The following article is reprinted from The Commedia Dell'Arte: A Study in Italian Popular Comedy. Winifred Smith. New York: Columbia University Press, 1912. pp. 1-20.
Many people who have never heard of the commedia dell'arte have enjoyed Le Mariage de Figaro or Don Giovanni, or have seen Watteau's and Lancret's pictures of Italian comedians -- Gilles and Pierrot -- or have smiled at a Christmas pantomime, gay with bespangled Columbines and Harlequins. Again they may possibly have laughed at a Punch and Judy show, or have watched some Mardi-Gras carnival in which black-masked and patchwork-costumed clowns tickle with wooden daggers a kilted soubrette or a long-robed, spectacled Pantaloon. Or if they are practical folk, unused to such holiday gaieties, they may still characterize an enemy as a "miserable zany" or a campaign speech as "a mere harlequinade." Such and even more diverse, are the traces left by "Italy's pride" on the surface of our modern life; when we dig deeper we find roots that spread far and are interlaced with many a foreign growth.
Disengaging the original stem from others as nearly as may be, we can follow it back quite clearly to about the middle of the sixteenth century when it begins to have a life of its own. The Italian stage in the Cinquecento was richer than that of any other country, rich in popular farces and moralities, rich in academic pieces imitated from the classics; they crowd upon each other most confusingly, as we try hopelessly to separate the May dance from the bruscello, the farsa from comedy or from allegorical morality. Yet among all the commedia dell'arte is one of the few kinds of entertainment that may be loosely defined even by those who despair of arriving at any satisfactory classification of literary genres. Here the definition is not to be made on the basis of subject-matter, for that is most various, but by a peculiarity of form. A commedia dell'arte was always in part the transitory creation of the individual actors who played it; the plot was known to each member of the troupe, so well-known, indeed, that an entrance or an exit was never missed, but the dialog was chiefly left to be struck out by the suggestion of the moment. Hence the name -- commedia dell'arte all'improvviso, professional improvised comedy, for only the actor profession or gild, arte, could be sure enough of itself and sufficiently at home on the stage to play without being tied to lines. Dilettanti noblemen and academicians did, to be sure, try their skill occasionally in this difficult art, as in the first recorded performance of the kind, that at the Bavarian court in 1568; yet such gentlemen usually confined their histrionic efforts to the easier "sustained" or "learned" written drama and left the improvised to professionals.
This simple definition of our comedy by form alone is really the only workable one. Any attempt to limit its content results in confusion like that of the traveling players in Hamlet: "Tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral," -- the Italians played them all, both in free improvised, and in formal written versions. Should we adopt the usual English synonym, the Comedy of Masks, we should again be inexact; the Masks, as certain of the characters were called from the grotesque visards they wore to heighten their comic effect, were after all not very different from the persons of written plays; even with the special commedia dell'arte names and costumes they often appear in regular comedies, particularly in those of late date, and therefore they ought not to be made a distinguishing mark of the improvised pieces. A third test has sometimes been applied, the lazzi, or comic business, with which these plays were so overloaded, yet what lively stage is without such appeals to a primitive sense of fun? The devil in the Mysteries chased sinners off to Hell-mouth with blows as resounding as those inflicted by Arlechino on his master's rivals, and Shakespeare's Fools play practical jokes on each other nearly as often as do the Italian Zanni.
Whenever even the loosest definition is laid down it must of course immediately be qualified. If improvisation is to be the test for marking off the commedia dell'arte, it must at once be stated that the improvisation was never more than partial. Not only was the scenario or plot outline written in some detail, with entrances and exits noted, but each player possessed a book which he filled with compositions either original or borrowed, suitable to his rôle. One actor rarely took more than one kind of part, whether he learned or improvised it; if he were young, handsome and sentimental, he was cast for first or second lover and memorized Petrarchan laments and rhapsodies: if his skill lay in counterfeiting the "childish treble of old age," he played the pedant Doctor Gratiano, or the
- ...lean and slipper'd Pantaloon,
- With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
and made up long paragraphs of nonsensical, would-be-wise saws and "counsels to youth" on the order of Polonius' farewell to Laertes; if he preferred "Ercles" vein, a tyrant's vein, or "a part to tear a cat in, to make all split," he figured as the Capitano Spavento, or Rodomontade, or Slay-the-Moors, and composed tirades full of the wildest exaggerations and the most impossible feats; if he were merely a comical fellow, he studied out lazzi suited to the clown's part and appeared all his life as a Zanni -- Pedrolino, Arlecchino, Pulcinella, as the case might be. The actresses too had too had their aids to eloquence, though for the women the choice of parts was narrower; the prima donna was naturally the most poetical and lackadaisical, and drew for inspiration largely on the sonneteers; the seconda donna was her paler shadow; the servetta -- Franceschina or Colombina -- kept closer to earth, had always a ready and none too squeamish word for everyone, and in love speeches to her adorers parodied ludicrously enough her mistress's romantic flights; the old woman, who sometimes though rarely appeared, had often an unsympathetic rôle and got through it with the plainest words possible and few of them. All these "conceits" are very similar to the speeches of corresponding characters in the fully written comedies and are not unlike the language of the more affected of our Elizabethans, Nathaniel Field for instance. Even the dialects, supposed to mark off the Masks of the commedia dell'arte, are to be found in the learned plays as well, often in great variety. Again English drama offers a parallel, for from certain early moralities and interludes to Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor, dialects were freely and successfully used to give comic tone. Even in our own day the vaudeville stage makes capital of Irish Paddies and French barons and English dukes.
