Theatre and Drama


Mihai Lukacs

Roma Slave Jesters

The Origins of Theatre in Wallachia and Moldavia

In the numerous politically motivated descriptions of Roma people from the 1830s onwards, progressive young boyars write in order to produce empathy among slave owners in Wallachia and Moldavia. They focus on two categories of slaves, related by occupation and perceived as vehicles of Romanian ideas (hence the general sympathy for these cultural slaves): the jesters and the lăutari (traditional Roma musicians). The jesters ​​had many names, but their history was related to the 500 years of Roma slavery.1

The craft of jester at the court of the country’s ruler or of the local nobility, and the function of lăutari, were from their very beginnings associated with the condition of slaves in the house of the boyar or ruler. If the jesters were the only people close to the ruler and the great boyars who could criticize and ridicule them directly, thus giving voice to entire social categories which lacked this opportunity, the lăutari are presented as preservers of popular Romanian culture and transmitters of a ‘local spirituality’ in which the young noble revolutionaries took a direct interest in their efforts to build a modern Romanian nation in 1848.

The link between the abolition of Roma slavery and the modernization of Romanian society remains a crucial topic in the current interest in the social situation of Roma, and the relations between Roma and non-Roma people. Although this concern for the understanding of Roma/non-Roma relations intensified particularly between 1830 and 1860, and was of constant interest at the end of the nineteenth century (as a consequence of the ideas spelled out in 1848), many of the stated theories regarding the Roma people were based on pure speculation and were later categorized as historical fantasies or false hypotheses.

Even today, some contemporary works publish a series of statements without historiographical support, and much of the writing about Roma slavery (exclusively written by non-Roma authors) is a simple misinterpretation of rather vague works. However, the importance of these works and their role during the period in question should not be neglected. It is necessary to mention the role of public intellectual debate on a subject that was important for society and the attempts to answer a fundamental question through a purely historical, but comprehensive idea of subjectivity. This question is: who are we? A significant concept in the analysis of this question is gadjology, introduced by the Roma researcher Petra Gelbart. It means the study of gadje or non-Roma people from an internal Roma perspective, without comparing Roma to non-Roma individuals and communities, but considering them as a symbiosis; not focusing on integration, assimilation, adaptation or exoticism but instead and especially on the comparative study of the relationship of gadje to Roma subjects, taking into account the permanent link between them and Roma people.

The universe of ideas related to Roma people and property, modernity, tradition, progress, backwardness or civilization explored by the Romanian abolitionists is not very different from the current discussions on Roma subjectivity. The following points may seem surprising: the Romanian disdain for the Roma people, regardless of class; the extremely precarious social situation of the majority of Roma people from Romania and the rest of Europe; Roma exoticism as the main positive route to interaction with non-Roma; despite their sharing of the same physical space, the consistent distance between non-Roma and Roma subjects, based on mistrust, dehumanization of Roma subjectivity and fear; the remote (sometimes obsessive) fascination with the lifestyle of the Roma people, perceived as the quintessence of otherness and the opposite of the non-Roma self; the relationship of ‘extimacy’ (or external intimacy) between Romanian and Roma subjectivities, in the form of an inter-subjective structure by which the other is alien to me (although always in my soul), an off-centre construction of subjectivity (outside myself I find the centre of my own subjectivity).

From the first historical mention of jesters in Wallachia – introduced to the court by Petru Cercel, who became ruler in 1583 and was inspired by the jokes and tricks of the palace jesters of Henry III of Valois (France)2 – these cultural slaves were chosen exclusively from the Roma people and became a symbol of the pre-modern Romanian theatre before the nineteenth century. Once the jesters were integrated into the history of Romanian theatre, their ethnicity and lowly slave status were forgotten, thereby denying the symbolic importance of Roma participation in the construction of a national culture. The rediscovery of Roma jesters is a gesture of recognition of Roma theatrical tradition, which preceded that of Romanian theatre and deeply influenced it.

In a posthumously published letter, one of the most influential Moldavian writers, 1848 revolutionaries and politicians, Vasile Alecsandri, deplores the personalities of his era as a collection of comic caricatures, imprinted with the ‘seal of absurdity’. Comparing them with other European cultures, Alecsandri chose the following characters as examples: ‘So Shakespeare immortalized Falstaff, Molière – Tartuffe, Cervantes – Don Quijote, etc. Thus the Italian people incarnated the grotesque in Pulcinello, the French in Guignol, the Romanian in Vasilache the Gypsy, the Russians in Hagi Alvat, etc.’ Vasilache the Gypsy is the specific example of Romanian theatrical culture, a personification of the Roma slave jester who will only become Vasilache, losing his status of Roma slave, through a sudden Romanianization of the character, as Alecsandri explains in Ion the Puppeteer: Vasilache becomes a ‘citizen’, owner and ‘one of those new Romanians’,3 raising up his people.

The jester (măscărici) had various names and personas over the years; he was also called caraghioz, a word of Turkish origin based on kara, meaning black, and goz, eye. Caraghioji were the clowns of the old medieval farces, and the name later became more generally given to prankish jokers, but keeping the etymology of ‘black eyes’. The term survived in common Romanian language, meaning ‘ridiculous’.

The jesters were also called mânlieci, from the Greek maniakos, when their numbers included magic and illusions, their imagination being perceived as a momentary madness, a bizarre and ridiculous gesture at the same time.
Ghiduș, another name for Roma jesters in Moldavia, had its origin in the Transylvanian word biduş, which meant ‘dirty’ (a word of Hungarian origin: budos means ‘loafer’ or ‘lazy’) but in Moldavia it kept the more limited meaning of ‘actor’.

