First of all, only some of the them wore leather masks. The Lovers (or inammorati ) never did. Nor did Pedrolino (who eventually became Pierrot and the ‘white-faced clown’ of circus). Nor did Scapino, Peppe-Nappa (our logo image), Mezzetin, the Signora, Tartaglia (except large spectacles), and the unmasked version of Il Capitano called Il Cavaliere, among others. The zannis (servants), among them famously Arlechinno (Harlequin), Brighella, Fritellino, and Pulcinella (who became Mr Punch), and the old men (or vecchi ) such as Pantalone (Pantaloon) and Il Dottore (the Doctor), of course, all did, although as commedia dell’art actors specialised in particular characters and have brought their own whims and foibles to them there are many cases where even these characters didn’t wear masks – for example, the great Martinelli probably played Arlechinno without a mask as Dario Fo has often done in modern times.
What happened historically, in fact, was that as time went on and the influence of commedia dell’arte spread across Europe the masks were used less and less until they almost became extinct. But the white faces and other stylised forms of make-up were continued and developed by modified commedia dell’arte, such as the Night Scenes, harlequinades, pantomime, music hall, ballet, the many specialist clowns of circus, Vaudeville (with the flood of Italian exiles to America and the influence of English music hall entertainers like Fred Karno, Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin), and eventually silent movies. And, of course, through the silent movies there came an inestimable degree of influence on popular comic actors down to the present day.
Why did the leather masks almost disappear?
We, as passionate advocates of commedia dell’arte today, must remember two things from this potted history: Why did the masks almost disappear? And what was even more important than the masks in this history? The masks disappeared because they were rooted in a Mediterranean tradition of masked performance going back thousands of years through Italian Atellan farce, Phlyax comedy, Ancient Greek comedy to primitive religion and magic and the further away from the Mediterranean performers went the less and less the masks’ meanings could be understood.Instead there came into play the very simple fact that if you cover up the face, which after all in most human interaction expresses probably 80% of our communication, with a mask which doesn’t have roots in your culture the performance won’t speak to you. So, sensibly, the masks were discarded and the more accessible white faces and other stylised make-up’s, which did the job of universalising the face’s meanings just as well as the masks did, but without losing the nuances of the face and the possibilities of subtle contact, became more popular.
Instead there came into play the very simple fact that if you cover up the face, which after all in most human interaction expresses probably 80% of our communication, with a mask which doesn’t have roots in your culture the performance won’t speak to you. So, sensibly, the masks were discarded and the more accessible white faces and other stylised make-up’s, which did the job of universalising the face’s meanings just as well as the masks did, but without losing the nuances of the face and the possibilities of subtle contact, became more popular.
The Talking Body
But one thing was never lost in this history and is the truly important thing about commedia dell’arte. If you cover up the face then the responsibility for conveying meaning is distributed to the whole body. So from the very beginning commedia dell’arte actors always had a complex vocabulary of body language, what Antonio Fava says was ‘composed of clear and highly-expressive gestural character’. This was further reinforced by two things: Working outdoors body language needed (as it still does) to consist of bold gestures to communicate across space and in the face of background noise – and as troupes crossed language boundaries or turned to their advantage the plethora of Italian regional dialects the body was made to express what spoken vocabulary could not.
The movements needn’t be big; often small but pointedly ‘gestured’ movements of the feet and hands were (and are) powerful expressions of meaning – and in commedia dell’arte the language of movement is as complex and subtle as spoken language.
While the masks, which added deep layers of meaning for the original Mediterranean audiences who could understand them, disappeared, the vocabulary of body language has remained the most expressive part of the tradition.
A cursory look at Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, countless music hall performers such as Max Wall, Norman Wisdom, and even Lee Evans and Rowan Atkinson today shows commedia dell’arte’s future inheritance, unwitting though it may be on the part of these performers.
John Cleese was not the first actor to realise that legs are funny. Nor Lee Evans. Nor for that matter Jacques Tati & Max Wall. Music Hall kept ‘whole-body acting’ alive in the face of Naturalism and held the door open back to the commedia dell’arte. Of course, all good acting is ‘whole-body’ the difference is in the distribution of weight. Commedia distributes it evenly through the body; naturalism is dominated by the face. The mask tradition makes a point of covering up the natural face and replaces it with an abstraction, the fundamental principle of archetypal character creation. Bad naturalism is just neck up & therefore dead acting.