The International Theater, Paris 1889

This is a translation of "Le théatre à l'Exposition universelle de 1889: notes et descriptions, historire et souvenirs" by Arthur Pougin published in 1890. I am not a French speaker so please forgive the occasional oddities in the text. I tried my best to substitute the appropriate words and provide contextual helpers in brackets. Some of the bracket suggestions come from the collection of photos I have of the troupe discussed, a few of which will be inserted along with the post below. You might notice a contradiction about Mr. Soliman Cardahi's (better written as Sulayman al-Qardahi) title in the article, the best conclusion I can draw from the text and additional sources is that he worked at or with the Arab Theater of the Khedivial Opera in Cairo (and thus his bio in the program states such), but the troupe he brought to Paris for the exposition was most likely a separate enterprise, perhaps somewhat supplemented or supported by his position with the Opera.



The exhibition was, I believe, already open when the concession of this theater was granted to an Englishman, Mr. Seymour Wade, who therefore had no time to waste to put himself in a position to profit from it. He set to work immediately, and in thirty-five days the theater was built, a theater that could hold about 2,500 spectators. It was located on the edge of the Avenue de Suffren, parallel to and next to the Grand Théâtre de l 'Exposition, which I will have to talk about shortly, very close to the Terrestrial Globe and the superb Mexican palace, so curious and so characteristic.

The hall, unfortunately rather poorly lit usually, included a vast parquet floor separated by a balustrade from a wide promenade, above which rose a spacious amphitheater. There is no wealth, no appearance of embellishment. We would gladly have thought we were in one of those great cafes-concerts that we organize for the occasion of big provincial fairs. The stage was not lacking in scope; but, devoid of [footlights], it too was very poorly lit, and remained constantly in a sort of half-light which considerably impaired the effect and which, during the very interesting representations of the Egyptian troop, only allowed one to see very poorly the decor, which did not however fail to present a certain character of originality. Everywhere in this theater people were smoking and drinking. The price of seats was 5 francs at the amphitheater, 2 francs at the parquet floor and 1 franc at the perimeter. Four performances took place each day, two during the day, at half past three and four, two in the evening, at eight and half past nine.

The Theater International was inaugurated on Saturday, July 6. At first, [it] offered nothing particularly original to the public, and [the] shows were little more than those we see in our well-stocked concert-cafes. Among other attractions, there were the experiences of a very skillful conjurer well known to the Parisian public, Mr. Buatier de Kolta, and the very amusing imitations of an artist also very skilful in his genre, Mr. Pichat. To this were added tableaux vivants [“living pictures”], the performance of national songs from various countries by a chorus of thirty male voices, [and more].

But this was only [filling time while he waited], Mr. Seymour Wade was preparing a masterstroke. He had started negotiations with Mr. Soliman Cardahi, director, not, as we have said, of the Khedivial Opera in Cairo, but of a troupe of dancers, singers, wrestlers, etc., depending perhaps on this theater and the Khedive, but having certainly, in spite of its very sound, very original spectacle, no relation with the important Egyptian [opera house] where one represents, just as in our great theaters of Europe, the works of the great international musical repertoire. These negotiations were successful, and Mr. Cardahi had obtained from the Khedive the authorization to bring to Paris a troupe of about thirty artists, chosen from among the best of his staff. This troupe, led by him, embarked in Alexandria on Saturday August 17, bound for France, arrived in Paris eight days later, on the 24th, and gave, on the 31st, its first performance at the International Theater. I do not think I can make it better known than by re-producing the program here, with a fairly pronounced exotic flavor, which was sold inside the theater and which gave all the details of the show.

Firstly, here are the staff and the main artists: The troupe has been carefully chosen by Mr. Soliman Cardahi, director of the Arab Theater at the Khedivial Opera in Cairo, whom he accompanied in France and who is the only one who has had great success with the Egyptian government.

The troupe is made up of thirty of the best artists and is divided into singers, dancers, musicians, wrestlers, fencers, stick players and naboute [two kinds of stick games?].

The singers are the famous Zénabe Effendi, Labiba Effendi and La Haneme [Ahaneme below] Effendi. The dancers, the charming Choke [said like Shouk] Effendi, Amina Effendi, Latifa, Salime and Farida Effendi.

The renowned musicians are: Sheik Ali Osman, Sheik Mohamed and Selim Mahmoude. There are also three musicians for the dance music.

The great wrestlers of the East Hassan Moustapha, former wrestler of Abd el-Kader, and Ali Abou-Housman.

The first-class fencers, Joseph Sâbe, who received great rewards from Rudolph, Crown Prince of Austria, Emperor Nicholas of Russia and Emperor of Brazil; Habib Effendi Fadoule, the famous Syrian, and Kali Effendi. There are also cane players [and others] among them.

All of these were what we call "the stars." If women were "famous" or "charming," we see that men did not give in to them, because they were [also] "famous” or "great," or "first class." The executives of the troop filled secondary jobs [such as] singing or dancing [in the] choirs.

After staff information, the program gave us details about the show:

Décor: The forest of Mount Lebanon, Syria.

TABLE I. - The Arabs take revenge on the great hero Antare. TABLE II. - The love song, by Zenabe and her company, and dances by Latifa with the sword.

Décor: Fantastic Décor TABLE III. - Fencing games given by Joseph Såbe and Habibe Effendi Fadoule. TABLE IV. - Wrestlers Hassan Moustapha and Ali Abou Housman.

Décor: Street of the Mosque, Cairo. TABLE V. -The cane games, by Mohamed Mabou and the negro Hassan. Naboute games, by Eliasse Ab-Dou and Joseph Sâbe.

Décor for the day: Egyptian Room. Décor for the night, Luminous Fountains.

