Lessons learnt from the Commedia dell’Arte

The impact of the commedia dell’arte on theatre & other art forms

  • Why learn about the commedia dell’arte?For those of us who are devoted to the tradition and recognize that it remains the most inspiring source of practical methodology for comic acting (and more) in Western culture, of course, what we have said about the ‘mask’ & all’improvviso is just the beginning of the story. For example, the iconic San Francisco Mime Troupe when founded by R.G. Davis in 1959 were searching for a symbolism of movement in their acting style that would efficiently & poignantly comment on ‘political repression’, in particular as part of their contribution to the growing Civil Rights Movement, but also on America’s involvement in military intervention overseas. In particular, they wanted forms that would allow the ‘satirical & cutting edge’ stance they wished to take.
  • Commedia as a ‘ready model’ – They believed they had found it in the commedia dell’arte – and of course this tradition has always been about the exploitation of the weak by the strong, a natural heir to the ancient carnivalesque tradition of Southern Europe where people could get together on the streets during public holidays & poke fun at authority.
  • The key point – But the most important point was the apparent appropriateness of the ‘theatrical language’ itself of commedia, working as it did with archetypes of human character, in particular as expressed through gesture, posture & gait. By using the expressiveness of the whole body it tapped into ‘universal typicality’ of certain kinds of people in a summary or cartoon-istic way.  So, gets straight to the point. In fact, after a couple of years they realised that much of the commedia was indeed archetypal, yes, but partly just  in the context of Italian & to a degree the wider Mediterranean culture. It wasn’t necessarily always globally meaningful. For example, il capitano (the bombastic young man) is understood throughout the world, & probably Panatalone (the grouchy but rich old man) too, but the innamorati (the innocent young lovers) were very Italian. What they needed was archetypal body language that was first of all meaningful in California & then the US as a whole, so they sensibly learnt the ‘how lessons’, then moved on.
  • Stock characters – A typical problem for companies like the San Franscisco Mime Troupe looking for inspiration for a theatre language when they find something really interesting is to take it all on, lock, stock & barrel, & assume it would work for them.  The term often used of the characters in the tradition is the ‘stock characters‘, which makes my point about pitfalls exactly. They were never ‘stock’ characters, which implies ‘stereotypes’, rather than ‘archetypes’, to be taken off the shelf out of ‘stock’ for use when needed.
  • The actors who became famous for certain characters (like Tristano Martinelli for Arlecchino), never took them off the shelf without thought. Certainly they didn’t create them from scratch either; there were always cultural models, but the point is they re-shaped the model, retaining its universality but adapting it for their own purposes, that is, for their audience & their cultural context. Otherwise it is just a museum piece. The San Francisco Mime Troupe needed to go a stage further: make the model their own. Make it speak to their audience.
  • So why not just start from scratch anyway? – The reason? Because the cultural models brought a useful method. Somehow they embodied the essence of a certain kind of person in the minds of their audience (rather like Homer Simpson does of a certain kind of American man) by focusing on universal features of human beings, the braggart, the womaniser, the independent strong & proud woman, the tyrannical but self-deluding old man, the innocent lover, and so on. The method was a process of abstraction or cartoon-isation – simplifying or reducing the complexity of human character to the key features. The mistake is to not make it yours. It is a living process; not merely the re-exhibiting of a museum piece.
  • It is interesting to see how Arlecchino, or Harlequin, almost certainly evolved from the ‘wild man’ or ‘green man’ of European wide culture – with leaves gradually evolving into diamonds in his costume.  What Martinelli did was to transform him out of a local ancient ‘devil’ character into a regular little nuisance of a working class servant, a zanni, who walked the streets of Mantua & Paris annoying his so-called superiors, which everyone in Martinelli’s audience recognised. More of this really interesting subject another time! 

  • The same can be said of the various versions of il capitano  – Giangurgulo, Coccodrillo, Fantarone, Matamoroso, Spavento, Meo Squasquara, & so on, each an adaption by a particular actor in a particular place at a particular time of the archetype to its new context. This is the first lesson from the commedia dell’arte tradition: Use the method, find the archetypal principle, but always create it anew for your own audience.
  • Other examples – Elsewhere on this website we will gradually add essays on the many theatre & other art forms that have sprung out of or were  influenced by the commedia dell’arte, including the ballet, harlequinade, circus, Punch & Judy, melodrama, music hall, farce, Vaudeville & silent movie. But for the moment…

Let’s consider a tip from the Gelosi?

  • They were professionals – They were formed in Milan in 1569, lead by Flaminio Scala, whose scenarios still exist & are fascinating. They were among the first professional acting companies, so they were out on a limb, doing it as their ‘main thing’, making it work – rather than relying on bar work & doing it when they could get it! They couldn’t afford not to speak the same theatrical language as their audience for good reasons. For them the leather masks & the archetypal characters they performed were exactly right. They were entirely embedded in the cultural experience of the people who were paying them.
  • Lofty artistic ideals – Of course, we are trying to do more than just earn a living; we have our lofty artistic motives & ideals. But so did they actually in that they weren’t afraid – as long as they could get away with it – to make fun of the powerful & defend the weak (even if it meant eventually being chased out of the country). But it’s easy to dwell on our artistic interests first & foremost without properly taking account of what our audiences need. What the Gelosi needed from their audience first of all was an income, but they also needed them as a subject for satire so it was a complex relationship. Most importantly though from a sheer practical point of view was: What did their audience need from them? What they needed was simply before anything else to be able to understand the theatrical language the Gelosi were using. Adapting archetypes was all well & good, but their characters needed to be recognised on the streets. And the Gelosi got it exactly right.

