The Orta Oyunu and Halide Edip Adivar: The Use of Folk Drama as the Subtext of a Novel

Halide Edip Adivar, (1884-1964) was one of the most influential writers of the beginning of the Turkish republic. Her novel, Sinekli Bakkal, which she originally wrote in English as the Clown and his Daughter, is a look at the end of the Ottoman era that manages to be both nostalgic and unsentimental.

It covers a lot of ground, but one of the constant refrains is the performances, as a storyteller, in the puppet play Karagoz, and especially as the Zenne in the traditional folk drama Orta Oyunu, of the Clown of the title, Tevfik, who is one of life’s jokers but is eventually bitten by his own wit.

The Orta Oyunu was a play without a written script that involves much adlibbing and interaction with the audience, and one of the possible explanations of the name, which means literally in Turkish, game of the middle, is that orta was derived by confusion from arte, or the Italian commedia dell’arte. The orta oyunu has a large number of stock characters, as enumerated in the hyper linked article above, but the one Tevfik specialized in was the Zenne, the imitation of a woman. When he imitated his wife, Emine, a fire and brimstone Imam’s daughter, in the beginning of the book, she leaves him, taking with her their young daughter, Rabia, who is then trained by her grandfather to sing the koranic responses in the mosque.

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Tevfik and the Orta Oyunu

Tevfik himself to some extent is designed as a stock character, the archetypical Turkish male, good-hearted, maybe a little lazy but very intelligent and artistic and not too religious. In the relationship of Tefvik to his artform, one can see the influence of the Italian writers, Giovanni Verga and the verismo opera composers, like Leoncavallo, who brought the commedia dell’arte and folk customs into “serious” literature.

Like Verga, Edip Adivar has a real affection for the folk milieu she is describing. But Sinekli Bakkal doesn’t treat the Orta Oyunu as a play within a play, like in Pagliacci. Real life is not separated from the fictional world, it is integrated into it. Like the Orta Oyunu itself, Tevfik’s clowning is not at all disconnected from the world of real life. Unlike in the Western tradition, there is no “fourth wall”.

This is what makes Sinekli Bakkal so seminal as a work of art for the development of African and Near Eastern literatures. Not only the twentieth century African novelists, but also people like Orhan Pamuk owe an enormous debt to Halide Edip Adivar.

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