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Obituary: Saad Ardash: 1924-2008
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 06 - 2008

: 1924-2008
When we met last February, I did not know it was to be for the last time. It was a chilly evening and he wore a long black coat which accentuated his tall, commanding figure and beautifully set off the soft halo of silver grey hair that encased his fine, aristocratic features. Though he was four score and more, he was still a very handsome man and strangely unwrinkled. As we waited in the anteroom of the studio of the Egyptian satellite channel which was hosting us to talk about theatrical experimentation, I said as much. He said that, actually, he had not been feeling well for some time and would soon be going to the States to investigate some mysterious pain in his back which specialists here had failed to cure. Though he looked paler than usual, I was quite surprised by what he said: in all the years I knew him, I had never heard him admit to being ill; he was a proud man, with a natural reserve. I should have realised then that his condition was far more serious than he let out.
I didn't. Instead, I told him he was only saying that to ward off the evil eye and started to jocularly flirt with him as I always did. The habit started in Baghdad where we got close during a theatre festival in 1987. Before that date, I had admired Ardash from a distance; though we worked in the same field, he had always seemed a daunting figure and I was awed by his history and reputation. It was only away from home, in the holiday atmosphere of a festival that I could muster enough courage to tell him not only how passionately I admired him as actor, director and tough intellectual, but also that though he was in his sixties and had turned grey, he was much more attractive than I remembered him from his early movies and stage and television appearances. When I added, half in jest, that had I met him twenty years earlier, I would have certainly fallen in love with him, he was embarrassed and made a shy, courteous reply which sent the whole company roaring with laughter.
During that festival in Baghdad, we spent many merry evenings with friends on the shores of Tigris, sampling local dishes, sipping Araq and listening to traditional Iraqi music. And though we never became what you would call friends, we had a great deal of affection and respect for each other. When the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre was launched the following year (1988), we were both actively involved in it and this brought us together a lot, further cementing that warm, friendly bond between us. For the next twenty years, Ardash headed both the seminars and local selection committees of the festival, to both of which I was an active contributor, and this meant that every year, for ten days, we would spend hours together everyday. There were also other Arab theatre festivals to which we were both invited, and the meetings of the theatre committee of the Supreme Council for Culture which he headed for a number of years, and this meant I could see him at least twice a month throughout the year.
The more I saw of Ardash, the more I liked him. He always behaved with dignity and elegance and his integrity was unimpeachable. Though aristocratic in looks and conduct, he was an inveterate socialist who fervently believed in the role of theatre as a force of social and political change. But politically committed as he was, he never allowed himself to become bigoted and was thoroughly democratic when it came to decision-making in the committees he presided over. He tolerated difference, never vilified his ideological opponents and never stooped to backbiting. The only thing he could not forgive, either in art or life, was 'lack of discipline', and by that word he meant technical negligence, self-indulgence, intellectual superficiality and general sloppiness. After watching a performance together, which happened often due to our work as jurors in festivals, it was enough to hear him quietly say it was 'undisciplined' to know that he really meant quite atrocious.
More than any director of his generation, Ardash was keen to keep up with the new trends in Egyptian theatre and the experiments of young artists. Year after year, for the past 20 years, he headed, or was a member of the CIFET's selection committee, diligently cramming 4 or 5 shows a day over a week, never missing one, and always being the first to turn up at the early afternoon and never grumbling at often having to go home well after midnight. Though he was always the oldest member of the group, he showed more energy and enthusiastic dedication than the youngest one. Whether he was 65, 75, or 84, his stamina was always truly amazing, and I think the secret lay in a deep rooted habit of self-discipline, an overriding sense of duty, an enduring passion for theatre and an avid curiosity to find out how it was shaping up and in what direction it was moving from year to year and from one generation to the next.
