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Karaghiozi Shadow Theater

Haridimos
Karaghiozi Shadow Theater

The Haridimos Karaghiozi Shadow Theater came to town. It started with a few posters appearing down in the port and in the chora of Kea. Andrea was enthused. "This will be wonderful for Amarandi to be able to see a form of theater that has entertained Greek children and adults for perhaps centuries." I was skeptical. It's hard enough to get Amarandi to sit through dinner, much less a two hour puppet show in Greek. But stranger things have happened. She loved Opera and that was in Italian. So we hyped it up, just as all the mothers on the island were doing to their Greek speaking children. The traveling troupe led by Mr. Sotiris Haridimos who ran the last Karaghiozi theater in the Plaka of Athens, would be performing in the main square of the village on Saturday night. By late Saturday afternoon the stage and lights had been set up as children watched with interest and parents made their plans to see the show that evening. The writing beneath the screen said "for children from 2 to 102."

The Karaghiozi are the Greek shadow puppet theaters that are descendants of the ancient shadow puppets of the orient, through the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. The central figure is Karagiozi himself who supposedly represents the struggle of the Greek people, particularly under the yoke of Turkish occupation. Karagiozi has a humped back which symbolizes the weight of the world. He has a big nose and one arm three times longer than the other and most of the stories performed are about his efforts to get money by impersonating some esteemed person like a sea-captain, a military officer, a doctor and using his intelligence to achieve the small triumphs that eventually lead to larger disasters when he is usually exposed. Within the plot is a lot of improvisation and historical references and lots of symbolism that makes the show enjoyable to both children and adults as well as intellectuals and people with a more simplistic view of life.

In the words of one scholar "It is the story of an outsider making desperate attempts to become assimilated into a world structured on concepts he neither relates to nor understands." It is suggested that perhaps the Karaghiozi is the unwritten history of the Greek people trying to conform to the laws, customs, values, fashions and politics of Western Europe that had been imposed upon them by the countries that helped liberate them from the Turks. The Greeks with their own local traditions were trying to do things in a way that even though seemed superficial to them were essential to progress with the rest of the world.

The character of Karaghiozi actually comes from the Turkish Karagoz who was a handsome and intelligent leading man type charactor in the shadow puppets of the Ottomans. He was transformed into a hard-luck but resourceful Charlie Chaplin type figure. There were other puppets over the years that were introduced by individual puppet-masters and these figures reflected character types in Greek society. The props and characters still represent the Turkish period of Greek history regardless of what contemporary charactors or subject matters are featured in the show. At one end of the screen is the Sultan's palace and at the other Karaghiozi's shack, one symbolizing affluence and the other poverty. There are a number of figures representing anything from saints to the battleship Averof, German U-boat captains to Alexander the Great.

Before there were movies and television there was Karaghiozi and traveling theaters would announce the show times in the main squares upon arrival in the villages and cities of Greece. Of course like silent films, the Karaghiozi died out as people embraced newer forms of entertainment until finally even the Haridimos Shadow Theater in the Plaka by the Lysikratou monument could no longer survive and became a cafe. But Karaghiozi still exists through traveling performers like Mr. Haridimos, who is not just a master of the art but a teacher and historian. His shows are put on with the help of his students, and the Greek Ministry of Culture sends them all over the country to ensure this form of entertainment and social commentary does not disappear completely.

The show itself is entertaining, more so if you are fluent in Greek. But even a child with no knowledge of the language will enjoy it. In Kea the platia was full of children and adults, in fact pretty much the entire village was there. Even the restaurants around the square were full of people who watched the performance as they ate and drank. Naturally the show could not begin until the sun had set and as it became darker the characters and scenery looked better. The puppets themselves are made from flat pieces of leather or cardboard with movable joints fastened to sticks with which the puppet-masters control the movements. They are painted on both sides so they can be reversed and go in different directions. The puppet-masters stand behind the lights which illuminate the action and they do all the voices and sound effects.

The following day Mr. Haridimos invited the villagers and particularly the children, to a workshop and demonstration which took place in the music school. He had on display characters and props from the different periods of the shadow theater's history and spoke about the symbolism. Apparently everything is symbolic even the colors on the clothing.

Will Karaghiozi make a comeback? Well, in the nineteen-sixties they thought Rembetika music was dead and since then there have been millions of dollars worth of old recordings and new sold, and a popular movie too and you can't walk through Psiri without hearing the old songs being played by young rembetes in every restaurant and ouzerie. The Karaghiozi is something entirely different but as a form of social commentary that is participatory, in contrast to watching the news on a 26 inch screen, there are possibilities as long as people like Mr. Haridimos continue to keep the embers alive by traveling around Greece, and maybe the world, performing and educating people about the art and history of Karaghiozi. Keep your eyes open. There may be a performance near you.

Oh yes, and by the way Amarandi liked the show.

The work of Sotiris Haridimos


Karaghiozi as sea-captain


Karaghiozi as the Doctor


Karaghiozis the Prophet


Karaghiozis the Icon-painter


Heroes of the Greek War for Independence


Close-up of the arm joint


Sultan's Palace made from Cardboard


And the kids all went home with Karaghiozis of their very own.

Karaghiozi Video 1

Karaghiozi Video 2

You can visit the Karagiozis Theater on Tripodon Street in the Plaka of Athens just above the Lysicratous monument

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