Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be – 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say…
This book could obliquely be summarised as shifting sands. It’s pushed in one direction at the same time being pulled back from another perspective and like a whirly-whirly you may have to fall out of its thrall to see what’s going on.
It begins with the main protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, and follows his stream of consciousness until he takes us back to WWII for a brief glimpse of the Middle East before ditching us into the mire of Siam. Here we spend a day with the Australian POWs toiling on Japan’s infamous human rights atrocity, the Siam to Burma railroad – the Death Railroad.
With his beautifully poignant prose, Flanagan talks to us about human relationships – courage, stamina, small mindedness, cruelty, camaraderie, and the interrelatedness of personal plights and emotional/spiritual ones. Here the book loses its single protagonist and enfolds an ensemble of characters into its purview. This is where Flanagan excels. This is what I was expecting from him – catharsis – an overwhelming cleansing with pure admiration for the moral victory rising from enduring excruciating pain, outrage and achieving survival.
The book is written in several sections – this one can stand alone. It brings to mind Homer’s Illiad.
Both books describe episodes in wartime, including personal ones. Here each member of the POW community is placed within the framework of who they were before the war and how they relate to their fellow soldiers and antagonist in their harrowing present. Absent is a sense of God’s presence. The pagan gods of Olympus are part of the fabric of the War for Homer – whereas for Flanagan, if God exists he has forsaken the POWs. Flanagan’s heroes have only a community that has been thrust upon them by the commonality of being POWs together.
But the story doesn’t stop here. Rising above the muck of humanity is a story, or trope if you like, he has often told – one of pain, fatality, emotional distance and ultimately the redemptive power of love. He continues the stories of the soldiers he has introduced us to in the POW camp – both the Japanese persecutors and the Australian survivors.
Having experienced the indifference, the superiority and the cruelty of the Japanese officers, as a reader we expect some sort of karmic release after the war. We don’t get one. This book is not about salving the atrocities of war – it iterates the waste, the pointlessness of war and to a slightly limited degree human existence.
A downer? Yes and no. No, in that Flanagan doesn’t say that life has no value. He is saying that love – the right kind of romantic/eros love – the type we stake our hopes upon for a happily ever after – not only gives life value but it can heal and uplift the soul.
Contradictorily, there is no happily ever after in this book: although for a brief moment on the Sydney Harbour Bridge we are teased with its possibility. Dorrigo Evans, the serial cheat doesn’t get a happy ending. It’s perhaps the morally correct ending he deserves – if you believe his fiancé didn’t realise she was lying when she reported to him the death of his lover, Amy. If you believe his fiancé lied, then perhaps she too deserved the life he gave her. Their marriage was for Dorrigo more soul destroying than his experiences in the prison camp – for there his memories and thoughts of Amy sustained him.
In the denouement, if we are looking for justice and retribution via karma, we don’t get it. What we see in Nakamura, the cruel war criminal, is the redemptive power of love and family. Over time, Nakamura realises the love of the woman he chose to marry. He becomes a gentle, moral man who no one, not even himself, can reconcile with the monster he was during the war. He goes on to live a full life surrounded by family, warmth and respect – a better life than the majority of the returning Australian POWs.
Having travelled life’s path with Dorrigo can we say whether he is a good man? He was a war hero. He risked his life for his family, despite being emotionally absent and transferring to them a pattern of broken expectations to live by. He lived by the social expectations of the times – had he flouted social expectations and conventions and not married Ella and not committed his flagrant infidelities would he have been a good man?
More to the point, could he have been a good man had he married the right woman? Flanagan drives this point almost all the way home. But do we believe him? Without a Happily-Ever-After for the main character, how can a message about the redemptive power of love between man and a woman be plausible?
Perhaps Mr Flanagan needed to read a romance or two.
For a further discussion about the romance/love story elements of this book:
Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be- 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say. Is it 5 stars for me? It’s ambitious and critically acclaimed, but it’s not what I expected from Flanagan and it was jarring. I had to put myself in the mindset that this is high literature and there is a method in the jarring, Brechtian approach of Flanagan’s romance. Yes, romance, but not as a romance reader would recognise.
Part of my problem sprang from the fact that I had gone on a 2 year romance reading binge before I picked it up. This book I had squirreled away for a perfect time to be swept away in torrents of pathos and catharsis like I had with The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Gould’s Book of Fish. I expected this book to weigh me down with the inadequacies of its flawed characters and then raise me up with the beauty of their unexpected forgiveness and belated understanding – or mine of the characters I had judged and exiled from the shelter of my sympathies. I expected to shed tears and have my faith reaffirmed in the power of love gently simmering away under the surface of emotional indolence.
What I didn’t expect was a romantic love story – not in any major contribution to the narrative, anyway.
I did not expect the most beautiful prose around that very special moment when love strikes that sweeps away history-yet-to-be-written and affects multiple lives around it. And then I read a bookshop in Adeliade. From hence forward I shall always equate dust motes with champagne, white tablecloths and roses as accoutrements of Romance. Having spent two years binge reading romance novels – contemporary, historic, rom-com, erotic and written over the span of the last 40 years (back to Johanna Lindsay, Judith Mc Naught, Shirley Busbee, Kathleen E Woodiwiss and through the 90s, 00s, 10s to the present) not once was there a moment in any of them like the one in the book shop when Dorrigo Evans first encounters Amy. The only other moment in literature I can compare it to is the one at the ball when Vronsky first sees Anna inAnna Karenina. (Of course you can binge read romance forever without being able to say you’ve covered it. That moment has to be somewhere but I’ve missed it, or perhaps it wasn’t presented as lyrically for it to have stayed with me.)
Dorrigo’s bookshop encounter is based on a belief in being struck by a love that is not based on physical beauty, nor wit, nor logic, nor any other trope you may read in romance, but on a charisma all of its own – its own entity, energy, power. A chemistry that is built up to, or explained away often in romance novels but rarely, it seems, exists in of itself – the chemistry separate to the psychology.
Flanagan and Tolstoy have different motives with their books. Tolstoy explores love between a man and a woman through various relationships. He demonstrates that a good relationship is a healthy relationship, sanctioned by society, where the individuals become more productive and can contribute more to society by their happy union. He asks the question can romantic love or marital love fulfil an individual’s purpose and his responsibilities to society? When the relationship is based on infatuation and the headiness of erotic love that does not transform and lift the characters to better fulfil their duty to the community – and in Tolstoy’s example – allow them to achieve meaning, as is the case with Anna’s expectations, tragedy ensues.
Knowing from the get-go that the relationship between Dorrigo and Amy is not sanctioned by society and that it is one of cheating a man who has been her harbour and his uncle, bodes ill especially when you consider that this is a historical fiction. I couldn’t help thinking of Tolstoy’s book. Flanagan doesn’t ask can erotic love alone fulfil the human condition as does Tolstoy’s. He asks repeatedly what makes a man good. What does a man need to make him good? The love of a woman, whose man is in the throes of this charisma-entity that we call love?
But this is not a Romance. Certainly not one as defined by romance critic, Jen Prokop from JenReadsRomance, nor romance writer Sarah Maclean, both of the Fated Mated podcast, on their episode, What Makes A Romance Novel a Romance Novel. In this episode I think it’s Jen who says something along the lines that the reader is left with the belief that the couple are better together than they are apart. As Dorrigo’s life plays out we are left with the conviction that had he believed Amy had survived the blast in the hotel, that he wouldn’t have married Ella and that he would have been the good man – the good husband- the good father and not believed himself a fake – the shell of a good man in the shape of a war hero.
