Early Modern Dramatic Entertainments in the Ottoman Empire: Part I

Early Modern Dramatic Entertainments in the Ottoman Empire: Part I

14 June 2021
There were at least 12 theatre companies in İstanbul, each of which consisted of at least 200 performers

This is the first part of a three- part blog series on early modern dramatic entertainments in the Ottoman empire. You can find parts two and three here

Dramatic entertainments in early modern Ottoman Turkey were built upon several traditions and cross-cultural encounters. They were an extension of those entertainments inherited from the Seljuk Turks as famously referred to by the Byzantine princess Anna Komnene (1083-1150) in her Alexiad, an account of her father’s reign, where she describes how the Seljuk Turks impersonated the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and made him the butt of their joke. Early modern Ottoman dramatic entertainments were also an extension of the Ottoman Turks’ encounter with foreign entertainments both at the borderlands and the many ethnic cultures within their dominion. In this blog, I will give a brief introduction to the types of groups of performers, such as theatre guilds; the content matter of these dramatic entertainments; and one of the most prominent genres of the time, that is, comedy.

Early modern Ottoman dramatic entertainments can be divided into one-person and group performances. The Meddah, who were improvisational stand-up comedians, combined the diegetic and the dramatic in their lively storytelling with themes and stories from hagiographies such as the heroics of relatives and companions of Prophet Muhammad like those of Hamzah and Ali, legends like that of Köroğlu who robbed the rich and gave to the poor, or topical issues.

Image of an 18th century ‘Meddah’ available via Halksahnesi

The Mudhik (comedians) and Mukallid (impersonators), on the other hand, were performers who worked in certain guilds and sub-guilds called Kol (branches) that functioned more or less like their counterparts of theatre companies in Europe. Through Evliya Çelebi’s travelogue we know that there were at least 12 theatre companies in İstanbul, each of which consisted of at least 200 performers (including musicians and non-verbal performers like wrestlers or dancers), and that they had their distinct names and theme-based repertory. Apart from the many female dancers and musicians in these companies, these companies consisted of predominantly male performers, but there were instances where men would dress as women and women dress as men.

Masked fools from the 1721 festivities available via 40 Hokkabaz

Furthermore, there were also fools who would perform farcical stichomythic dialogues of short and quick exchanges of words that would alternate between meek gentlemen and their boorish servants, use pantomime, and engage with the audience in their grotesque performances. While Curcunabaz (noisy people) were masked pantomimers akin to anti-masque players, Tulumcu (people with animal skins) would cover themselves in grease and tell jokes while trying to smear the grease on the onlookers, and Tiryaki (addicts) would tell jokes or stories and perform their antics while intoxicated with drugs to provoke laughter.

Beside these commercial theatre groups or practitioners, there were also professional guilds of citizens who would put on their richest attire and perform their professional expertise in civic pageants on drawn wagons, performing dances, short comedies, and staged combat or archery, almost rivalling commercial theatre groups. We also know that the Janissaries had their own performers chosen amongst themselves who had the task of entertaining the Sultan and the soldiers when they went on a campaign, all of which shows that early modern Ottoman dramatic entertainments were a big business that was given importance by the court and its subjects alike.

The procession of the glassworkers in the 1582 festivities available via Wikipedia

From Evliya Çelebi’s travelogue and other eyewitness accounts of foreign travellers, we also know that the above-mentioned types of performers would perform not just in festivities or holidays, but almost on a daily basis on the streets of İstanbul and other big cities where they would take their source material from topical issues or scandals in their comic or tragi-didactic performances. Most of the performances – if not commissioned to be performed within the court, for the honour of envoys, or in mansions of rich people – would be performed in public squares or on the street where small prop houses would represent real ones and the characters would consist of all walks of Ottoman life and ethnicities. The characterisation of masters, servants, matrons, maidens and lovers would be similar to that of Classical New Comedy where certain stereotypical features would be foregrounded to provoke laughter. But unlike New Comedy, most of the plots would be taken from topical real-life events.[1] While there would be fixed frameworks to build the story upon, like master-servant or love relationships, there would not be any written texts and the plots would be rather improvised by the skilled performers as similarly done in commedia dell’arte.[2] Some of the plots included the revelation of interracial secret affairs and how the culprits were punished via public humiliation before being paraded into their mock executions, how prostitutes outwitted their clients, how lovers married despite their oppressive fathers, or how performers as mock officials would create mischief like European lords of misrule. Ranging from domestic to political comedies, these plots would also be  adapted in royal festivities both to entertain Ottoman subjects and to intimidate envoys of enemy foreign countries by having the chief comedians dressed in Christian or Safavid habits as a means of aggressive diplomacy.

Image from Bursa Karagöz Museum available via Wikipedia

I hope that the first part of this introductory blog on Ottoman dramatic entertainments will fuel interest in these often-neglected aspects of the early modern Ottoman court and everyday life. In my next blog I will continue to explore other practitioners and forms of Ottoman dramatic entertainments.


Selected Bibliography

And, Metin. Geleneksel Türk Tiyatrosu: Kukla, Karagöz, Ortaoyunu. Ankara: Bilgi, 1969.

And, Metin. Osmanlı Tasvir Sanatları: 1. İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2014.

Atasoy, Nurhan, Osman, Ayşe Üçok, and Bahadır Taşkın. 1582 Surname-I Hümayun: Düğün Kitabı. İstanbul: Koçbank, 1997.

Busbecq, Ogier G. The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin De Busbecq, Seigneur De Bousbecque, Knight, Imperial Ambassador: Vol. 1. Eds. and trans. Charles T. Forster and Francis H. B. Daniell. London: Paul, 1881.

Çelebi, Evliya. Evliya Celebi Seyahatnamesi. Eds. Ali S. Kahraman, Yücel Dağlı, Robert Dankoff, Zekeriya Kurşun, and İbrahim Sezgin. 2 vols. İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2011. 

Nutku, Özdemir. Meddahlık ve Meddah Hikayeleri. 2nd ed. Ankara: Atatürk Kültür Merkezi Yayını, 1997.

Nutku, Özdemir. Zaman İçinde Zaman. İstanbul: Opus Kitap, 2014.

Sevengil, Ahmet Refik. Türk Tiyatrosu Tarihi I: Eski Türklerde Dram San’atı. Ankara: Milli Eğitim Basımevi, 1969.

[1] There is a strong consensus among scholars that traditional shadow theatre, Karagöz and Hacivat, bears similarities with early modern Ottoman comedy, by having, for instance, representations of prop-house-like facades, ethnic stereotypes, and stock plots that often improvised everyday incidents through satiric comedy. 

[2] Starting with the 18th century, however, some performers started to record summaries, dialogues or entire plays in manuscript form.