This is not surprising; as a young artist, Ardash himself was an ardent experimenter and daring trendsetter. Though he trained in the classical tradition at the hands of Zaki Tulaimat in the theatre institute, he soon rebelled against it, embracing the mode of social realism and forming with a group of fellow graduates an independent troupe which they called the Free Theatre. One of their earliest productions was Ibsen's A Doll's House which they performed at the old Opera house and in which Ardash played Helmer. It was the first time Ibsen was ever performed in Egypt or anywhere in Arab world.
In those days, Ardash considered himself primarily an actor. He had been the leading performer in the plays staged at his primary and secondary schools, back in Faraskour -- a small town in the northern, coastal governorate of Damietta where he was born and grew up. But even then, the seeds of directing were within him. When his Arabic teacher chose him to recite a poem about fishing, the main livelihood of most people in the town, at a school event, the child Ardash, still in his third primary grade, insisted on doing it while standing in a large basin full of water and holding a fishing rod in his hand, with a real fish dangling at the end of the line. It would make the whole thing more vivid, he thought, not realizing that he was actually directing the scene, transforming a verbal text into a concrete stage image. Later on, when he joined the workshops of the Egyptian Railways where he worked as a clerk for four years after completing his secondary education and before he was accepted at the theatre institute, he formed a theatre troupe from among the workers and civil servants there and directed them in plays from the repertoire of the professional companies then. (It was, probably, during that time that he began to imbibe the precepts of socialism.) And when he suddenly decided, while in his last year at the theatre institute, to enroll in the faculty of law at Ain Shams university, the first thing he did there was to form and coach an acting team.
Explaining this sudden move, Ardash said that it was prompted by a desire to know more about the forces at work in history and human society and how people were governed. After three years at the theatre institute he realized that the studies there did not provide this kind of knowledge; they were purely technical and highly specialised, geared to produce skilled actors, but not cultivated minds. At 27, Ardash was seriously rethinking the traditional definition of an actor. For an actor to be an effective force of change in his society, he needed much more than talent and technical skill; he needed culture and vision; in short, to be an intellectual. Having made this discovery, it was a short step to becoming a creative director.
Ardash, however, was not a man to rush into things hastily, without careful preparation. To launch himself as director, he wanted first to equip himself with the necessary knowledge and training. He applied for a grant to study directing abroad and got it in 1958, spending the next 4 years in Italy. There, he obtained a diploma in directing from the national academy of theatre art in Rome, choosing for his graduation project Ugu Betti's Troubled Waters, or The Brother Who Protects and Loves, and also met and married his lifelong partner, Nadia Khafagi, a plastic artist.
Back in Egypt, Ardash got busy revolutionising the Egyptian theatre. In an interview in 1998, he told me: "When I came back from Italy, there were two things I wanted to do: to introduce new trends in world theatre by way of experiment through a pocket theatre, and to try out the epic theatre to test its potential and appeal to the audience here." And he achieved both ends. Without completely discarding social realism, a mode which he continued to cultivate in the 60s and 70s, directing plays by Saadeddin Wahba, No'man Ashour and others, he persuaded the minister of culture then, Tharwat Okasha, to allow him to launch his Pocket theatre project and appoint him its artistic director. The theatre opened at the Automobile Club in 1962 with the Arab premiere of Samuel Beckett's Endgame, directed by Ardash himself, and it was soon followed by the Arab premiere of Ionesco's The Chairs, directed by Mohamed Abdel Aziz. When, following a fire in the Automobile Club, the theatre moved to the Pharaonic Garden in Gezira, on the Nile, Ardash chose to open the new venue with The Exception and the Rule, directed by Farouk El-Demerdash, thus introducing Brecht and his epic theatre for the first time in Egypt and the Arab world.
Around the same time, 1963, Ardash directed Sophocles's Antigone for the World theatre company, giving it a pronouncedly Brechtian production. And though he resigned his post as director of the Pocket theatre in 1964, he continued to promote Brecht's epic style in a series of groundbreaking productions including, The Good Soul of Setzuan at El-Hakim theatre in 1966; The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Pocket theatre (in collaboration with a German director from the Berliner Ensemble) in 1968; an Egyptian version of The Three-penny Opera, adapted by Alfred Farag and rechristened Atwa Abu Matwa (Atwa, the Jack- Knife), at the National, in 1995; and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagony, retitled Al-Shabaka (The Net), also at the National in 2007.