Although the Masks resemble the personages of written plays who are partly responsible for their existence, they had also distinctions of their own. In the first place they were almost entirely the creatures of whatever actors happened to be interpreting a given scenario -- they were not poetically realized characters but pawns in the plot -- and secondly each one tended to assume a stereotyped habit and name, more significant, really, than anything he might do. When Pantalone de'Bisognosi came on in the long black robe and scarlet hose of a Magnifico of Venice, the audience knew at once that according to convention he would speak Venetian patois, would be stupid, avaricious and amorous and the dupe of the young people in the intrigue. His old crony, Gratiano, or Doctor Gratiano as he is called in the more ancient scenarios, was oftenest from Bologna, and wore the gown and hood of that university, with in addition a mask blotched by wine stains to contradict slyly his dignified garb. His rôle varies; like Pantalone he is sometimes the husband, sometimes the father of one of the heroines of the piece, and is generally in love with another young woman. In pursuit of their ends these two old fools are willing to condescend to any disguise and are therefore unmercifully baited by the hero and his servant. Gratiano figures in early scenarios now as a charlatan, now as a pedagog, sometimes a councillor, again -- shade of Malvolio! -- a majordomo, most often a legal authority or a doctor of medicine. Whatever his station in life and his relation to the other characters, his manners and morals are much the same, his speech alternately maccaronic Latin nonsense and Bolognese riddles or gnomic sayings of evident folk ancestry, often indecent in their double meaning.
The old men's almost invariable enemy, a butt who had seldom a friend in the play, was the Captain, a Spaniard usually, copied from life after the hated foreign mercenaries who crowded sixteenth century Italy. Each actor impersonating him gave a slightly different turn to his countenance, wore his hat and his moustache cocked at a different angle and changed the color of his cape and the size of his sword, but one and all followed the general outlines laid down by the Thrasos and bravos of written plays and by the first famous Captain of the commedia dell'arte, created by Francesco Andreini. A boastful, cowardly bully, always in love and always unsuccessful, he took small part in the plot except as an object for the wit of others to prey upon -- in that capacity he seems to have been unfailingly delightful to his audiences. As he was one of the first figures to appear in the improvised plays -- there is a "Spanish desperado" in the oldest known scenario -- so he is one of the longest lived; under various names he trod the boards all through the seventeenth century, indeed his ghost still walks and talks in the Neapolitan marionette theater as Rogantino or Guappo. And everyone I suppose, knows Gautier's Capitaine Fracasse, a sympathetic attempt to clothe an old idea with flesh.
Of the tiresomely monotonous lovers around whom all the other personages circle, there is no need to say more than a word here. They were never Masks, that is, they played with uncovered faces and spoke the most polished Tuscan instead of some provincial dialect; they were in short in the commedia dell'arte just about what the academicians had made them in written comedies, centers of the plot and mouthpieces for love speeches. The Zanni, however, was a Mask, or rather an infinite variety of Masks. Always of humble station, usually the servant and confidant of a principal character, sometimes a rascal, sometimes a dunce, oftenest a complex mixture of the two, almost always the chief plot-weaver -- his main function was to rouse laughter, to entertain at all costs. One of the means he took to this end was the use of some patois, generally Bergamask, not infrequently Neapolitan; another was his curious costume and mask; the most effective of all were his actions, his surprisingly dexterous gymnastic feats, his multifarious disguises and his absurd songs and lazzi. Popular horseplay of this sort is invariably made up of very old traditional jokes, so it is not extraordinary to find that some of Zanni's names point back to a remote antiquity.
