shadow play

The Ottoman Shadow Theatre “Hacivat Karagöz”

Karagöz, the Turkish shadow theatre, was the most popular form of entertainment in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. It pleased all social classes, the “High Society” laughed about it at the Sultans Court as well as the simple people in the coffee houses of the cities. Shadow theatre performances were also booked at private family celebrations, and the Ottomans often staged Karagöz performances during Ramadan, the month of fasting, when they met for dinner after sunset.

The performance, the shadow player and his characters

The stage and scenery required for the shadow theatre consisted of a wooden frame construction. The player hidden behind it acted – invisible to the audience – with the shadow theatre figures in front of a stage window, which was covered with a light transparent fabric.

The figures were flat silhouettes of thin, transparently shaved and colorfully dyed leather, often camel skin. Their size varied between 10 and 40 cm. They were open worked, so that light and shadow changes gave them details, e.g. expressive eyes.
Behind the canvas illuminated by candles or lamps the figures moved as coloured shadows. Since the individual parts of the dolls, such as the limbs, were connected by strings at the joints, but also at the head and waist, the figures were able to perform abruptly comical movements and funny contortions. The puppeteer controlled them with the help of sticks to which they were attached. With great dexterity he conducted up to three figures and imitated the different voices.

The characters

The shadow theatre was by no means a superficial amusement, but a profound comedy with sometimes satirical and farcical traits. One of the two main actors was Karagöz (Black Eye), an uneducated farmer often portrayed as a gypsy. Despite his laziness and coarseness, his funny cunning and cheekiness made him a sympathetic joker and the audience’s darling. He was the identification figure of the people par excellence.

The opponent of Karagöz and the second protagonist in the game was his snooty neighbour Hacivat. Sensitive and educated, the polite Biedermann embodied on the one hand “political correctness”, on the other hand he – typically double standards – sought his personal advantage selfishly.
Additionally, there were other prototypical characters who caricatured the figures from everyday Ottoman life. A total of 50-60 character types were known. These came from different social strata and ethnic groups. One met the poor drunkard Matiz as well as the rich womanizer Çelebi. Women who appeared as talkative and unfaithful wives or daughters as well as refined courtesans were also preferred to be satirized. The same happened to foreign minorities, the Persians, Greeks, Arabs and Jews. The appearance of all these characters during the game was announced with a kind of musical leitmotif, a certain melody.

The plot of shadow theatre

Each shadow play consisted of the following parts: Foreword, dialogue or main action and closing remarks. The performance began with the preface, in which Hacivat recited a song and a poem. With these he taught the audience about the vanity of the world and the transience of human life, which would be just as void and apparent as the illusion theatre itself. Praises of God and blessings for the Sultan and the audience followed, as well as the reference to the legendary founder of the theatre, Sheikh Kuşteri. Hacivat’s preface ended with the desire for a cultivated interlocutor, whereupon Karagöz appeared, who immediately provoked a brawl.

In the dialogue that followed, the actual plot developed in several short scenes. It could be of different themes. Some of the 30-40 Karagöz pieces in total were dedicated to everyday worries and problems, others to legendary and fairytale-like contents. Mostly the protagonist Karagöz hatched plans to get money somehow or took over a task for which he was completely unsuitable. This resulted in all sorts of difficulties and entanglements. With his jokes and deceptions he caused all sorts of harm, while he tried to gain advantages in a nasty way. But in the end Karagöz was always himself the bounced and deceived and his neighbour Hacivar had to free him from the mess. Nonetheless, the little man of the people continued to argue unabashedly with the over-candidate Hacivat, making impudent and witty speeches, and permanently slapping his face.
The comedy of the game resulted from the ambiguous puns and the misunderstandings.
between the actors. Because Hacivat expressed himself in a distinguished and chosen manner, his language being interspersed with incomprehensible foreign words, Karagöz cultivated a crude, crude jargon. Thus the two constantly clashed and the disputes regularly ended in brawls. The satirical game, however, did not only want to entertain, but also to criticize the existing circumstances, to denounce social and political grievances, e.g. buying a bride, serving at the front or lending money. Karagöz represented the small man of the people who was dissatisfied with his circumstances.
In the concluding remarks, the antipodes met again. Karagöz spoke the closing formula in which he apologized for his scurrilousness and verbal missteps. At the same time he threatened his neighbour with another beating, and the audience was already looking forward to a continuation of the game.