Theater der Zeit


Tunisian Theatre: From Opposition to Revolution

von Moez Mrabet

Erschienen in: Recherchen 104: Theater im arabischen Sprachraum – Theatre in the Arab World (12/2013)



On 26 May 1909, for the very first time, the Théâtre Rossini saw Tunisian actors in a play entitled Sincere Fraternity as members of the Egyptian troupe Al Jawk Al Masri. This event, considered to mark the birth of Tunisian theatre, started a national theatre movement which would lay the foundations for a contemporary theatre rooted in its social context and in touch with its time.

Paradoxically, and although it was a Western-style practice that was being adopted, the interest of Tunisians in theatre expressed their desire to use it as a tool to make and defend their own identity. Although Egyptian and other eastern influences on the development of this theatre are well-established, the rich dramatic experiments carried out by French and Italian communities throughout the 19th century remained unknown to Tunisian society. The founding in 1911 of Al Adeb, the first Tunisian theatre association, then of a second association known as Al Chahama Al Arabia in 1912, confirmed this ‘eastern’ influence and consolidated the project of modernising Tunisian society through theatre.

The desire was to tie theatre to local culture in order to open a path towards modernising society. Moreover, the declared aim of the Tunisian avant-garde was to develop and anchor an opposition movement to col­onial power, and this was expressed in the themes and aesthetic of this emerging theatre. Theatre at the time served as a lever for the nationalist elite which helped them prepare the terrain for the fight for independence. In fact, the founding act of Tunisian theatre undeniably rests on a spirit of opposition which would prove to be both constructive and fertile, and which would come to be one of its characteristic traits. However, once independence was achieved in 1956, new challenges emerged and a different kind of theatre began to appear on the horizon.

The 1950s were marked by a determination amongst Tunisian theatre-makers to make way for professionalised theatre and to expand out to the rural areas, theatre having long been confined to the capital. The founding in 1951 of the École du Théâtre Arabe, which for the first time provided an academic training for actors, then the launch in 1954 of the first professional troupe in Tunisia, the Troupe de la Ville de Tunis, marked an end to the amateur and arbitrary nature of the earlier period and established a movement towards greater artistic and technical demands.

Driven by the will to make theatre a motor for development post-independence, the massive involvement of the state in support of this art form would prove to be a double-edged sword. Although it allowed significant development of what were still fragile and disoriented theatrical practices, it nevertheless opened the way for the sector to be used as an instrument by those in power. In November 1975, looking for a way to escape this takeover by the state and to put an end to the downward spiral of ‘official’ theatre, a group of young artists, newly-graduated from European theatre training or just out of theatre school, founded the Nouveau Théâtre. A major act in the history of Tunisian theatre, the birth of this first private troupe in Tunisia appeared, at heart, to be the symptom of a crisis which was as much aesthetic as it was organisational. Soon afterwards, Nouveau Théâtre developed a new approach to theatre in Tunisia that would influence and reshape it during the years that followed. The objectives of the group, which was made up of Mohamed Driss, Fadhel Jaziri, Fadhel Jaïbi, Jalila Baccar and Habib Masrouki, can be summarised in the following points:



• To possess and control the tools of production in order to avoid any dependence on official institutions or structures.

• To find new tools to help with production and to finance work.

• To develop a theatre which relies on authentic speech and forms while prohibiting stereotypes and imitation of Western models.

• To remove any distinction between the different professions in theatre (dramaturgy, directing, stage design, acting...) so that all participants who are active creatively can carry out these different tasks.



The success of the Nouveau Théâtre in actualising these objectives, and the artistic success of its first works, encouraged other young people to follow its example. In the 1980–90s, a number of projects were created that were equally original and creative. Specifically, the Théâtre Triangulaire experi­ment started by Habib Chebil, Théâtre Phou, founded by Moncef Sayem and Raja ben Ammar, Ezzedine Gannoun and Fethi Akkeri’s Théâtre Organique, and the founding of El Teatro in 1987, the first private theatre in Tunisia, by Taoufik Jebali. As opposed to official theatre, which was crushed by the weight of administration and missing a clear and convincing artistic concept, private theatre appeared to be a serious alternative. The phenomenon of private theatre increased in importance and for a while was considered a source of artistic and aesthetic innovation. But all the problems were not resolved. Other worries pushed their way on stage and steered Tunisian theatre towards an uncertain future.

