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Exhibiting Ottoman Modernities on Stage (1839-1922)

Panel XII-13, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
Audiences in Ottoman cities developed a taste for a widening range of entertainment offerings over the course of the long nineteenth century. New entertainment genres imported from Europe such as operas, oratorios, musicals, waltzes, stage theater and moving pictures commingled with more longstanding forms of performing arts in the culturally vibrant landscape of cosmopolitan centers such as Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Beirut or Cairo. This panel explores the evolution of stage entertainment and performing arts in the capital city of Istanbul during the final decades of the nineteenth century, with cross-regional comparisons between other cities in Europe, North Africa and the Ottoman empire. Hybridized stage arts that blended the new and the traditional not only reflected the social, political, cultural and economic changes that Ottoman society was undergoing during processes of modernization, but also played a role in helping audiences navigate the globalizing social, economic and political shifts that were transforming their daily lives. Individual papers will examine the complex nexus between the emergence of new cultural and artistic forms, the discourses of modernization, and the formulation of new social imaginaries. Some of the topics addressed in the individual papers include the impact of new print technologies and translated copies of scripts on the production and distribution of music and the theater arts; how the consumption of new leisure activities and the dexterity with which these activities were performed contributed to the formulation of new subjectivities, especially in response to the rise of nationalism; and the ways in which censorship and self-censorship necessitated new artistic and creative expressions.
Art/Art History
  • Starting in the early 1870s, public gardens (or parks) designed after Haussmann’s Parisian promenades started appearing in cities across the Ottoman Empire, from Istanbul to Thessaloniki to Cairo. These new European style recreation spaces were seen as signifiers of urban reform, which was equated with economic and social progress. Certain Ottoman elites believed that these new recreation spaces could serve an edifying function, that they could "civilize" urban residents and contribute to their moral instruction. This mode of thinking paralleled the way in which urban public parks were established to serve as a moralizing landscape for the working classes of industrializing European cities. There was another segment of the Ottoman population, however, that viewed the new public gardens as undesirable traits of excessive Westernization, and associated these spaces with moral decrepitude and extravagant consumerism. Ottoman writer Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem's novel Araba Sevdası (A Love of Carriages) written in 1898, lends expression to these conflicting viewpoints in his detailed description of the Çamlıca public garden, one of the first European style parks that opened in Istanbul in the summer of 1870. Set within the first weeks of the garden’s opening, Ekrem’s novel describes a teeming cosmopolitan crowd that engages in bold rituals of courtship, lavish displays of personal wealth, and partakes in a globalized entertainment culture of Ottoman and Parisian musical offerings. Ekrem also provides character sketches of independent minded Ottoman Muslim women who derive a great deal of pleasure from their ability to access and navigate these sites of entertainment and recreation. The novel, however, neglects to reveal that this bustling scene inside the Çamlıca garden was brought to an end shortly after it opened to the public. What was viewed as a site of debauchery necessitated new sets of rules for the types of recreation and entertainment activities that would be permissible in these public gardens, especially those located in Muslim-majority neighborhoods. This paper looks at a range of documents dating from the 1870s to the 1890s, including government correspondence, newspaper articles and Ottoman literature, to examine the debates surrounding the benefits and vices of Istanbul’s outdoor recreation spaces of the late nineteenth century, specifically its new public gardens. It discusses how these debates helped shape the design, function, use of public recreational spaces and their various entertainment offerings at this time.
  • Giovanni Pacini's three-act opera Saffo, based on a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano after Pietro Beltrame's play, premiered in Naples, Italy on November 29, 1840. Six years later, in April 1846, it was staged in Sultan Abdulmecit's Istanbul, in the palace-sponsored public opera house, the Naum Theatre. In 1847, it was performed in Boston, Massachusetts at the Howard Athenaeum. Spectators in Istanbul, however, would be holding a different kind of libretto than their fellow spectators in Naples or Boston. The thirty-two page original Italian libretto was printed and published by Dalla Topografia Flautina in Naples a publishing house which specialized in music printing. As for the 1847 Boston libretto, it was published by the Boston-based company Oliver Ditson & Co. with select musical sections, the list of the singers, an argument section, a bilingual libretto and even ads. Compared to these libretti, he only existing Ottoman libretto of Saffo is rather different. It is a twelve-page, handwritten and bound summary (currently in the Turkish Presidency State Archives in Istanbul), made to be sold to the Turkish speaking spectators who were as new a phenomenon as the public operas in Istanbul. This Ottoman libretto has missing acts and a rather subjective selection of the plot line. Unlike the Naples and Boston libretti, it is not a word for word translation of a master copy, but a summary based on a rehearsal or performance. The lack of musical details indicate that the Ottoman libretto was not designed for the musically literate polyglots but those who needed to be acquainted with the plot. In this presentation, I will examine archival documents from the Turkish Presidency Archives in Istanbul, and discuss how the early Ottoman libretti called tercüme-i hülasa, emerged at the intersection of cosmopolitanism, print technologies, and westernization efforts in the Empire. In the first part of the presentation, I will look into the calligraphic and lithographic traditions and technologies in Abdülmecit I's Istanbul (1839-61) and music printing in the Ottoman Empire. In the second part, I will be discussing how the content of hülasa differ from both western libretti of the 1840s and the Hamidian era libretti, with a focus on content appropriations such as religious terms, portrayal of ancient Greece, and the censorship of opera texts in late Ottoman Empire.
  • In the Corners of Salons (Salon Köşelerinde, 1988) of Safveti Ziya, a prominent member of the famous New Literature Group, tells the romance of Sekip, the Europeanized Ottoman man and an English woman named Lydia. The novel takes place in the culturally and socially European district Beyoglu’s ballrooms, cafés, restaurants, and salons which are presented as venues where Ottomans were outnumbered by Europeans and where they struggled to prove themselves as civilised as any European. Eager to fight back against misconceptions about Turks, Sekip tries to woo Lydia by his knowledge of etiquette and sense of decorum, but more than anything else by his ability to waltz as they dance in the grand and petit salons of Beyoglu. This paper explores the role of dancing and waltz in the late 19th century Ottoman social life as an expression of national identity and patriotism. It also addresses the question how waltz, the classic dance of romance in 19th century novels, transforms dance salons of this Ottoman novel into contested zones of nationalism and the seeming story of romance into a political narrative.
  • While Ottoman capital’s encounter with entertainment genres of the nineteenth century accelerated with the Tanzimat Reforms, their initial focus was the non-Muslim Pera and Galata regions, with the main opera-theatre venue being the lavish Naum Theatre where worldwide famous performers took stage. However, it would not take long for the allure of especially opera and theatre performances to capture the interest of Muslim population of intramural Istanbul, whose sole urban entertainment facility had been Direklerarası street and the puppetry or storyteller performances in shabby coffeehouses legalized only as of eighteenth century. This sharp contrast between two centers was soon to be moderated by a royal initiative in 1860s to introduce its Muslim subjects with western type theatre in a rather modern venue; the Gedikpaşa Theatre in the heart of historical Istanbul and in the vicinity of the freelance entertainment venues of Direklerarası. This move not only encouraged the Ottoman subjects take some big steps towards occidental lifestyle, but also legitimized a modern and rather secular way of spending leisure. Moreover the emphasis on communication with Gedikpaşa Theatre dominated by theatre plays in Turkish language as opposed to musical performances and operas in foreign languages in Naum theatre hint at some accompanying intentions regarding the modernization of the society. The contributions of Armenian actors and Güllü Agop troupe in this pursuit is also noteworthy. On the other hand, the theatre gave way to not only entertainment but also expression of thoughts of individuals and different layers of society, whereupon it was the royal initiative’s turn to be challenged some modernity values. This paper aims to examine the motivations in founding the Gedikpaşa Theatre and how it contributed to the confrontation of Ottoman society with modernity through transformation of leisure habits and venues as part of a more comprehensive and longrunning research on use of leisure spaces in late Ottoman and early Turkish Republican societies. The establishing and functioning of this occidental type theatre in intramural Istanbul will be scrutinized with the help of archival sources, while also comparing its operation to those of its contemporaries in Pera.