Flanagan doesn’t allow us the comfortable ride of romance with an assured Happily Ever After. In fact he chops up the retelling of the relationship between Dorrigo and Amy in real time with future scenes from Dorrigo’s experiences in the Japanese POW camp as they build the Death Railway – a salute to Brecht – if you want to learn something from a story don’t get too emotionally involved in the storyline – alienation effect. My problem is that it’s written so beautifully, it’s hard to disentangle myself from their beautifully doomed affair. It’s an extramarital affair for Amy and that goes against my expectations for romance and makes for a harder read especially when so many romance triggers have been set off. Cutting to the prison camp and then back again heightens the jarring rhythm.
There is another part to this book that is gratifying as expected and that is the day spent with the Australian diggers in the prison camp. The themes of what makes a good man and can the love between a man and his wife transform him, continue in the years after the war is over. These will be covered in Part 2 of this review:
Interview with Eileen Stephensen, author of Imperial Passions:Porta Aurea
Imperial Passions: Porta Aurea will be a Featured Deal on BookBub from Thurs 8th April, 2021
Imperial Passions: Porta Aurea is a wonderful historical fiction resurrecting the life of a powerful woman –matriarch – empress – of 11th Century Byzantium, Anna Dalassena. The novel accomplishes the seeming impossible – making a society with foreign and incomprehensible mechanisms that have been long deposed – accessible and engaging on a personal level.
Delivering a novel with panache and no apologies, author Eileen Stephensen, has drawn on her own in-depth research utilising contemporary and early voices to portray an 11th century woman’s perspective on pre-crusader Byzantium. And this 1000 years later when the voices most often heard on the subject remain male about males.
I’m thrilled that author, Eileen Stephensen has allowed me to interview her for Craftytheatre.
Your bio on Goodreads tells us you have attained a couple of degrees, neither of which involve Byzantium, what were they? Why Byzantium?
My undergraduate degree was in Asian studies. I lived in Taiwan for six months in my Junior year and was briefly fluent in Chinese. However, the opportunities to make a living with that degree were limited so I went to graduate school for an MBA in finance.
I had -0- interest in Byzantine history until about fifteen years ago when I happened upon an audio version John Julius Norwich’s book, “A Short History of Byzantium”. I borrowed audio books from the library all the time because of my long commute; on one visit nothing else appealed to me, so I picked up A Short History thinking it might possibly be interesting. That little book changed my life.
I have always enjoyed history and historical fiction, and I like my history to be old – the US Civil War is far too recent for my taste. Byzantine history is old, but the civilization was highly literate and many of their books, letters, and other writings have survived to give us a good understanding of them. Many other civilizations left too faint a trace, either because they were not literate, or because of the destructive traumas of history such as war, famines, epidemics, or geological destruction.
Why Anna Dalassena? Why not Theodora, Antonina, Irene, Zoe or Anna Comnena?
There are so many reasons to find Anna Dalassena’s story compelling. First, no one had ever written about her aside from a few historians, so I had a clean slate. Second, I was intrigued by the fact that any woman in the 11th century would have engineered her son’s seizing the throne and then that he gave her the same authority he had himself. Very few medieval women had that kind of drive and agency in their world. Third, there was a lot of information about her available, more than there is about many other Byzantine women, enabling me to have a pretty good idea about her life. Fourth, you can’t tell the story of Alexios Comnenus without starting with his mother, and I do plan to tell his story too!
Theodora and Antonina, Irene, Zoe and even Anna Comnena are all worthy subjects. In fact, one of the short stories in my book, Tales of Byzantium, is about Anna Comnena. But one day I was surfing the net, reading up on various Byzantines and I came across a long article about her. I finished the article and I felt like someone tapped me on the shoulder and said “This is who you need to write about.”
Byzantine scholarship and fandom is dominated by male voices – we need a stethoscope to hear a female one- did you face any obstacles in writing and publishing this book?
Unfortunately, Byzantine books in general do not get a wide readership. If the Byzantines are in a novel, it’s generally involving the Crusades and the Byzantines are sneaky cardboard characters. I did pitch my novel to a few publishing agents but was flat out told they aren’t interested in Byzantine historical fiction. My sense is that the few Byzantine centered novels that were traditionally published in the last 20 years did not sell well. Fortunately, we are in a golden age for independent publishing and so that’s what I did.
I was also faced with the fact that the people most interested in Byzantine history are usually male and most men aren’t that interested in stories that start with a teenaged girl. A couple of ways I tried to compensate for that was with my cover that includes an image of the hippodrome in Constantinople, and with a title that I thought might appeal to both men and women. So far I think about half my reviews are from men and half from women.
A lot of Byzantine history was whitewashed as it was occurring; much has been lost to time; a substantial is obscured by language, how difficult was it to come by sources and histories in English?
I’ve been so fortunate in the diligent efforts of historians over the past 30 years who have translated many of the primary sources I used. For the years covering Anna’s life I have three historians I can refer to – Michael Attaleiates, Michael Psellus, and John Skylitzes. They each have their own point of view and so the whitewash one painted on, comes off with another writer.
Also, today we have many historians studying and writing about Byzantine history. They do remarkably impressive work that I cannot speak highly enough about.
Anna is a teenager when the novel opens, did you ever conceive it as a YA novel?
No, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with starting her story as a teenager, but I felt I needed to so as to paint a complete picture. Plus there were too many interesting figures in her younger years that I didn’t want to lose the chance to include them (Harald Hardrada, for example!). The Germans have a term that might apply with this first novel – bildungsroman: a novel dealing with a person’s formative years.
Anna’s lifetime saw a progress of Emperors and Empresses on the throne, did you think that you would be writing a saga when you began? How many novels will it take to tell the tale?
When I started I thought it would be all one book, but a writer I know looked at my material and advised me to make it at least two books. I am finishing up the next novel about Anna’s life that will take her to 1081 when her son Alexios takes the throne. It should be ready later this year. After that, I plan to write about Alexios over several novels, but Anna, while present, will not be the point of view character then; Alexios will.
In the Porta Aurea you gloss over the minutiae of the political mechanism, will the sequel, Imperial Passions: The Great Palace, bring us closer to the intrigue?
I do try to include as much as I can about the political environment, but that is difficult. Even in our own day, political machinations are largely behind the scenes, so I can’t expect the Byzantines to be any more forthright in what they wrote. Also, the titles and styles of government are, so far as I can tell, so different from our own that I’m afraid most readers would be so confused they would stop reading. So I’ll do my best. Let me know what you think!
Anna is a very sympathetic character in your interpretation- she could easily have gone the other way, how important is it to the story that she is likeable?
I made Anna a sympathetic character because that’s how I found her, but I could definitely see other people having a different opinion. I know her daughter-in-law, Irene Ducaena, definitely did not like her! Margaret Beaufort, mother of the English king Henry VII Tudor, had some similarities to Anna and there are mixed opinions about her. Reading the sources about Anna Dalassena, though, really made me admire her strength and the large but quiet impact she made on history.
Constantine Doukas – Dick Dastardly by necessity for an interesting plot, or was he darker than just an inept emperor in reality?
One item that kept coming up over and over when I was reading Anna’s history was her ardent hatred of Constantine Doukas. It seemed to me that a hatred that deep that it was remarked on a thousand years later could not just have been about politics. It had to be more visceral. Then I happened upon a little note that said Doukas’s first wife was a Dalassena, and so a relation of Anna’s. I have no idea what Doukas’s marriage to this woman was like, but as a writer I saw something that would explain the depths of Anna’s hatred and took it.
There were a number of inept/bad emperors during Anna’s life, and Doukas was not the worst of them, but he’s definitely in that category!
Do you have a favourite character other than Anna?