Arlecchino's origin has by some adventurous souls been traced to that fearful spirit of the night, Hellequin, who with his mesnie rode the air in the wildest medieval imaginations, hence, they say, his more than human agility and careless deviltry. Pulcinella, it appears from the latest investigations, has an ancestor at least as illustrious as Arlecchino, preferable perhaps as being historical instead of mythical; his name at least, whether or not any conclusions may be drawn therefrom as to character resemblances, is the same as that of a restless and grotesque patriot of thirteenth century Verona, Pulcinella dalle Carceri. It may be a stretch of imagination to see a popular memory of this adventurer preserved in the PUlcinelli of carnival songs, whether of the fourteenth century or of Sicily today; the facts are that such Pulcinelli are mentioned as long ago as 1363 and that it was probably from them Silvio Fiorillo took the name and idea for the Mask he created in the early seventeenth century. From that time on Pulcinella takes his part in numerous scenarios and written plays; Scala does not use him, but he appears in other plots, now as peasant, now as merchant, or as painter, soldier, thief or bandit, always as the successful lover of Columbina. In G.B. della Porta's outline, La Trapolaria, he is a silly old burgess, who among other performances disguises himself as a Turkish slave-girl.
With Arlecchino and Pulcinella are to be grouped Brighella, Pedrolino, Mezzetino, Cola, Trappolino, and innumerable other Zanni, hard to classify because they vary with every actor of the rôle. None of them wears so bizarre a suit as Arlecchino, whose many colored patches are reminiscent of his original rags, yet they all have some ludicrous peculiarity of dress and they are all as adroit as Arlecchino in their use of comic tricks and gestures. Ability to move quickly was the first requisite for the clown; on this he had to depend for the effectiveness of his instantaneous maskings and unmaskings, and the appearances and disappearances that so mystified slow-witted old Pantalone and Gratiano and proportionately delighted the audience. Brains, too, had to move as quickly as muscles if Zanni were to fulfil his function of embroiling as much as possible his master's rivals and even, with pretended stupidity, his master himself and the heroine. Sometimes he did this by disguising two lovers of the same lady in the same style and sending them to meet under her window where a fight was sure to ensue; frequently, be ventriloquism in the manner of Ariel, he imitated different voices and led on his impatient dupes to their own confounding; again he would dress himself as a ghost or a lunatic or in a gown exactly like that of the heroine or her maid, and so cause either terror or confusion; still more remarkable he was able in his own person to play several parts, even on occasion simultaneously. The ancient repertory of practical jokes was drawn upon again and again -- blows, trips, stumbles, starts of causeless fright, pretence of stupidity, misinterpretation of orders with laughable results, puns and satiric repartee, all these ways of rousing mirth, ways still thriving on our vaudeville stage, were the chief stock in trade of the commedia dell'arte.
Just when the tricks came to be conventionalized and listed for the benefit of their performers is not very certain; Scala's book contains few evidences that the lazzi had become by 1611 as stereotyped as the "conceits," whereas Perucci about a century later draws up a long table of apparently well-known jokes, as the "lazzo of fear," "of weeping and laughing," "of knocking at the door," "of the slipper," and "of crying loudly." The process of recognizing, labeling and classifying the lazzi must have begun in the Cinquecento, for in Porta's scenario just mentioned, there are noted the "trick of going back to knock" and "of hiding" and "the I-don't-know-you dodge," all as though familiar to the actor. Presumably they made the basis of a book of reference like those of the set speeches for the other players. Zanni had also, however, written compositions of his own; he often spoke the prolog or epilog to the comedy, and in the course of his love affairs with the servetta he had need of "complaints" (for beatings as well as for slighted love) "passions," serenades and sonnets. No one firmly defined character is behind these speeches of course; they merely express incoherently enough, sentiments and opinions appropriate to the cleverest, the most plain-spoken, the most satirical and the most cynical of the Italian Masks, for whom the insensate raptures of a lover are only food for mirth.
Yet a love intrigue, usually doubled and even tripled, is the life of the Italian plays as of the Elizabethan. In every case the commedia dell'arte tends to be more lively, more exaggerated, more disheveled than her formal sister, but allowing for the difference in their dress, the resemblance between them is striking. It is the style of drama familiar to us in the Comedy of Errors, the Two Gentlemen of Verona, some of Chapman's, Middleton's and Jonson's comedies, in short the less serious plays of our great age which combine material from the novellas with borrowings from Plautus and Terence. Only, be it remembered, the English imagination is colder even in the sixteenth century than the Italian, English taste more hesitant to report or to enlarge upon immoral complications and to jest with ribaldry. If the Decameron is truly the fount of all Italian comedy as it certainly is of many single plays, it is the Decameron unexpurgated, unsoftened, not refined as Shakespeare refined it in All's Well. In the improvised farces especially, a popular amusement above all things and at least in its beginnings an amusement for men alone, the unsavoriness of the fable was intensified by acting and by jokes far more impudent than the English stage knew in its most unregenerate days.
