Monday, March 02, 2009


There is magical hush when the room is dimmed and the light is lit behind the curtain. Two figures, an oriental palace, and a small, run-down hovel oppose each other in a silent symmetry. The tension of anticipation is almost palpable as the music begins. Almost immediately, a grotesque, hunchbacked figure with a ridiculously long arm emerges. The audience squeals with glee and the play begins.
Karagiozi was one of those truths that I believed in before I had actually seen them. Every year, my Greek school «αναγνωστικά» would contain a Karagiozi play script. These were invariably positioned towards the back of the reader, to be read only once the requisite number of lessons had been agonised over and suffered through, as a treat and simultaneously a homage, to the Greek-Australian student’s staying power. To begin with, I imagined Karagiozi to look like one of my bald, effusive, witty and tremendously funny uncles – that is, until I saw a picture of Karagiozi in my grade three reader, whereupon I determined that he looked like one of my father’s sullen, dense and ponderously droning «συγχωριανοί.»
The Chomskian word play comprised in the Karagiozi plays I read as a child provided a fascinating introduction into the world of postmodernism, surrealism and semantics. Picture the perpetually famished Karagiozi, Harry Klynn like, walking into a bakery. After perusing the fare offered for sale for a considerable period of time and upon being enjoined to state his business, he asks the baker: “Are all these loaves yours?” The response being in the affirmative, a truly perplexed Karagiozi, in veritable - hasten to make hay will the sun shines – biblical tones wonders: “Then why don’t you eat them all?” On another occasion, his slimy sidekick, the obsequious Hatziavati, is standing outside his hovel calling for him: “Karagiozi, are you in there?” “No,” comes Karagiozi’s muffled voice from within. “But I can hear your voice,” the puzzled Hatziavatis responds. “Yes, my voice is in here but I am not,” comes the classic riposte from Karagiozis.
During the 1980s, Greek Television screened Karagiozis shows on a weekly basis. These shows had more modern and educational themes, with Karagiozis living some myths of Greek mythology or visiting the moon and other planets. This being before the widespread use of the VCR in the homeland, one of my uncles, an avid fan, would set up his video camera in front of the television and record these shows. When, upon his return to Australia we would obey the summons to watch hour after interminable hour of mundane footage, in order to find out “what Greece is like,” (here read: how the village has changed), Karagiozi would cut through a particularly non-inspiring video tour of someone’s Balkan baroque home and I would be enthralled.
My first real life Karagiozi play experience took place at the State Film centre a few years ago, when a visiting company from Greece put on a show for Greek Australian children. There it was, the long white sheet, a blank canvas upon which a scintillating drama – one of everyday life and survival would be illustrated. I clutched my ticket as the lights were turned off and the Sultan’s saray appeared in sharp focus. I paid a few dollars to witness this performance. In my mother’s day, back in the village, the price of entry was a garlic bulb and children would pillage their neighbour’s gardens in order to ensure their temporary escape from a grimy world of poverty. The performance was uproariously funny, but also sad. There were sections where Karagiozi addressed the children in the audience and their response was integral to the flow of the play. Unfortunately, the children did not understand what they were being asked and the resourceful Karagiozis had to save the day by some rapid ad-libbing.
For my part, Karagiozis represents a classic Modern Greek archetype: the downtrodden, penurious homo hellenicus, doomed by a corrupt and static social system to remain on the lowest rungs of the ladder, using all the wits he can muster to make a go of life. Nonetheless, the Karagiozi plays, Shadow theatre, with a single puppeteer creating voices for a dialogue, narrating a story, and possibly even singing while manipulating puppets, appears to come ultimately from the Indonesian “wayang kulit,” where plays and cautionary tales about gods, demons and mythological heroes are played even today. It is evident that the art travelled from there to Asia Minor; though several theories exist as to how exactly this happened. Some believe the Turks were influenced by the Gypsies who came from India, while others claim that they were influenced by the Chinese at the time when the Turks were still nomadic tribes in Central Asia. Whatever the case, shadow theatre became more widespread around the 16th century within Asia Minor. In his original form, Karagiozi’s popular appeal was his scatological language and protruding phallus. However, this is not the Karagiozi we know. Rather, he is Karagöz. He and Hacivat are supposedly modeled on two labourers whose banter entertained their co-workers and slowed down the work during the construction of a mosque in Prousa during the reign of Sultan Orhan I. They were executed for the resulting delay of the work, but became folk heroes. One version of the legend says that a contemporary of theirs, one Şeyh Küşteri, made camel-hide puppets of them and began to perform plays.
Karagöz-Hacivat plays are especially played during Ramadan in Turkey. Almost every day, I would walk to the Byzantine Hippodrome in Constantinople to take in a performance – though these were mainly in a toned-down form intended for audiences of children.