It would have to be Eudokia Makrembolitissa, Constantine Doukas’s second wife. There’s nothing in the historical record about her being friends with Anna, but it seemed at least a possibility and it worked well for telling the events of this period. She has an even greater role in the next novel.
When can we expect Imperial Passions: The Great Palace?
I hope to have it out by the fall, if not sooner.
Where can we purchase your novels, short stories and histories?
Imperial Passions: The Porta Aurea, is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple Books, etc.
Tales of Byzantium and Byzantine History in the 11th Century are only available from Amazon.
“Sailors have told me of the two currents that run through the Bosphorus. One is the surface current of murky blue water; the other is the deeper, hidden river that can drag a ship in the opposite direction, sometimes into the deep. My life has been like that of a ship sailing that treacherous way- living the quiet life of a Roman woman, and yet with invisible streams pilling me into an altogether different place…” Anna Dalassena
Eileen Stephenson’sImperial Passions: Porta Aureais a very special book – unique even- in that it’s a historical fiction set in Medieval Byzantium that chronicles the life of an extraordinary woman, a powerful political figure, a wife, mother, granddaughter and orphan, and is told by a woman.
Byzantine fiction doesn’t feature prominently in ranges of historical fiction. It’s almost the forgotten history of Europe. It gets trundled out as an afterthought to the retelling of the Crusades or as a footnote to the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire. Its obscurity to the general reading public have made it a rich treasure trove of colour, politics, medieval weaponry and war tactics for fantasy novelists to explore – just ask George R .R. Martin.
Writers who come to it are almost invariably male and tell its history from a male perspective – i.e., wars, thrones, battles, insurgency and religious upheavals. Men writing about men with women crossing t’s on marriage contracts. However, Byzantium had quite a few powerful women – wives of caesars and mothers of emperors and a few others who lived amazing lives that re-charted history.
Anna Dalassena (c1020 – c1102 CE) was one of these women. Made Augusta (Empress) by her son, Alexius Comnenus, she ruled the Empire in his stead when he was on campaign. It was not a role she was born to but one that she rose to and some may say orchestrated for herself. This history is a personal one – passing through the gynaecium (women’s quarters) and the insular concerns of a young Byzantine girl as she matures.
Eileen Stephenson’s retelling of her life begins with Anna the orphaned teenager from a powerful military family, hoping for marriage so she can take her place in society. Instead, she flees the capital with her family to endure exile as her their favour is lost and re-established in the royal court.
We see Anna being groomed to the role of household matriarch by her grandmother. She has to overcome prejudices of servants as she grows into her responsibilities and learn the family trade at the docks. We see her fall in love and navigate the dictates of decorum in her courtship with John Comnenus, procuring the approval of both families, as well as enduring delays caused by political intrigues. We see the plight she has avoided by marrying a good man when we witness, through her eyes, the beating and mistreatment of her cousin at the hands of the future emperor, Constantine Doukas.
The colourful mosaic that was Byzantium (Constantinople) is brought to life through Anna’s everyday dealings– its monasteries, court intrigues, riots, exorbitant taxes and family alliances. We travel its market streets on litters and experience the important world of the docks in her activities warehousing goods for trade. We are treated to cameos of famous personalities of her era e.g., Harold Hardrada, Empress Zoe, the future Empress Evdokia, the future Emperor Romanus Diogenes. In the case of Evdokia – she is written in as a personal friend and Romanus as a family member. Attention is paid to infusing the story with the culturally important religious dictates that shaped the calendar year for this highly religious society.
What’s engagingly lovely about this story is that it’s a woman’s tale. We see and understand as much political intrigue a noblewoman of her day would have been privy to while living through its consequences on the ground. We live in the microcosm of a woman’s life. We mature with her and at the end of the novel are left behind with her as a waiting woman to the new Empress when her brother-in-law takes the throne. The ending is just the beginning of the story and the world building is so complete that it is hard to leave it after the final page has been turned.
This story has a lot of characters with long and unusual names and, being historical fiction, the same name is often repeated. A list of the main characters is given as well as a glossary of nouns and a map of Constantinople to help orientate the reader. Regardless, I can’t help wanting genealogical trees – with so many names and unusual ones they would help as a reminder of relationships.
Eileen Stephenson well deserves the accolades she has accrues for Imperial Passions: Porta Aurea. (1) This is a well written book, clear and direct in its delivery– it’s the start of a saga. If it begins with a bit of a YA feel, it grows beyond it with its main character as she matures. Anna Dalassena is portrayed as a keen observer of her day. By including Constantine Doukas and Evdokia Makrembolitissa, Eileen Stephenson is teasing us with what is to come. Will his reign be covered in the next book or will it be in a future one? Anna Dalassena was a witness to many changes on the Imperial throne. Will Romanus Diogenes take the narrative to the fateful Battle of Manzikert and beyond? With the sequel coming out later this year it will be interesting to see Anna in a more pro-active role as the saga continues.
IndieBRAG medallion; Discovered Diamond; Historical Novel Society-Editor’s Choice Award; Semi-finalist – Chanticleer Book Reviews Chaucer Award for Pre-1750 Literature
I’m really excited to have been interviewed by Liz Hale of the Antipodean Odyssey about Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing. The Antipodean Odyssey is a blog about the way classical myths are used today in children’s literature. Classical myths are still doing their job, entertaining, amusing, inspiring and educating us and our children. Pop over to read the rest of this interview. Take your time and peruse what’s on offer – graphic novels, kid’s novels, Disney…
I think puppetry is the most exciting way to interpret and present mythology and fairy tales. There is inherent magic in the way mythology can teach …
Hello, hello, it’s been a little while since I’ve posted. What can I say? Life can make a nuisance of itself, getting in the way of cyber reality.
So, I didn’t totally shut up in the time I’ve been missing. I have written a guest blog post over at the Ergastirio Skiwn Kouzaros website which has been posted in both Greek and English about how wonderful Karagiozis is as a tool to teach Greek language and culture. You can pop over and have a read at:
Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing is available to watch on the Ergastirio’s YouTube channel. The performance is in Greek, retaining the nuances of each character, and carries English subtitles underlining the movement of the plot.
The wonderful performance of the play begins after my short introduction.
Characters from Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing in different stages of production
Try maintaining your culture in a country thousands of kilometres away from where it is lived and breathed, and continues to evolve comfortable that its growth can never splinter away from its ethnicity, its identity. It’s almost impossible to do without maintaining its language. Culture needs language to survive.
Language is more powerful when understood beyond the surface of daily greetings and simple commercial exchanges. Language provides the subtext of our beliefs. Let me explain.
The simpler a word or phrase is, the more often it is used gives away how ingrained it is in a person’s culture. If you take that word or phrase out of context of the culture in which it is used and try and use it within the context of another language/culture it might not work. For the culture in which it developed organically its meaning is clear and heartfelt, for the culture into which it is translated it can be a tricky negotiation for a mere temporal understanding.
For example, A Greek man in love may call the object of his ardour <<matia mou>> literally translated, “My eyes.” In English if you are called someone’s eyes, then the inference is that what you see you will report back to the person calling you their eyes. It would be a phrase more suited to a detective novel.
To translate the underlying meaning of <<matia mou>> as “my love,” doesn’t really cut it. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then, ”my eyes” has a deeper meaning than the hackneyed, “my love”- more like your eyes are the window to my soul, as we are one.
Context plays a role.
In English the word ‘privacy’ has a lot of subtle inferences with its meaning. Finding a single word in Greek to span those subtleties is difficult. Is it because privacy as a concept is more highly valued by cultures circumscribed by the English language? If you don’t mind going down a rabbit hole (if you are a native English speaker) or getting lost in a labyrinth (if you’re Greek) look at the ancient roots of the word ‘idiot’ and its connection to being a ‘private person’ you may find a culture that didn’t value privacy – or understand it.
