July 12, 2012

Archetypal Acting in 16th Century Italian Comedy Forms
-or- Why I Dig Commedia dell’Arte with Three Shovels

By Jennifer Le Blanc

There is a rich history of scholarship pertaining to the influence of Commedia dell’Arte on Shakespeare’s plays: profound investigations, many books, and on-line articles with fancy schmancy footnotes and everything. They’re good. You should read them. But this blog is more of a Cliff Notes/ love letter to Commedia, and a sampler about why it’s so cool that we get to play with the form in The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Our fearless leader, director Virginia Reed, has added elements of Commedia dell’Arte into our play, and we’re having wicked fun playing.)

Wile E. Coyote

What the Heck is this Commedia of Which You Speak?

Okay, briefly, Commedia started as an improvisational form of street theatre performed by touring troupes in Italy in the 16th Century. It utilized well-known stock characters in pre-arranged scenarios, and then the actors would ad lib and do lazzis (gags associated with their character). Many of the characters were masked.

I like to think of it as Renaissance Looney Tunes. As soon as you see Wile E. Coyote (Super Genius) and the Road Runner, you know what is going to happen. Coyote will try to eat the Road Runner, he will make use of elaborate mechanisms in this attempt, and he will inevitably be hoisted by his own proverbial petard. The predictability of the outcome doesn’t prevent the enjoyment of the scenario, and if you were to watch a cartoon in another language it would make no difference, because you know who these guys are and you know what they want. That’s basically what Commedia is. And it’s ridiculously fun, because almost nothing is over the top!

You Totally Didn’t Know How Much you Already Know about Commedia

Ever heard of slapstick? Like Three Stooges style? This kind of physical, “violent” humor is named after the kind of trick “cudgel” Arlecchino carries around and uses to beat people. It’s basically two pieces of wood attached together with a hinge, so that when you pretend to smack someone with it, the two pieces of wood slap each other making a loud noise, but they don’t hurt the victim. Hilarity ensues.

Any ladies in the house? You like seeing women on stage? Well, you can thank Commedia dell’Arte, in part, for the wacky innovation of women playing women on stage. Shakespeare buffs will know that in merry olde Elizabethan/Jacobean England it was illegal for women to appear on stage, owing to the obviously distasteful perversity, so Shakespeare’s heroines were played by young boys. But touring Italian Commedia troupes (who came through England) had the audacity to hire women. The English were bloody well scandalized. (Fun fact: Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s – whose plays by today’s standards might not qualify him as a pillar of propriety – had some choice words on the subject, but quoting him would require the use of some unladylike language.)

Enough History – Let’s Meet the Characters


Pantalone or Il Magnifico

This guy is your quintessential dirty old man. He wears red tights, he’s hunched over, and his humor is usually pertaining to miserliness, ineffective lecherous attempts, falling down and being unable to get back up, and a fair bit of really highbrow fart/scatological jokes. Yup, history proves:  farts have always been funny. His mask has a hooked nose and whiskers. For us, Justice Shallow has some whispers of Pantalone about him.

Innamorati – the Lovers

These lovely folks were balletic and beautiful (unmasked for the most part, although they might wear a wee mask if they needed to be disguised) singers and dancers, and the plot usually involved them trying to get married despite parental disapproval or financial woes. For our fine band of Jack-nape players, Ann Page and Master Fenton are prime examples of innamorati.

Actor Daniel Petzold wearing commedia/ Capitano nose

Il Capitano

This guy’s not from around here; he sometimes speaks with a foreign accent (and he’s usually from a country we are fighting in a war). He claims to be a soldier but proves himself a coward when push comes to shove; still, there is simply no end to his bragging. Classically his mask has a rather long nose, not unlike Cyrano. You might recognize something else it resembles, but I will leave that to the kind reader’s discretion. Dr. Caius and Sir Evans have touches of Il Capitano about them.

The Zannis

Probably most famous from Commedia are the zannis. And my fine word nerd compatriots and etymological enthusiasts may recognize zanni as the ancestor of the modern word “zany.” True story.

Arlecchino or Harlequin

I love these crazy cats, but I don’t have the space to go into much detail, so here’s the skinny. They’re low-born, poor, usually servants, and super duper physical clowns. While they seem slow, narcoleptic, scatological, terminally stupid, or downright criminal, they are also invariably far more cunning than their employers. Famous zannis include Brighella and Arlecchino (later Harlequin in the French tradition: the French took the Commedia ball and ran with it, and you can see the influence all over Moliere). And there were also the Columbinas and sassy talking soubrettes in the tradition. Merry Wives is chock-full of zannis; some of the clearest examples are Bardolf, Nym, Pistol, Rugby, Simple and Mistress Quickly.

And what about plump Jack? Sir John Falstaff has become his own archetype, and this troupe can’t wait to show you his wild adventures! See you at the caravan!

Next week, stage manager Alandra Hileman will share some of the joys and challenges of stage management. And remember, Hamlet opens on Friday, July 13 and Merry Wives on Friday, July 20, including a benefit dinner.