Tuesday 20 January 2015

Commedia dell'Arte - by Ann Swinfen

Even today, many novels and plays use certain recognisable archetypal characters, although they may be heavily disguised – the young couple thwarted by an intransigent parent, the clever and lovable rogue, the swaggering and boastful alpha male (who may be a coward at heart), the fraudulent professional or swindler, the rich and miserly businessman. Such characters may take many forms in the hands of a skilled writer, but their roots lie deep in remote literary history. 

These archetypes were employed repeatedly by the Roman comic playwrights Plautus and Terence, though some had been used even earlier by Greek comedians like Aristophanes. However, it was the Roman writers who refined the types and certain stock situations which their large audiences greeted with glee. As in all theatrical performances of classical times, the actors wore masks, particularly exaggerated masks in the case of comedy, which crudely emphasised the essential characteristics of each type. Since all the parts were played by men, the female characters wore female masks and wigs to denote their sex. 

With the collapse of the Roman empire came the collapse of professional theatre, but it seems unlikely that all forms of play-acting could have disappeared altogether. During the somewhat mis-named ‘Dark Ages’ and early Mediaeval centuries, there were certainly jongleurs and bands of travelling entertainers who may have carried forward fragments of the old traditions. Traces can be seen in the mummers’ plays and the early morality plays, with their stock characters and use of masks and symbolic costumes. 
Peeter van Bredael - Commedia dell'Arte
The true commedia dell’arte appeared in Italy in the sixteenth century, and it must be significant that it emerged in the country which had produced the Roman comedies, even though no direct line of descent can be traced. Commedia dell’arte used stock characters, stock situations, stock costumes, stock props, and symbolic masks, like its Roman predecessors. Unlike the Roman plays, however, the commedia was not performed in permanent theatres, but by itinerant companies, like those of the Middle Ages. Also like them, and like the actors in morality plays, the performers appeared in the open air, on temporary platforms or movable stages. And unlike other forms of theatre developing at the time, the commedia companies included women. Ben Jonson referred to one such as a ‘tumbling whore’. 
Four Commedia Figures - Claude Gillot c.1715
The commedia quickly perfected its standard cast of characters: the braggart soldier Il Capitano; the rich but miserly merchant Pantalone; the bogus scholar Il Dottore; the old woman La Ruffiana, intent on thwarting the young lovers; the ugly hunchback with his large nose, Pulchinella, lusting after pretty girls; witty and mischievous Arlecchino, who dressed like a jester and was a skilled acrobat; Brighella, the vicious and mercenary villain; the melancholy dreamer Pedrolino; Scaramucchia, with his black clothes and sword, a kind of roguish hero. Set against this cast of mostly unpleasant characters who satirised contemporary social types were the charming young lovers who sought escape from their elders and a future together, cheered on by a sympathetic audience. 
Karel Dujardin - Commedia dell'Arte Performance
Staging was minimal. These travelling players could not transport elaborate scenery, so the most they might have would be a painted backcloth depicting a street or country scene. Props, however, were important: plenty of exaggerated wooden swords, food to be thrown about, watering pots to sprinkle the unwary, huge stuffed paunches worn by Pulchinella and Pantalone. The most distinctive were the pair of flat sticks tied together and carried by Arlecchino, which he slapped together to make a loud noise – hence our term ‘slapstick’. 

All of the satirical characters wore leather masks, generally the type of half-mask which covers the upper face and nose, forerunner of the masks worn at the Venetian carnevale to this day. Some were very specific – for example, Arlecchino wore a cat mask and Pedrolino’s mask was white (ancestor of the white-faced clown). The ‘straight’ characters like the young lovers Inamorato and Inamorata did not wear masks. 
Commedia Masks - photo by Hugh Dismuke
Costumes were elaborate and sometimes very fine, the best the company could afford. For the companies themselves varied greatly. There were the famous companies such as I Gelosi, I Fedeli, I Accessi, and I Confidenti, who had noble patrons and performed at ducal courts as well as to the public, but there were also small itinerant bands which might last for a few years only. As well as the patronage enjoyed by the more established companies, finance was obtained by passing round a hat at public performances.