By the presence or absence of a single word for a concept, belief or feeling within a language, it’s easy to infer that the society using that language have not recognised that the concept exists within their midst e.g., In Shakespeare’s day racism as a recognised entity may not have been discussed but its effects were definitely described by him. What we can infer is that racism as an idea, behaviour or entity, wasn’t given the weight it is today. Once there was a word coined for racism, it could then be discussed and tackled as a “thing”.
Language broadens our ability to think – to understand difficult concepts and enlarge upon them. Without a sophisticated language, philosophies cannot be built and argued, hypotheses and theories cannot be developed and our minds and collective consciousness would wither in entropy.
The more language and languages you know, the broader is your understanding not only of the communities around you, but life, philosophy and physics.
And the moral of this story is – learn another language or get a deeper understanding of your own.
In putting together the stream of Meet The Cast posts for Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing I relied heavily on a text I wrote years ago that became mixed up with other discarded manuscripts. The bibliography of which I’ve lost. Those posts are not properly referenced which I’d like to remedy here with a current list. One of the sites I found useful at the time has unfortunately since been hacked, and can now only be accessed through the wayback machine. To see the sites as I saw them you will have to enter any date in August 2013.
View a Performance
To understand Karagiozis, you have to watch him in action. The Ergastirio_Skiwn_Kouzaros production of Karagiozis and The Golden Fleecing on YouTube has English subtitles and for a non-Greek speaker is a good place to start. Today, it may be the only place on the internet you can see Karagiozis with English Subtitles.
(Yes, I know, I’m referencing myself – I wrote the plot/scenario, I wrote it in English with my Western sensibility. However, Anastasios Kouzis and the Ergastirio_Skiwn_Kouzaros saw enough merit in it to translate it, and give it the idiosyncratic tweaks it needed for authenticity).
The Ergastirio_Skiwn_Kouzaros not only sells the figures in their E-shop, they also take orders. Their YouTube site has videos with performances, how to make videos, and discussions of the history and culture of Karagiozis in Greek. Their blog can be viewed in English.
Tasos Andriotis, http://www.karagiozis.tk – a wonderful breakdown of the different forms of Karagiozis theatre – the history plays, religious, mythological, the fairytales and the patriotic plays. Use the Wayback machine.
Karagiozis and the Golden Fleetingpremiered last Sunday on Youtube and if you’ve had a chance to watch it, I think you’ll agree that it looks absolutely gorgeous! Were you thoroughly charmed and impressed with the dexterity of Anastasios Kouzis’ delivery of each figure, as I was? There is something else that is impressive with the production and that is the way in which it has been filmed – there are close up shots of the intricately designed figures “treading the boards” as well as panoramas of the perde, the shadow screen. The magic wouldn’t be possible without the skills of the members of the Ergastirio_Skiwn Kouzaros, Elisavet Nesseri and Vagelis Kouzis.
Making up the Ergastirio_Skiwn_Kouzaros with Anastasios Kouzis are his children, Elisavet Nesseri and Vagelis Kouzis, who are third generation Karagiozis Puppeteers.
Thank you for allowing me to interview you.
We also thank you very much for the trust and the opportunity to showcase the craft of Karagiozis beyond the borders of Greece.
1.What is your role in the Ergastirio?
The Ergastirio_Skiwn_Kouzaros began for us like a parallel project with the aim of reviving and continuing the work of our grandfather and our father and the skills of the Shadow Theatre. Originally our role was the releasing of a great coiled knot of information and work we carried within. Now, however, in the midst of our consuming involvement, our concern for the history of the actual craft grew, with the result that slowly, slowly we became engaged with greater effort in its development.
Still, we continue our efforts to make our work known to the greatest possible public.
2.What do you like best about the Karagiozis Puppet Theatre?
Karagiozis and the Shadow Puppet Theatre is ultimately a contemporary craft which over the years has developed and changed. However, its basic essence has remained the same.
It is a craft that has the ability to entertain and educate, teach values and anything else, and when a person like Karagiozis who isn’t especially well-endowed and whose only defense at his disposal is his good name, he shows us how we can comport ourselves in difficult situations with a smile and optimism.
This is one feature which makes us especially love Karagiozis, because he gives us strength.
3.How many characters to you play in a single performance? Do you ever get them confused?
At the moment we have decided to only perform on YouTube although it doesn’t compose our major work it is a beautiful brushstroke in our endeavours.
The performances we play we divide into scenes and we each take care to choose a particular role and apply ourselves to have a complete result.
4.What has been your most memorable experience with the Ergastirio?
The comedic bloopers that occur in the situations where we come together to film the performance!
5.What role will you be playing in the production of Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing?
We play a little part in all of the roles. Our favourite moment is the appearance of the goats on the screen!
I’d like to thank Anastasios, Elisavet and Vagelis for their wonderful work bringing my story to the shadow screen. The charming result has been a great effort on their part. They translated my text into Greek, took up the slack in providing each figure their characteristic nuances in speech and exchanges with Karagiozis and had to fit the English text into the confines of the subtitle format. This is not to mention the new figures they have made, the rehearsals, the filming, editing and every thing else that goes into making such a performance possible. Thank you very much. – Stella
This interview is repeated in Greek mid-way through the post with Anastasios’ original answers.
Karagiozis is the most recognizable clown of the Modern Greek era. The principal character of the Greek shadow puppet stage his history stretches back in time through the Ottoman Period. Originally a political-satirical, slapstick form of live storytelling with an adult audience in mind, under the onslaught of western pop culture the Karagiozis puppet theatre is now aimed at children.
Anastasios Kouzis heads the well-established, well beloved Ergasitirio_Skiwn_Kouzaros or Theatrical Workshop of Kouzaros. Once dubbed, the Youngest Karagiozis Puppeteer, Anastasios learnt his trade in the traditional way – through his father, the Athenian puppeteer, Spyros Kouzaros.
The Kouzis’ family love for the Karagiozis puppet theatre began around 1923, when Spyros attended performances by puppeteer Dino Theodoropoulon and Harilaos Petropoulos. In 1934 he began performing with the great puppeteer Manolaro at the Theatre of Daka in Kifisia, Athens.
Spyros’ talent ranged from designing the shadows and writing scripts to performing with his considerable vocal dexterity. Later in life he worked towards the preservation of Karagiozis shadow puppetry with the Museum of People’s Trades.
Over the course of 35 years, Anastasios, who has also studied the classics, has continued his father’s work promoting Greek shadow puppetry from the perde (shadow screen) to Youtube and the greater world. It is a love that he has passed to his three children.
Anastasios, thank you for allowing me to interview you.
I warmly thank you for the opportunity to converse with you over the particular questions you pose and respond with my answers.
You worked closely with your father from an early age, what was he like as a boss?
I was blessed to be born to an affectionate father and a good mother who brought me into the world, 30th June, 1959. At the time my father was performing Karagiozis at the theatre of Theodorou Theodoropoulou at Petralona and when I got older he would proudly say to me, “You were born Taso on Theodoroulou’s theater, “and he was happy because at that time he was the only one of his peers to have a son to pass on his craft as a successor.
My father never played the big boss with his concerns. He was firstly a good parent, an excellent master-craftsman, an honoured work colleague and a great teacher. He was pedantic, first with himself, and then with the rest of us. He taught by example.
He worked arduously and was industrious. He began at daybreak, drawing the figures, the posters, the scenery and would go on fashioning new tools even though he would be reciting scenes in the night’s performance.
Consistent with the observance of Karagiozi puppeteers’ tradition, he had a deep and immediately accessible recall: during a performance he would transform seamlessly between various characters.
