My late uncle Stathis was my first ever contact with Karagiozis. Possessed of a deep, rumbling voice, he would insert of all the great Greek shadow puppet play hero’s catchphrases in all of his sentences, whenever he would address us. Bringing the play beyond the screen and into the real world, he would call me “Hatzatzari”, Karagiozis’ favourite nickname for his best friend and chief tormentee, Hatziavatis. In the days before DVD’s, Youtube and mobile phones, he would travel to Greece, sit his vast video camera before a flickering TV set and record countless Karagiozis plays to bring back home to us. I was brought up on those barely audible, grainy recordings and even though he is long gone, whenever I think of Karagiozis or try to emulate his voice, which is quite often, since my uncle’s enthusiasm was inordinately infectious and hastened by conversion into a devotee of the art of Karagiozis, it is my uncle’s voice I hear, booming in my ear.
A couple of years ago, inspiring Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria (GOCMV) Greek-language schools educator Christina Soumi presented an inspired Karagiozis shadow puppet play to my daughter’s class entitled Karagiozis in Australia. Enthralled by her art and witnessing the delight of her students, many of whom were encountering my childhood friend for the very first time, I told her: “If ever you need a spare pair of hands, look no further. (Please, pretty please, not to appear needy, but please….)”
I had tried my hand at writing a few Karagiozis plays in my younger days. While studying Greek at university, I attempted a Brechtian meets Arthur Miller meets Camus existentialist-symbolist take on the genre involving Karagiozis exposing all of the internal contradictions of his paradigm, in turn causing the screen and the puppets to spontaneously combust during the performance. My lecturer at the time, the saintly Anna Chatzinicolaou, handed back the script with a pained smile. In answer to my question seeking her impressions, she muttered hesitantly, “Well it is what it is, isn’t it?” The script is now buried irrevocably within a mountain of other forgotten works, so deep as to never vex the genre ever again.
It is for this reason that I rejoiced rather volubly when I received earlier this year, an email request from Christina Soumi for assistance in putting on a Karagiozis play for the students of the GOCMV’s Saturday Greek school. Having been put through the trials of COVID and been denied the annual and now defunct march to the Shrine, it was felt by Ms Soumi and Maria Bakalidou, the principal of the school, that the children deserve something original but spectacular in order to make their Greek national day celebration memorable. A Karagiozis play set in the Revolution would not only introduce this staple of Greek tradition to a new generation but also with any luck, provide a conduit through which concepts such as freedom, human rights and equality could be interrogated and negotiated. I accepted with alacrity, hoping that the intensity of my fervour could not be felt through my nonchalant email response: “Yeah, happy to help.”
There is a stock scenario involving Karagiozis in the Greek Revolution which is used by schools in Greece and my first suggestion was to reject it utterly. It is preachy. More importantly, it is not funny. It departs from the formulaic order of all Karagiozis plays which gives them structure and lends themselves to the most important attribute of the character himself: his innate ability to subvert the narrative and to expose the flaws within it. It is for this reason that Karagiozis is a perennial and ideal means of satire, for any period. I sought and was granted leave to write my own version.
Immediately, I was faced with a dilemma. What should the standard of the language be? I was writing for children aged between 4-16, a vast range, even if they all have a good knowledge of Greek. Our team, consisting of Ms Bakalidou, educators Ms Soumi and Ms Petala, drama co-ordinator Katerina Poutachidou and parent, friend and fellow Karagiozis devotee Evan Stamatiou spend a good deal of time discussing the pedagogical benefits of employing various forms of vocabulary, over and above what the children may be used to. For example, the iconic Barba Yiorgos character, being of rural origin, now and then drops idiomatic expressions from my own ancestral village while Karagiozis engages in a good deal of wordplay.
