Five Get Famous (2007)
When The San Francisco Mime Troupe began in 1959 they tried to find ‘stereotypical characters’ which would be effective in their particular social context and decided that the model offered by the commedia dell’arte could not be bettered. We would prefer to call them archetypes rather than stereotypes, but otherwise basically agree. There is a complication, however; the model is Italian which doesn’t always transfer as a whole unit. In America with a high concentration of Latin (Italian and Hispanic) immigrants an Italian social model is easily absorbed; it’s much harder in England.
When we decided to do a play about English village life and our class system (paradigmatically enshrined in Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ stories) the Italian ‘family household’ model with masters and servants was not entirely appropriate. But it was near enough and the treatment of character and the archetypes themselves worked perfectly – as it does in ‘Dad’s Army’, another paradigm of a certain period of English life given (probably unconsciously via the back door of music hall) a commedia dell’arte treatment.
Instead of the simple pyramid of Pantalone at the top with Signora, il Dottore, il Capitano and the Innamorati bringing in complications underneath and 1st and 2nd zanni, servetta and a range of other zanni providing a broad base, we have instead several separate but interacting groups each with their own hierarchies. There’s the village group lead by a Signora, Lady Lurcher (leader of the Shakespeare Society), with a distinct social scale beneath her of village characters, including a hopelessly incompetent 1st Zanni, PC Plucky. Within the children’s larger family, the Kirrins, there’s a part Pantalone / part il Dottore at the head, Uncle Quentin (changing tradition a little bit, but why not?), a Signora, Aunt Fanny, and a servetta, Bunty, the essential Innamorati, Bunny and Cicily, and interlopers in the form of il Capitano, Bertie Bounder, and a non-traditional character, Herr Schnich, created out of the immediate historical context of the story, of course (resembling a kind of nasty old Pantalone, but not quite).
Even among the Five we have a 1st zanni, Julian, and a number of mini-zanni and zagna as part of the group’s complex intrigues (including a mimed heroic dog). Of course, they have various levels of ‘poshness’ with Julian the most posh and Lionel the least which doesn’t fit the Italian class structure, but it doesn’t matter because the relationships still allow the lazzi and burli sequences possible among traditional zanni groups. But they are interacting now, not so much with their ‘betters’, but with an opposing adult world (which becomes the carnivalesque style butt of their offensive, even though as in the tradition they ultimately depend on them).