Karagiozis - The Magic of Traditional Greek Shadow Theater - English
The magic of traditional Greek shadow theatre
Long before the days of television, radio or even cinema there existed a different form of entertainment in Greece derived from folkloric traditions. Known as shadow theatre, or "Karagiozis" in Greek, it included paper-made puppets which were handled by one puppeteer who stood behind a white screen (a piece of cloth or a sheet were also used) that was illuminated by some source of light.
Shadow theatre was developed in many lands, including China, India, Persia, Indochina and Asia Minor. It was often associated with the worship of the dead as well as with deities of the 'other world.'
Greece is among the very few European countries that adopted shadow theatre, abandoning, however, its religious aspect and adding the provincial Greek culture's own uniqueness to it. Thus, shadow theatre slowly developed into an art form of its own kind, acquiring a Greek interpretation which also included music, acting and social satire incorporated with traditional folklore.
"Karagiozis," as it is named in Greek for its main protagonist, was very popular during Ottoman rule. The puppeteer who stood behind the illuminated screen and masterfully moved the paper or leather-made puppets representing humans was known as the 'Karagiozopaihtis' (the "Karagiozis" player). The 'Karagiozopaihtis' brought to life the puppets by altering his voice according to the character and by changing the story line depending on his inspirations. In fact, he was responsible for all aspects of the play, as he was the mime, the writer, the musician, the singer, the stage-designer and the director.
The themes of each "Karagiozis" play were adapted to various current social and political issues, as well as to historical events of Ottoman-ruled Greece. These historical "Karagiozis" plays were very popular in the past and during times of crises, as they lifted the audience's spirits and offered hope.
Through the main character, Karagiozis, a puppeteer would satirise authority figures and situations. Ugly and hunchbacked, Karagiozis represented the common folk, in a collision with everyone and everything unjust, whether it be a social or political injustice. He often pretended to be a man of all trades in order to find work and sought silly but cunning solutions to the various difficult and strange situations he'd get into. Karagiozis, the puppet character, is famous for his pranks, which he set up to tease those around him.
Origins of Karagiozis
Scholars agree today that it is almost certain that the Greek populations 'borrowed' Karagiozis from the Ottoman culture that smothered the Balkans and Asia Minor during a period when western Europe was being transformed through the Italian and Flemish renaissance, the Reformation, Age of Reason, the Age of Discovery, etc. In addition, the name Karagiozis delineates its origins, as in Turkish it means 'he who has black eyes' (Karagiozis always had dark eyes in the plays) from 'kara' meaning black and "gioz" meaning eyes.
There are various versions on how shadow theatre was established in Asia Minor. Some stories say the Turks were influenced by Hindu gypsies, while others claim that the Chinese influenced them during the Turkic tribes' nomadic period. Despite religious restrictions, shadow theatre spread throughout the 16th century among the Muslim Turks.
There are also many legends and studies surrounding the popularity of Karagiozis in Greece. Among some of the theories are that Greek merchants brought shadow theatre from China or that a Greek created the folkloric art during Ottoman rule to entertain the sultan.
Despite these differences, experts agree on two things: First, that in the 1880s the stories and adventures were adapted for a newly independent Greek society by inventing numerous local characters, and were mostly completed by 1910.
Karagiozis flourished from 1915 until 1950, a time of major tribulations for the nation (wars, social unrest) which were a continuous inspiration for the poor, but uncompromising protagonist who tried in vain to change his fate and protest against social injustice.
The loud voice of the Karagiozopaihti, who portrayed all of the characters, could be heard in most of the cities and villages throughout Greece, with many generations of Greek children brought up with Karagiozis and the other characters.
Karagiozis: The impoverished protagonist who is always lively and full of life. He lives with his family in a pitiful shack in a large town, across from the Ottoman "pasha's" enormous palace. He has no profession but is always willing to get involved with anything.
Of course, he always fails at everything, gets into trouble and finally ends up getting whipped or beaten, returning to his shack, hungry as before. As he is always out of work, Karagiozis engages in minor thefts which, instead of hiding them, he ends up telling everyone and justifies the petty crimes as the only means to support his family. His long arm, supported by a rod which the Karagiozopaihti moves vigorously, is a representation of his thefts.
Hatziabatis: Karagiozi's friend who is always dressed in levantine Ottoman clothing. Sometimes he is portrayed as honest, yet in other versions he is a cunning thief.
Sir Dionysios: A character representing a fallen aristocrat prone to a western way of life who tries to act genteel and always wears a top hat.
Barba Yiorgos: Karagiozi's uncle, a 'mountain man' with primitive ways but with a gentle soul and true feelings. He lives in a village but comes to town on business or when he has to get his nephew out of yet another difficult situation.
Veliggekas: the pasha's "right hand" man, portrayed as a police officer. He is a Turk-Albanian and doesn't speak Greek.
The pasha or veziris: the highest Ottoman Turkish official, representing power and wealth. He is portrayed as just and kind to his subjects, who are none other than his victims. The pasha is rarely shown, rather his voice is heard giving orders.
Morfonios: a short character with a huge head and nose who thinks he is handsome and brags about his looks. He is very greedy and thinks highly of himself. He lives in a world of delusions and is one of the silliest characters.
Stavrakas: a character who pretends to be brave and courageous but who is actually a coward. Karagiozis knows this and often hits him throughout a play. In the end, Stavrakas is often liked by the audience because in his attempts to hide his cowardliness and avoid the beating, he makes jokes and reverts to trickery.
The other characters in Karagiozi, such as his wife and children or the pasha's daughter are not always part of the play, but only when the script demands their presence.
There are three types of Karagiozi plays, including comedies inspired by every day life, those influenced by fairy tales and traditional folklore and heroic themes inspired by the years of oppressive and anachronistic Ottoman rule followed by the Greek War of independence (1821).
The way in which the characters were vigorously moved by the Karagiozopaihti, the innocent beatings, the strange and ragged clothing, the unsatisfied greed along with the continuous babbling, cunning word games and numerous linguistic mistakes were what gave Karagiozis a special place in the hearts of Greek audiences.
The magic of these shadow performances was not only created by the characters' portrayals but also thanks to the props which were easily transported from place to place. Among the most important props were the cloth background (used as a screen), the detailed puppets, the light source (lanterns and gas lamps which were slowly replaced with electrical lamps), the scenery and of course the Karagiozopaihti's ingenuity.
As television and the cinema, however, have dominated the entertainment world, Karagiozis remains a form of artistic expression of the past. Those who remember this magic, can revive it at the shadow theatre museum in Athens, watch a rare performance held in the poorer districts of the city or buy a puppet at one of the numerous tourist shops.
Article reproduced with permission of Athens News Agency.