If you dared slip with the movement in a “Heroic” or “Metaphysical” performance, or the way you held the figure, or you didn’t recite the lines of a character with their appropriate colour or air, just his severe glance was worse than any admonishment.
He always lay his hand to caress, heal and console.
“Tasos,” he would say, “look at the whole, that’s what matters.”
He was the dynamic power of everything to do with the perde.
2.Your career has spanned four decades, has the Karagiozis Shadow Theatre changed? Has its audience?
The Shadow Puppet stage, like all other endeavours of the soul or art, follows the dictates of the community and the progress of history. And Karagiozis Puppeteers as, “inheritors of their era are nourished by its banquet,” – to paraphrase the poet, Seferis – cannot but follow the progress of the developing modern state and offer the necessary changes in their repertoire, and similarly in the plots of their performances, the characters they show on the screen, the phrases they use e.g., Karagiozis from a secretary evolved into a telegraphist, a telephonist, and these days, a teacher.
In the last 40 years there has been an overwhelming influence specifically from cinema, television, video, and today, the internet. Performances have lost their broader adult appeal and have become perfectly suited to children since whatever was offered in the past is offered today in a better way that is more immediate and diverting.
Unavoidably the plots spread thin and became watered down in performances adapted to the shallow current digital visual representations, e.g., Karagiozis Masterchef” or “Karagiozis in Greece has Talent.”
Certainly, the separation of the patriotic spirit and the practice of honouring it by the craft due to the force of globalization of art has marginalised the heroic performances which are now only rarely seen at national days of remembrance. While, whichever plays had strong religious content or were deemed to have “undesirable topics” for Greek society were neglected in the name modernization and plays with a more serious spirit were unavoidably forgotten.
The absence of a permanent shadow puppet stage with a box office, tied to the current playing of Karagiozis chiefly in summer has resulted in the loss of independence of the Shadow Puppet theatre and today it entreats a welcome from child care centres, schools, council amphitheatres and to all types of public spaces or to popular televised shows, the grants authority, committees and other institutions, submitting to “where the wind blows” in the season and to the dictates of the audience.
3. Today, when literature is discussed there is a lot of talk about the depiction of minority groups, has this effected this form of theatre that traditionally depends for its laughter on satirising stock characters (stereotypes)?
From the beginning of the Common Era (CE/AD) and before, a variety of geo-ethnic groups of lower socio-economic standing and others of a similar purview spilled out of poor neighbourhoods, the amphitheatres and hippodromes of the larger cities, to celebrate pagan festivals around the changing of the seasons, the death and rebirth of nature and the complete cycle of the sun. And for all of its opposition to these festivals the Church managed to place them, “outside the law,” but it didn’t manage to extinguish them totally, neither their spirit nor their protagonists, their mimes, mimics, every marginalised type around, queer in body and soul, the fallen good-natured type and even sinful verses.
The echoes of these ancient festivals reaches us today in the Orthodox Church’s Triodion hymn and in a different variation runs through Mardi Gras celebrations.
Stand-out social characteristics created the representative figures of the shadow stage: mimes, all sorts of marginalized, physically or mentally disabled, fallen nobles, even criminal elements. forceful type as representing society’s margins, the femme-fatale, the overeducated man and many more. These cemented themselves as types from the ethnically diverse and multicultural states of Rome, Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire.
On a closer view additions were made by individual puppeteers now and again, which offered a first class product for the satire of the Karagiozis Theatre, but also built richer plots. The strange dress, the odd behaviours, the different ethics and values, the various ways of speaking, the dialects, but also the different languages, became for the perde the origin of offence and clashes, which usually lead to slapstick from the lead character, Karagiozis, who was unsurpassed in embroidering matters. Yet, with his slippery and seasoned punning he provoked unending laughter.
4. I have to ask about Karagiozis’ arm. Do you have any idea where it came from?
Many scholars hastened to attribute the long arm of the Modern Greek Karagiozis to a forced evolution, of the phallus of the older figures of the time of the ottoman or soultanic, obscene Karagiozis.
They haven’t succeeded however, in their endeavour as there exists instances of figures e.g., from Syria, who have a long arm and a long phallus.
Lovers of Ancient Greek culture have asked whether the answer lies in Ancient Attic Comedy and the ancient phallus-bearers, the Silenii and the satyrs, who were a part of Dionysius retinue.
For us the only practical basis for analysis of the question is the actual physical representation of Karagiozis himself. What does he offer us? A hunchback with a long right arm and a short left one (as the audience views him).
For this to be, logic tells us that his spine is slanted to the left. Meaning, that his body is not balanced in the centre but twisted towards the left. Contorted in this way his body forces his one side to hang as well as his arm, despite the other being raised. It is not serendipitous that the Zakynthian Dionysios calls Karagiozis, “thrice hunched.” And this is not the only disfigurement that Karagiozis has: he only has one eye, just as the equally unlucky Fasoulis the Konitsioti has: opposing legs and he declares that, “one is the bakers and the other is the grocers”; that he has a disproportionately big mouth (like a soldier’s oven); a head like a watermelon; a nose like an eggplant from Argos.
What is Karagiozis in his entirety: he is “an incorrigible sinner” meaning, “a complete catastrophe” to remember Aesop. And don’t imagine that the ugly man Karagiozis existed uniquely. There existed many in the course of history who were black-eyed “beauties” in the East with similar traumatised body images, crude characters in the canon with initial mentions in Homer’s Thersites (Illiad B’216) and in Aesop and the famous Curdish Vizier of Aegyptou Kourakous (fl1160-1169 CE) the uncle of Saladin. And from this all-encompassing ugliness and weakness wells up all of Karagiozis’ cunning, cleverness and goodwill.
5. In the past when slapstick was the fashion for comedy, the arm was used as a slapstick. Today, with concerns over depictions of violence in front of children, can it still be used as a slapstick?
In reality, in the older performances, from the beginning of the Modern Greek Shadow Screen, two things defined it: song and slapstick. Chief users of the stick were Veligekas on one side, Barba-Yiorgos on the other, and Karagiozis in the middle, who with his long arm smacked Hatziavatis, his children and all of his unlucky friends.
Today, when the majority of the work happens around kid’s concerns, does it have a place? E.g., When a father smacks his kids or the kids smack their father we feign belief that this behaviour is disturbing, a “so-called” bad example of Violent Karagiozis before children.
Plainly we theorise that the seldom “few short moments of violence” within the rare and comical environment of a performance which progresses through a long established, historic, canonical framework and that lasts an hour at most – children don’t last sitting still much longer- when all day and all night we bombard their digital screens with images of horrible blood and violence from social, political, criminal or war altercations!!! I won’t talk about moving pictures, videos, digital or internet series. “What can anyone say for moving pictures?”
Of the opposing screams and the stormy noises from those who compose much, we will say, one general which won’t result in violence is in “Child’s language.” What happens, indeed, under the other naïve forms e.g., cartoons with relentless corresponding clashes, hidden by their kind-natured sayings or their soft cheerful colours?
Karagiozis puppeteers of today generally avoid violence on their screens, and a simple push towards one of Karagiozis children from his long arm, when they misbehave, results in the child audience cracking up with laughter.
And this unfortunately happens because people are unique where they laugh when one of their own is so laden.
6.The traditional depiction of the Vizieropoula (the noble Vizier’s daughter) she is a very busty woman. Have you had to modify her appearance for your younger audiences or to address feminist concerns?
The lead actress of the Perde is the Vezieropoula. Of course, there are other female forms who owe their descent from the beautiful mimes of the Roman and Byzantine Hippodrome where they seduced with their provocative ways the good-natured youths, with the characteristic example, the Emperor Justinian who fell in love with the absolutely beautiful Theodora, daughter of a bear trainer.
