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Ataturk revived with play '1881'

Crowds turn out at gala performance of the life of the founder and first President of the Turkish Republic. Some 44 actors, many appearing before an audience for the first time, take part in the three-hour play.

Ataturk revived with play '1881'



By Metin Demirsar

Istanbul (Dunya) – The play '1881', which opened at Mujdat Gezen theater in Istanbul 's Kadikoy district on Wednesday night, is a tribute to Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938),  founder and first president of the Turkish Republic.

Written and directed by Mujdat Gezen, 69, one of the leading personalities of Turkish theater, the three-hour long play is composed of 37 quick-changing sequences of Turkey's revered leader, from the time of his birth in Salonika to his death at Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.

In each scene, Ataturk announces one of his famous aphorisms or proverbs about social life, Turkey's future or political relations with other countries, each drawing a wave of applause from the audience.

The play is part of a revival of interest in  Ataturk, at a time Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's moderately Islamist government is trying to downplay and, some say, efface Turkey's first president, his secularist reforms and his achievements as an army commander and as head of state.

Out in a blizzard

Some of the scenes are well known, such as General Kemal sleeping out in the open in a blizzard during the War of Independence and his refusal to take shelter while his troops prepare for battle in winter conditions. But others were discovered by Gezen as he poured through volumes of books about Ataturk, over a two year period as he wrote the play.

One famous scene takes place at the Pera Palas Hotel during the British occupation of Istanbul at the end of World War One.

Sir Charles Harington, the commander of the British forces, is having tea with one of his officers in the hotel lounge. The two men see a handsome blond Turkish officer seated at a table at the other side of the lounge. General Harington asks the waiter who this man is. When he learns that it is Mustafa Kemal, the victorious general of the Gallipoli campaign, the British commander asks the waiter to invite him to their table for tea.

When General Kemal gets the invitation, he tells the waiter: “In Turkey, they are our guests. So they should come to my table for tea as I am the host. As you know, guests don't stay for long and they will one day leave our country.”

Old and new

A mix of 44 experienced actors and newcomers, some appearing on stage for the first time, take part in the play. Many of the newcomers are drama students at the Ugur Dundar - Mujdat Gezen Cultural Center.

Ali Aziz Colok, 34, an experienced actor from Izmir, successfully portrays Ataturk. Atilla Sarikaya, a medical doctor who became a Turkish Radio and television speaker, introduces each scene.

Leyla Gezen, Mr. Gezen's wife, was responsible for the decoration while Faruk Sarac, a famous designer, designed the Ottoman and World War One uniforms and early republic tuxedos and dresses worn by officials and women.

The music was composed by famous folk singere and former opposition deputy Zulfi Livaneli.

Bedri Baykam, a well-known artist and Kemalist, designed the posters for the play.

Army officers were called in to teach the players to give military salutes, and wrestling nationals were invited to help with a scene where several soldiers wrestle.

An original wax figurine of Ataturk, built with the support of Eskisehir Mayor Yilmaz Buyukersen, is used in his death scene.

Already Mr. Gezen has received invitations from Ankara and Izmir and other cities to put the play on.


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