Saturday, November 26, 2011

Karagiozis, Wolf Blitzer.

No, Karagiozis isn’t what you say in Greek when someone sneezes—or even in Turkish from which the word derives (“kara” meaning black and “gioz” meaning “eyes”).  And though Wolf Blitzer is a CNN US television news anchor, Karagiozis has nothing to do with that form of entertainment. 

Puppet maestro Eugenios Spatharis
Karagiozis is a shadow theater character so deeply embedded in Greek folklore that the very name for that form of two-dimensional theater in Greece is “Karagiozis,” and the improvising puppeteer bringing all the stories, music, singing, and staging together in shadows ingeniously played out upon a cloth screen separating the characters from the audience is the “Karagiozopaihtis” (Karagiozis player).

The origins of shadow theater may have been Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, or Persian, but it’s generally accepted that Karagiozis came to Greece during its centuries of Ottoman rule.   There he evolved into a teasing prankster who lifted audiences’ spirits and offered them hope through lusty satirical attacks on authority figures and life situations.  Ugly and hunchbacked, Karagiozis represented the common folk in collision with everyone and everything socially and politically unjust. 

He often pretended to be a man of all trades in order to find work, then sought silly but cunning solutions to the various difficult and strange situations he’d created for himself. 

Karagiozis persisted even after Greece’s successful War of Independence (1821-1832), but the stories changed to reflect a newly independent Greek society.  They became comedies inspired by daily life, traditional folklore and fairy tales, and heroic themes emerging from Greece’s overthrow of Ottoman rule.

Karagiozis theater particularly flourished from 1915 until 1950, a time of major tribulations for Greece—two world wars, civil war, and rampant social unrest—providing continuous inspiration for a poor, uncompromising protagonist trying in vain to change his fate and protest against social injustice.

The vigorously moving characters, beatings of the innocent, unsatisfied greed, and strange and ragged clothing seminal to Karagiozis theater, all took place amid the continuous babbling, cunning word games, and numerous linguistic mistakes giving that form of entertainment a special place in the hearts of Greeks.

For some unfathomable reason, last Tuesday night, as I watched Wolf Blitzer moderate the eight Republican Presidential candidates debating foreign affairs, I kept thinking of Karagiozis.  So, I did a little research to see what could possibly be tugging away at my subconscious.  And at this point let me acknowledge a special thanks to the website of Turkish-Hellenic Union Solutions (THUS) from which I’ve borrowed freely.

I admit I smiled when I read that in a Karagiozis performance there are eight primary characters (pun intended) but I saw no parallels between those ancient Karagiozis characters and the eight candidates on CNN’s stage Tuesday night.  There was, though, a thought that passed through my mind: Since all Karagiozis characters spoke through the voice of a single puppeteer who had other characters waiting in the wings to jump in should the mood or need strike him, I wondered whether Grover Norquist was a fan of shadow theater?

Whatever, perhaps you’ll see something I missed in the curriculum vitae of those eight characters.  For better or for verse, here they are:

Karagiozis:  Always impoverished but full of life, he lived with his family in a pitiful shack in a large town, across from the Ottoman Pasha’s enormous palace.  He had no profession but was always willing to get involved with anything, even though he always failed, got into trouble and ended up beaten and returning to his shack as hungry as when he’d left.  Because Karagiozis was always out of work, he engaged in minor thefts but instead of hiding them told everyone, and in so doing justified the petty crimes as his only means of supporting his family.

Hatziabatis:  He was Karagiozis’ friend and always dressed in traditional Ottoman clothing.  Sometimes he was portrayed as honest, other times as a cunning thief.

Sir Dionysios:  A fallen aristocrat prone to a western way of life, he tried to act genteel and always wore a top hat. 

Barba Yiorgos:  He was Karagiozis’ uncle, a mountain man of primitive ways but a gentle soul with true feelings, who came down to town from his village to get his nephew out of inevitable difficult situations.

