THE SHADOW THEATER
In the course of the last decades, Greek shadow theater was at last officially recognized as an fundamental element of the culture of modern Hellenisms. After a long period of decline, it is nowadays enjoying new popularity, many theaters for its performances have been built, magazines and newspapers publish articles and essays about it. Surprisingly enough, Karagiozis, the sloppy character of almost every plot, has turned out to be some sort of a national symbol, representing the individual Greek of unlimited ambition, who fights against overpowering odds with great determination and who in the end makes it thanks to his shrewdness and creativity. Karagiozis stands for the incarnation of the supple spirit that has allowed Greece to continue to exist through centuries of oppression.
The exploits of the shadow company and especially its star Karagiozis, are familiar to all Greeks and have inspired conflicts, patriotic deeds, grave thoughts but primarily amusement for more than a century. Brought to Greece towards 1850 from Constantinople by Giannis Brachalis, the shadow theater was soon submitted to modifications to become Greek in theme and spirit. Karagiozis himself, though Turkish in name and origin, is the personification of a kind of comic heroism which is natively Greek, akin to and in all probability derived from ancient tradition, although through very indirect channels.
In its early years in Greece the shadow theater was characterized by a rude language and obscene gestures. Mimaros, the most celebrated of all Karagiozis players, and comparable to the Aristophanes of the Old Comedy, got rid of its impurities turning the bawdy theater of Brachalis into a highly developed art, inventing new characters, songs and plots which have become typical features in the Karagiozis repertoire. Afterwards other innovators improved Karagiozis with new plots and characters.
One of the most appealing personalities from the second generation of Karagiozis players is Sotiris Spatharis. His memoirs, published in Athens in 1960, shades light not only on his own career (1909-1947) but also on the entire development of Karagiozis in Greece.
Spatharis became first interested in Karagiozis when he was very young when he stole away risking a beating from his father, to go and watch shows whenever he could. His parents did their best to dissuade him, tore up his figures, beat him, implored him to abandon his vocation. But Spatharis remained faithful to his passion. Nevertheless the hostility of Spatharis parents to his decision is quite explicable because the prospects of a Karagiozis player were not optimistic at all: he could only expect a future afflicted by all kinds of social and economic difficulties. Financial profits were so minimal that most players confined their activity to Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, holding other jobs during the week. Players lived regularly on the verge of total ruin, but there was a worse threat that was constantly hovering over them: police harassment. In people’s minds Karagiozis players were often associated with pick-pockets and perverts, because of the disgraceful behavior of some of their colleagues. It was not easy to obtain a permit to play either. In the winter Karagiozis players performed in areas near their home. In the summer they started to travel and played in other villages and in the islands. Coffee-houses were the customary point where the shows were performed, after the owners and the players had agreed in advance on a certain percentage of the gate. Young and old alike, often as many as several hundreds, arrived from nearby villages to take pleasure in their favorite Karagiozis performances.
Until recently the shows of the shadow theater included songs accompanied by musical instruments, usually clarinet, drums and a string instrument. The value of a singer in the success of a performance was pointed out by Spatharis even as late as 1959when record players had taken the place of live music almost everywhere. Certain figures had their particular singer and all suggested sure disaster. The grouping of player, singer and musicians created some kind of a dissonant coarse opera.
In true Greek fashion, then as now the audiences became involved in the action: children yelled advices and warnings to their hero, the adults shouted oaths and curses. Protestations were cried out aloud if anything offensive was uttered. The audience took the dramas seriously and woe to the spectator who dared cough at a key moment. During the golden age of Karagiozis (1924-1944) more than one hundred players performed throughout Greece. Competition among the owners of the Kafenia was very strong and each tried to jockeyed his colleagues to get the largest audience and the biggest profits possible. Spatharis recounts that a particularly nasty rival once tried to send him away by force from Kiato (Corinth) on the claim that the area was his own domain. But the spectators who immensely preferred the art of Spatharis, uproared asking for his return thus shouting his rival’s shows to a halt.
Spatharis’ chaotic but vibrant career occurred in an equally chaotic and vibrant period of Greek history. Those years witnessed two world wars and several local wars, the expansion of national Greek boundaries, the arrival of a huge mass of refugees from Asia Minor, the Albanian War and last but not least a devastating four-year occupation by the Germans. Spatharis spent seven of these years in the Greek army and he was lucky enough to continue his old work. In fact the generals at the front were so delighted by his performances, that they nominated him official player of the battalion. Wherever the soldiers went, Spatharis went too, and set up his shows often within range of the enemy.
In all plays Karagiozis, barefooted, always hungry with his hunchback, endlessly gesticulating in accordance with real Greek fashion, is able to survive by his cunning, outsmarting the other characters in the plays, particularly his Turkish overlords, by lying, boasting, stealing, cheating or adopting an amazing variety of tricks to gain his objectives. By turns he fakes at being many things: baker, doctor, lawyer, fisherman, teacher, goldsmith, prophet, madman and, lately, an astronaut. He may be terribly thrashed and even beaten up on occasion, but in the end he always turns out to be triumphant, thwarting an invasion and sometimes running away with suitcases full of gold.
The plots of the plays may range from the fantastic and ridiculous to the patriotic and historical. Many of the plots are so familiar with the spectators that while space is allowed for improvisation in dialogue and thrifty details, interference with the main outlines is hardly ever risked.
Heroes of the Greek War of Independence, even Megalexandros (Alexander the Great) appear on the stage together with less illustrious types like Greeks of the streets and the marketplace. Karagiozis is surrounded by a group of eternal favorites: Hadziavatis, the flamboyantly dressed Turk, the almost constant sidekick and foil of Karagiozis; Omorphonios (the “beautiful”), a petit dandy with a huge head and an enormous nose that Karagiozis erroneously shakes hands with – to the constant enjoyment of the audience; Barba-Giorgos, the staunch Epirote peasant with his fustanella and his heavy mountain dialect perhaps the most popular character after Karagiozis, a brute in strength and over twice the little hero but utterly unequal in wits with the cunning city-dweller. Other regulars include the Jew with his jumbled Greek, Stavrakis the tough guy from the Piraeus, and a multitude of pashas and other Turks doomed to fall victim to the shrewdness of Karagiozis. Since the player himself supplies all these voices (assistants simply hold figures) an astonishing versatility is needed to produce the various accents and linguistic peculiarities appropriate to each character. A visit to a Karagiozis show will be an unforgettable experience even for those who do not understand Greek