Traditional entertainment was once to be found at the shadow puppet theatre, or "Karagiozis". The puppets were manipulated by a single puppeteer, who would stand behind a white sheet, lit up from behind by a light. Originally, lanterns were employed; later gas and electric lights.
The themes of each play were adapted to current social and political issues, as well as to historical events. The main character was always the "anti-hero" Karagiozis: an unemployed poor man living in a shack near the pasha's palace.
It seems that the Greeks may have adapted the Karagiozis theatre from the Ottomans. The Turks may in their turn have been influenced by the gypsies; although some have claimed that Greek merchants brought shadow theatre from China, or that a Greek created the theatre to entertain the sultan.
In 1809 John Cam Hobhouse witnessed a performance in Ioannina: "An evening or two before our departure from Ioannina, we went to see the only advance which the Turks have made towards scenic representations. This was a puppet show, conducted by a Jew who visits this place during the Ramadan, with his card performers. The show, a sort of ombre-chinoise, was fitted up in a corner of a very dirty coffee-house, which was full of spectators, mostly young boys.... The dialogue, which was all in Turkish, was supported in different tones by the Jew. I did not understand; it caused loud and frequent bursts of laughter from the audience; but the action which was perfectly intelligible was too horribly gross to be described."
In the years following independence, Karagiozis performances introduced new Greek characters, and were subjected to influenced from the mainstream culture. The adventures of the protagonist, Karagiozis, came to reflect the life and battles of the ordinary Greek, an uneducated outsider, but cunning and resourceful.
Performances were for a long time sporadic and moved from place to place. Athenian newspapers in the 1850s and 1860s deplored their crudities. Sometimes the police banned them. Nevertheless, the theatre must have grown in popularity, for by 1854 there were performances in some of the Athens cafes.
Their popularity faded for a time in the capital, although it continued in the provinces. The Karagiozis theatre returned to Athens gradually in the 1890s. In outer neighborhoods, such as Pefkakia, outside the Stadium at the Temple of Zeus, and in Gas Street, performances became popular. In 1893 Acropolis complained that hundreds of workers every night "lose themselves in these vulgar shows, which corrupt their aesthetics and moral education." The Maroussi police closed the Karagiozis performances held in the square in 1894 because of risque jokes, but the indignant population succeeded in having it reinstated. At the beginning of the twentieth it was taken up by intellectuals who gathered at the Cafe Dexameni, in Kolonaki.
It flourished from the First World War until the middle of the twentieth century, but was gradually killed by the cinema and television. However, performances may still occasionally be seen.
Today there is a permanent museum of the Karagiozis Theatre in the northern suburb of Maroussi.