The Pasha:  He represented power and wealth as the highest Ottoman Turkish official.  Portrayed as just and kind to his subjects, in truth they were his victims. The Pasha rarely showed himself to the crowd, but his voice was heard giving orders.

Veliggekas:  The pasha's right hand man.  He was a Turk-Albanian police officer who did not speak the language (Greek) of the people he was charged with controlling by his master. 

Morfonios:  Very greedy and with a high opinion of himself, he bragged about his physical appearance that was far from handsome.  He lived in a world of delusions and was one of the play’s silliest characters. 

Stavrakas:  This character pretended to be brave and courageous but Karagiozis knew Stavrakas was actually a coward.  Karagiozis would beat Stavrakas and in so doing often turned Stavrakas into a crowd favorite because he forced Stavrakas into jokes and trickery in efforts to hide cowardliness and avoid the beatings.

As I said, no parallels. 

There was, though, another sort of theatrical insight I gained from the debate.  At one point I said to the (staunchly Republican) friend watching with me, “Don’t you think they all look as if they’re lined up behind their podiums waiting to be auditioned?”

My friend replied, “Yes, and Wolf Blitzer looks like he can’t wait for the producer to send in the next eight.”

I don’t think Karagiozis could have ended a performance on a better line.



  1. What a great comparison, Jeff, and it will only get more "Karagiozis" in the coming weeks and months. Let the beatings begin!

  2. Gee, Jeff, I had no idea that Greece had this tradition.
    I always thought it was something typically Indonesian.
    That country was a colony of the Netherlands until 1947, and I first heard of "wajang" (they spell it with a "j") when I lived in Holland.
    Later, when I was in Indonesia, I bought a couple of those dolls and had them framed.
    They hang, today, on the wall of the home of one of my daughters.
    The tradition, there, goes back a looong way.
    And the performances go on for hours.
    You can read about it here: Wayang

  3. Whoops!
    The link above doesn't work.
    This one will, but you'll have to copy and paste it:

  4. This marvelous post points the way to the very element that's been missing in the debates, which is to say the beating-the-candidates-with-a-stick segment.

    That's what Wolf should auction off: the right to stand on the stage with a giant slapstick, one that makes an incredible amount of noise when someone is hit with it. Every time someone flip-flops, mischaracterizes one of the other contenders (or the president, or Ronald Reagan, who would actually be horrified at this bunch), they should get belabored with the stick.

    Ratings would triple.

  5. This is wonderful. Can you imagine a "debate" with those cartoon balloons with the truth in them floating overhead? The Greeks sure know how to embody some things, don't they?

  6. What a charming post, and great to hear about something more interesting than economy from that corner of the world :)

  7. Yes, Leighton, Indonesia is one of the places historians think could have been the source for Greek shadow theater. However, I understand that non-Greek shadow theater focused upon deities and religious rites, but the Greeks abandoned those subjects in favor of more folklore oriented subjects and satire.

    Between Jody and Tim I sense a groundswell forming for beatings. Bats are available for a slight additional charge.

    Frankly, Lil, I think the balloons are already there, it's just that you can't see them because they're inside the debaters' heads.

    And, yes, Dorte, your sentiment sums up why I decided to write about the true Karagiozis and not his poseurs in Parliament:)

  8. Fabulous stuff Jeff. I have no idea who Grover Norquist is though. Wasn't he on Sesame Street? And Wolf Blitzer eh? Crazy name, crazy guy.

  9. Dan, in the case of Grover Norquist, ignorance is not bliss. He is head of an organization called "Americans for Tax Reform," funded by unknown contributors, that he's riden to his position as one of the most powerful people in the US. He comes out of Reagan era politics and has obtained commitments from every Republican member of Congress NOT to vote to raise taxes under any circumstances. Those contenders for office who do not sign, or those in ofice who renege are ruthlessly attacked in their elections. He is "credited" by some for single-handedly destroying any compromise by the Republican members of the Super-Committee on a solution for the US debt crisis...because "no new taxes" is a sacred, never to be violated mantra. Hmm. I wonder what he'd look like in an Ayatolah's turban?

