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My Spatharis: The artist’s last performance

By Vasia Karakayianni-Karabelia y first encounter with Evgenios Spatharis and the other Karagiozis shadow puppeteers came when I was very young, not yet 5 years old. It was mainly through the illustrated magazines we used to buy at the kiosk to put on our own Karagiozis shows in the courtyard of our house in Volos. We used to cut out the paper figures that accompanied the stories, tie them together with string and glue them to the sticks that we used to make them dance across the screen. It was mostly my brother and his friends who played behind a large white sheet borrowed from our mother. We used to set it up with planks, I don’t remember how, at the rear of the courtyard, between the palm tree and the chicken coop. As the youngest, I used to collect the coins for admission at the garden gate. Lots of people, children that is, used to come. I don’t remember the plays very well, just «Karagiozis the Doctor,» «The Wedding of Karagiozis,» «Athanasios Diakos,» and «Alexander the Great and the Accursed Snake.» There was so much enthusiasm and laughter from the audience. The plays weren’t just funny; they were heroic and dramatic as well. On one occasion, the performance ended in real drama when the sheet caught fire from the candles we used as lights. Poor Poppy, our mother, gave us a hiding. But we started over again. The years went by and around 1964-5, the famous folklore scholar Kitsos Makris, a friend of my father’s as well as my friend and beloved teacher, told me he would take me to meet Evgenios Spatharis, who was performing in Volos. I was thrilled to bits. So we set out for Pefkakia where Evgenios had arranged to meet us: He never missed an opportunity to go swimming. It was there that I first met the famous Karagiozis puppet master, on some rocks, wearing an amazing pair of swimming trunks with horizontal stripes. Beside him was his assistant Costas, wearing similar trunks. As they splashed their feet in the water, there was laughter in their coal-dark eyes and flashing white teeth, like the little figures in the paintings of Theophilos. I met him many times after that, but that is the image that springs to mind when I think about my good friend Evgenios. In Paris in 1970, after my degree in art history and archaeology, I decided to do a master’s on shadow-puppet theater in Greece at the Sorbonne’s aesthetics and philosophy department, where Olivier Revault d’Allonnes taught. A philhellene and the grandson of [language reformist Ioannis] Psycharis, he also died recently. I wrote to him and he accepted. He was glad, he told me later, because he was himself an aficionado of the plays, which he had often seen in Greece and often mentioned in his lessons. What Karagiozis represented That was in the dark days of the military dictatorship in Greece. To those of us who could not return to Greece because of our political beliefs, Karagiozis seemed in a way to represent our unhappy people, their suffering and courage, their inexhaustible optimism, their audacity and cunning machinations against whatever adversity, whatever regimes life threw at them. So I spent a marvelous year researching Karagiozis in libraries, mainly the library of the old Sorbonne’s Modern Greek Institute, where I first met the librarian Costas Constantinidis, our great teacher K.T. Dimaras, and all his exiled proteges. They were studying serious Enlightenment texts while I studied Karagiozis, including the remarkable memoirs of Sotiris Spatharis, a classic of their kind, and Karagiozis works by other writers. Bent over a massive collection of Karagiozis publications, I would burst out laughing, with the image always in my mind of Evgenios painting, performing, signing, drinking in the taverna and laughing that uproarious, ringing laugh of his. I could only wonder how Evgenios was managing, given his political views and his Karagiozis jokes. I defended my master’s thesis in 1971. In the spring of 1973, with the so-called liberalization in Greece under PM Spyros Markezinis, those of us who had not been able to return to Greece before because of their anti-dictatorship activities finally managed to go. And so one morning I knocked on Evgenios’s door in Maroussi. He and his wife greeted me with open arms. They showed me their archive – letters from [poet Angelos] Sikelianos, [artist Yiannis] Tsarouchis, and many others. I took notes, admired the sets and the numerous shadow-puppet figures – all of which I assume are now in the Spatharis Museum – and took photographs. I also met his father, the great Sotiris Spatharis. At that time, I intended to add to my thesis and publish it but it ended up in a drawer, with so many other things. I saw Evgenios many times after that. I arranged for him to be invited by the Bordeaux-based Greek-French association, Entre Deus Mers / Regions d’Europe in 1995, which had organized a number of events related to contemporary Greek culture. Although he had heart trouble at the time, Evgenios came with his wife. On the day of the performance, the theater was packed. Spatharis, who was in high spirits, put on «Alexander the Great and the Accursed Snake,» in Greek, of course, but with little asides in French about current affairs and certain people in the auditorium, which helped the audience to respond. It was obvious that he was on his own behind the screen, doing all the voices, all the languages, solo, to perfection. At the end, after loud applause, out came Evgenios – making his greeting in a few words of French and holding a tape recorder. He put down a large can (like an olive oil can) that had a stone inside it. And he gave it such a kick that it sounded like thunder. That’s what he wanted, to show the audience how he made the thunder they heard during the show; what simple means the shadow puppeteer uses in a performance. He brought the house down. Some people still speak to me about the impression Spatharis’s Karagiozis made that day. Another time, he came to Paris at the invitation of the Amis de la Grece et de Chypre, and I had another chance to introduce him and enjoy his performance. Then we lost touch. I saw him perform on television. I watched the documentaries, read about him in the press, and then, last Saturday, I heard about his last performance. I imagine him now, performing «Death and the Tomb of Evgenios Spatharis» and rising up from the monument – as in some of the Karagiozis plays – and going home. And a crony asking: «Why did you come back? Did you do something to make them throw you out of the cemetery?» And all those who loved him shouting, like the sailors on Nikolaos Christopoulos’s ships when the mermaid asks if Alexander the Great lives: «He lives! He lives! He lives!» Vasia Karakayianni-Karabelia is an art historian.