TABLE VI. - Dance, by Choke Effendi. TABLE VII. - Dance, by Amina Effendi. TABLE VIII. - Dance, by Farida Effendi. TABLE IX. - Dance, by Ahaneme [La Haneme] Effendi. TABLE X . - Dance, by the negress Hadame. TABLE XI. - Songs, by Ali Housman and company. TABLE XII. - Songs, by Zenabe and two negroes. TABLE XIII. - Dance by the whole troop.

The program further informed us that the sets were "painted by the famous Mancini, after the Khedivial Opera in Cairo." These were, as the painter's name suggests, Italian style decorations, but they [did not] lack in character, nor [chicness], nor [picturesqueness]. Among other things, the one representing the Mosque Street in Cairo was curious [for it cultivated a certain effect?]

Finally, a last mention, contrasting with the rest and having nothing Egyptian about it, announced to us "Gauthier and his orchestra”. In fact, a perfectly European orchestra, placed at the back of the amphitheater and facing the stage, invisible therefore to the spectators from the back of the floor or the perimeter, occupied the intermissions, during which it was heard. And it was a singular effect for the musical ears that the sounds of this orchestra, making the tones of our European system [should follow music] strange to us although not always without charm, which always accompanied the songs, the dances and fighting [on stage]. The alternation of these two modes of music produced a striking contrast.

We have seen, by the very details of the program, that it is not a question here, as at the Annamite Theater, of a literary and truly scenic manifestation, of a continuous, logical, regular spectacle, offering us a dramatic action imbued with a more or less lively passionate interest and presenting itself to us as a reflection of the civilization, customs and intellectual tendencies of a people. This [The International Theater] is only a spectacle of pure curiosity, forming a succession of picturesque paintings and simply bringing us up to date with the more or less delicate distractions of a country where dramatic art does not exist in any way, and where one thus proposes no other goal than to amuse, to caress, to cradle the eyes and ears in a way. They are only songs, dances, exercises of body and of an address of a particular kind, which are linked to art in an almost indirect way and by a rather thin thread, but which are no less interesting for us Europeans (I'm talking about those who have never set foot on African soil), perfectly ignorant of the pleasures of this kind that one enjoys in the East and which only require passive and silent contemplation from the viewer. Here there is no passion, no emotion, no possible disturbance for the mind, nowhere made for the heart or the [intellect?], but a calm, peaceful enjoyment, without surprise and without shock, which fits perfectly with the usual, imperturbable composure of the race for which it is intended.

It is at the International Theater, and by the female subjects of the Egyptian troupe of Mr. Soliman Cardahi, whom I had for the first time the pleasure (?) Of contemplating this strange thing which is called "the belly dance", which I was to find everywhere thereafter, in the cafes of the rue du Caire, at the Tunisian Souk, the Esplanade des Invalides, and which for several months seems to have panicked Parisians and hypnotized visitors to the Exhibition. God knows, however, if this was a pleasant and enticing spectacle!

One of my colleagues said on this subject: "The belly is at the Exhibition! A considerable place, not only as food, but also pleasure. Restaurants are doing golden business and the oriental concerts are never empty. However, these concerts are the glorification of the belly. They do not sing there, they do little music, they dance there, but, unlike ordinary dances the feet only have a secondary role; it is the abdomen that has all the work. The crowd took pleasure in this entertainment which stands in the middle between childbirth and heartache. Each month a new establishment is set up, and the old ones, in the face of success, have increased their prices. With the royal Egyptian troupe, which has just started, that makes, without exaggeration, about fifty bellies which jiggle every day. Jiggling is not saying too much. This exercise from which grace is excluded is a simple anatomical tour de force; it consists, the rest of the body remaining impassive so as to impart on the stomach a gyrating, lifting, yawing [bending/twisting] or [roll/circular] movement. It goes back and forth [between movements] quite surprisingly but does not take long to become monotonous. A sour music accompanies these contortions which are devoid of any meaning.”

In the same session, I was able to admire this pleasant exercise three times at the theater on the avenue de Suffren. The first time by a fairly pretty young woman whose hands were armed with a kind of crotales [bronze or brass cymbal] or metal castanets, which she waved while her dance was accompanied by a semblance of an orchestra composed of two musettes [mizmar/mijwiz?], a loose drum [dahola/table baladi?] and a small snare drum [riq?]; around her were grouped a dozen of her companions, who, to the rhythm of this singular orchestra, chanted at times a sort of dragging and sorrowful song, and at times also [encouraged/excited] her by clapping their hands. The second time it was by two negresses, whose sight on this occasion was absolutely lacking in grace. Finally, the third time, it was five dancers together, armed with the famous [metal cymbals], which made a terrible noise without making the spectacle more alluring.

How much more curious was the saber fight of Joseph Sâbe and Kali Effendi! All dressed in white, these two men, armed with their long sabers and their tiny shields, echoing under the repeated blows of the sharp weapon, demonstrated truly marvelous skill. But the most interesting, without contradiction, was the reproduction of certain paintings, of certain scenes from Egyptian life, full of color, character and originality; among others the great nuptial ceremony, with its various episodes and its procession so picturesque and so well regulated, all so new to us. There was also the performance of certain hymns to the Khedive, which, themselves were not without real interest.

In fact, the performances of the Egyptian troupe at the Theater International were worthy of attention, and by its constant influx the audience proved that they really enjoyed it.


Article & Photos: Translated with the help of Google Translate, beginning p. 99 from: "Le théatre à l'Exposition universelle de 1889, notes et descriptions, historire et souvenirs" by Arthur Pougin

Danse du sabre. (Exposition) (

Danse du ventre. (Exposition) (

Danse du ventre. Exposition. Théâtre de Seymour Wade (

*Photos colorized through "My Heritage" website.

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