The Divine Commedia: Reflections on the Commedia dell’arte

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. 

Athen­ian mask
Source: Wiki­Com­mons

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 TartuffeThe 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.