The Divine Commedia: Reflections on the Commedia dell’arte
Commedia dell’arte established itself in Sixteenth Century Europe as one of the most enduring traditions in world theatre. As a high school drama student, I was enraptured with the form, with the Commedia’s stock characters of masters, servants, soldiers, and young lovers, and its crowd-pleasing arsenal of verbal and physical gags (called lazzi). The masks, the voices, and the physicality of each character obsessed me. Even as I abandoned my dream of a stage and screen career for the writer’s life, I cultivated a Commedia dell’arte of the mind. As in Dante’s own Commedia, the Commedia dell’arte stands in judgment of our folly, yet in sympathy with our common human plight. It is, as the late Professor M.A. Screech described the wit of Rabelais and Erasmus as, “laughter at the foot of the cross.”
Evolution of the Art
Emerging in the Sixteenth Century, Commedia dell’arte fused the tropes of Greek and Roman Comedy with the improvisatory humour and acrobatics of Italian street theatre and rural folk forms. Variations of stock characters soon proliferated, yet certain masks (the word used interchangeably with character, a revealing and profound elision) were central to the repertoire. Class-based like so much comedy, Commedia pilloried the venality and cant of the ruling Italian elite. Pantalone – one of the supreme creations of the Commedia – was a vicious, avaricious, and lecherous old man, whose love of gold was matched only by his lust for beautiful young bodies. One can imagine Pantalone presiding over a casting couch in modern Hollywood. With his monstrous phallic nose, Il Capitano was a soldier, boastful of his military and sexual prowess, yet cowardly when confronted with any whiff of physical harm. Meanwhile, Il Dottore embodied the parping arrogance of those doctors, clergy, lawyers, and philosophers who grew in prominence as a new age of science and learning dawned in Europe. Our world resounds with such types today, Il Capitano a classic keyboard warrior or chickenhawk, whilst Il Dottore reigns on Twitter, an epidemiologist one day and scholar of Russian history the next.
Commedia was carnivalesque in its skewering of power, yet equally unsentimental about the poor, with no misty-eyed paeans to the proletariat. The servants of Commedia – called zanni, from which we derive our word “zany” – were no less venal than their vicious and bumbling masters. Whilst Brighella embodied the trope of the dim-witted servant, the most enduring dynamic in the Commedia was the eternal master-servant tussle between Pantalone and Arlecchino (the harlequin). Arlecchino was cunning and sharp witted, if all too often undone by his own insatiable appetite for food and sex and status. In the Commedia, everyone is fallen. In the midst of this vortex of grotesquery and vice, audiences encountered the young lovers, mask-less stock characters known as innamorati. Whilst such lovestruck youth were also objects of mockery, the audience yearned for them to be joined in conjugal bliss, provided that the scheming older generation of lecherous masters and conniving servants did not foil their plans. The gulf of comprehension between the generations was as central as class warfare to the Commedia.
Performances drew not only on the years of experience each actor brought to a character, but also from a repertoire of scenarios and gags honed to perfection. Known as canovaccio, such scenarios plotted a framework for each performance. Seasoning each performance were the lazzi or verbal and physical gags that each actor had at his or her disposal. The rest was improvisation and inspiration. Like superheroes recognisable in silhouette, the masks and costumes of the Commedia were masterpieces of design and craftsmanship. Indeed, a splendid Pantalone and Arlecchino hang above my writing desk.
The Commedia dell’arte was influenced by a tradition of comedy on the Italian Peninsula dating from the Roman Republic, itself drawing on the earlier tradition of Greek Comedy. Of Titus Maccius Plautus’ surviving comedies, two stand out as key antecedents of the Commedia. Miles Gloriosus (“The Braggart Soldier”) tells the tale of Pyrgopolynices, a boastful soldier whose pomposity is matched only by the hollowness of his claims to military and sexual prowess. Agile and intelligent, Pyrgopolynices’ slave Palaestrio seeks to outwit his master and trick Pyrgopolynices into marrying a prostitute. Plautus skewered the hypocrisies of Roman militarism and warned of a dangerous class dynamic in which a slave’s natural intelligence outstrips his master.
The Roman’s play Menaechmi (“The Brothers Menaechmus”) likewise foreshadowed the Commedia with its cast of stock characters and comedic scenarios of mistaken identity and slapstick. The bloviating quack physician in Menaechmi would return as Il Dottore, the loquacious scholar of Commedia.
The influence of Commedia has proved as far reaching as its Greco-Roman predecessors. French humourist Moliere drew deeply from Commedia in farces such as The Miser and Tartuffe. The Miser debuted in Paris in September 1668. Although Moliere dispensed with the improvisation that was the stock-in-trade of traditional Commedia dell-arte, the play remained true to Commedia’s preoccupations. Harpagon, the titular miser, is one of the great avatars of the eternal master. An avaricious and lecherous old man, Harpagon feuds with his own son for the hand of innamorati Mariane. The quicksilver-tongued servant La Fleche in The Miser is a classic zanni. As Peter Craven wrote in his review of an Australian production of Tarftuffe in 2008, “Moliere learned some part of his craft from the Italian Commedia dell’arte. He knew, like the back of his hand, that if you were going to create comedy you had to have types and you had to have them caper and dance. You needed the belly laughs that came when familiar human follies get into line and do a dance routine”.
