- "May a Wasp Sting Your Tongue!":The Armenian Stereotype in Ottoman Popular Performances from the Empire to the Nation-State1
The acclaimed theatrologist Marvin Carlson (2006) mentions a Hamlet production he once saw in Berlin and his surprise at the "gales of laughter" at everything Polonius said even when Carlson thought they were not funny at all. After the play, he learned from a friend that the actor spoke with Swabian accent, which was "a source of much amusement to the sophisticated Berliners." Carlson then argues that "so far the visual… aspects of performing race … have attracted far more attention than the vocal aspects, such as dialect, of performing ethnicity," whereas drawing attention to the difference of the other's language has been one of the most effective strategies employed to mark otherness on stage over the centuries.2 As theatre across the world almost always necessitated a common language3 between the performers and the audience, a dialect4 (and, even better, an accent)5 has played a key role in marking difference on the stage. In other words, it has been a much more efficient method to use language, particularly stage dialect, to underline difference.6 Emphasizing that language is a social construct, Carlson highlights that what has come to be known as an official, standard, or national language of a society is but one dialect among many competing ones, which ends up having superior status to others not for linguistic but for economic, social, and cultural reasons. In nation-building processes, theatre and the emergent standard language have worked together to solidify the authority of the majority, especially in the West.7 The representation and historiography of dialects, accents, and ethnic stereotypes in theatrical performances have thus become highly political issues. [End Page 215]
This essay looks at the Armenian stereotype in late Ottoman popular performances8 from the perspective offered by Carlson. By Ottoman popular performances,9 I am referring to Meddah (storyteller), Karagöz (shadow play), and Ortaoyunu (middle show).10 Meddahs were professional storytellers performing in public spaces, such as coffeehouses.11 Karagöz is the name of the Ottoman/Turkish shadow theatre. These plays feature two principal characters, Karagöz and Hacivat. The characters and spaces are represented with two-dimensional figures made of camel skin, called tasvir, which are reflected on a white screen before a light source. The puppeteer in Karagöz is called a hayali. Ortaoyunu, "'entertainment staged in the middle place' … around which the spectators form a circle," is based on two principal characters parallel to those in Karagöz12 and likened to commedia dell'arte.13
As effective shortcuts to laughter, stereotypes have historically been prevalent in popular comedy genres across the world. Ottoman popular performances were no exception. Alongside Armenians, Albanians, Greeks, Jews, Turks, and many others were stereotyped through their names, professions, clothes, birthplaces, and ways of speaking.14 Yet in these performances, where anybody could simply be the object of ridicule, humiliating members of the Ottoman nationalities was prohibited by law, at least as of the late nineteenth century.15 I suggest, however, that there is something more significant in the case of Armenians, which also has to do with the Turkification of Ottoman popular performances. By Turkification, I am referring to the process through which the popular entertainment genres associated with a multiethnic, multi-religious, and multilingual empire came to be framed as the cultural heritage of the Turkish nation-state.16 I will explain these processes on two levels. On the sociolinguistic level, I will build a link between the representation of the Armenian stereotype and the rise of the Turkish language to a hegemonic status within the Empire. On the historiographical level, I will historicize the existing literature on these performances and question how later generations of Turkish intellectuals dealt with the ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity these performance cultures once reflected. I will thus emphasize a continuity, in linguistic terms, from the late Ottoman Empire into the Turkish Republic and draw attention to modern Turkish performance historiography's politically motivated and ambivalent attitude against Armenians. In other words, I aim to show how the [End Page...