Introduction of Shadow Play KARAGOZ (2)

Virtually nothing is known of popular theater under the Anatolian Turks between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. The Byzantine Emperor Manual Palaeologos II records his impression of his visit to Sultan Beyazit’s court sometime before 1407 and mentions companies of musicians, singers, dancers and actors. A very early description of a Turkish dramatic performance may be found in the epic prose poem. The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, the eldest daughter of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus, who describes in the following words how the actors at the Seljuk court ridiculed her father who was suffering from gout: “Never before had the Emperor suffered so severely from that pain… and the Emperor’s suffering in his feet, and the trouble in his feet, become the subject of comedies. First they would impersonate the Emperor, then they would depict the Emperor himself lying on a couch, and make play of it. These puerile games aroused much laughter among the barbarians.”

Zenne (Woman)
Zenne (Woman)

The description gives an idea of some manifestations of the dramatic instinct of the Seljuk Turks in the twelfth century. Prior to ortaoyunu, which is the Turkish commedia dell’arte, traces of Turkish dramatic art could be founding farces, impromptu productions based on the humorous possibilities of rudimentary situations, characters and costumes. Animal mimicry played an important part in these productions, the deer being a principal character. There were also occasional farces performed in the streets, whenever there was an audience or onlookers ready to take part. These were often pre-arranged comic situations, worked out in front of shops and houses largely through improvisations with practical jokes inserted on the spur of the moment. Players, impersonating officials such as watch-men tax collectors and treasure hunters, teased shopkeepers with practical jokes to obtain money from them.

As time went on all these coarse and crude farces, whether Kol oyunu (company plays), or Meydan oyunu (plays in the round), or Taklit oyunu (mimicry plays), became associated with the Ortaoyunu. Before the influence of the European theater, a raised platform was never used as a stage by these performers. The dancing girls and boys were much like actors and actresses performing for the amusement of the onlookers. They came from different guilds and companies called kol or cemaat. Anyone who has ever seen the shadow play, Karagoz will have noted the similarity between its characters its comic elements, its atmosphere, and those of the Ortaoyunu.

The only difference is that one medium uses puppets and the other live actors. Under western influence, the rich tradition of Ortaoyunu later fell into decay and was eventually transformed into a different kind of improvised theater called Tuluat. Because of its from of expression and the special nature of its rapport with the audience, Ortaoyunu can be called presentational or non-illusionists. The actor does not lose his identity as an actor and shows his awareness of his to the audience. The audience does not regard him as pretending to be a real person but as an actor. The acting area is not separated from the audience, there is no line between them, and no transparent fourth wall. The play is performed with hardly any scenery at all in a circle where the audience surrounds the actors. The principal comic character occasionally violates the traditional dramatic conventions. Ortaoyunu performances (like the shadow theater and storytelling) have no plots in the Aristotelian sense. They have, to use the current terminology, “open from”. They are loose. Episodic structures which do not require the compulsive attention of the audiences. Each episode is independent; consequently, in different performances, the episodes can be interchanged, added to or subtracted from, according to the audience’s reactions or the puppeteer’s or actor’s decision, without upsetting the general course of the action. Surviving titles and scenario show resemblances and close parallels between Karagoz and Ortaoyunu plots.


The second from of the popular theater tradition is the dramatic story told by a single speaker called the Meddah (literally, praise-giver or panegyrist), a clever impersonator who “does many characters with appropriate gestures, voice modulations and accents.

The third from of the popular theater is puppetry, including both shadow puppet theater (Karagoz) which constitutes the subject of this present site, and puppet and marionette theater.

3.The Court Theatre Tradition

Unlike most Asiatic countries, Turkey has no individualized and distinctive court theater tradition. Until the Westernized period, court theater simply imitated popular theater. The customary entertainers attendant upon medieval rulers allover Anatolian had, of course been active. The courts were the patrons of companies, dancers, actors, storytellers, clowns, puppet masters and conjurers. They would perform only for the aristocracy of the palace, hence they were more refined and literary. But the court sustained theatrical entertainment outside the palace as well. The birth of a new or his circumcision, a court marriage, the accession of a new ruler, triumph in a war, departure for a new conquest, arrival of a welcome foreign ambassador or guest, provided occasions for public festivities sometimes lasting as long as forty days and night. These served the double purpose of amusing the courtiers and the people, and impressing the world at large by a display of magnificence. The festivities included not only processions, illuminations , fireworks, equestrian games and hunting, but also dancing, music, poetic recitations, and performances by jugglers, mountebanks and buffoons. Pageants were given on gaudy wagons or on ordinary carts fitted with large-canopied platforms, each carrying a guild group performing scenes appropriate touts trade or representing a characteristic setting. The artistic power of which the Turks gave proof on such occasions was attained only by means of that free intercourse between all classes that formed the basic of Turkish society. With the western influences at the beginning of 19th century, the Sultans started building theatres in their palaces. Sultan Abdulmecit built a theatre in the neighbourhood of the Dolmabahce Palace in 1858, and Abdulhamit built a theatre in 1889 in his Yildiz Palace. This latter building has survived. In these, theatrical and operatic performances were given, employing professional or amateur players. In 1909, Abdulhamit was dethroned and the palace theater was abandoned after only a few performance.

4.The Western Theater Tradition

The development of Turkish western tradition is fairly recent, and can be conveniently divided into three periods, which are phases not only determined by theatrical developments, but also by political and constitutional changes: (a) The first, from 1839 to 1908 can be called the Tanzimat and Istibdat Period, that is the “Reorganization”; (b) The second is from 1908 to 1923, the period of the revolution of 1908 and (c) The third is from 1923 to the present day and can be called the Republican period.

*Traditional Turkish Shadow Theatre, By Metin And


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