That Moliere had absorbed the structure and form of the Commedia is unsurprising. Moliere had worked as a travelling actor and practitioner of street theatre and shared theatre space in Paris with Tiberio Fiorillo’s theatre troupe. Fiorillo had been the pre-eminent Scaramouche (Scaramuccia of the Commedia) of his day. A 2016 production from The Faction of Fools Theatre Company in the United States of America incorporated elements of the Commedia dell’arte in its production of The Miser. Toby Mulford wore a Pantalone mask in his portrayal of Harpagon. Based in Washington D.C., the Faction of Fools Theatre Company is a Commedia troupe that presents the form in both traditional and contemporary productions.
The influence of the Commedia dell’arte proved as strong on the English stage as on the European Continent. The character of Punch in Punch and Judy is, of course, an avatar of Pulcinella. Most notably, Shakespeare’s early play The Comedy of Errors (1594) recycled the witty servant trope in the twin characters of Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse, whilst masters Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse are redolent once more of the immortal Pantalone. Shakespeare’s plot and characters borrowed directly from Plautus’ Menaechmi, thus bringing a fusion of Roman Comedy, Commedia dell’arte, and England’s own tradition of carnival and comedy to the Elizabethan stage. The Bell Shakespeare production of The Comedy of Errors at the Sydney Opera House in 2002 showcased the considerable theatrical talents of comedian Darren Gilshenan in a masterful Commedia inflected performance of Shakespeare’s comedy. I was fortunate enough to see this production and still recall Gilshenan’s side-splitting physical and verbal comedy.
Arguably the apotheosis of all Commedia inspired productions – prior to the Twentieth Century revivals of Dario Fo – was Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. Goldoni had initially conceived his play for Antonio Sacchi, regarded as the most masterful of all Italian Harlequins. As the quintessential Arlecchino-type, Truffaldino races between two masters, culminating in a spectacular climax in which the wily servant strives to serve a banquet simultaneously to both men. Via the pen of Australian playwright Nick Enright and Ron Blair, the Bell Shakespeare Company staged The Servant of Two Masters in 2004. A review in The Age noted the Bell Shakespeare Company’s decision to use the production as a vehicle to educate Australian audiences about the legacy of the Commedia dell’arte even in Australia, noting how “the original slapstick and witty improvisation of Commedia dell’Arte has had a permanent influence on comic performance [in Australia] … this includes pantomime, vaudeville and such characters as Mo Rene and even Graham Kennedy”.
The enduring popularity of Goldoni’s play could be seen in the National Theatre of Great Britain’s 2011 adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters, entitled One Man, Two Guvnors. Playwright Richard Ben and Director Nicholas Hytner set the tale in 1960s Brighton, whilst James Corden starred in the titular role, thus bringing Commedia traditions into the Twenty First Century. In a rapturous review, Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington hailed the play as “one of the funniest productions in the National’s history”.
Commedia in Korea
In 2012, Korean director Oh Kyung-taek presented an adaptation of Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters at the Myeongdong Theater in Seoul. Moon noted that the humour was well adapted for a Korean audience whilst retaining core elements of the form. Indeed, the Korean tradition of masked performance, known as Talchum, has clear parallels with the Commedia dell’arte in its satirical focus on questions of class and power, as does the more contemporary Korean theatrical tradition of Madangguk or “yard theatre” which evolved during South Korea’s democracy movement.
Today, Wagon Stage is the sole Korean theatre company dedicated to preserving and performing the Commedia dell’arte, drawing upon European and Korean traditions of masked performance. As Kim Tae-yong of Wagon Stage explained in an interview, “we will be able to provide the substance of the Italian comedy in the form of the Korean traditional comedy or the substance of the Korean comedy in the form of the Commedia dell’arte… It would be really interesting if we could have a harlequin character appear in the mask of Malttuki”. For Kim Tae-yong, the wily Malttuki of Korean Talchum and Arlecchino of the Commedia are spiritual twins, one born on the Italian Peninsula, the other on the Korean Peninsula. This is a twist in the tale of separated twins that neither Plautus nor Shakespeare could have foreseen, and a testimony to the enduring power of the Commedia dell’arte to adapt and change its traditional structure to new times and places.
Reflecting on the evolution of the novel — a product of the same crucible that forged the Commedia dell’arte — Milan Kundera once wrote: “What is the novel? There is a fine Jewish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. Inspired by that maxim, I like to imagine that François Rabelais heard God’s laughter one day, and thus was born the idea of the first great European novel. It pleases me to think that the art of the novel came into the world as the echo of God’s laughter.” There is nothing so divine.