Orthodox Islam in Turkey did not greatly oppose dramatic performances although sometimes the civil authorities would interfere if the performances became too lewd

ISTANBUL – Turkish Daily News
Traditional Turkish theater, influenced by pagan and Western dramatic methods through the centuries, is making a comeback, despite it’s demise with the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Western theater was not introduced to the Ottoman Turks until the second half of the 17th century when the ambassador of the French king, Louis XIV, the Marquis de Nointel (1670-1679) had a theater built at the embassy in Istanbul.

Plays by Corneille, Moliere, Montfleury and Galland were staged there and it is known that Turks were in the audience although the entertainment was basically for the French community of the city. The French colony in İzmir also saw dramatic performances of Corneille and other French writers at a specially built theater in the French consulate and these were also watched by Turks. The Italian embassy also had a theater while other performances were held at private homes and in the minority communities.

Yet the earliest records of dramatic art in Turkey come from the Seljuk Turkish court in Konya in the 12th century.  Byzantine Princess Anna Comnena in her book, Alexiad, mentions her father being ridiculed in mimes at court performances. The court of Ottoman Sultan Beyazıd had companies of actors as well as other entertainers in 1407. The many official celebrations of royal births, marriages and circumcisions included stage production, puppet shows, animal characters, costumes and music.

Shamanistic rituals of Ural-Altaic origin must have had some influence on Turkish theater. In Turkish shamanistic ceremonies, the shaman is called “oyun” and what takes place is also called “oyun” while the Turkish word for play is also “oyun”. These rituals include dancing, both vocal and instrumental music, drama, mime, ventriloquism and poetry recitations. Metin And, an expert on Turkish theater, divides the types of theater into four traditions – folk, popular, court and western.

In the early days of the Ottoman Empire, entertainment in the dramatic arts took three major forms. Story-telling was the most popular form of entertainment and remains familiar to all Turks even today. Orta oyunu (“middle play”) was a theatrical performance given in the middle of open town squares, or any open space, comparable to the Commedia dell’ arte (“play of professional artists”) and modern theater in the round.

Shadow theater, “Karagöz”, was the third dramatic form. It consisted of an operator manipulating small leather figures against an opaque screen. Both orta oyunu and Karagöz plays were composed of stereotyped, loosely connected scenes. Character was portrayed through contrast and repetition rather than in depth, and female roles were always played by men. Political satire, jokes and mimicking high officials formed a stock portion of the repertoire until the late 19th century when Sultan Abdulaziz banned political comedy.

Orthodox Islam in Turkey did not greatly oppose dramatic performances although occasionally civil authorities would interfere if performances became too lewd. What antagonism did exist was usually directed against the use of plays to propagate mystic doctrines. The shadow figures of Karagöz did not contravene Islamic law forbidding the imitation of living beings. Because the leather figures were made from colored, opaque animal skin, they were judged not to represent humans.

Many references to dramatic performances and dancing are to be found in Ottoman literature. Not only was the peasant in his tiny village entertained by traveling groups; productions of various sorts were staged for the benefit of the sultan and his court. Ibn Ilyas in his Tarih Misr states that, while in Egypt in 1517, Sultan Selim I enjoyed a shadow play so much that he had the producer and his entire company come to Istanbul. Although Karagöz seems to have been established earlier in Turkey and indeed may have been brought into Anatolia from Persia, most of the 13th and 14th century references are literary metaphors. There is no evidence that the Byzantines had a shadow theater. The first actual description of Karagöz dates from 1582 and the celebrations at the circumcision of Mehmed, Sultan Murad III’s son. Often plays would be performed more frequently during the month of Ramadan to coincide with the breaking of the fast. This meant around 28 consecutive nights of performances as against the usual three or four a week. The Sultan kept a permanent band of actors at his palace; however, a company was also to be found among his retinue when he went on campaign. Court officials often emulated the sultan in hiring actors for family feast days. Available evidence does not clearly show what sorts of performances these actors gave – perhaps at first not much more than juggling and conjuring acts. Süleyman the Magnificent in 1530 and Murad III in 1582 are recorded as having witnessed performances of pitched battles (in Turkish, savaş oyunu). In fact in 1582, the first ballet performance, on St. George and the dragon, was performed before Murat III by 300 Christian slaves. According to R.A. Sevengil, the story was translated into Turkish. So the evidence, scanty though it may be, shows that Ottoman Turks, from the royal courts to the peasantry, were not unacquainted with dramatic performances and theater – even if it was not quite what the western European might consider theater.

Western influences on Turkish theater

  Sometimes performances were given in the open in the manner of Italy’s Commedia dell’ arte. These informal performances, similar to orta oyunu, were known as the Tuluat Theater and began in the 1870s. This mainly improvisational method used characters of everyday life, adapting western plays and performing outside under a çınar tree during spring and summer. Western plays were reproduced in outline and dialogue was taken from local events, gossip and newspapers. It also relied on the techniques and some of the classic character types found in the old orta oyunu productions. It was not unknown for successful tuluat plays to be stolen by others, employing a secretary to take down notes during a rival production. It was this kind of improvisation that particularly annoyed Sultan Abdulaziz and then Abdulhamid II. Sharply barbed remarks on current topics could bring about gales of laughter that the sultans could not tolerate.

The 19th century saw theaters open in Istanbul and in İzmir that were open to the public. Not only were western plays staged; famous actors and actresses (such as Sarah Bernhardt) came from abroad to perform in them too. There was a regular circuit that covered Alexandria in Egypt, İzmir and Istanbul.

At the same time more and more Turks were traveling abroad to Western Europe and were exposed to what was being written and produced there. They would bring back their changed ideas of what should be presented. We also see in 1879 how three-times grand vizier Ahmet Vefik Paşa not only set up his own public theater in Bursa when he was governor there, but how he translated many of Moliere’s works into Turkish and even went so far as to try to educate audiences on how to behave when in a theater.

Later, when all things Ottoman were being belittled, traditional forms of Turkish theater almost died out. It wasn’t until the Istanbul Festival began putting on performances of orta oyunu within its framework that people once again began to appreciate this art form. And Karagöz has also made a comeback as interest in these older forms has emerged. Hopefully that interest will continue to grow.