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Commedia Dell` Arte

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    Commedia Dell` Arte

    The name commedia dell’arte is hard to interpret. Exactly it approximates ‘humor of the artists’, involving performances by experts as notable from the courteous amateurs. This form has been given other names which are more revealing of its nature and characteristics. These comprise of commedia dell’arte all’improvviso, commedia improvviso (improvised comedy) and commedia alla maschera (masked comedy).

    Moreover, in fact the very term la commedia dell’arte was never used of the activities of actors or professional acting companies until the eighteenth century, when we find Carlo Goldoni employing it to distinguish the masked and improvised drama from the scripted comedy that as a dramatist he himself favored…. Earlier expressions used of the expert performers and organizations tend to be rather more precise: la commedia all’italiana, la commedia mercenarya, la commedia degli Zanni, or la commedia a soggetto.

    The genuine expression is not used by Andrea Perrucci in his Dell’arte representation, premeditata Ed all’improvviso, which was written in 1700.

    Commedia dell’arte is the pleasantry acted by experts, those who are known as artists. Only performers accepted by the management were known as Commedia performers. The word arte in fact disguised the inclusion of the theatrical arts; it brought closer those who were allowed to perform for the counts, dukes, etc.

    Throughout the twentieth century the question has been (and still remains despite the efforts of Craig, Meyerhold, Copeau, Reinhardt and later directors) how to retrieve information from scholarship in such a way that actors’ efforts at self-authored Commedia improvisation are not merely illustrative of what the original form may have been like. Craig was first to the heart of the problem:

    “History, to creative minds, is often a dry dead thing. It is the story of the past. Creators are concerned with the Present and the Future. It concerns our old friends Harlequin, Pantaloon, Pulcinella or Punch and their companions…the Doctor, Brighella, Scaramuccia, Coviello and the Captain. What fun, you think. Yes, what fun…but what genius also, for the inventors of these figures was a man of genius. Whether the inventors were peasants or actors or both is immaterial” (James Laver, 1999)

    The point has not yet been decided: but it has been very clearly decided and recorded that the inventors were not play-writers. Towards the end of the century his point has still not been decided and furthermore it never can be, at least not by scholarship alone.

    The fact is that scholars, directors, teachers and actors alike are dealing with an oral tradition, not a literary one: a phenomenon of the folk which became part of their lore before being patronized by the mighty, an organic growth from popular origins which only latterly became a set of cultivated conventions that could be adopted by ‘play-writers’. The culture of the people was illiterate, but only in the sense that, say, many an Irish jig violinist cannot read music. Those who can notate find such improvisations almost impossible to score. As with folk music, there is a literacy of performance of Commedia which was originally developed without a conscious sense of culture as a common social denominator between performer and spectator.

    In the sixteenth century in Italy, performers took pre-existing spontaneous masking, dance, folk and music forms and made them into a theatrical masterpiece. Over the next two centuries the performance techniques they developed were passed on highly selectively to their siblings and other younger members of their troupes as, virtually, professional secrets. There is a marked similarity with Japanese Noh theatre in this respect: the symbol or kana for Noh means ‘accomplishment’ or ‘professional ability’; the word arte, should properly be translated as a combination of ‘tradesman ship’ and ‘artistic know-how’. Within the family-based Ryu of the Noh the treatises of Zeami, its first great actor, were passed from generation to generation in secret veneration, remaining unpublished until 1909, when the need for spectators as specialized in understanding as actors in performing had become essential to the survival of the form. No such treatise exists for Commedia, however: the works of Perucci, Riccoboni, Gherardi, etc. were written in hindsight during the mature inflorescence of Commedia and do not reveal much that is of use to a more than general reader. Barry Grantham, as ‘Harlequin in Residence’, wrote in the program of the 1985 Brighton Festival (which was devoted to Commedia):

    Unfortunately for present day performers these skills were regarded as professional secrets and they produced no handy manual for our use. The evidence has to be sought, not only in Commedia sources, but in those related contemporary performing arts. Our understanding can also be considerably enlarged by attempting to set up ‘laboratory conditions’ duplicating the circumstances in which the comedians worked. We then compare the experience gained with the material, particularly iconographic, that we do have against that of more easily recoverable recent traditions like pantomime, Music Hall, and a particularly rich source, the silent movie.

    It is a function of training to conduct such a quest, of active research through practice, rather than archaeological reconstruction. In doing so, the benefits of the arte, paradoxically, may not be just for the practicing or intending professional actor, but also for developing a literacy of performance in the non-specialist. Throughout the twentieth century there have been schools attempting the former, notably Copeau’s at the Vieux Colombier in Paris and Burgundy, Dullin’s at the Atelier in Paris, Saint-Denis’s in London, New York and Canada and Lecoq’s in Milan and again in Paris. At the present time, American schools such as the Dell Arte, our own courses in the Exeter University Drama Department, the stages led by Carlo Boso and Patrick Pezin and above all, in my experience, Antonio Fava’s International School of the Comic Actor in Reggio Emilia, continue to make investigations. Craig’s question and affirmation remain with us: ‘Is it possible? Can a Drama which holds the stage for two centuries be created without the assistance of the literary man? It can. Then if it can be created once it can be created twice? It can.’

