Karagiozis is the popular name given to the Greek shadow puppet theater. The protagonist in all of the plays written for this theater is a small, humble Greek peasant called Karagiozis and so the genre is simply known by his name. In this centuries-old type of theatre, the flat, articulated shadow puppets are pressed against the back of the screen by puppeteers hiding below it, and a light shining through from the back provides the magic for the audience out front. The “set” of the plays generally consists of the palatial house of the Turkish overlord on one side of the screen and the small shack of Karagiozis on the other. All of the action takes place between these two set elements, and if you think in terms of Punch and Judy you’ll have a good idea of the sort of action that occurs. There are something like 200 Karagiozis plays but the plot in all of them revolves around Karagiozis’s drive to put something over on the tall, regal Turk. Generally, a ridiculously small sum of money is involved – a fraction of a cent – but for Karagiozis the important point is that he comes out ahead of the Turk. This drives the action through all of its absurd twists and turns, and, of course, Karagiozis always comes out ahead.
Karagiozis is considered a national treasure – an elemental part of Greek cultural heritage – and so the state supports a couple of puppeteers who travel the country each summer, staging shows for holiday-making Greeks. Each year, one of these troupes arrives in Sikya and sets up its theatre-in-a-trailer in the plateia just beyond our balcony. The puppeteers spend the day setting up benches, screening, a popcorn machine, a souvenir booth, and then circulating through the surrounding villages and towns in a loudspeaker-equipped car, drumming up business. The show starts after dark, and it is always SRO, packed to capacity. I thought of going the first year but quickly determined that only kids and the parents of kids too young to be left alone were in attendance. The other parents sit outside in the plateia and dutifully buy snacks for the kids before the show and souvenirs after. The next morning, its all been packed up and taken away to the next village.
The Karagiozis arrived in Sikya this year on Tuesday, and the howls of laughter and shrieks of delight that erupted from the compound proved that the puppeteers still know their audience and that the audience still appreciates the efforts of Karagiozis to prove himself the better man. In a movie-, TV-, and video game-jaded world, it’s just wonderful to see kids enraptured by shows that have traveled the countryside since long before the arrival of automobiles and electricity, long before independence.
My appreciation for the Karagiozis is due entirely to a wonderful section of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi. Miller was a true hellenophile, and his ability to communicate the wonder of this land is an inspiration for this blog.
It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how . . . and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss.
– Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi