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Shakespeare Club continues focus on humor

Lucille Richardson

The fifth meeting of the 2020-2021 Fredonia Shakespeare Club year was held virtually on Nov. 5. President Mary Croxton welcomed fifteen members. Mrs. Lucille Richardson presented her paper “Commedia dell’arte,” in keeping with this year’s theme of “Humor and Humorists.”

Commedia dell’arte was an early form of professional theatre, originating in Italy. It was popular in Europe from the 16th to the 18th century, and it emphasized ensemble acting. Its improvisations were set in a firm framework of masks and stock situations, and its plots were frequently borrowed from the classical literary tradition.

A commedia is both scripted and improvised. Performances were based on a set scenario – a basic plot, often a familiar story, upon which the actors improvised their dialogue. Actors were at liberty to tailor a performance to their audience, allowing for sly commentary on current politics and bawdy humor that would otherwise be censored.

Despite its outwardly anarchic spirit, commedia dell’arte was a highly disciplined art requiring both virtuosity and a strong sense of ensemble playing. The unique talent of commedia actors was to improvise comedy around a pre-established scenario. Throughout the act, they responded to each other, or to the audience’s reaction, and made use of “lazzi.” (A lazzo is a joke or “something foolish or witty,” usually well-known to the performers and to some extent a scripted routine.)

Professional players who specialized in one role developed an unmatched comic acting technique, which contributed to the popularity of the itinerant commedia troupes that traveled throughout Europe.

The characters of the commedia usually represent fixed social types and stock characters, such as foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado. The characters are exaggerated “real characters,” such as a know-it-all doctor called Il Dottore, a greedy old man called Pantalone, or a perfect relationship like the Inamorati (lovers).

Arlecchino (Harlequin) is an example of “zanni,” the comic characters, while Scaramuccia (Scaramouche) represents an unreliable and unscrupulous servant with an affinity for intrigue. The zanni were in many ways the most important–and certainly the most subversive–characters of the commedia, as their antics and intrigues decided the fate of frustrated lovers, disagreeable vecchi, and each other.

The audience was able to pick up on the type of person actors were representing through each character’s dress. Loose-fitting garments alternated with very tight garments, and jarring colors contrasted with monochrome outfits.

All the fixed character types, the figures of fun or satire, wore colored leather masks.

Masks forced actors to project their characters’ emotions through the body. Leaps, tumbles, stock gags obscene gestures, and slapstick antics were incorporated into their acts.

While the inamorati and the female characters wore neither masks nor costumes unique to that personage, certain information could still be derived from their clothing. Audiences knew what members of the various social classes typically wore, and they expected certain colors to represent certain emotional states.

Many troupes were formed to perform commedia dell’arte, which was often acted outside on platforms or in popular areas such as a piazza. There were no elaborate sets in commedia. Staging was minimalistic, with rarely anything more than one market or street scene, and the stages were frequently temporary outdoor structures. Instead, great use was made of props including animals, food, furniture, watering devices, and weapons. The character Arlecchino bore two sticks tied together, which made a loud noise on impact. This gave birth to the word “slapstick.”

Although originating in Italy, this form of theatre travelled throughout Europe and even to Moscow. Outside Italy, the form had its greatest success in France, where it became the Comedie-Italienne. In England, elements from it were naturalized in pantomime in the Punch-and-Judy show, a puppet play involving the commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella. The better troupes performed in palaces and became internationally famous once they traveled abroad.

A major landmark in theatre history was first confirmed in 1566 when a commedia performer named Vincenza Armani became the first documented professional actress. (She took the stage in Mantua almost a full century before a professional actress appeared in London’s theatres.) Evidence exists as early as the 1540s that Commedia troupes began to create professional space for female performers.

Another important legacy of the commedia dell’arte is its influence on other national dramatic forms which absorbed the comic routines and plot devices of the commedia. Moliere, who worked with Italian troupes in France, and Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare in England incorporated characters and devices from the commedia dell’arte in their written works. European puppet shows, the English harlequinade, French pantomime, and the cinematic slapstick of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton all recall the glorious comic form that once prevailed.

The decline of the commedia dell’arte was due to a variety of factors. The rich verbal humor of the regional dialects was lost on foreign audiences. Eventually the physical comedy came to dominate the performance, and, as the comic business became routine, it lost its vitality. As time went on, the actors stopped altering the characters, so that the roles became frozen and no longer reflected the conditions of real life, thus losing an important comic element. Efforts to reform Italian drama sealed the fate of the decaying commedia dell’arte.

Despite contemporary depictions of scenarios and masks and descriptions of particular presentations, impressions today of what the commedia dell’arte was like are secondhand. The art is a lost one, its mood and style irrecoverable.

The next meeting of the Club will feature Mrs. Karin Seager Cockram reading her paper on Erma Bombeck.

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