Nevertheless, the most widespread term for the slave jesters from the princely and boyar court was ‘fool’ or ‘madman’, a term still preserved nowadays, in addition to the vague meaning of mental pathology, with connotations of the buffoon, lack of reason, excess or craziness.4 In the Romanian language the construction of the word is simple: nebun means ‘not good’, a lack of what society considers goodness.

Jesters preceded the rulers in the cortege, according to strict rules and wearing ridiculous costumes. In some descriptions of the time, there were four jesters walking in front of the ruler, laughing loudly, and in front of the ruler’s sons, two for each. Their outfits were described as including large tiger fur hats with fox tails hanging behind and small mirrors hanging in front. They are represented as wearing guns at their waist and carrying axes. Famous jesters from history such as Chimiță, Manea the Fool and Prince Zamfir from the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, or the mythical jester Ciubăr Voivod, were the only persons close to the ruler and the great boyars, who were allowed to criticize and ridicule their masters directly (but within certain limits), thus giving voice to entire social categories which were lacking this possibility.

The jesters, slaves of the great boyars and the ruler, participated for three hundred years at the only theatrical performances of the epoch during the festivities of princes and boyars. Together with so called pehlivani, another category of performance artists specializing in acrobatics, the Roma jesters were permanently present in the immediate vicinity of the ruler and had an important social role: to make the master likeable in the eyes of his subordinates and to make them, their master and the family feel good. Their humour was grotesque and physical, and they exposed themselves to ridicule in their performances by putting themselves in the position of being inferior to the abilities and intelligence of their masters. This meant that even if the joke was on the master, the assumed inferior human condition of the jester and his implicit madness made the joke acceptable and it was not seen as an ironic attack that would upset the power balance.

‘For coronations, for example, they went in front of the princely cortege, back-straddled on the horses, adorned and led by the princely servants. The jesters were dressed in multicoloured garments with all the strong colours and various types of chenille, on their heads they had red hats with two or three fox tails hanging and fluttering around their heads. They rode and made various kinds of caraghioaze [as noted above, specific jester jokes coming from the name caraghioz], screaming, yelling and seeking in all ways to make the people who were watching them laugh,’ we learn from Burada's History of Theatre in Moldavia.5

In the imagination and comedy of the contemporary clown today, one can find the techniques of the jesters of the past, whose presence of mind and ingenuity were the sources of their long tried and tested humoristic tools. The jester – in its modern meaning as a deprecating epithet for a non-serious person – was similarly labelled by pre-modern society. The place jesters occupied in the social structure of the time, their slave condition and the absolute contempt for those who practised the jester profession are clearly illustrated by Matei Basarab’s Law of 1652, which mentions jesters, in the circumstance of a man surprising his wife cheating on him: ‘if there is a lower man, that is to say a peasant, or a servant, or a jester [...], if the man kills him then nothing will happen, he will not be charged.’ Wearing their caricature costumes, jesters constantly joined the princely retainers. They performed farces of a licentious nature and various scenes filled with trivialities and irony, directed, at the will of their master, against a boyar or just to make fun of the surrounding reality.

One of the first Romanian theatre plays, Barbul Vacarescul, the traitor of the country,6 written by Iordache Golescu in 1818, was intended to denounce the cruelty of the ruler’s domination of his less important servants. A central character, Măscăriciul (The Jester), explicitly mentioned as a Roma slave by being described as ‘the Gypsy of Racoviță’, is present throughout the play and constantly ridicules the nobility, expressing indignation through comic mechanisms and making links to the collective characters of the people or the priests. His jokes have also a sexual character and make self-deprecating references to the slave condition of the jester.

In 1895, Ion Luca Caragiale, one of the main modern Romanian authors, published the article ‘Clerks and Jesters’ in the Gazette of the People.7 In this short text, addressed to the press and to writers of the period, Caragiale describes the role of the jesters, ‘forever recruited from the slaves’, who, besides the clerks who came from the free non-Roma peasants, played an important role in the boyar court. The jester, along with the lăutari, was an important slave servant of the court: ‘Any respected boyar still had another intellectual servant, so necessary to a boyar court with extensive social relations. At that time, when there was no public life, and when the social elite and the high-life were called the high nobility, the boyar, instead of Capșa [a famous Bucharest restaurant] and the pub, had gatherings and parties at home, wearing only the boyar hat and slippers, instead of Hugo’s, he had a lăutari band and a jester.’

The role of the jester was clearly delimited, as were the jokes he could produce: ‘It was his job to make fun [to tell caraghioslâcuri, specific jester jokes] at the party, to trick the guests and even his master and tell the ladies in Greek what the ladies hear today in French at Hugo’s.’ Besides these artistic obligations, Roma jesters ‘had to perform intimate services for the boyars in sentimental circumstances, and they also had a political and social task.’ One of the main political tasks is described by Caragiale in the following terms:

‘When the boyar had it in for someone, when he had a hangover for some reason, when he was angry that the ruler was not appreciating him enough, then he would put his jester at the gate of the court to catch his rival or his friends or his sympathizers, to boo them, to throw garbage at them and to swear at them at will.
The boyar sat smoking his chibouk in the porch and shouted: ‘Ha ha ha! Swear at him! Keep on swearing!’

Caragiale considered that that the ‘patriarchal age’ or ‘golden and sweet milk age’ had vanished at the end of the nineteenth century, and the social role of the jester had been taken over by journalists. Although the jesters have disappeared, they left their mark on the theatre in the Romanian principalities and on the way political humour is produced. As intellectual slaves, Roma jesters were the main critical voice on the existing inequitable social structures, while their wit was a permanent threat. Cultural history has forgotten them and erased their slave status, just as it has forgotten the participation of Roma people in the construction of a Romanian national culture; the Roma jesters were the founders of the theatre in this region.