Monday, 2 April 2012

Theatre in Antakya

In ancient Antioch the theatre was a very popular place of entertainment. It seems that some Seleucid kings also tried to introduce gladiatorial games, but this sort of entertainment did not appeal to the Antiochenes. Their taste was more "refined."

We do not know what sort of play was the most popular. No doubt the Greek tragedies were played, but we can be equally sure that the comic theatre was even more popular. Especially the so-called New Comedy of the Hellenistic period must have been appreciated.

The theatre was located close to the city centre, most probably in Epiphanea, the quarter added to Antioch by Antiochus Epiphanes. According to Leblanc and Poccardi it was located close to the tetrapylon on the Colonnaded Street (up behind the present Hotel Savon in the quarter of Dörtayak, "Four Legs").[1]

In Daphne (Harbiye) there was another theatre. This theatre was evidently located some hundred metres east of the present city centre of Harbiye, a kilometre or so before you arrive at the waterfalls. Today there is a water tower at the spot.

Today there is no proper theatre in Antakya. When theatre is played by local companies or guests, they are usually shown in Hatay Kültür Merkezi (Hatay Cultural Centre) or in Meclis, the old parliament building on the western bank of the Orontes at the Bridge.

This week actors from Adana showed The Lesson of Eugene Ionesco in Hatay Kültür Merkezi. This piece, regarded as one of the important works of the Theatre of the Absurd, is not new in Turkey. In the eighties we saw it on the national scene in Ankara. This time, however, the play was even more absurd, partly because of the ingenuity of the troupe partly because of its physical context.

The plot of the play is as follows:

The play takes place in the office and dining room of a small French flat. The Professor, a man of about 50 to 60, is expecting a new Pupil (aged 18). The Professor's Maid, a stout, red-faced woman of about 40 to 50, worries about the Professor's health. As the absurd and nonsensical lesson progresses, the Professor grows more and more angry with (what he perceives as) the Pupil's ignorance, and the Pupil becomes more and more quiet and meek. Even her health begins to deteriorate, and what starts as a toothache develops into her entire body aching. At the climax of the play, the Pupil is stabbed and murdered by the Professor, after a long bout of non sequiturs (which are frequently used in Ionesco's plays). The play ends with the Maid greeting a new Pupil, taking the play full circle, back to the beginning."[2]

The plot, sufficiently absurd as it is, was improved by a rather surprising innovation: The professor was a woman, a very teacher-like lady in a tight-fitting dress, high-heeled shoe, with an old-fashioned hairstyle, and looking as if about fifty years old. At first this sight was slightly shocking as I expected to see some distinguished gentleman. But honestly, we had to capitulate. What this lady could do was amazing. She was climbing a table and jumping down in her pedagogic enthusiasm, throwing armchairs around in fits of fury and even carrying her grown-up student around on her shoulders in fits of anger, all of it in her high-heeled shoes and without ruining her hairstyle. We were taken aback.

Unfortunately people in Antakya are not as interested in the theatre as were their forebears. The auditorium was not empty, but not filled either. Nearly all the audience were under thirty. I do not remember seeing anybody from the 'comfortable classes' of Antakya. There was a whole school class – or so they looked. I wonder what they thought of the sort of educational theory and practice they saw on the scene. Perhaps they started to appreciate their own teachers, who at least do not kill them because of their oafishness.

One part of the play was especially interesting. At a certain point the teacher asked the student to multiply two colossal numbers, and, for a change, the student gave the right answer. When the teacher dumbfounded asked how the student managed to work out this calculation, she answered that, as multiplication is a difficult art, she had learned by heart all the possible results of the total number of possible calculations.

This is where I found the situation of the play absurd. In good old days when I studied Arabic at the University of Ankara everything was learned by heart. The professor asked us to write down the Arabic text and its translation whereupon the students went home and learned it by rote. If you wanted a more linguistic approach, you were welcome to figure it out yourself.

I do not know which school the kids in the theatre came from, but I hope they got the point.

[1] Jacque Leblanc & Grégoire Poccardi, “Traces urbains et ruraux antiques a Antioche,” Syria T.76, Institut français du Proche-Orient (1999), 91-126.

[2] "The Lesson," Wikipedia, accessed April 1, 2012,