The recent death of Evgenios Spatharis, a master of Greece’s shadow theater named after its anti-hero Karaghioz, marks the end of a long cultural tradition. Spatharis was himself the son of a legendary karaghioz-player, Sotiris Spatharis, and, in his lifetime saw his loudmouthed, avaricious everyman move from the central stage of popular culture to a museum piece. Where once whole neighborhoods or villages would gather in a central square or vacant lot, the children seated on the dirt in front of the portable stage made up of light, painted wood and a sheet, Spatharis in his later years entertained societies that invited him to perform and he produced television shows. He also devoted himself to a museum on the shadow theater that he set up in the suburb of Maroussi.
Spatharis was not the last of the karaghioz-players as there are still some old hands putting on shows and some younger players have tried their hand at the art. But he was certainly the best known of the generation which had tried to survive the transition from the cultural mainstream to being a relic of a bygone era.
Spatharis himself had no illusions about his audience. “People who have not been barefoot and hungry cannot play Karaghioz and they can’t understand him,” he told me in an interview in 1991. We spoke as he was preparing his small stage for an afternoon performance for a women’s society in Kefalari’s plush Pentelikon Hotel. Spatharis was neither surprised nor bitter at his profession’s decline, he just noted that times had changed. And he changed with them.
Before the spread of cinemas, and the golden age of Greek popular movies in the 1960s, karaghioz players and, on the odd occasion, traveling theater troupes provided the only theater that most Greeks would ever see. The player would stand behind the white sheet with a bright lamp, maneuvering a cast of up to 10 characters as the handmade figures cut out of transparent, painted leather appeared in full color on the sheet. The player would put on all the distinctive voices of the stock characters himself while having them speak and fight, run and jump – all at the end of the sticks that he held – as the story progressed. Karaghioz, the protagonist of just about every scene, was easily distinguished by his humped back and a very long arm, which he would use in his tireless efforts to steal or beat up others. Invariably he would get his ass kicked for overreaching. (It says something about the Greek character that its popular hero would be a small-time conniver who received lusty beatings from his enemies – Greeks and Turks – before being bailed out by someone else). The catharsis in these playlets was not the result of fear and pity that one encounters in the ancient Greek tragedies, it was more the result of a good laugh at the expense of a likeable and indestructible rascal.
The plays would be rough-and-tumble affairs set around a classic theme such as Karaghioz’s attempt to steal something, to hide from someone, to seduce the Turkish grandee’s daughter. There were also grand “historical” tales, such as “Alexander the Great’s defeat of the damned serpent” and patriotic episodes from the war of liberation against the Ottoman Turks.
“The karaghioz player would always have his ear pricked to hear the audience’s reactions, and he would improvise accordingly,” Spatharis explained. The player was in intimate contact with his audience, and would milk a situation for laughs or pathos accordingly. In the same way, the karaghioz players moved with their times. One successful play, at the time of the Apollo lunar landings, concerned Karaghioz’s trip to the moon. When they lost their monopoly to movies and could not get crowds to attend performances in empty lots, they turned to radio, to vinyl records and, when the time came, to television. But, as Spatharis noted, the rise in living standards and the plethora of other means of entertainment had made karaghioz something of a curiosity.
Today, fewer and fewer people remember karaghioz performances in the open. Schoolchildren might still be treated to the occasional karaghioz performance by well-meaning adults, and they might even be entertained – but they are far more comfortable with the Mario Brothers of Nintendo fame. This does not mean that modern popular culture is to blame for the demise of the shadow theater, because karaghioz was the very personification of popular culture. It is more a reflection on the way that Greece has changed and on the fact that much that gave our nation its particular color is being lost. Karaghioz came to us via Turkey during the Ottoman occupation, his roots lost in the mist of time in the shadow theater of the Far East. It is tragic that we should attend the funeral of a hero who was born centuries – if not millennia – before us but whose death we were all witness to. Unless… Unless the Internet and video games inspire some young Greeks to grab the hand at the end of Karaghioz’s long arm and make the leap into the present. And, from there, into the future…
Milestones&Footnotes comment in Athens Plus, 22 May 2009