Not that there was not always an underlying theme of at least apparent dignity! Those commonplaces of fashionable Renaissance discussion, the opposition of love to fortune or to friendship or to duty, were worked out in the academic plays under the guise of a rivalry between father and son or between a pair of youths for the favor of one mistress; or in the story of a father's recovery of his long lost children, or in the winning back of a faithless lover by a constant maiden. The commedia dell'arte took these themes and twisted them to suit its purpose of merrymaking; shameless old men and still more shameless young people attempt to get their wills through a series of outlandish maskings and tricks, and disguises like those of Viola in Twelfth Night and Imogen in Cymbeline occasion mistakes quite other than those permitted by Shakespeare's sympathy for his heroines. In all these intrigues it is the subplot group of characters, the servingmen and maids, who set the tone for the piece as well as plan most of its complications; endowed with more wit than sentiment they go about to attain their ends with a fertility and a straightforwardness of bold invention that often plunges them and their betters into most embarrassing situations. Therefore, while among the pairs betrothed at the end of the play there is always at least one couple from below stairs "coming toward the ark," their concession to matrimony does not mean that a romantic tone predominates at the climax, it rather intensifies the effect of the whole as a piece of parody.
Improvisation, with the masks and all the farcical quips accompanying them, was by no means confined to "right comedies." To the scandalizing of critical theorists in the academies, the Italian actors lightened their serious plays by bits of quite as lively clowning as any in their farces. Laughter, yet more laughter, was the end and aim of the professional entertainers, and they cared only enough for the sacred critical canons to make a few such concessions to decorum as would bring them popularity among well-educated audiences. So they generally passed off lazzi in tragedies as acts of madness, not unlike Hamlet's freakish doings and like them when first presented, undoubtedly highly amusing to the house. Scala's Mad Princess was evidently very popular and successful for he has preserved larger extracts from her ravings and a fuller account of her wild deeds than of those of most of his heroines. A hundred years later several madmen make a scenario in which they figure extravagant enough fot eh comic opera stage. If lunatics were made to bear the burden of ridiculous lazzi in tragedies and tragicomedies, peasants and magicians had to perform a major share of them in pastorals and extravaganzas imitated from the Spanish, for only by seeing the horse-play assigned to such inferior characters could a possible objector with his Horace in his pocket, be persuaded that the actors knew their rules as to the observance of dramatic propriety.
No definition of the commedia dell'arte however summary would be complete without at least a glance at one of the fundamental perplexities connected with it: why, it will occur to everyone to ask, did Italian players alone develop a peculiar kind of comedy out of all the elements of farcical amusement found singly or in partial combination on the stages of other countries? Improvisation, masked fools, acrobatic tricks, intrigue plots, satire and music are widespread in the sixteenth century theater, but only the Italians combined them all on outlines roughly resembling regular plays. The phenomenon has been variously accounted for, most often by ascribing to the Italian race superlative mimetic excellence. But such a would-be explanation begs the question and falsifies the facts; surely it takes much greater mimetic power to represent adequately Othello or Alceste than to play Pantalone or Gratiano.
More truly, I think, the materials making up the commedia dell'arte should be recognized as nothing but the contents of a kind of general property-box, tricks of the trade demanding not so much great as superficial readiness of technic. Just why the Italians were able to use these professional tools more freely and effectively than their foreign rivals is ultimately perhaps inexplicable. Yet one reason for the fact is pretty certainly that dramatists of great talent were rarer in Italy than elsewhere and that such men as did write for the stage were entirely aristocratic and academic in training and sympathies; consequently a large proportion of literary plays are narrow in their appeal and imitative and unconvincing in their art. Another and even weightier cause for the formation of the improvised pieces is to be found in the position of professional actors; these bands were attached to noble patrons longer than in other countries, owing to the relatively late establishment of public theaters in Italy, and since educated Italians very early had become persuaded of the value of the drama and the importance of its presenters, all the players had been allowed great liberty in the matter of repertory. Naturally such willingness on the part of their public to take what was offered it at the theater would in the long run lower the average of the art by bringing to the surface the mediocre resources of merely mercenary troupes and individuals, and therefore the habits of improvising dialog, of using masked characters and old jokes, would be formed and set. In so confused a situation no one reason for the origin of the commedia dell'arte can be singled out as decisive, though it is perfectly easy to see that its peculiarities sprang from tenacious and by no means unique folk customs and that under academic supervision they were pruned and trained by the skilful hands of the professional actors who later spread them broadcast over Europe.
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