egypt, along with European power and capital, Egyptians created their own theatrical tradition based on the European. Translations were made of Shakespeare, Racine, and Corneille, which were produced by new theater troupes. At first, so this story goes, this was a slightly defective imitation of the European model. But, in the subsequent decades a theatrical tradition developed into a fully formed dramatic culture. By 1952, there were Egyptian playwrights and Egyptian actors, performing plays about uniquely Egyptian themes (even if the model of was essentially European). For much of the 20th century, this was a dominant narrative in both scholarly work on theater and on more public facing criticism. It was not always put so bluntly, but the basic model and its assumptions formed the analytical skeleton. After a while, this way of looking at the history of Egyptian performance began to face challenges. As well as being reductive and Eurocentric, it became clear that this approach excluded a vast range of performance traditions that have long thrived in Egypt. Studying Egyptian theater as merely a belated attempt to replicate a European style of theater left out a lot. No serious academic work could entirely ignore the long history of performance in Egypt which was not encompassed under the umbrella of “theater”—traveling farce performances, dances, shadow plays. But these were hard to fit into the dominant model of analysis so usually found themselves confined to carefully siloed introductory chapters. So a new way of telling the story emerged, which attempted to capture the complexity of late-19th- and early-20th-century theater. In this version, it would not be possible to create a cordon sanitaire around “proper” theater in this period and to study it in isolation. It was clear that theater practitioners took influences from a variety of places and performers themselves moved freely between nightclubs, cabarets, and theaters, challenging the rigid theoretical barriers erected between them. The influences of these earlier popular performance traditions could also start to be seen if the gaze was turned away from European theater. Likewise, the work of adapting European theater to Egypt was not one of simple imitation but was a creative process in itself. The history of Egyptian performance in the 19th and 20th centuries has always been a history of tension—between the “European” and the “local,” between the “high” and the “low.” Ought Egyptians seek to refine European—style theater that dealt with local concerns or use popular traditions that still had appeal to wide audiences? What, in reality, was the difference between a tragic actor and a nightclub singer? Should a barrier be erected between these two things or not? These tensions have never been resolved but continue to animate modern Egyptian performance and the academic study of its history.