Images of provocative ladies continue to exist, fully restored in the Modern era by the important Karagiozis puppeteer and artist of the 20th Century, Kosta Mano, when his performances demanded it. In their career they have progressed as today there are many effective female presentations within a performance that are seductive.
The compelling moral traits of Karagiozis impresses with the figure of the Vizieropoula, who is no longer a Turkish songbird Zene (which means woman), but a European woman dressed conservatively with the latest word on fashion, in this way, however, she doesn’t omit to show off her body’s charm.
The Vezieropoula will always be the object of desire for the cardboard heroes.
Anastasios and his Ergastirio_Skiwn_Kouzaros have honoured me in taking on my script, Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing, to produce on their Youtube channel.
Συνέντευξη με τον καλλιτέχνη θεάτρου σκιών, Αναστάσιο Κούζη από το Εργαστήριο Σκιών Κούζαρος
Ο Καραγκιόζης είναι ο πιο αναγνωρίσιμος κλόουν της νεοελληνικής εποχής. Ο κύριος χαρακτήρας της ελληνικής σκηνής του θεάτρου σκιών έρχεται από το παρελθόν κατά την Οθωμανική περίοδο. Η βάση του, αποτελεί μια πολιτική-σατιρική, χτυπητή μορφή ζωντανής αφήγησης σε ενήλικες ακροατές, και πλέον μετά την επίθεση της δυτικής ποπ κουλτούρας, το θέατρο του Καραγκιόζη απευθύνεται τώρα στα παιδιά.
Ο Αναστάσιος Κούζης είναι ο επικεφαλής του καθιερωμένου, αγαπημένου Εργαστηρίου Σκιών Κούζαρος ή του Θεατρικού Εργαστηρίου Κούζαρου. Όταν ονομάστηκε ως ο νεότερος Καραγκιοζοπαίκτης, ο Αναστάσιος έμαθε την τέχνη με τον παραδοσιακό τρόπο – μέσω του πατέρα του, του Αθηναίου Καραγκιοζοπαίκτη, του Σπύρου Κουζάρου.
Η αγάπη της οικογένειας Κούζη για το θέατρο σκιών ξεκίνησε γύρω στο 1923, όταν ο Σπύρος παρακολούθησε παραστάσεις του Καραγκιοζοπαίκτη Ντίνου Θεοδωρόπουλου και του Χαρίλαου Πετρόπουλου. Το 1934 άρχισε να παίζει με τον σπουδαίο Καραγκιοζοπαίκτη Μανώλαρο στο Θέατρο της Ντάκας στην Κηφισιά.
Το ταλέντο του Σπύρου κυμαινόταν από το σχεδιασμό των φιγούρων και τη συγγραφή σεναρίων παραστάσεων έως και την εκτέλεση τους με τη μεγάλη φωνητική επιδεξιότητά του. Αργότερα στη ζωή του εργάστηκε για τη διατήρηση της της τέχνης του Θεάτρου Σκιών συνεργαζόμενος με το Μουσείο Λαϊκής Τέχνης.
Στη διάρκεια των 35 ετών, ο Αναστάσιος, ο οποίος έχει επίσης σπουδάσει φιλολογία, συνέχισε το έργο του πατέρα του, προωθώντας το ελληνικό θέατρο σκιών από τον μπερντέ στο Youtube και στον ευρύτερο κόσμο. Είναι μια αγάπη που έχει περάσει και στα τρία παιδιά του.
Αναστάσιε, σας ευχαριστώ για την άδεια σας να κάνουμε την παρούσα συνέντευξη.
Σας ευχαριστώ θερμά για την ευκαιρία που μού δίνετε να επικοινωνήσω τόσο μαζί σας, όσο και με το εκλεκτό σας κοινό, απαντώντας στα ερωτήματα που θέτετε.
Υπήρξες σε στενή συνεργασία με τον πατέρα σου από μικρή ηλικία, πώς ήταν σαν “αφεντικό”;
Είχα την ευτυχία να γεννηθώ από ένα στοργικό πατέρα και μια καλή μητέρα που με έφεραν στον κόσμο στις 30 του Ιούνη του 1959. Τότε ο πατέρας μου, έπαιζε Καραγκιόζη στο θέατρο του Θεόδωρου Θεοδωρόπουλου στα Πετράλωνα και με υπερηφάνεια μου έλεγε, όταν μεγάλωσα, ότι: «γεννήθηκες, Τάσο, στο πάλκο του Θεοδωρόπουλου», κι ήταν χαρούμενος, γιατί έτυχε στο συνάφι του, εκείνο τον καιρό, αυτός μόνο να έχει αρσενικό παιδί, άρα διάδοχο και συνεχιστή της τέχνης του. Ο πατέρας μου, ποτέ δεν έπαιξε το ρόλο του αφεντικού, με την κυριολεκτική έννοια του όρου. Υπήρξε πρωτίστως καλός γονιός, εξαιρετικός μάστορας, πολύτιμος συνεργάτης και μεγάλος δάσκαλος. Ήταν πολύ απαιτητικός πρώτα με τον εαυτό του και μετά μ’ όλους μας, δίδασκε με τον παραδειγματισμό. Δουλεύοντας με θέρμη και ένταση, ξεκινούσε απ’ τα χαράματα να ζωγραφίζει τις φιγούρες, τις ρεκλάμες, τα σκηνικά και στη συνέχεια να σκαλίζει κανούργια εργαλεία, ενώ απάγγελε αποσπάσματα της βραδυνής παράστασης. Συνεπής στην τήρηση της παράδοσης, καθώς τη γνώριζε βαθειά και διαθέτοντας τεράστια μνήμη, «μεταμορφωνόταν» αδιάκοπα την ώρα της παράστασης ενσαρκώνοντας τους ποικίλους ρόλους. Και πού να τολμήσεις να κάνεις λάθος κίνηση στις «Ηρωικές» ή «Μεταφυσικές» παραστάσεις, να μην κρατήσεις σωστά τη φιγούρα ή να μην απαγγείλεις με χρώμα και το ανάλογο ύφος τα λόγια σου, το βλέμμα του το αυστηρό και μόνο, ήταν η χειρότερη για μένα τιμωρία. Το χέρι του το άπλωνε πάντα για να χαιδέψει, να ενθαρρύνει και να παρηγορήσει, «Τάσο, έλεγε, να κοιτάς το όλον, αυτό έχει σημασία», ήταν η κινητήρια δύναμη των πάντων στο μπερντέ. Στα τριάντα χρόνια που έζησα κοντά του, διδάχθηκα την τέχνη μας, και όχι μόνο, στην ολότητά της μέσα απ’ το ζωντανό του παράδειγμα.