    As you can imagine, those opposing our gridlock in Washington would like to see Grover in Oscar's garbage can, but absent that, how about him having to go a couple of rounds with our Beth?

  10. [What follows is Beth's comment, which for some reason did not post although it did appear in the in-boxes of those who are "followers" of MIE.]

    "For better or for verse"?

    The article seems to apply in parts to the Bush campaign: "he lived in a world of delusions,"continuous babbling...numerous linguistic mistakes". There are parts that apply easily to Rick Perry: change "mountain" to plains and we get, "a plains man of primitive ways". But there are allusions to Dick Cheney: "he lived in a world of delusions". Grover Norquist may have a high opinion of himself and he may be a fan of shadow theater with himself as the puppeteer but there was nothing shadow about Cheney. He was the puppet master, the grand manipulator.

    Did anyone ever see Cheney as Dr. Strangelove confined to a wheelchair or did that persona only emerge on Obama's inauguration day?.
    Cheney might have decided that a wheelchair was a foolproof way of ensuring that he wouldn't have to stand in the presence of the leader of the country. Who could challenge him?

    As to Wolf Blitzer wishing the producer would send in the next eight, isn't it horrifying that there is no next eight from which Republicans might choose. Is this group really the best the party can do? It is impossible for me to vote for a Republican. The party violates everything I believe in but is this really all they have? As a resident of Massachusetts, I have very strong opinions about the former governor of the state, a man who seems to be without principles and without any comprehension of life in the real world. This is the man who equated his sons' service as Mormon missionaries to that of Americans serving in the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is the frontrunner who wants to be in the position of sending other people's children into harm's way.

    As to Ronald Reagan, it shouldn't be forgotten that he was the author of "trickle down economics", the rich get richer and as they spend their money on beauticians, mechanics,and repairmen, the working class will benefit from what the wealthy are willing to pay to those in service jobs. We who had to work to pay our tuition because our parents couldn't afford to write the checks see that our children aren't going to be able to do that. The eight contestants for the job that will determine the future of our grandchildren have no intention of instituting policies or programs that will allow them to compete for high paying jobs. Our children have already been deprived of that possibility. How dare Newt Gingrich tell our children to "take a bath and get a job"? There are no jobs because only God can make something out of nothing and Reagan was only a saint.


  11. Jeff, thank you and I apologize to everyone who got this post without wanting it.

    Over the last few days I have realized that I am a slave to technology and I have wanted to applaud the Luddites who would have been smart enough to toss computers before they got a strangle hold on communication.

    For some reason, I could not read email or post comments to emails or blogs. I wrote them, sent them, and apparently at least one of them arrived hours after it was sent, to any number of people who didn't want them.

    I could access websites but I couldn't get into them. For days, I was at the mercy of this machine and now followers of MIE are at its mercy as well.

    If anyone gets an unwanted message from Beth or Murder By Type, delete immediately.

    "For better or verse" is a reference to a line in Jeff's post.

  12. No reason I can tell for you to be apologizing, Beth. As a matter of fact, I re-posted your comment as a subtle marketing effort intended to show readers of MIE who have not yet subscribed to receiving all posts to MIE by email what they are missing when the unfathomable post-to-site gods blow it.

  13. Every so often, maybe 3 or 4 times a week, one of the MIE contributers posts something that has a secret word in it that is designed to move me from the path of sanity to that of raving lunatic. Other people see "Republican", I see the first Bush declaring that catsup is a vegetable if it is served to school children who get a subsidized lunch. Some people see "rush" as in the Black Friday sales, I see Rush Limbaugh declaring on January 20, 2009 that he is going to ensure that the presidency of Barack Obama fails. He didn't say that he would make sure that Obama was a one term president; he said he wanted him to fail. Isn't there something vaguely treasonous when an American wants the leader of the country to fail when such failure also means the country fails? If you live near a pond, a newt is a baby frog. But I define "newt" as a slimy creature who doesn't want babies to eat and would, if he could, make bath water too expensive for the poor.