All these elements were deconstructed by the teachers. They debated the extent and necessity of slapstick within the text. They analysed the suitability of the jokes from a linguistic, socio-cultural and psychological point of view. At all times, they were sensitive to the necessity of presenting a work that instilled in the children pride in their origins, without this translating into racial bias against an erstwhile foe. For me, to witness the immense amount of care taken to hone a production that would be deemed suitable for the students was an intensely humbling experience. It was evident from the outset these superb educators treat their jobs not as mere toil but rather, as a mission, and their love for the children in their care shone in every single word spoken in reference to the play.
Having agreed upon the play’s final form, it was time to get to work. Dividing the characters between us, it was resolved that the versatile talented polyglot Evan Stamatiou would voice Hatziavatis, Kollitiri, Omorfonios, Philike Etaireia members Panagiotis Sekeris, Dimitrios Ypsilantis, Nikolaos Skoufas, Athanasios Tsakaloff, Bouboulina, Papaflessas, Kolokotronis and Karagiozis’ vengeful wife Agalaia, while I would play Karagiozis, Stavrakas, Emmanouil Xanthos, Dervenagas, Manto Mavrogenous, and Bishop of Old Patras, Germanos. Whilst meeting to coordinate voices and the timing of delivery, to the delight of our children who have now learned most of the lines by heart through osmosis, I also set about creating the shadow puppets, a painstaking and intricate process that saw me drawing on the features of Kolokotronis while participating in a Professional Development online seminar. All of the puppets are studded with the thumbprints of my children, as they have claimed them for their own and go about the house performing their own plays, as I run after them, for I harbour misgivings about the fastness of the colours I have used.
By Saturday last, when the indefatigable Evangelos Karakasis brought into the mezzanine floor of the Greek Centre the largest and most cunningly fashioned Karagiozis theatre screen ever created in the Southern Hemisphere, we were ready. From behind the screen, Evan Stamatiou and I, along with Ms Petala and drama teacher Jeremy Artis who were enlisted to assist with the puppeteering could hear the excited voices of the children as they walked in, perused the stage settings and sat down expectantly. All of a sudden, I received an attack of nervousness. At that moment, Dr George Athanasopoulos, who when he is not being an Associate Professor in the Department of Econometrics and Business Statistics at Monash University, is a talented musician, staple of the Melbournian rebetiko scene and a parent at the school, and his son Theodoros, began to play the traditional opening song of every Karagiozis production: The Hasaposerviko of Karagiozi. I picked up my puppet and began to play.
Over the next 45 or so minutes, the laughter of the children acted as our gauge and we played to their twittering accordingly. In seeking to provide a truly Greek Karagiozis experience, the teachers had provided each child with an υποβρύχιο dessert, vanilla submerged in water and they were thus fed and happy. As we ended the production on a feminist tone, with Karagiozis’ wife providing him with a new understanding of the word freedom, the cheers and laughter of the children moved us profoundly. We answered questions about the characters, the puppets and watched in awe as the teachers moved the children behind the screen, encouraging them to pick up the puppets and try to bring them to life in awe.
In producing the play, we were aware that we were walking in the footsteps of giants such as Dimitris Katsoulis, whose Karagiozis puppets are housed by the Victorian Immigration Museum and whose efforts to translate Karagiozis to an Australian environment must be studied and never forgotten. We were also conscious that the sympraxis between the GOCMV educators who conceived of the project and oversaw the minutiae of its execution, the parents such as ourselves, who can variously write, perform, or play music and talented students forms a blueprint for grass-roots, organic, substantive collaboration within our broader community. It encapsulates just how the GOCMV is able to marshal resources and bring people together.
Ours is a diverse community in which a vast array of interests are represented. In any given week, a large number of events will be held with a social, folkloric or administrative focus. Few of those events will centre upon the most important members of our community: our children. Ours was an event that was not advertised. No dignitaries were invited. There was no opportunity for photographs or speeches. No money was sought from anyone. No one received any praise or glory. Its sole aim was to entertain, delight and teach children, their receptiveness and appreciation being its own incalculable reward. And as the children walked back to their classrooms, yelling «Ε ρε γλέντια» exuberantly, I realised that this was the most fulfilling event within the Greek community, I had ever participated in.