    First, though, a short trace on when, why and how Commedia ‘died’ (or rather went into suspended animation) may help to set the scene. No theatre form fully dies until the culture which generated it disappears. Even then fragments remain for scholars to pore over, shards from which to make guesswork reconstructions as, for example, have been the case with Greek tragedy. Commedia dell’arte, too, was thought to have perished as a living theatre form as long ago as the late eighteenth century. Originally a folk form, Commedia had progressively been monopolised by well-to-do ‘society’, painted and engraved by artists such as Callot, Watteau and Domenico Tiepolo, written up by playwrights such as Goldoni, Molière, Beaumarchais and Marivaux, and, eventually, like any other fashion, condemned as outmoded; a seemingly exhausted seam of amusement which it was no longer rewarding to work.

    The old commedia dell’arte had sunk into decrepitude. It was not merely that the type itself was exhausted, though subsequent circumstances proved this to be the case. What was more important is that the popular taste veered round against it. Under the prevailing dominance of French fashions, a style of drama, hither-to unknown to the Italians, came into vogue. The so-called comédie larmoyante, or pathetic comedy (of which Nivelle de la Chaussée, a now forgotten archimage of middle-class sentimentalities and sensibilities, is the reputed inventor), caught the ear of Europe.

    Like so many of the vital rites of yesteryear, Commedia was relegated to the nursery where its imagery, in bowdlerized form, continued to animate the minds of the young through toys and picture books. The outward shell was returned to the people for whom, in the fairground booth and the puppet show, it lived on as popular as gondolas and gallopers—and arguably as culturally significant. We now know that it also survived as theatre, not only in the bizarre afterpiece of the English pantomime, the harlequinade, but also in modest touring companies in Italy, the country of its origin, where—like most commonplaces—no one bothered to record it. The sole example of such a troupe surviving to the present day is that of the Carrara family.

    By the mid-nineteenth century, however, a consciousness of something special being lost, of a unique species endangered almost to extinction, was already stirring. One dull evening in the winter of 1846 at Nohant in France, near La Châtre in Berry, a group of genteel literati composed of the novelist George Sand, her family and a circle of close acquaintances including her current partner, the ailing Chopin, decided over dinner to pass the rest of the evening playing charades. ‘It was Chopin who invented the theatre at Nohant. In the beginning it was he who improvised at the piano while the young people acted scenes or danced comic ballets. The scenario of their first playlet, a curious piece entitled The Indelicate Druid, was devised during the main course, read out during the dessert and performed an hour later. This extempore method formed the accidental basis of their later discoveries, as from the outset they instinctively eschewed written texts for their scenes. Gradually these divertissements became more and more complex, as did their subsequent analysis of them:

    After exploring and discussing in their amateur academy all the phases of Greek, Roman and medieval popular forms, they finally came to one which seemed to them to be the most extraordinary and fascinating, the Italian commedia dell’arte:

    Obviously, from the names used, the Masks they played with initially were the Franco-Italian transplants of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, not the original sixteenth century forms of the Italian piazzas, or their reference would have been rather to Scaramuccia, Pedrolino, Pantalone, Leandro and Colombina. But, commedia dell’arte had spread itself all over Europe as companies found they could profit more from exile than from the strictures of the Council of Trent. Dissemination went as far as Russia, Czechoslovakia and Denmark, and wherever Commedia found itself, without compromising in essentials, it adjusted to local circumstances and such national variations contributed to, rather than detracted from, its universality. Developments made in France in the seventeenth century were even re-imported to Italy by the itinerant companies.

    In Nohant, two centuries later, the game of reconstruction now became a fixation which lasted until January 1848, resulting in the creation of a small theatre with a wardrobe and scenery, then a marionette theatre, before finally recording its research in a book written by one of George Sand’s two sons, Maurice. Their work, and that book, has remained a crucial resource throughout the twentieth century. It is possible, even, that Maurice Sand’s illustrations for his own book have had too much influence, fixing the fixed characters in his image of them.

    The still living resource for the amateur researcher/performers of Nohant was the théâtre de la foire where the Italian Commedia performers had retreated after the closure of the Parisian Théâtre Italien in 1697. They had not been allowed back on the legitimate stage until 1716, by which time many had permanently returned to the ways of the piazza:

    The Italian players in France went back to an earlier day, reverting to the portable trestle stage and lustier repertoire of their ancestors, traveling through the country at a discreet distance from the capital, and experiencing hardship of a kind they had never imagined.

