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Legendery Greek puppetmaster Evgenios Spatharis’ shadow theater figures (Karagiozis), Athens, Greece 2004. Photo: Gerasimos Domenikos

The Greek Shadow Theatre: a Retrospect

Karagiozis, protagonist of the Greek Shadow Theater is always broke -never humorless.

Elvira Krithari
Mar 31, 2018 · 5 min read

Photos: Gerasimos Domenikos, Nikos Katsaros / FOS PHOTOS

It might all have started in the cave, where people could observe their shadows on walls when sitting by the fire. More specifically though, it wasn’t until the favorite concubine of the Emperor Wu died, in China’s 2nd century BC.

To console the mourning emperor, his people made a puppet with the concubine’s appearance and placed the figure behind a lit curtain: the beloved woman was as if she was coming out of the world of the dead, alive as a shadow, on a white cloth set in the palace courtyard. While many things changed in the shadow puppetry some thousand years later, white cloths placed in courtyards and love for the shadows can still be found in Greece.

The Greek shadow theatre has developed a major protagonist: the raggedy dressed and barefoot cunning Karagiozis. His name summarizes the whole genre of the Greek shadow puppetry and his adventures, sufferings or triumphs have always been a satirical allegory for the people of his time and place.

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Labori, a tavern at Petralona neighborhood, presenting a traditional Karagiozis show, Athens, Greece, September 2014. Photos: Nikos Katsaros

His name is also known across the Balkans and the east Mediterranean. Ηis presence has been testified more widely in the area since the 17th century. In the 18th century, captain of the Austrian army, Franz Joseph Sulzer, had the chance to observe a shadow theatre performance and to write about it: “How can such a rough shadow theater, after having been seen once, be watched for a second time, by any thinking man? This can only be asked by someone that hasn’t experienced the boredom of the vlach-greek communities”.

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Karagiozis, traditional shadow theater’s most famous character. Photo: Gerasimos Domenikos

During the first period of the shadow theatre’s presence in the Balkans, it was the entertainment for the upper classes, but it soon slipped into the cafes and haunts of all the residents of small or bigger cities.

In Greece there are a few testimonies that go back to 1836. However, they are insufficient to give a satisfying picture of the shadow theater of the time. In an 1852 source it reads: “An eastern theater was built in Plaka district and by spending only ten cents, five for the entrance, and another five for a shisha, one can have fun for three whole hours, laughing unstoppably during all this time (…)”

On the contrary, newspaper “Athina” had a different opinion in 1854: “We are sorry to see the Police Administration allow the performance of the so-called Karagiozis, while in the past it had strictly forbidden it. It seems that the Chief ignores the shameful acts of the puppets in those filthy Asian theaters and how corruption diffuses throughout our society, since many children and pupils attend them every single evening”.

The involvement of the police is eloquent: Karagiozis, having already lost his exotic attraction to the good society, now speaks the slangy, colloquial language of the common neighborhoods, where he better fits.

Thought to be of no artistic value, Karagiozis is disdainfully ignored by scholars, journalists and bourgeoisie and in combination with police bans, he is left in the shadows at least until the 1890s, when social fermentation of the era puts him back on the spotlight, recognizing in him social and artistic necessity.

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Labori, a tavern at Petralona neighborhood, presenting a traditional Karagiozis show, Athens, Greece, September 2014. Photo: Nikos Katsaros

Soon, he returned triumphantly to the coffee shops, the slums, and the squares. Newspaper “Embros” in the article of 1903 “How Athenians entertain themselves” it reads: “From 9.30 in the evening people begin to appear in Dexame theatre. Clogs and brogues that are crunching and melodically noisy flippers proceed at the theatre and after a while, the more than 200 seats squeak under the weight of fat housewives dressed in their evening robes, big bellied grocers with their aprons and sometimes of young heartbreakers in their fine clothes”.

Greek Karagiozis began to acquire a distance from its Ottoman counterpart, constructing the identity that he carries still recent times.

The city, the decision-making center, is the point of Karagiozi’s reference. He becomes urbanized, he adopts urban professions, he satirizes the new urban model and nostalgically reminds his audience of the bucolic life they used to have.

Today, the shadow theater does not fill the public spaces of the Athenian neighborhoods like it used to. The traditional audience has been lost forever. The shadow theatre was improvisational and the people’s reactions to each performance were decisive for the development of the play.

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Labori, a tavern at Petralona neighborhood, presenting a traditional Karagiozis show, Athens, Greece, September 2014. Photo: Nikos Katsaros

Contemporary puppet players of Karagiozi’s shadow theatre may have a smaller share of audience compared to a few decades ago, but they remain loyal to the shadow’s art. They still make their puppets themselves as their predecessors always did, they perform in the traditional way but they also enhance their theatre with contemporary themes, such the astronaut Karagiozis or means, like the combination of shadow puppetry and video art.

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Labori, a tavern at Petralona neighborhood, presenting a traditional Karagiozis show, Athens, Greece, September 2014. Photo: Nikos Katsaros

The Greek Shadow Theater is now mainly an activity for children- neither for Chinese emperors nor for chubby ladies with evening robes. Perhaps it is so embedded in Greek form of expression that even if spectacles surpass, it cannot be abolished. It will find a way to be preserved through the children’s ability to laugh genuinely to the ingenuous and simplest things of life.

In one Karagiozis story, where our hero was under trial for some reason, the judge asked him which was the mother tongue he better understood, for Karagiozis to reply: “The one I have in my mouth”.

While his language is old, it isn’t obsolete. And what karagiozis does best nowadays is to provide an alternative source of societal commentary and joy. He is one of the rebels of the society of the spectacle.

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