Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing

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 us truths and puppets are the most magical of performers.

Stella Samaras

Stella Samaras is a Sydney-based writer with a background in theatre and craft. I came across her work through her delightful blog: craftytheatre, and have enjoyed her reflections on theatre for some time. Even better, it turned out that Stella has written a play for traditional Greek shadow-puppet theatre: Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing. You can watch it here, performed in Athens by Ergastirio Skwin Kouzaros: a shadow puppet company which promotes traditional Greek shadow puppet theatre for modern audiences. In her blog, Stella explains that she wanted to share the magic of shadow theatre with children, and found herself writing a new play featuring Karagiozis, a famous trickster figure in modern Greek culture–a poor hunchback with a long arm, who lives in a hovel, but always finds a way to have a good time.

I was intrigued by Stella’s work, by the overlap between ancient and modern Greek ideas, and the way that puppetry has been used to transmit folklore and myth, so I asked if she would be willing to be interviewed.

Thank you, Stella, for your time! Would you be able to tell us a bit about yourself and your interest in theatre and craft, especially puppetry?

I’m a mum, blogger, lover of theatre and the arts and Person Friday. I started out painting sets for my high school’s musicals when I was 15 and went on to art direction and set design before majoring in Theatre Studies at UNSW in the late 80s and early 90s. I volunteered for everything theatrical I could involve myself with and soon learnt stage management and production management before developing the confidence to write and direct my own plays. Along the way I’ve made puppets and performed with them and have worked in children’s theatre. My love of making theatre has had to make way for numerous “day–jobs” but the flame still burns.

I love theatre as a form of storytelling – especially its heightened reality that’s found in musical theatre, puppetry, mine and dance. 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 us truths and puppets are the most magical of performers. When they aren’t on stage I look at them and am overcome with a sense that there is an entire universe – alternative reality – they are barely containing as they await their next performance.

On stage a puppet arrests our attention immediately. With little or no facial expressions the puppet pushes the director/puppeteer to think about communication through colour, music and song, costumes, set, and especially the movement and voice of the performer/puppet character.

Congratulations on the performance of Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing.  How did you get into writing plays for this kind of performance? 

Thank you it’s been exciting. Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing came about when my kids were in primary school. We started making the characters as craft activities at home. It was a way to connect them with their Greek heritage even as we struggled with the language. There was no Karagiozis performances in English for them to see on YouTube nor regular performances in local Greek live theatre to attend.

At the time I was toying with the idea of writing kid’s fiction and it was suggested to me to write for the incoming English/drama curriculum. To write a Karagiozis script in English became irresistible.

I wrote the play together with its history, norms of performance, and designed the shadow figurines in an educational kit for drama and English teachers. There is so much to say about this historic form of theatre and how its function has changed in Greek society that I struggled with the target age for the audience. I finally settled on early high school or late primary.

At the time I couldn’t find a publisher for my work. I was put into contact with a former Karagiozis puppeteer who had moved to Sydney, who read it with a view to performing it, but it fell through. Then just over a year ago on Instagram I found the Ergastirio Skiwn Kouzaros, who are based in Athens. They are a long established shadow puppet company, who have been promoting Karagiozis online through their Youtube performances and sales of shadow figurines and merchandise. Anastasios Kouzis and the team read my script and liked it. They translated it into Greek, cut down the length and added the character’s nuances I couldn’t recreate in English. Now it’s part of their repertoire on their Youtube channel where it’s performed in Greek with English sub-titles.

What were the challenges of producing this kind of work?  How do you think Australian audiences might connect to this production?

There were a number of challenges in realising the script as I wrote it in English and struggled to transfer the local colour from the Greek. From English, it then was translated in Greek. Certain things cannot be literally translated – only in essence – and that’s where the laughs can be lost.

 The Karagiozis puppet theatre reached its highest popularity in the early twentieth century when it offered a strong satirical form of comedy. The story was generally a scenario that was passed down through generations of puppeteers orally. As a performance was underway the puppeteer would throw in witty observances and commentary on local news. No two performances could offer the same exact transcript if they were transcribed. 

A script is static by nature of its being written down. I had to write asides that my intended audience of 10-14 year old Australian school children would relate to as comments on Australian society they would understand, that didn’t move too far from the world of the play.