That Mahagony was Ardash's last production makes you feel as if this master of many styles had wanted to end his life on a definite Brechtian note. He always maintained that Brecht's epic theatre, with its pronounced socialist slant, was the most appropriate theatrical mode for the third world, "where people are still fighting for their freedom and rights." And indeed, for many years after Ardash first introduced him in Egypt, Brecht remained a seminal influence not only on theatre directors, but on dramatists as well. In 1965, Farag's epic play Suliman Al-Halabi was followed by Soroor's Yasin and Baheya, a long, epic poem, and two years later, Mahmud Diab, who had displayed in his earlier plays a marked bias for the kind of drama evolved by the Italian Pirandello (another important influence on Egyptian drama in the 1960s which Ardash also helped to introduce), switched loyalties and joined Brecht's disciples with his magnum opus Bab Al-Futuh ( Conquerors' Gate ) which Ardash directed. None of these works, and many more, would have been possible without Brecht's liberating influence.
Through his Pocket theatre, Ardash effected a radical change in our understanding of drama and perception of theatre. And in his ceaseless struggle to open up new horizons and introduce Egyptian artists to different writers and types of drama, he directed dozens of plays by foreign and local writers, including Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author which he staged at the Acting Champions Society in 1962, when no regular theatre company would accept it, and Goldoni's La Locandiera, or Mistress of the Inn at the Italian cultural centre in 1976; he also translated and published a number of Italian plays, including, Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, Ugo Betti's Goat Island (which inspired two Egyptian movies) and his Corruption in the Palace of Justice, and Alberto Moravia's Beatrice Cenci.
That such a great homme de theatre was forced to leave his country for political reasons in 1971, spending the next 5 years in Algeria, then 5 more years in Kuwait, from 1978 to 1982, amounts to wanton dissipation of a national treasure. It was an immeasurable loss to the Egyptian theatre and drama institute and a godsend to the artistic institutions in Algeria and Kuwait where he taught and directed. By the time he came back in 1982, the Egyptian theatre was in the doldrums, and though he was appointed head of the state- theatre sector in December 1983, he could do nothing to save it, or sort out the mess since he was due for retirement a year later.
When Ardash tried to stage plays, he was repeatedly frustrated by the actors' unpunctuality, intellectual shallowness and lack of discipline and had to drop many projects. Still, he managed to pull off some memorable productions in the 80s and 90s, including Verdi's Aida at the Opera house, A Man in the Citadel and Atwa Abu Matwa at the National, Albert Camus' Caligula at the Academy of Arts and A Murderer Out of Prison at Al-Tali'a. In the second millennium, he only staged two productions: Tawfiq El-Hakim's O, Tree Climber! which he wrote under the influence of the theatre of the Absurd, and Brecht's epic opera, Mahagony. The two plays hark back to the beginnings of the Pocket theatre, as if Ardash, in this last stage of his life, was trying to remind us that it was he who had introduced these two influential theatrical modes -- the Absurd and the Epic -- into the Egyptian theatre.
That the television studio where I saw him for the last time had formerly been the site of that selfsame theatre, gives me a strange kind of comfort. Crazy as it may sound, I like to think it was no mere coincidence, that it happened by some mysterious design, that, knowing how fond of him I am and how terribly I was going to miss him, dear Saad had wilfully summoned me to this special spot, where the Pharaonic Garden and the Pocket Theatre used to be, and where I got my first taste of his beloved Brecht 45 years ago, to say goodbye. Still, I cannot imagine what I would do when the next CIFET comes round and I do not have him trudging by my side from one theatre to another, or walk into the symposium hall and do not find him there. I pray for his family, his friends, his students and for myself. May God give us all patience to bear this great sorrow.
Nehad Selaiha

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