Making commedia inspired theatre for today

  • Respecting the audience – If we want to succeed we need to respect our audiences – that is, know who they are first (and we may have several choices) and work with them. We should take very seriously the lesson from the commedia  that ‘if the mask doesn’t speak adapt it until it does’. If you put a mask on your face without serious regard to its implications for communication you do so at your peril. Much can still be achieved with leather masks where proper thought has been given to what it means for the audience. Trestle Theatre, Vamos & Trading Faces (among a few others) have shown us how. Anyone who has held a well made commedia dell’arte mask in their hands (such as those made by Antonio Fava) and solemnly put it on the face will know about the residual magic they have – and much is to be learnt about the power of the mask by experimenting with them with audiences who are sensitive to your experiments. New masks may emerge (such as those by the companies mentioned) which do speak in our culture and profound communication might be achieved.
  • Pantomime blanche or ‘white face’ – It’s worth it – worth really going for it with the mask, with the right audience & the right mask. But in the end what is right is what is right for your audience. We choose ‘white face’ or pantomime blanche, rather than leather masks which is more understood by our audience – and was just as much a part of the theatre language of the Gelosi & similar companies as well during the ‘great period’ of the 16th & 17th centuries, which is sometimes forgotten.
  • The same with spoken text – Similar lessons can be learnt from the tradition about the place of improvisation versus carefully prepared written text in plays. If you want spoken text to be a substantial part of a play – rather than making it minimal & concentrating on physicality – then it has to be initially written down and learnt (in my opinion) in most cultural contexts at least in English speaking countries & probably much of Northern Europe too. The lesson from the tradition is that you take the  model & adapt it for your purposes, so, as there is now generally no oral tradition in the UK, we can learn what we can about all’impro from commedia dell’arte & find ways for ourselves of adapting it to make what it gives to our theatre language, the spontaneity, vibrancy & authenticity, appropriate for our audiences. In our work (See ‘The Rudes & All’improvviso’ – Click here) we have tried to add the spontaneity & vibrancy of real speech by developing all’improvviso on the hoof during rehearsals & then embedding it. It is again about adapting the tradition to our culture.
  • Rap & inner city oral culture – I confess to not knowing enough about this but I think there is an all’improvviso type oral culture – that is, improvised rather than written down – among young people in inner city ‘villages’ which allows the generation of improvised text in the form of rap – and artists like Stormzy & Dizzee Rascal have got so good at it, really good, it has developed a much wider audience. To my untrained ‘old fogey’ ear it feels rich & authentic and fully embedded in the culture and a beautiful & expressive voice especially for young black people, but also by such as Kate Tempest who I’ve heard live & thoroughly enjoyed. How much is initially written down & how much created on the hoof I don’t know. But it is something beautiful that’s going on.
  • Theatre with minimal text & all’impro – If you want text to be minimal it still merits proper attention, more attention in fact. However, it is an exciting challenge to work with improvised text in the studio in a devised project and with selected audiences to try and achieve richness. For me, & I believe our audience, text must always be as rich as possible – not florid, not wordy, not necessarily lengthy (although ‘length’ is a relative and movable concept), but carefully prepared and I do not think that can be done without time spent on an initial script.
  • Using formulaic language – I saw, however, when it first came out quite a long time ago now a play by Tall Stories of a popular & now famous story for children called ‘The Gruffalo’. It had the formulaic simplicity of Kipling’s ‘Just So’ stories, yet had been partly improvised. It was beautiful. It can be done with proper attention and in short or minimalist plays. The ‘Just So’ stories are an interesting model to study for children’s theatre because they work with formulae of language – although written down initially by Kipling – that are very similar to those studied by Milman Parry & Albert Lord in the then Ugoslavia in the 1930’s & compared by them to the oral tradition of Ancient Greece & Homer. So, ways of devising text on the hoof without a script do have models in history other than in the commedia tradition. Finding ways of creating the freshness of real speech without being stifled by heavily scripted text is always worth the study and nothing should be ruled out. Our model for working needn’t be the only way & isn’t.
  • Plays across cultures – Fava talks about the commedia dell’arte performer ‘enclosing … all languages in a few strong, effective phrases’. This use of a minimalist but rich spoken text derived from several languages allows essentially the same performance to cross language borders. Multi-lingualism (a common skill in the commedia dell’arte originally) is one of Fava’s ideals and the ability to achieve this is an exciting, practical and achievable aim for companies who want to work in several countries. ‘Footsbarn’ has shown the way. So text can be rich & minimalistic at the same time & the fewer the words in a way the less is there to do – assuming you have the ‘fount of inspiration’ in the first place – & even in a devising context where several minds  can work together on relatively few words the challenge is less foreboding & beautiful text has been achieved.
  • Text generating with longer plays – Longer plays, also, can mix text generating methods. You can have the framework of the written script, but allow it to evolve in rehearsal (as we do) through improvisation, or include all’improvviso passages which have set rules and guidelines for free improvisation in live performance. This might mean deciding on opening & closing cues so the actors can move backwards & forwards between set text & all’impro securely without losing their place – as we do with ‘opportunist all’improvisso‘. Actors can be set free to have more direct involvement in set speeches, working with the author, and the more actor-centred the performance becomes the better – as long as the text remains rich, it doesn’t produce confusion, hesitancy & dead moments  in performance. That’s another lesson from commedia dell’arte.
  • The greatest legacy – But the greatest legacy of all of the commedia dell’arte is a complex, subtle and articulate vocabulary and grammar of body language (again quoting Fava) ‘composed of clear and highly-expressive gestural character’, which makes the actor from head to toe a whole vibrant talking organism. It’s a challenge and we as a company have a long way to go, but that’s our ideal.