A bigger challenge was the way each character was presented as a stereotype from a particular region of Greece. Each one speaks in very distinct accents and uses the lingo of that area. This kind of comedy would be lost to an Australian audience – even a Greek-Australian one. By performing the play in Greek but retaining the English subtitles, we aimed for a happy medium.

And then there is the punning. Translating any language is difficult but punning can be impossible – from English to Greek or vice versa. We have gone with an at times loose translation where the progress of the plot has been retained in the English sub-titles but the cultural nuances added by the Ergastirio at the entrance of each new character, haven’t been translated.

After sharing the Youtube link on social media I was able to gain some direct feedback from adults. It brought back childhood memories. Our target market with this performance is children and students of the Modern Greek language in the diaspora. We hope to engage students with the beauty of the puppets, the vitality of the performance, the comedy and the cunning and altruistic heart of Karagiozis.

Most people can relate to an underdog and Karagiozis is a clown and an underdog, almost by his own volition. He is so clever, it’s a wonder that he can’t escape his own poverty, he’s a Greek larrikin. I imagine an audience of 10-14 year old’s would relate to his outsmarting of the other characters as well as his good natured hoodwinking of authority. And of course, there is the romance between Dionysios (Nionio) and the Vizieropoula (Fatme).

Can you say something about the connection of Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing to the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, and their quest to find the Golden Fleece in Colchis? Is there an overlap between ancient Greek and modern Greek folklore?

When I wrote the script, I was conscious that I was writing for a multicultural audience. I wanted to draw a little from the Ancient Greek heritage because it’s something that a general audience might recognise and therefore feel that the stock figures and their 19th Century concerns weren’t entirely foreign. Because Karagiozis is a good hearted thief, any fleecing he would do would be golden. From there I thought I’d bring the story closer to Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece in the spirit of Looney Tunes referencing Robin Hood or the Scarlet Pimpernel. 

Ancient Greek mythology by virtue of its being Ancient Greek is received as something high-brow and almost untouchable. By incorporating Jason’s quest in my story I hoped to make it profane and accessible. By having a ridiculous character like the mummy’s boy, Morfonios, intent on taking on the sleeping serpent in the tree when clearly he shares no heroic virtues with Jason, I hoped to raise a laugh. Making the tree the serpent is sleeping in an olive tree I intended to blend the ancient and the folk – I assume there are more olive groves in present day Greece than there were in the days of Jason. By featuring as characters in my story the goats that are responsible for producing the Golden Fleece I see the ridiculous in the ancient myth – if there was a golden fleece then there had to have been a herd animal off whose back the fleece was shorn. For the Ancient Greeks, I suspect the golden fleece is what today we would say is the money that grows on trees.

Within the oral tradition of Karagiozis there exists a very famous scenario called Alexander the Great and the Cursed Serpent.Alexander the Great is a stock figure in the Greek shadow stage and this is his best known scenario. He exists in Karagiozis’ world as a hero not from the past but one who comes from a physical distance to save the day. In this story Alexander the Great is a conflation of the warrior emperor and St George.

Spyros Kouzis, the founder of the Ergastirio Skiwn Kouzaros, is credited with introducing Ancient Greek mythology to the Karagiozis repertoire. Ancient Greek mythology was taught to Greek children via the Shadow screen and Karagiozis became their teacher. There is a wonderful poster of a performance by the Ergastirio where Karagiozis shares the stage with Oedipus.

What are you working on next?  

I’m really excited to be meandering off the beaten track of my blog with an upcoming series of posts on art history – from the Renaissance and ending with the Pre-Raphaelites.  I’ll be kicking the series off with a couple of posts on Norman Lindsay and his female satyrs. I’d never come across female satyrs before I visited his garden and gallery in Faulconbridge. Bacchantes and satyrs – yes- but female satyrs? I find them intriguing and perhaps the key to understanding his nudes and what they say about female sexuality. I think his response to classical stimulus is uniquely him and very Australian. I hope to round out the art posts with an inquiry into the Ashbourne Portrait of Shakespeare (or is it Edward de Vere or just an Elizabethan Gentleman).

Thank you so much for your interest in Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing

Thank you, Stella–and I look forward to seeing your posts on Lindsay.