Η ενασχόληση σου με τον Καραγκιόζη έχει βρεθεί ανάμεσα σε 4 δεκαετίες, έχει αλλάξει κάτι στο Θέατρο Σκιών με την πάροδο του χρόνου και στο κοινό του;
Το «Θέατρο Σκιών», όπως και κάθε άλλη πνευματική ή καλλιτεχνική δημιουργία, υπακούει στους νόμους της κοινωνικής και ιστορικής εξέλιξης. Και οι Καραγκιοζοπαίκτες ως «κληρωτοί της εποχής τους και τρεφόμενοι από την καραβάνα της» – για να παραφράσουμε και τον ποιητή Σεφέρη – δεν μπορούν παρά να παρακολουθούν τις εξελίξεις και διαχρονικά να επιφέρουν τις αναγκαίες αλλαγές στο ρεπερτόριό τους, στο ίδιο το περιεχόμενο των παραστάσεών τους, στους χαρακτήρες που εμφανίζουν στο πανί, στη φρασεολογία τους. Π.χ ο Καραγκιόζης από Γραμματικός, μετεξελίχθηκε σε Τηλεγραφητή, Τηλεφωνητή και στις μέρες μας σε Δάσκαλο. Τα τελευταία σαράντα χρόνια υπήρξαν καταλυτικά, λόγω της συντριπτικής επιρροής του κινηματογράφου, της τηλεόρασης, των video και σήμερα του διαδικτύου. Οι παραστάσεις έχασαν το ενήλικο κοινό τους, κι έγιναν κατάλληλες μόνο για παιδάκια, αφού ό,τι πρόσφεραν εκείνες στο παρελθόν το προσφέρουν σήμερα πολύ καλύτερα και αμεσότερα άλλα ψυχαγωγικά μέσα. Μοιραία, η θεματολογία συρρικνώθηκε και υποβαθμίστηκε σε παραστάσεις προσαρμοσμένες στη ρηχή τηλεοπτική επικαιρότητα π.χ, «Ο Καραγκιόζης master chef» ή «Ο Καραγκιόζης στο Ελλάδα έχεις ταλέντο». Η υποχώρηση μάλιστα του Πατριωτικού πνεύματος και της Ευσέβειας, εξαιτίας του «Κοσμοπολιτισμού» και της «Παγκοσμιοποίησης», έθεσε στο περιθώριο τις Ηρωικές παραστάσεις, που μόνο στις Εθνικές Επετείους αναβιώνουν κάποιες. Ενώ, όσες είχαν έντονο το θρησκευτικό περιεχόμενο ή έθιγαν τα «κακώς κείμενα» της ελληνικής κοινωνίας, στο όνομα του μοντερνισμού και του ανάλαφρου πνεύματος, μοιραία ξεχάστηκαν. Η απουσία των μονίμων Θεάτρων Σκιών με εισιτήριο, κυρίως των καλοκαιρινών, υπήρξε κομβική, καθώς πλέον ο Καραγκιόζης απώλεσε ως θέαμα την ανεξαρτησία του και εκλιπαρεί σήμερα να φιλοξενηθεί σε παιδικούς σταθμούς, σχολεία, δημοτικά αμφιθέατρα και σε άλλους χώρους πολιτισμού ή και σε δημοφιλή τηλεοπτικά Σόου, με τη χορηγία Δήμων, Συλλόγων και άλλων ιδρυμάτων,υποτασσόμενος στον «καθωσπρεπισμό» του καιρού μας και στις απαιτήσεις των πελατών.
Σήμερα, όταν συζητείται η λογοτεχνία, γίνεται πολύς λόγος γύρω από την απεικόνιση των ομάδων μειονότητας, έχει επηρεάσει αυτή τη μορφή θεάτρου που εξαρτάται παραδοσιακά από το γέλιο του από σατιριστικούς χαρακτήρες (στερεότυπα);
Από την εποχή της Ύστερης Αρχαιότητας αλλά και παλαιότερα, οι ποικίλες και ετερόκλιτες κοινωνικές ομάδες, της κατώτερης στάθμης ή και του περιθωρίου, ξεχύνονταν απ’ τις φτωχογειτονιές, τα αμφιθέατρα και τους ιπποδρόμους των μεγαλουπόλεων, για να εορτάσουν τις ειδωλολατρικές εορτές, γύρω από την εναλλαγή των εποχών, το θάνατο και την αναγέννηση της φύσης και την τελική κυριαρχία του «ανίκητου Ήλιου». Κι όσο κι αν πολέμησε η Εκκλησία αυτούς τους εορτασμούς και κατάφερε να τους θέσει «εκτός νόμου», δεν κατάφερε να εξαφανίσει εντελώς, ούτε το πνεύμα ούτε και τους πρωταγωνιστές τους: μίμους, μιμάδες, κάθε είδους περιθωριακούς, σωματικά ή πνευματικά αναπήρους, ξεπεσμένους ευγενείς, ακόμη και εγκληματικά στοιχεία. Ο απόηχος αυτών των πανάρχαιων εορτασμών φθάνει ως τις μέρες μας κατά το Τριώδιο και τα ποικίλα κατά τόπους δρώμενα στις Αποκριές.
Αποτύπωμα αυτών των Κοινωνικών Χαρακτήρων αποτελούν και οι αντιπροσωπευτικές φιγούρες του Θεάτρου Σκιών: ο σπαγγοραμένος γέρος, ο ξεπεσμένος ευγενής, ο ερωτύλος νέος, ο παράνομος ή ημιπαράνομος βίαιος τύπος ως εκπρόσωπος του κοινωνικού περιθωρίου, η ξελογιάστρα γυναίκα, ο σωματικά παραμορφωμένος και τόσοι άλλοι. Αυτοί συμπληρώθηκαν από τύπους των ποικίλων εθνοτήτων των πολυεθνικών και αλληλοδιαδόχων αυτοκρατοριών, της Ρωμαïκής, Βυζαντινής και Οθωμανικής. Από κοντά προστέθηκαν και οι εκπρόσωποι τόσων και τόσων επαγγελμάτων, προσφέροντας ένα πρώτης τάξεως υλικό για τη σάτιρα του Καραγκιοζοπαίκτη, αλλά και για να κτίσει ένα πλήθος υποθέσεων. Το παράξενο ντύσιμο, οι αλλιώτικες συμπεριφορές, τα διαφορετικά ήθη και έθιμα, οι ποικίλες λαλιές, οι διάλεκτοι, αλλά και οι διαφορετικές γλώσσες, έγιναν στο μπερντέ αφετηρία παρεξηγήσεων και συγκρούσεων, που οδηγούσαν συνήθως σε ξυλοδαρμό, με πρωταγωνιστή πάντα τον Καραγκιόζη, ο οποίος ήταν μοναδικός στο να μπλέκει τα πράγματα, ενώ με τα ευφυή και πιπεράτα λογοπαίγνιά του προκαλούσε ακατάπαυστο το γέλιο.
Πρέπει να σε ρωτήσω για το χέρι του Καραγκιόζη. Γνωρίζεις από πού προήλθε?
Πολλοί μελετητές έσπευσαν να αποδώσουν το μακρύ χέρι του Νεοελληνικού Καραγκιόζη σε μία αναγκαστική μετεξέλιξη «επί τω κοσμιοτέρω» των φαλλών που έφεραν οι παλαιότερες φιγούρες του «Σουλτανικού» ή Οθωμανικού άσεμνου Καραγκιόζη. Δεν έλαβαν, όμως, υπόψη τους ότι υπάρχουν παραδείγματα φιγουρών, όπως π.χ του Συριακού Θ.Σ, που οι φιγούρες φέρουν και μακρύ χέρι και μεγάλο φαλλό! Οι αρχαιολάτρες αναζήτησαν την απάντηση στην Αρχαία Αττική κωμωδία και στους αρχαιότερους φαλλοφόρους Σειληνούς και Σατύρους, τους οπαδούς του Διονύσου.
