Unsettling the Canon of the Theatre of the Absurd: Halide Edib's Masks or Souls? and Its Other Lives


Hülya Adak


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

A few years prior to Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros (1959) and concomitant with the Paris premiere of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (January 5, 1953),1 a famous woman novelist, journalist, and feminist activist from Turkey, Halide Edib Adıvar (1884–1964),2 published an absurdist play in English, entitled Masks or Souls? (1953).3 As Martin Esslin and other scholars started theorizing on the "Theatre of the Absurd," they explored only a Western European male canon of works, dismissing all other playwrights. Even though Halide Edib had written two versions in Turkish and published the work to be discussed in this article in English, because she was a Turkish woman playwright, her works did not receive much theoretical discussion in Turkey or in the Euro-American context prior to 2013.4 In this essay, I problematize the Euro-male-centeredness of the early theories of the theatre of the absurd, while proffering new guidelines and trajectories for absurdist drama in the Turkish and European literary and dramatic canons. I argue further that European absurdist plays, with the additional example of Halide Edib's Masks or Souls?, should be analyzed for their political critique, unsettling claims that describe post-World War II absurdist theatre as apolitical. I start with an analysis of Halide Edib's works, which will be followed by an exploration of the various versions of Masks or Souls?, focusing particularly on the political content. In the last section, I provide new trajectories (within the European and Ottoman Turkish contexts) for studying absurdist drama and contextualizing the noncanonical Masks or Souls?


1. En attendant Godot premiered in the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris in 1953, and the English translation premiered in London in 1955.

2. Halide Edib (Adıvar) was a bilingual novelist, feminist, playwright, and activist. She was a prolific writer and had tried many different genres, including autobiography, travelogue, and short stories as well as works of drama. She was a member of parliament when she published Masks or Souls? in 1953. Her last name was imposed after the Surname Law of 1934, which demanded that all Turks have last names. Her name will be written "Halide Edib" throughout the article.

3. Halide Edib, Masks or Souls? A Play in Five Acts (London: George Allen, 1953). References are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

4. Starting with the ICLA 2013 conference at the Sorbonne in Paris, I brought this work into public discussion. In 2016, I published Halide Edib ve Siyasal Şiddet: Ermeni Kırımı, Diktatörlük ve Şiddetsizlik [Halide Edib and Political Violence: Armenian Genocide, Dictatorship and Nonviolence] (Istanbul: İstanbul Bilgi University Press, 2016). The book addresses Masks or Souls? and will be published in German by Duncker und Humblot in 2019 with the title "Halide Edib und Politische Gewalt." In 2016, director Nedim Saban wrote an MA thesis on "Halide Edib Tiyatrosu" [Theatre of Halide Edib] (TC Haliç Üniversitesi, Sosyal Bilimler, 2016) based on his staged reading of Maske ve Ruh [Mask and Spirit] in 2016 as part of the Istanbul International Theatre Festival.

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