Mythical Jigsaws and Alphabetical Odysseys: An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland and More

An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland was created by British illustrator Bernard Sleigh (1872-1954). Sleigh was a printer and mural painter who was drawn, like many a creator before him, to the wonderful world of fairies, fairy tales, and mythology. His Ancient Mappe is vast, nearly six feet in length, and containing figures and realms from fairytales, myths, and children’s fantasy.

Peter Pan, Oberon, the Kingdom of Carbonel (which later featured in Sleigh’s daughter Barbara’s series about a kingdom of cats), nymphs, dryads, centaurs, psammeads, sea monsters, ice kings and queens and more feature in this marvellous image, showing just how populated fairyland is.

It’s drawn in an arts-and-crafts style, and suggests a yearning for another world (entirely possible to feel this way at the end of a shattering world war), and what I like about it is both its delicacy of colour, and its sense of the grown-upness of fairyland. It is not necessarily aimed at children.

When I stumbled across it, while doing some research for another project on nineteenth-century children’s literature that I’m planning for 2021, I was so taken I immediately thought I should get a copy.

And then, I discovered that there is a jigsaw version of it, which I promptly bought.

Alas, it only covers about 3 feet of Fairyland, probably a good thing, as my desk and dining table are covered with mythical manuscripts. But in the odd moment, I’ve been enjoying piecing it together, and identifying the classical elements that pop up in it.

Jigsaws are in at the moment, as part of a non-digital mindful return to old pursuits. It turns out that the gentle act of sorting through pieces, and working out where to put them is restful and absorbing, and good for the brain.

Combing through the puzzle pieces for the back end of a centaur, or figuring out where Cerberus has his lair (up in the mountains!), somehow frees up the mind to think and reflect more naturally. When I started tutoring at Brandeis University, I learned from working with an inspirational artist and teacher, Karen Klein, that giving students something to do with their hands (drawing a picture, playing with plasticine or pipecleaners), freed up their conversation, made them less self-conscious, perhaps less anxious, able to talk, almost idly, about whatever the subject of the day was.

Our Mythical Alphabet

And I’ve been finding, as I sift through the puzzle pieces, that I’ve been thinking about the book I’m writing with Miriam Riverlea, in which we too sift through many pieces, to put together a puzzle. In our case, it’s a guide to the way that classical mythology works in children’s literature, and we’re looking at it from all sorts of angles. How do particular mythical figures feature in children’s books? What happens to them in the pages? Does a child’s version of a myth highlight specific features? Which myths work for children, and which do not? Why are some figures more popular than others? How do the aesthetics of children’s literature shape the reception of classical antiquity more generally?

We’ve pieced together an Alphabetical Odyssey of a book (and last week I presented its overall format to my colleagues in the Our Mythical Childhood project at the Our Mythical History workshop–report to come). We use the non-hierarchical structure of the alphabet, combined with the loose adventurousness of an Odyssey, a journey on which anything might happen, and frequently does. My colleagues, as they always do, asked intelligent questions–about how we devised our topics, how capacious they are, how do we handle overlap, how do we identify useful texts, how will we present images, classical motifs, children’s literature concepts, and more. How do we handle multicultural topics, how do we think about diversity and difference–all important issues, and a reminder, if any were needed, that the topic may seem highly specialised, but in fact contains multiple and important influences and impacts.

As the work on the book intensifies, I’ll keep using this blog as a place to think about some of the issues that come up.

Back to the Mappe

I’m writing this while waiting for the plane that will take me back to the Southern Hemisphere. The week in Warsaw was intense, thinking about Mythical History, and hearing about the wonderful work my colleagues are doing (such as setting up the Our Mythical Education database, and launching the Myth and Autism network). It’s a shame Bernard Sleigh’s not around to invite to one of our Mythical conferences–I feel sure that if he did come, he’d incorporate our project into a map even larger than his one of Fairyland. But I’m looking forward to getting back to my three-feet jigsaw extract. Hopefully when I get home, all this mythical thinking will have helped me work out just where to find the missing bits of centaur, where exactly to place Cerberus’s lair–and of course, pinning down the elements of our Alphabetical Odyssey…

–Elizabeth Hale