Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday June 8th 2023

Shadow Theater

Brightly colored posters went up last week announcing the “shadow theater” was coming to our village. Long before movies and television, Greece had a different form of entertainment based on folklore traditions and social satire.

shadow theater poster Shadow theater posters were everywhere in the village.

Known as Karagiozis (the main character’s name), it involved paper-made puppets operated by a puppeteer behind a white screen (perhaps a piece of cloth or a sheet) backlit by a lantern or some other light source (now electric lamps).

behind_screen2 Puppeteers manipulate characters behind a screen, and provide their voices

Shadow theater began in Asia as part of a religious tradition. By the time it came to Greece during Ottoman rule (around 1880), it was a form of entertainment. Greeks took it several steps further by turning it into an outrageously funny satire that poked fun at everything that made life hard for people.


The hero – Karagiozis – is a clever pauper who lives with his family in a rundown shack near the Ottoman pasha’s palace. He is always coming up with absurd schemes to make a lot of money – and these plots are always doomed to hilarious failure.  Even in failure, however, Karagiozis manages to show great cunning in making the pashas, Turkish overlords and wealthy/corrupt Greeks all come off as fools themselves.

The themes of each play were adapted to various current social and political issues, as well as to historical events in Greece. These historical “Karagiozis” plays were very popular in the past and during times of crises, as they lifted the people’s spirits and offered hope.Through Karagiozis, the puppeteer mocks authority figures and situations … often adapts the script to current events.

Ugly and hunchbacked, Karagiozis represents the common folk, always in conflict with injustice. He pretends to be a man of all trades in order to find work and devises silly but cunning solutions to the various difficult and strange situations he gets into. Karagiozis is famous for his pranks, which he uses to tease those around him.

Karagiozis offers the policeman a taste of his "special" mouse soup Karagiozis offers policeman his “special” mouse soup

From 1915 until 1950, which was a hard time for Greeks (wars, social unrest), Karagiozis was a continuous inspiration for the poor. He was an uncompromising hero who tried in vain to change his fate and fight against social injustice. The loud voice of the puppeteer, who portrays all the characters, could be heard in most of the cities and villages throughout Greece, with many generations of Greek children brought up with Karagiozis and the other characters.

karaghiozi characters Karagiozis characters represent a broad view of society, with all its faults.

Within each play one can find historical references, invention and much symbolism that makes the show enjoyable to intellectuals, ordinary people, and – of course – children.  Some suggest that Karagiozis plays are the histories of Greek people trying to conform to the laws, customs, values, and politics other countries have forced upon them. Noting the rising popularity of Karagiozis during the current political-economic crisis in Greece, this is something to consider.

audience The rapt attention of children is the biggest payoff for puppeteers.

However, last night “Karagiozis the Pirate” played to a full house of laughing children and adults. Hardly anyone was thinking about politics.

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2 Comments for “Shadow Theater”

  • Jessica says:

    What village were you living in? I’m a journalist doing a story about Karagiozis. Did the plays refer to what was happening now? (I’ve heard that throughout history they often do.) How often were they performed in the village you were living. I’d like to hear more about this.

  • Teacher says:

    Karagiozis occasionally comes to the village of Ano Hersonissos. Very welcome when it arrives, but not a regularly scheduled event. We could not understand all the satirical remarks of the hero, but we expect that some were aimed at the current problems in Greece. We have seen Karagiozis performances in other villages around the country. They are always delightful.

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