The need for some structure and better organisation began to be felt in the 1980s. Several measures were taken in order to ensure the viability of Tunisian theatre and a greater visibility of this art form. The issue of training was, in this respect, one of the most important concerns. The École du Théâtre Arabe gave way to a Centre d’Art Dramatique in the 1970s, and ended up being transformed into a Institut Supérieur d’Art Dramatique (ISAD) in 1982.

Furthermore, the founding of a national theatre, the Théâtre National Tunisien, one year later filled an important hole in the theatrical landscape. Thus, another key institution was created which would promote Tunisian theatre at a national and international level. Its mission consisted, essentially, in encouraging theatrical works and experimentation with artistic form that placed local heritage within a universal context.

That same year saw the launch of Journées Théâtrales de Carthage. This biennial festival was intended as an opportunity to open up Tunisian theatre to the outside world and to enable exchange with international groups. It is now considered the forum for Arabic and African theatre and one of the most important theatre festival in the region.

The avant-garde of Tunisian theatre in the years 1970–80 benefitted from supportive cultural policies and from a social and artistic climate favourable to change. Over the following thirty years, it has made an effort to preserve its dominant position. The dynamic that characterised the experiences of this generation remained confined to a small circle of people: a real tradition — the gathering and passing on of knowledge — did not really come about. At the end of the 1980s, a gulf opened up between that generation and the generation that studied at the Centre d’Art Dramatique. This continued over the following generations, who were mainly trained at the ISAD. Would the dream and hopes nourished by this golden age of theatre in Tunisia prove to be without a future?

Even today, and although countless young theatre artists are still looking to make a name for themselves with their experiments, the ‘dinosaurs’ still seems to reign. A new aesthetic and artistic rupture is required to escape this delicate situation A theatre that has run out of steam requires fresh air if it does not wish to become ossified. The post-revolutionary climate could prove to be opportune. So what, then, does the Tunisian theatre scene look like today?

In terms of the public sector, the Théâtre National Tuniesen under the direction of Mohamed Driss from 1988 to 2011, even if it failed to give way to new generations, is distinguished by its originality and the richness of its repertoire. However the importance of the creation of regional centres of dramatic art, which replaced the regional troupes in the middle of the 1990s, cannot be ignored. These centres, in spite of the absence of a statute regulating their activities and a glaring lack of means, have succeeded, in fact, in stimulating theatre production, in encouraging talents inside the country, and in developing a certain loyal public.

Just as present and influential, the private sector has also distinguished itself over the past two decades through the founding of countless free groups and a proliferation of productions. There are in fact no fewer than two hundred of such creative structures today. They cover the whole country and encompass young people’s theatre, artistically-demanding theatre, as well as commercial theatre.

The noted changes and developments in Tunisian theatre have not kept pace with the development of relevant infrastructure and laws which might respond to the new reality and new needs. On top of that, there is the lack of spaces for rehearsal and productions and the technical shortcomings and problems in setting up the Maisons de la culture, where most theatre activities take place. The archaic nature of current laws does not help here either. Equally problematic are the difficulties that new generations come up against in getting their work on. Nor does the absence of any real tradition in sectors such as dramatic writing or stage design help. But the hope exists that the current crisis in theatre could hold the keys to its own salvation. Can Tunisian theatre, at a time of revolution, and in the face of threats to freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom to create — once again prove itself to be revolutionary?

Translation from French: Karen Tucker



Neuerscheinungen im Verlag

Cover Recherchen 167
Cover Rampe vol.2
Cover B. K. Tragelehn
Charly Hübner Buch backstage
Cover XYZ Jahrbuch 2023
Recherchen 162 "WAR SCHÖN. KANN WEG …"
"Scène 23"
"Zwischen Zwingli und Zukunft"
Recherchen 165 "#CoronaTheater"
"Die Passion hinter dem Spiel"
Arbeitsbuch 31 "Circus in flux"
"Passion Play Oberammergau 2022"