Not based on a written text, ‘ortaoyunu’, with Kavuklu and Pisekâr in the lead roles, is one of the fundamental genres of traditional Turkish theater. Besides the other forms of traveling theater, such as the Karagöz or shadow theater which uses puppets and the coffeehouse stories told by a single narrator, Ortaoyunu is staged with live players that it is staged without relying on a written text. There are different views concerning the origin of ortaoyunu, which dates back to the 13th century. In content, this theater resembles the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, a theatrical genre which was followed by Turks who traded with Venice and Genoa and which they called ‘Arte Oyunu’, a term that may have become corrupted over time to ‘ortaoyunu’. Similarly, the one-act ‘Auto Oyunu’ on religious and pedagogical themes that was performed in Spain may also have been modified to ‘ortaoyunu’ by the Turks. Still another theory is that ortaoyunu is connected with the ‘Yeniçeri Ortalari’ or Janissary Divisions. If we consider that the ortaoyunu was indeed performed among Janissary troops, this view does not appear all that far-fetched. Furthermore, by an interesting coincidence the Janissary divisions were also called ‘Orta’. But since it would appear impossible to arrive at definite proof of any of these theories, it is of course better to limit the meaning of ortaoyunu to ‘a play performed in the open’.

 Ortaoyunu begins with raucous Curcunabaz dances and again ends with dances, the actual play taking place between these two dances. The main parts of the performance are: Prologue, Dialogue, Play and Ending. Staged in a circular arena, ortaoyunu is a theatrical genre which is shaped by a continuous exchange between the playing area and the spectators and their reactions. Since the stage is round, the players change place and direction frequently, enabling all the spectators to see them with great frequency. Nor do players who have completed their roles feel any need to conceal themselves from the spectators. Consequently ortaoyunu is very different from Western theater, which works by awakening a sense of illusion. We said at the beginning that ortaoyunu was performed as improvisation. In the process of westernization that followed the Reform Decree issued in 1839, however, the texts of these plays were written down. The performance of such texts on stage gave rise to the ‘Tuluât’ tradition of popular, improvisational theater in Turkey.

Parallel with the types of Karagöz and Hacivat in Turkish shadow theater, the two main characters in ortaoyunu are the types known as Kavuklu and Pisekâr. The play revolves around the conflict between these two. While Kavuklu is a type who represents the common people, Pisekâr fits the definition more of a semi-educated type. Pisekâr is a flexible character who tells everybody what they want to hear, knows how to make people smile, is a mediator who can quell disagreements and reconcile the estranged, is moderate, fits into any mold, is ready to overlook people’s faults, and knows how to keep quiet when it is in his interest. He always puts a positive spin on other people’s evil words and intentions, as well as doling out advice and acting as a counselor. He is well-spoken, listens attentively to what others say, and earns the confidence and affection of one and all. Although his knowledge is superficial, he has a definite opinion on every subject. In the play he is the first to appear on stage to greet the spectators. Kavuklu follows in his wake and is followed in turn by the Dwarf or Hunchback type, who is dressed in a costume exactly like Kavuklu’s and mimics all his actions, which gives rise to comic situations. A musical ensemble, consisting generally of a zurna (double-reed pipe), a tambourine and a kudüm (small double drum), accompanies the action from beginning to end.

Like Kavuklu and Pisekâr, the other characters in ortaoyunu are also fixed types. One group among them is the ‘Zenne’, men with their faces half veiled who act out the female roles. The ortaoyunu types are divided up into various groups based on the characteristics of the social class they represent. They include: Çelebi, Tiryaki, Beberuhi, who speak with an Istanbul accent; the Black Sea Laz, the natives of Kastamonu, Kayseri, Egin and Harput, and the Kurd, who represent people from Anatolia; the Muhacir (the immigrant, from Rumelia), the Albanian, the Persian and the Arab, who represent people coming from outside Anatolia; the Greek, the Frank, the Armenian and the Jew, who represent the non-Muslims; the types with defects such as the Stutterer, the Hunchback, the Himhim (who speaks through his nose), the Cripple, the Madman, the Cannabis Addict, the Deaf Man, and the Idiot (also known as Denyo); the bullies and drunks who include Efe, Zeybek, Matiz, Tuzsuz, Sarhos and Külhanbeyi; the entertainers who include the Köçek dancer (male), the çengi dancer (female), the Singer, the Magician, the Acrobat, the Reveller, the Daydreamer, and the Musician; and the supernatural characters such as the Sorcerer, the Witches and the Djinn types. Apart from these groups, minor characters and children also take part in the play.

The main characters in ortaoyunu always dress in a certain way. Their outfit exhibits the characteristic features of the social class to which they belong and the region from which they come. It also determines that character’s style, habits and profession. Kavuklu, for example, is dressed as follows: on his head a white turban with many folds, on his back a white shirt unbuttoned at the neck, a three-piece robe, the two front skirts of which are joined together, a shawl-like sash fastened around his waist with a big button, and a long, loose-fitting red cloak with wide sleeves with ‘salvar’ or baggy pants under it, and on his feet a pair of yellow ‘morocco’ slippers.

Another salient feature of the characters is that they represent types which neither change themselves nor are able to alter the course of the action. Such types, which have neither past nor future, are also found in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition. At this point it is appropriate to ask whether the ortaoyunu tradition could be revived in our day. The Italian playwright and Nobel laureate Dario Fo has used plays from the Commedia dell’Arte tradition as material, re-working them to produce important new works for the theater. If our ortaoyunu, which is on the verge of being forgotten today, were also to be used by Turkish writers, clearly our ties to our past traditions would be further strengthened.

The pictures shown below to illustrate this article were painted at the start of the 20th century by a painter named Muazzez, who was also an amateur ortaoyunu player.

Reference: Prof. Dr. Metin And/SKYLIFE

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