These performances were vivid and exciting affairs, structured around standard episodes, but also full of extemporised incident and horseplay, music, song and dance, juggling, acrobatics. The players all had to be multi-talented. Local and contemporary affairs were often the targets of the satire. Excitement must have run high in a village or small town when the commedia players arrived, for nothing else so entertaining would have come their way. Although the commedia began in Italy it very quickly spread throughout Europe as the companies travelled abroad, during the sixteenth, seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries. Some forms of the commedia became merged into various carnivals, not only in Venice but in Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras celebrations elsewhere. 
Although the true commedia dell’arte eventually fell out of favour, its themes and influence have survived to this day - in specific characters like Mr Punch, descended from Pulcinella, and the sad, white-faced clown from Pedrolino. Less obvious, but just as persistent, are the types and the situations found in the commedia. Even at the time when the commedia was going strong, Shakespeare used many of its stock characters and situations in his comedies, as did Ben Jonson. They may have derived them directly from the Roman comedies (some of the plots are borrowed unashamedly), but they may also have drawn on this new theatrical form which was spreading across Europe. Moliêre certainly borrowed from the commedia, in plays like Le Misanthrope. Elements of the commedia can even be traced in some of Shakespeare’s plays which are not comedies (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Tempest). 
Watteau - Pierrot c.1718-9
By the time the comedies of the Restoration period came to be written, the similarities to elements of the commedia dell’arte are unmistakable. In the eighteenth century, pantomime developed as a kind of side-shoot from the commedia, but the original satirical form could still be seen as politically dangerous. Napoleon outlawed it, even in Italy itself. 

The traditional stock characters may take on many forms – sometimes as satirical as the originals, sometimes more mellow – but they crop up even today in such popular dramatic forms as television situation comedy. The form is flexible. It can be used as readily for political satire as for gentle family comedy. It is a great legacy in our theatrical tradition, surely because it deals with many fundamental truths about human behaviour. 
In the fourth novel of my sixteenth-century Christoval Alvarez series, Bartholomew Fair, I have a troupe of Italian puppeteers who perform at the Fair. Their marionettes act out a commedia dell’arte, but the puppets depict major figures in Elizabethan society and the satire is a vicious attack, intended to be subversive. Italy was, of course, the home of the Pope, who had granted a pardon to any assassin taking the life of Queen Elizabeth, declared a bastard heretic by the papacy. My puppeteers are part of a wider conspiracy to bring terror to the streets of London. It seemed to me fitting that the commedia, a public display of satire, might be used as an instrument of something altogether more sinister.


Carol Drinkwater said...

My goodness, Ann, this lovely post took me right back to my childhood when I was my father's assistant for his Punch and Judy Show. Later, at drama school I studied both comic and tragic mask work. In my younger actress days I travelled for the British Council around South East Asia with a small "travelling" theatre company. I remember the delight and excitement when we turned up in the villages and set out our shows. Lovely memories. Thank you and good luck with the new book.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks for the fascinating post. It never occurred to me that we're still using the commedia characters to this day, but you're right. I must think about this, it will help me in my creative writing classes, along with my Hero's Journey template. :-) And Shakespeare's Comedy Of Errors was certainly taken from a Roman play, as was A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To athe Forum, which was taken from two or more P.autus plays.

Once I went to my local park to see a school holiday outdoor performance of Cinderella. The actors wore beautifully made commedia del'arte masks and yes, they put in touches of satire on the news of the day, such as the Prince, who wore a Prince Charles mask, answering a phone call and saying,"Not now, Camilla!" I don't think the children got it, but their parents did. Afterwards, I went "backstage" to ask about those impressive masks and the mask maker told me he had learned his trade in Italy and yes, they were intended to be commedia masks.

Ann Swinfen said...

Carol, what a fascinating background you have, and it fits in so perfectly with this post of mine! What I love is the way certain elements of story-telling which are rooted deep in human behaviour have lasted for centuries - even thousands of years. It brings us very close to the past!

Ann Swinfen said...

Yes, Sue, I do agree - the elements of the commedia are like the elements of the Hero's Journey. It would be fun in a creative writing class to give the students a handful of commedia characters and tell them to write a modern piece using those characters. It would get them really thinking! And how interesting about the mask-maker you met. Now there's a tradition more than 2,000 years old!

Sue Bursztynski said...

True. It wasn't just the tradition, but that I encountered it in a small, suburban school holiday pantomime in the local park that fascinated me... When you think of it, pantomime has its own fascinating roots.