Για εμάς η μόνη πραγματιστική βάση ερμηνείας του ζητήματος είναι αυτός ο ίδιος ο σωματότυπος του Καραγκιόζη! Τι μας παρουσιάζει; Ένα σώμα καμπουριασμένο με το δεξιό, όπως το βλέπει ο θεατής, χέρι μακρύ και το αριστερό κοντό. Για να συμβαίνει αυτό, λογικό είναι η στρέβλωση της σπονδυλικής στήλης να έχει αριστερή ροπή. Δηλαδή, το σώμα δεν είναι κυρτωμένο στο μέσο του, αλλά, στρεβλωμένο προς τα αριστερά. ΄Ετσι, ζαρωμένο καθώς είναι το σώμα κάνει το ένα του μέρος να κρέμεται, άρα και το χέρι, ενώ το άλλο να είναι ανυψωμένο. Δεν είναι τυχαίο που ο Ζακυνθινός Διονύσιος αποκαλεί τον Καραγκιόζη «τρικάμπουρο»!Και δεν είναι αυτή η μόνη αναπηρία του Καραγκιόζη, έχει μόνο ένα μάτι, όπως και ο αντίστοιχος Φασουλής του Κονιτσιώτη, έχει τα πόδια του παράταιρα, καθώς, όπως ισχυρίζεται, «το’ να είναι το φούρναρη και τ’ άλλο του μπακάλη», έχει δυσανάλογα μεγάλο στόμα (σαν στρατιωτικό φούρνο), κεφάλι (σαν νεροκολόκυθο), μύτη (σαν μελιτζάνα Αργίτικη)….
Τι είναι ο Καραγκιόζης στο συνολό του; Είναι ένα «προσημένον αμάρτημα» μια, δηλαδή, «ολοκληρωτική καταστροφή»,για να θυμηθούμε και τον Αίσωπο! Και μη φανταστείτε πως ο Ασχημάντρας Καραγκιόζης υπήρξε ένας και μοναδικός. Υπήρξαν πολλοί στο διάβα της Ιστορίας Μαυρομμάτηδες, «Όμορφοι» δηλαδή κατά ταγούστα της Ανατολής, με παρόμοιο εκτρωματικό σωματότυπο,χυδαίο κατά κανόνα χαρακτήρα,αλλά και πρωτοφανή ευφυία, από τον Ομηρικό Θερσίτη (Ιλάδα Β’ 216 κ.ε) και τον Αίσωπο,ως και τον περιβόητο Κούρδο Βεζύρη της Αιγύπτου Κουρακούς(1160-1169 μ. Χ.), τον θείο του Σαλαδίνου. Κι απ’ αυτή την απόλυτη Σωματική Ασχήμια και Αδυναμία πηγάζει αντιρροπικά όλη η πονηριά, εξυπνάδα και η ευφυία του Καραγκιόζη.
Στο παρελθόν, όταν το χτύπημα ήταν η μόδα για την κωμωδία, όπου ο βραχίονας χρησιμοποιούνταν ως ξύλο. Σήμερα, με τις ανησυχίες για τις απεικονίσεις βίας μπροστά σε παιδιά, μπορεί ακόμα να χρησιμοποιηθεί ως χαστούκι;
Πράγματι, στις παλαιότερες παραστάσεις, ήδη απ’ τις απαρχές του Νεοελληνικού Θεάτρου Σκιών, δύο ήταν τα κύρια γνωρίσματα, το τραγούδι και το ανελέητο ξύλο. Κύριοι εκφραστές του, ο Βεληγκέκας απ’ τη μια, ο Μπάρμπα-Γιώργος απ’ την άλλη κι ο Καραγκιόζης στη μέση, που με το «μακρύ του χέρι» έδερνε αλύπητα τον Χατζηαβάτη, τα κολλητήρια του και όλους τους άλλους άτυχους φίλους του.
Σήμερα, που πλέον κατέστη ο Καραγκιόζης «παιδικό θέαμα», έχει θέση το ξύλο; π.χ ο πατέρας να κτυπήσει τα παιδιά του ή και τα παιδιά τον πατέρα; Πιστεύουμε πως υποκριτικά ανησυχούμε για το «δήθεν» κακό παράδειγμα του Βίαιου Καραγκιόζη προς τα παιδιά, καθώς θεωρούμε ότι βλάπτουν τα «λίγα λεπτά βίας» μέσα σ’ ένα ευτράπελο και κωμικό κλίμα μιάς παράστασης, που κινείται σε συγκεκριμένο ιστορικοκοινωνικό πλαίσιο και που διαρκεί το πολύ μια ώρα – δεν αντέχουν και περισσότερο καθηλωμένα τα παιδιά- τη στιγμή που ολημερίς κι ολονυχτίς βομβαρδιζόμαστε από σκηνές φρικτές αίματος και βίας κοινωνικών, πολιτικών, εγκληματικών ή πολεμικών συγκρούσεων!!! Δεν θα μιλήσω για τις κινηματογραφικές ταινίες, τις τηλεοπτικές ή ιντερνετικές σειρές. Τι να πει κανείς για τα «κινούμενα σχέδια»! Οι άναρθρες κραυγές και τα καταιγιστικά ηχητικά εφέ που συνθέτουν πλέον, θα λέγαμε, μια διεθνή κοινή «παιδική γλώσσα», δεν αποτελούν μορφή βίας; Τι γίνεται μάλιστα με τις κατά τα άλλα αθώες μορφές των Καρτούνς που αλληλοσυγκρούονται αδυσώπητα, καλυπτόμενες απ’ τις καλοκάγαθες εκφράσεις τους ή τα απαλά ,χαριτωμένα χρώματά τους;
Οι σύγχρονοι Καραγκιοζοπαίκτες πάντως, αποφεύγουν τη βία στη σκηνή τους, κι ένα απλό σκούντημα του κολλητηριού, που ατακτεί, απ’ το μακρύ χέρι του Καραγκιόζη αρκεί, για να ξεσπάσουν σε γέλια τα παιδιά. Κι αυτό, δυστυχώς, συμβαίνει, γιατί ο Άνθρωπος είναι το μοναδικό ον που γελά, όταν υποφέρει ο όμοιός του!
Η παραδοσιακή απεικόνιση της Βεζυροπούλας (της ευγενικής κόρης του Πασά) ήταν μιας πολύ προκλητικής γυναίκας. Χρειάστηκε να τροποποιήσετε την εμφάνισή της για το νεότερο κοινό σας ή για να αντιμετωπίσετε τις φεμινιστικές ανησυχίες;
Η πρωταγωνίστρια του μπερντέ, η Βεζυροπούλα, καθώς και άλλες γυναικείες μορφές, ανάγουν την καταγωγή τους στις πανέμορφες Μιμάδες των Ρωμαικών και Βυζαντινών Ιπποδρόμων που ξελόγιαζαν με τα κάλλη τους τους ευγενείς νέους, με χαρακτηριστικότερο παράδειγμα, τον Αυτοκράτορα Ιουστινιανό που ερωτεύθηκε την πανέμορφη Θεοδώρα, κόρη Αρκτοτρόφου. Οι προκλητικές γυναικείες μορφές εξακολουθούσαν να υπάρχουν – αποδομένες άριστα από το σπουδαίο Καραγκιοζοπαίκτη και ζωγράφο του 20ου αι. Κώστα Μάνο – εφ’ όσον το απαιτούσε η υπόθεση της παραστάσεως. Σταδιακά, όμως, υποχώρησαν, γιατί πλέον υπάρχουν άλλα πολλά και αποτελεσματικότερα μέσα παρουσίασης της γυναικείας προκλητικότητος. Η επελθούσα σταδιακά ηθικοποίηση του Καραγκιόζη αποτυπώθηκε και με τη φιγούρα της Βεζυροπούλας, που πλέον δεν είναι καν μία Τούρκισσα Ζενέ (ένα γύναιο εκ της κλητικής γύναι< η γυνή), αλλά μια Ευρωπαία ντυμένη σεμνά με την τελευταία λέξη της μόδας, με τέτοιο ,όμως, τρόπο που δεν παραλείπει να αναδεικνύει και το σωματικό της κάλλος. Εξ άλλου, πάντα θα είναι η Βεζυροπούλα το αντικείμενο του πόθου για τους χάρτινους ήρωες.