The Turkish Karagöz is different to ours. He can be deceitful, lewd, and even violent. Other characters populate his world, just like our Karagiozis’: the drunkard Tuzsuz Deli Bekir with his wine bottle, the long-necked Uzun Efe, the opium addict Kanbur Tiryaki with his pipe, Altı Kariş Beberuhi (an eccentric dwarf), the half-wit Denyo, the spendthrift Civan, and Nigâr, a flirtatious woman. There may also be dancers and djinns, and various portrayals of non-Turks: an Arab who knows no Turkish (typically a beggar or sweet-seller), a black servant woman, an Albanian security guard, a Greek (usually a doctor), an Armenian (usually a footman or money-changer), a Jew (usually a goldsmith or scrap-dealer).
The structure of the Turkish plays is formulaic and ritualistic, structured as they are in four parts. First comes the Mukaddime, or introduction. Hacivat sings a semai, recites a prayer, and indicates that he is looking for his friend Karagöz, whom he beckons to the scene with a speech that always ends "Yar bana bir eğlence" ("Oh, for some amusement"). Karagöz enters from the opposite side. Then there is the Muhavere, repartee between Karagöz and Hacivat before the main plot unfolds and finally the Bitiş or conclusion, always a short argument between Karagöz and Hacivat, always ending with Hacivat yelling at Karagöz that he has ‘ruined’ whatever matter was at hand and has “brought the curtain down,” and Karagöz replying “May my transgressions be forgiven.”
Karagiozis seems to have come to mainland Greece, in the 19th century, during Ottoman rule. Karagiozis was hellenized in Patra in the end of 19th century by Dimitrios Sardounis, who is considered the founder of modern Greek shadow theatre. Our Karagiozis is a poor hunchbacked Greek, his right hand is always depicted long, his clothes are ragged and patched, and his feet are always bare. He lives in a hovel with his wife Aglaia and his three boys, during the Ottoman era. Because of his poverty, Karagiozis uses mischievous and crude ways to find money and feed his family.
Students of folklore divide Karagiozis' tales in two major categories: the 'Heroics' and the 'Comedies'. The Heroics are tales based on tradition or real stories involving the times under Ottoman rule or anachronistic adaptations of other legends, and Karagiozis is presented as a helper and assistant of an important hero. In “Karagiozis and the accursed Snake,” famously performed by Karagiozopaixtis extra-ordinaire Eugenios Spatharis for example, he unforgettably takes the credit for the death of a large serpent from Alexander the Great and tries to claim a reward from the Sultan. Our Karagiozis is as formulaic as his Turkish counterpart. At the beginning, he appears in the scene with his 3 sons dancing and singing. He welcomes the audience and has a comical dialogue with his children. He then enters his cottage The Vizier or a local Ottoman lord then reports that he has a problem and needs someone to perform a deed Hatziavatis obeys and starts announcing the news (usually a singing sequence) until Karagiozis hears about it. Initially annoyed by Hatziavatis' shouting, he finds it's an opportunity to gain money (either by helping the Vizier or not) and sometimes asks Hatziavatis to aid him. Karagiozis then either attempts to help the Vizier or fool him. The regular characters appear one at a time in the scene, often with an introducing song which is standard for each of them; Karagiozis has a funny dialogue with them, mocks them, fools them, or becomes annoyed and ousts them violently. Finally, Karagiozis is either rewarded by the Vizier or his mischief is revealed and he is punished.
As a devotee of the whole genre, I purchased a do-it-yourself Karagiozi kit from a bookstore when I was in Athens and set about doing my own impromptu performances for my sister, upon my return to Australia. These were laminated cardboard figurines, not the celluloid or camel-skin transparent figures of tradition and I had immense trouble manipulating Karagiozis immense free arm, at my sister’s request. The ensuing fiasco was a cross between a Punch and Judy show and an extremely sarcastic parody of various acquaintances. For a while, I was collecting variations of figurines, noting how some puppeteers made their Karagiozis more hunchbacked, or less mustachioed than others. Immersed in my fervour, I even wrote a play entitled: “The last play of Karagiozis,” not knowing that there is a Turkish movie: Who killed Karagöz and Hacivat?” of similar theme. My play, a postmodern critique on everything that a university student could find to critique ended in the assassination of Karagiozi by the puppeteer and the destruction of the canvas. It was, I must admit, quite a poor effort. However, Karagiozis has also come to my rescue in ways unsuspected. Back in the days when I played Chinese traditional folk music, it came to pass that at a particular concert the entire orchestra came unstuck. During the deadly pause that ensured, I resolved that the audience would not know better anyway and struck up the traditional introductory kalamatiano of Karagiozi. They loved it.
In Greek daily speech, the name Karagiozis signifies a clown, or a person who is not serious. I resent this. While Karagiozis can be mischievous, a liar and an anti-hero, he is also good-natured and faithful and his name should not be taken in vain.
As we pay homage to our alter ego, we leave you this week with the fascinating fact that Conrad, the protagonist of Roger Zelazny's ...And Call Me Conrad which won the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Novel, is in fact, inspired by Karagiozis. Until next week, let us all embrace life in true Karagiozi fashion, signing “E vre paidia, opa!” Now who has something to eat?
First published in NKEE on 2 March 2009