Arts & Culture: Karagiozis – Greece’s Iconic Character

Posted Portes Magazine ARTS & CULTURE
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A look at the history of Karagiozis

{Karagiozis is the traditional and main comical character in Greek Shadow Theatre. Depicted as a hunchback, he is a representation of the Greek common folk and their social and political struggles during Post-Revolutionary Greece. Karagiozis lives in a shack with his family, across from the Ottoman palace. His character was usually a paper-made puppet handled by a puppeteer who stood behind an illuminated white screen and performed for an audience. Today, Karagiozis is mostly performed for adults and children alike in outdoor village squares, small theatres, and festivals. During the fall season, Thessaloniki boasts their famous outdoor Wall Festival, where live musical performances and traditional shadow theater can be enjoyed. We bring you some interesting facts about Greece’s legendary character, through the words of Karagiozis expert and author Dorina Papaliou. Sit back and enjoy the show!}

 – by Christina Loridas

Dorina-PapaliouQ & A

with Dorina Papaliou

How did Karagiozi originate?

Shadow theatre originated in India, Java, or China and then spread to other countries in the East and the West. The prevailing theories claim that shadow theatre was introduced in Greece through Turkey. “Karagöz,” a popular form of entertainment for the Ottomans, was also known to the Greeks. The continual contact with the Turks for centuries, led to its assimilation by the Greeks.

In post-revolutionary Greece, the popularity of folk theatre rose in comparison to theatre, as it was cheaper and easier to stage than a theatrical performance. At first, it was denounced by the general public, but the negative attitude begun to decrease around 1890’s, as the performances were by then transformed through the changes introduced by Mimaros, a popular puppeteer at the time. Mimaros removed phallic elements and obscene language, characteristic of the Turkish Karagöz, and relocated the performances from the cafes to the hub of urban life, the parks and squares of major cities.

What does the character represent to Greeks?

The carnivalesque element, which could be what makes Karagiozi and shadow theatre so appealing. Carnival is characterized by role and situation reversal. Through the use of masks and fancy dressing, everyday hierarchical order is temporarily suspended … emphasis on food, sexuality, the insatiable desire for material satisfaction and transformation are characteristics present in Karagiozis performances, providing the audience with something like a temporary liberation from the prevailing system of laws and control.

Shadow theatre is part of the Greek cultural inheritance. The Karagiozis shadow theater is an oral art form, and it is through its talented performers that it will stay alive.

*Dorina Papaliou is a Greek novelist. Having completed her thesis on comparative study between Indonesian Folk Theatre and Karagiozis performances, she recently published a CD-ROM entitled “Karaghiozis: The Magic of Shadow Theatre,” passionately detailing the extensive history of Karagiozis theater and its importance to Greek culture. To learn more, visit greekshadows.com.

Did you know…?

  1. The first Greek Karagiozis puppeteer was Giannis Brachalis. Moving from Constantinople to Piraeus in 1852, he established the first Greek theatre called “The Karagiozis Shadow Theatre.”

  2. Karagiozi’s patchwork clothing supports his depiction as a poor man. His long arm is representative of his many thefts and comedic acts done for the sake of providing for his family.

  3. A puppeteer of the Karagiozi theater is called a ‘Karagiozopaihtis.’

  4. The word ‘Karagiozi’ is currently used in the Greek language as a slang term to sarcastically describe someone as being a funny or amusing character.

  5. The name Karagiozis is derived from the Turkish ‘Karagöz,’ which means dark-eyed.

  6. Karagiozis productions and shows start off and end with Karagiozis on stage, usually beginning with the traditional ‘Serviko’ song and dance. Performances end with Karagiozis muttering the comical phrase “king through his bitblown ego.  ater is called art Dorina Papaliou. Απόψε θα φάμε, θα πιοking through his bitblown ego.  ater is called art Dorina Papaliou. ύμε, και νηστικοί θα κοιμηθοking through his bitblown ego.  ater is called art Dorina Papaliou. ὐμε” meaning “tonight we will dine, and drink, and go to sleep hungry.”

  7. A sole narrator is in charge of all dialogue that happens between Karagiozis and other characters, as well as interaction with the audience. Sometimes, depending on the size of the screen and puppets, a second performer takes on the responsibility of acting out movements.

  8. The three original and traditional regional schools of Karagiozis theater are the Athinaiki Sxoli of Athens, the Patrini Sxoli of Patras, and the Peiraiotiki Sxoli of Piraeus.

  9. In Karagiozis shadow theater, a puppeteer stands behind an illuminated white cloth screen and acts out scenes, while narrating and singing to live or playback music. While some Karagiozis stories are classics, (there are about 30) the viewing experience usually includes audience input and creative improvisation by the puppeteer.

  10. The puppet figures themselves can be made of cardboard by exclusion method, cut out in detail to let light through. Another traditional way of creating the puppets is using dried and stretched cowhide, which allows for the addition of color as well. Today, Plexiglas is used as the more sustainable modern option.

  11. The Spathario Museum of Shadow Theater, named after famed poplar puppeteer Eugenios Spatharis, was opened in the municipality of Maroussi in 1995.

All characters in Karagiozis acts play unique roles representing various lifestyles. They are said to have been modeled after actual people in Greek society. Though the original Karagiozis theater started off with just two characters, Karagiozis and his friend Hadjiavatis, shadow puppeteers of various schools gradually added on characters which were adopted as classic figures in the years that followed. Here is a collection of some of the main characters of the classic Greek puppet theater:

– images courtesy of Mixalis Theodoropoulos