PUPPET THEATRE IN GREECE

155

                                                             An introductory note by Kyriakos Loukakos[1]

 

Before going on with this brief intervention let me state directly that I claim no specialty on puppet theatre and that this form of performing arts is not one especially flourishing in Greece, at least as the advanced art form we witnessed these last days in Bialystok. On the other hand we attended performances in which the involvement of puppetry ranged vastly, from the esoterically charged and almost choreographed symbolism of the Japanese plays, the pure choreography of “Sandman” and the fully developed mutual emancipation of puppet and puppeteer in the frame of an intellectually demanding text of the British  “Table”,  to a more formalist and abstract contribution of puppets, as in the German Telemann – inspired   “Don Quichotte”, or even a very minimalist use of puppetry, for instance in “Medea, my sweetheart’, where even a glove or a piece of paper could be made to act as a puppet, let alone the “Jasnepanienka” play, where puppets were almost merely part of the performance’s scenery.

 

This range of  puppet use encourages me to make a reference to Greek reality in matter puppetry, which nevertheless remains largely linked (a) to children’s theatre and (b) to an element of pronounced folk provenance and tradition.

In this respect, after the liberation from the 400 years Ottoman occupation and the formation of a new Greek state, back in 1829,  Greece saw the evolution of two different kinds of folk puppet theatre, each one depicting stereotyped characters in a range of mini plots and acquiring their names from their respective central figures. One was the deriving from Europe, the so called  “Fassoulis” puppet theatre, using themes more akin to the commedia dell’ arte ones and corresponding grosso modo to the Italian Pulcinella or the Russian Petroushka archetypes.

This version of puppet theatre flourished in the 19th and early 20th century, but gradually disappeared succumbing to an other kind of shadow puppet theatre[2] that prevailed in Greece after the 1922 traumatic “Asia Minor catastrophe”, that is the military defeat of the Greek army that led to a mass expatriation of millions of Asia minor Greeks after 3000 years of presence on the Ionian coast. These people contributed to a boost of the other form of puppet theatre,  the eastern one, which I got to know as very popular during my early days and of which I also became an amateur player as a youngster. It is Karangiozis, a name reflecting the Turkish Karagoz, a word  meaning the “black eyed” one. The tale wants it that, back in the 14th century,  during a construction near the already occupied by Ottomans Byzantine city of Proussa, the leader of the endeavor, Hacivad and his foul worker Karagoz led so funny dialogues between them that other workers increasingly neglected their work to have fun at them. The local military commander ordered their decapitation, but, afterwards is said to have been full of remorse and to have ordered for some kind of funny spectacle to be established in their memories, a type of folk puppet theatre that, in 2010, was also recognized as part of Turkey’s cultural heritage. The truth is that this kind of puppet theatre has for centuries formed part of both Turkish and Greek so called shadow puppet theatre, reflecting not only national identities and everyday life problematic of both peoples but also a common life of the two nations, one being the conqueror and the other the subservient one.

What however is formally more relevant to our meeting and the 1st  Bialystok Puppet Theatre Festival is, foremost, the fact that Karangiozis has always been also an adult puppet theatre form, used furthermore to propagate social or political messages, as during the Greek Civil war of 1946 – 1949, especially by the communist rebels, and even today with satirical references to the drama of the economic crisis. Karangiozis shadow puppet theatre uses puppets with independently moving members, which nevertheless are one dimensional, if I may call them thus, since they are moved in parallel to a framed blank sheet lighted from behind. These puppets understandably enact a more limited compendium of movements than their three dimensional counterparts. The scenery is always the same: on the right side is the Pasha’s seraglio and on the left side is Karangiozis’s hut, where he lives with his wife Aglaia and their 3 sons bearing comic names in extreme poverty. Karangiozis, who incidentally and symbolically is hunchback,  encapsulates the character traits of the enslaved Greek of the period, always hungry, penniless and barefoot, trying to outwit others in order to ensure the family’s survival and almost always being ultimately and savagely beaten by the Pasha’s guard Velingekas as well as from his own traditionally dressed mountaineer uncle George for his tricky behavior. His wife appears very rarely but she is often heard imploring him from the inside of the hut in characteristic voice. In a series of brief separate plays  Karangiozis is depicted as a Mr. Bean – like catastrophic usurper of capacities and identities (for example, as prophet, as captain, as conductor, etc.) or meeting several historical figures in surreal contexts, even, among them, Alexander the Great having supposedly joined him in order to kill an “accursed snake”, very obviously a popular confusion of the ancient Macedonian king with the dragon killer Saint George.

Other characters who appear in Karangiozis are the Pasha’s daughter, on whom our anti – hero dares to cast a more than favourable eye, Hadziavatis, his close friend, disgustingly servile to the Turkish oppressors, Sior Dionysios, a westerly costumed gentleman singing Italianate canzoni from Zakynthos, one of the Seven Isles region of Western Greece, incidentally occupied consequently by Venetians, French and British but never by Turks and handed over to Greece in 1864, as a present of Queen Victoria to the newly elected King George I of Greece. Solomos is the Jew of the play, bearing traditional and nowadays not anymore acceptable anti-Semitic traits. Stavrakas is a typical tough guy who, despite his provocative behavior, is a coward, in reality fearful of any real adversary, and Morfonios, “the beauteous one”, an ironic indication for a short person with a huge nose and a great dependence on his mom.

An essential puppet theatre, albeit primarily intended to children, has been, from the 1930’s to the 1980’s, the so called “Barba Mytousis”. For once it was not folksy! On the contrary, puppet characters were the creatures of the demised Eleni Theohari – Perraki Company, a pioneering one in my country,  and became so popular that they were further propagated by the -then only state- Greek television. It was a modern and pedagogically informed look at the puppet theatre, incidentally with finger animated puppets, since it involved neither folk characters nor fairy tale narrations, but presented a caring and lovingly strict uncle – tutor  in his everyday life with his nephew and niece. The girl, meaningfully called Souvlitsa (implying sharp wits) was always good for some incorrect behavior or whim, while the more innocent boy bare the name of Klouvios, implying an “empty headed” child, often the innocent victim of Souvlitsa’ s schemes. Things almost always escalated between them until order and peace was finally restored by the intervening uncle who indicated the right and the wrong, but forgave benevolently.

Currently there are several puppet theatre companies in Greece trying to provide new incentives and directions to this performing art form, most of them still orientated to a mostly young public through well known fairy and mythological tales, some of them trying to acquire further assignments through their collaboration with non – governmental human rights entities[3].


 

[1]Presented during the 1st  Bialystok Puppet Theatre Festival (18-25.06.2015)

Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”.

        Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a  CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by  “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique www.critics-point.gr, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address www.criticscorner.gr .
As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory”  Society.
[2] See also http://museumvictoria.com.au/collections/themes/1565/greek-shadow-puppet-theatre-history
[3] There is a nice historical sum up of puppetry in Greece since  the days of antiquity as well as of currently active puppet theatre companies,  their identities and activities, unfortunately only in Greek, by the (northern Greece) Kilkis Puppet Theatre Festival, under the link http://www.kilkis-festival.gr/festival/pdf/KoukStinElladaSmall2.pdf . All photos kindly provided by the Bialystok Puppet Theatre Festival Press Office.