As elsewhere in the world, two elements have been influential in introducing the theater into the life of the Turks: rituals and religious ceremonies from pre-historic times and tales, legends and various other events from everyday life. The first theater was a product of these events as they were staged on various occasions. In Turkey, folkloric theatre of this nature still exists in rural areas. Puppet plays, Karagoz shadow shows, the Meddah (story-teller) and Orta oyun (a kind of Ottoman style dance), all of which have folkloric aspects, remained common in everyday life until the period of westernization. With the proclamation of the Tanzimat in 1839, a series of changes took place in state and social life, one of which was the establishment of the Turkish National Theater. During this period contacts were established with the western theater, which were encouraged by the imperial palace and high-ranking state officials.
The close interest of the imperial circle in theater led to the relatively easy acceptance of theater by society. The library of Muhmut II included a great variety of theatrical works.
High-ranking state officials promoted western theater in Turkey and lent their support to these developments. Turkish intellectuals and embassies also made their own contributions. The opportunities presented to Turkish Embassies abroad to observe theater in other countries gave them an excellent concept of the art. Ahmet Vefik Pasa contributed to the art by translating and adapting the plays of Moliere. By founding a theater in Bursa, he succeeded in bringing an active theater life to the city.
While Ottoman intellectuals adopted western theater, traditional Turkish theater was neglected. This led to a lack of national character in early Turkish theater. Development in this field was generally the result of merely passing on experience. Cemil Pasa, who headed the Istanbul Municipality from 1913 to 1914, pioneered the foundation of a conservatory, in which the theater and music departments were named “Darulbedayaii Osmani.” The departments were directed by Andre Antoine until he returned to his own country at the outbreak of the first World War. Mushin Ertugrul took his place.
The Darulbedayii gave its first performance in 1916. The following nine years were a period of faltering and searching for a foothold. Between 1926 and 1931, the Darulbedayii began to work more seriously, with financial support from the Istanbul Municipality. In 1931 it took on the aspect of a City Theater and achieved further progress from 1947 to 1958.
State theaters were founded by legislation on June 10, 1940, and were affiliated with the Ministry of National Education. Later, State Theaters were attached first to the prime ministry and then to the Ministry of Culture.
The duties of the General Directorate of State Theaters can be summarized as follows: to contribute to the fostering of the Turkish nation's culture and language; to assist in the training of Turkish playwrights; to promote a national repertoire; to establish a link between the public and the theater through country-wide tours;to promote the works of Turkish playwrights abroad; to contribute by means of cooperation with foreign artists; to participate in national and international festivals; and to increase the interest of the Turkish people in the art of theater.
After the formation of the State Theaters, a number of theaters in Ankara opened their curtains during 1948 – 1949. Seven years later, on October 5, 1956, the Chamber Theater came into being. That same year, the Halkevi became Ankara's third theater, while the New Stage started in the 1960 – 1961 season and later the Altindag Theater on March 27, 1964.
The first regional theatrical activities started during the 1956 – 1957 season. The opening of the Adana and Izmir state theaters was followed by the opening of the Ahmet Vefik Pasa Theater in Bursa.
The Atatürk Cultural Center in Istanbul opened in 1969. Until it acquired its own company in 1978 – 79, the state theater organized continuous tours to Istanbul.
Following the proclamation of the Mesrutiyet (constitution), play-writing developed greatly. Halit Fahri and Yusuf Ziya wrote plays fo rthe Darulbedayii. Ahmet Nuri, Cenapy Sabahattin, Resat Nuri, and Musin Etrugrul also adapted French plays for the Turkish theater. Under the Republic, the City Theaters staged the plays of Halit Fahri, Vedat Nedim, Musahipzade Celal, Omer Seyfettin, Yakup Kadri, Abdulhak Hamit, Cevdet Kudret, Faruk Nafiz and Huseyin Rahmi.
More contemporary recent playwrights include Cevat Fehmi Bakurt, Turgut Ozakman, Orhan Asena, Gungor Dilmen, Necati Culmali, Haldun Tasner, Tarik Bugra, Necip Fazil Kisakurek and Turhan Oflazoglu
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