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Turkey's National Shadow Theater


karagoz-making_s.jpg (6739 bytes)(Turkish: Black Eyes, or Gypsy), type of Turkish shadow play, named for its stock hero, Karagöz. The comically plays are improvised from scenarios for local audiences in private homes, coffee shops, public squares, and innyards. The Karagöz play apparently was highly developed in Turkey by the 16th century and was adapted in Greece and North Africa. In the 20th century, however, Karagöz plays have lost some popularity to cinema and other forms of entertainment. Their performance in Turkey has been mostly confined to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Although the origin of the Turkish shadow play is still a subject of speculation today, there is high probability that this form arose in Egypt. When the Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt in 1517, the Mameluke Sultan Tumanbay was executed by hanging. In a shadow-show dramatization of the hanging in a palace on the Nile, the puppeteer deliberately had the rope snap in two on the first attempt, to the great amusement of Selim, who showered the puppeteer with gifts and took him along on his return to Istanbul.

In the early seventeenth century, Egyptian shadow puppeteers were also brought from Egypt to perform at the wedding of one of the Sultan's brothers. Exhibiting their skills later in various parts of the Empire, these puppeteers laid the foundations of the Turkish shadow theater.

karagoz-hacivat_s.jpg (14662 bytes)The character of Karagöz is a good-natured underdog who usually gets his turban knocked off in fights. He exchanges satiric and vulgar repartee with his friend Hacivat, a pompous Turk with an affected accent, and with other stock characters, such as a newly rich peasant, a conniving dervish, and a Jewish merchant. In Turkey, the Karagöz (a character, Black-eye) theatre was the prevalent form of shadow play. This art apparently came from China or perhaps from Southeast Asia, as the French term ombres chinoises indeed hints, though the prevailing element of the grotesque was probably inherited from ancient Greece by way of Byzantium. The Karagöz was well known in Turkey during the 16th century but was so fully developed that it must have been introduced much earlier, and it quickly spread from Syria to North Africa and the Greek islands. Its performers were in great demand at the sultan's court as well as elsewhere, and they soon organized their own guild. Since only the framework of the play was sketched in writing, there was scope for a great deal of impromptu wit, and Karagöz shows, like the ortaoyunu, were inevitably satirical. But with the coming of motion pictures the Karagöz declined, and performances are now mostly confined to the month of Ramadan.

In the traditional performance of the Karagöz, the stage is separated from the audience by a frame holding a sheet; the latter has shrunk over the years from about six by 7˝ feet (1.8 by 2.3 metres) to about three by two feet (0.9 by 0.6 metres). The puppets, which are flat and made of leather, are controlled by the puppeteers with rods and are placed behind the screen. An oil lamp is then placed still farther back so that it will throw the puppets' shadows onto the screen.

A standard shadow play has four main elements:

  1. an introduction in which a preparatory scene is first shown on the previously. empty screen and then removed to the raw strains of a reed flute, followed by Hacivat's recitation, to the beat of a tambourine, of a mystico-philosophical gazel, and ending with a squabble between Hacivat and Karagöz, who has in the meantime joined Hacivat on the screen;
  2. a dialogue between Hacivat and Karagöz, the major characters;
  3. the main play itself; and
  4. a short closing in which Hacivat accuses Karagöz of having destroyed the screen and goes off to inform the owner while Karagöz begs the spectators forgiveness for all the slips of the tongue committed by the characters.

karagoz-celebi-zenne_s.jpg (10590 bytes)The introduction is fairly stereotyped and consists of an argument and usually a quarrel between Karagöz and Hacivat, the two most common characters. The former is a simple, commonsense fellow, while the latter is more formal and polished, if shallow and pedantic. The dialogue between the two varies with the occasion but always contains impromptu repartee, though most puppet masters have at least 28 different plots in stock - a different one for each night of Ramadan. Some are historical, many ribald, but all are popular entertainment. Additional characters or animals may be introduced, calling for great skill on the part of the puppet master and his assistant in manipulating several simultaneously, as well as in reciting the text in changing tones and playing music. Some have one or two musicians to help.

In later periods there were efforts to modernize Karagöz. In the nineteenth century, for example, Ahmet Mithat Efendi replaced the curtain with frosted glass and increased the size of the puppets. Kâtip Salih, using electric lamps in place of candles, adapted the texts of French comedies in his Karagöz company which flourished in the 1910's. Among the innovations, however, those involving the texts have been the most important. Karagöz sustained its popularity over the centuries by portraying current events, thus, when the old texts are employed today, they arouse little interest.

Mimicry and caricature, while essential to both the meddah and the ortaoyunu, are technically more developed in the shadow play. Here entire productions are based on a comedy of manners or of character. In addition to the stock characters from various ethnic groups, there is, for example, the drug addict who wraps his narcotic in dissolving gum before the fast begins so as not to sin, the light-headed Turk (he who eats his inheritance) who is a prodigal and a debauchee, the highway robber, the stutterer, and the policeman.

karagoz-playing.jpg (4137 bytes)Karagöz is the most frequently performed but not the sole type of shadow play in Muslim countries. In Egypt a shadow theatre is known to have existed as early as the 13th century, long before records of Karagöz shows were kept in Turkey. A physician, Muhammad ibn Daniyal, wrote three shadow plays that have survived. They were performed in the 13th century and display humour and satire and the lampooning of match-making and marriage. These plays also introduce a parade of popular contemporary characters, many of whom earn their living in shady or amusing trades. A positively phallic element is as evident here as it is in the Karagöz.