    Dialogue was not permitted in the fairs by law, except in the puppet booths, so the live actors had to go back to their origins as jugglers, tumblers, dancers, singers and pantomimists. This was the nature of the commedia dell’arte which crossed the Channel to the English fairs, where it was commonly used for ‘barking’ outside the booths as a catchpenny box-office attraction, with more legitimate and less fantastical fare being played within. When English spectators attended a Pantomime in a theatre in winter and saw Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin and Colombine dance on at the end after the transformation scene, they were renewing acquaintance with figures last seen on a summer’s day before going into a tent to watch a play.

    Throughout the twentieth century there have been many revivals of commedia dell’arte based on attempts as enthusiastic as that at Nohant to revive the Masks. Some, but by no means all, of these essays are discussed in Part III of this book, along with experiments in the invention of new stock characters on the assumption that the old ones have lost their social relevance. Such endeavors seek to go beyond resurrection of a supposedly dead form; hoping new life will spring from the turning over of old roots. The distinction between reconstruction and renovation will be a constant throughout, and I have had the opportunity of conducting experiments along both lines with students, whose contribution to the growth of the body of information which forms this work is incalculable.

    Commedia has also disseminated itself into other art forms and aspects of twentieth-century cultural consciousness: Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Cocteau, Picasso, Busoni, to name but a few, have all used it as a working base. Many of its techniques have re-emerged, without scholarly prompting, in the silent films of Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy et al., and in the talkies of the Marx Brothers. And in order for this to happen, the techniques of Italian, Jewish and Irish humor had first been melded in the pot of vaudeville. The present concern, however, is with the platform stage rather than the silver screen, and studying it will involve initial examination of European origins rather than New World evolutions.

    Until its unification in the nineteenth century, Italy, like Europe today, consisted of an association of sovereign states. As a pan-Italian form, the commedia dell’arte had, therefore, necessarily to develop in a polyglot manner, using a vocabulary drawn from the northern city states and from the regions of the south. Its characters represent basic types from those states, each speaking in a dialect/language largely incomprehensible to the inhabitants of the others. There were, in effect, three divisions: the north, providing the ‘four Masks’—Arlecchino and Brighella (Bergamese), Pantalone (Venetian), Il Dottore (Bolognese); the south—Pulcinella, Tartaglia, Coviello and Il Capitano (Neapolitan or Calabrese); and Tuscany, which provided the literary tongue befitting the manners of the Lovers and the female servant. As the Commedia players strolled from state to state, local characters would come into greater prominence in the scenarios chosen, carrying a higher burden of speech, often at the expense of the other masks who became less sympathetic, the butt of humor in the way that stranieri often are. But the main language of all the Masks was action—the Esperanto of the stage.

    During these years, Commedia, emerging as it did out of Carnival, was of an occasional nature: like fairground showmen, companies, particularly the minor ones (about which we know very little), would follow an annual celebratory calendar and a complementary touring schedule. The ‘great’ companies, the Gelosi, the Confidenti, the Accessi, the Uniti, the Fideli, would be required at events of national as well as local significance. The Gelosi were called to Paris, for example, to celebrate the wedding of Henri III’s daughter in 1572, but were captured around Lyon by Huguenot insurgents. Ransom was set as the release of 1,000 recently captured prisoners, a price which the king readily paid rather than lose face at the nuptials.

    Recently it has been a fashion to proclaim the commedia dell’arte a theatre of proletarian protest against oppression, an idea first put forward in 1914 by Konstantin Miklashevski. There is even less to justify as commedia dell’arte, a movement arising at the end of the last century, which sought to borrow its characters as symbols of the artist/poet in his struggle against philistinism; or that for the Pierrots, Harlequins and Colombines of the 1920s that flitted so charmingly across a moonlit stage or an Art Deco mantelpiece.


    Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook Book by Vicki K. Janik, Emmanuel S. Nelson; Greenwood Press, 1998. 552 pgs.
    Drama: Its Costume & Decor Book by James Laver; Studio Publications, 1999. 276 pgs.
    The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays Book by Bernard Sobel; Crown Publishers, 1998. 902 pgs.
    Dictionary of Italian Literature Book by Julia Conaway Bondanella, Peter Bondanella, Jody Robin Shiffman; Greenwood Press, 1996. 716 pgs.
    The Arlecchino and Three English Tinkers Journal article by Nina Da Vinci Nichols; Comparative Drama, 2002.
    Menaechmi and the Renaissance of Comedy Journal article by Richard F. Hardin; Comparative Drama, Vol. 37, 2003.
    Dante as Dramatist: The Myth of the Earthly Paradise and Tragic Vision in the Divine Comedy Book by Franco Masciandaro; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. 239 pgs.

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