In Turkish culture, Karagoz and Hacivat are like Punch and Judy: the inseparable mainstays of a long comic tradition, the precise origins of which are uncertain.
In popular legend, the pair began life as real workers in 14th century Basra, where their continual clowning so distracted other laborers that they were put to death. People missed them so much that they were resurrected as shadow puppets, to entertain subsequent generations in streets and coffee houses, particularly after sundown during Ramadan, with their fast-paced jokes, outlandish adventures, and highly colored images. It’s a tradition that is still going strong, although (like Punch) their satire has been toned down, and their principal audiences are now children.
The classical Karagoz show follows a set pattern. First, there’s a prologue, in which Hacivet—who is somewhat literary and bourgeois—sings, recites a brief prayer, and looks for his friend, Karagoz—usually by waking him up despite his irritable protests. A dialogue then ensues, where Karagoz comically misunderstands Hacivet—he is hard of hearing and ignorant—provoking laughter in the audience. This is verbal comedy, like Laurel and Hardy or the mouthy cartoons of mid-twentieth century America. Karagoz is easily provoked, so he will often lose his temper and attack his friend, like Punch or Pulcinella. Like them, he mocks convention and authority, and that’s what his audience loves.
A story follows, sometimes with new characters—and in the classic versions of the form the full array of cosmopolitan Istanbul provided a dandy (Celebi), an opium smoker (Tiryaki) a hunchback dwarf (Bebe Ruhi), a courtesan (Zenne) and many others. And finally, there’s a conclusion in which Hacivet accuses Karagoz of ruining everything, and Karagoz asks that his transgressions be forgiven.
Ayhan Hulagu is a young performer from Turkey who has trained with a master puppeteer and made it his mission to bring Karagoz to America. I met him and saw one of his plays this summer at the Puppeteers of America national festival in Minneapolis. His show had all the elaborate beauty of the traditional puppets and sets, and he has already adapted its tropes to American culture. It’s full of visual action and comic surprise, and even includes a very untraditional Elvis puppet. I loved his work.
Here’s his promotional video, which shows him working a piece of leather, cutting it and painting a puppet, and performing for a street audience in Turkey.
A couple of years ago, I saw a different company doing Karagov and frankly, I was bored, despite the beauty of the puppets. In researching this piece, I’ve been struck by how many Turkish puppeteers (unlike Ayhan) mount extremely static shows, in which Karagoz and Hacivet just stand side by side trading one-liners. The Turkish audience loves it, bursting with laughter again and again—so clearly the repartees and the naughtiness of Karagov hit a chord. If you’re curious, take a look at this short video and you’ll see what I mean.
I don’t understand the language, so I don’t get the jokes. But I also think that there’s a cultural barrier here. Ayhan’s version provides a lot more action and visual comedy for an American audience—as the two are carried away by a beast, or find their heads transferred to the body of an animal. I’m sure we’ll see a lot more from him in the coming months.
Just to show the range of the art when it reaches beyond the two-hander, here’s a brief video in Turkish that displays moments from a whole series of scenes and conveys something of the imaginative magic of the form, albeit modernized in design.