A Chorus of Clowns (Continued)

by Midori Snyder

As popular as the Atellan farces once were until the close of the first century, afterwards these stock characters diminished from the broad public stage. Scholars don’t know precisely why they disappeared, but given that they reappeared years later in Commedia dell’ Arte,it is believed that they returned to their rural roots where they settled into Christian mystery plays, as well as local pagan festivities that the Church never quite succeeded in suppressing.

The rediscovery of classical texts in the 15th century brought about a new revival in the comic theatre, especially in France and Italy. The plays of Plautus were discovered in 1429, along with six comedies from Terence. These two popular playwrights from ancient Rome had adapted the early Greek comedies into Roman versions.The Roman comedies reintroduced to Europe the idea of a play as an experience in itself, rather than being an adjunct to a religious occasion, as the Mystery Plays had been. The Roman comedies offered a flexibility of form not available in the more complicated liturgical productions. The action of the comedies occurred in one usually familiar setting, rather than in the biblical city of Jerusalem, or on a mountain top.Whereas the Mystery Plays were symbolic representations of profound mystical truths, calling for the audience members to bolster their faith and mend their ways, the new comedies were mimetic, rather than symbolic. The drama here tended toward the physical rather than the spiritual and the language was frank and direct. Actors on the stage, rather than portraying the ritual and symbolic figures of the faith,were now instructed to mimic as closely as possible the speech and behavior of their audiences.

Out of this reintroduction of the Roman comedy arose the Italian Commedia dell’ Arte, or as it was more popularly known at the time, la Commedia degli Zanni (the comedy of clowns) and la Commedia non scritta (the comedy of improvisation). Once again, clowns filled the stage with their foolish antics and insatiable appetites alongside unmasked actors who usually portrayed the Innamorati, the lovers.Performers gathered together in small, semi–professional itinerant troupes, touring their productions across Italy and the rest of Europe. They performed before rustic audiences on narrow portable stages, and the best of the troupes were invited to the royal estates of the aristocracy where they performed in elegant banquet halls. The success of a Commedia troupe depended on its skill at adapting improvised scripts to accommodate the wide variety of audiences it faced on its journeys.Upon arriving in a region it was not uncommon for an actor to scout out the local gossip, scandals, and infamous citizens of the village or town. Such information would be incorporated into the night’s performances as improvised asides. These "in jokes" brought a sense of engagement and merriment to the audience delighted to find itself the subject of the comedy.

As in the Roman and Greek comedies, it is the clowns and fools who predominate among the masks. The Zanni (a generic name for the Italian clowns), like their counterparts in antiquity, are drawn from the lowest social orders. Instead of slaves, the masked Zanni of the Commedia are the dispossessed workers and immigrants from poor rural communities. Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries was not so much a single country, as an eclectic collection of states, with regional dialects.This influenced the development of Commedia’s stock characters, as each mask derives from a different region. Arleccino, a country bumpkin, hails from "lower Bergamo," and like his predecessor Bucco has an outsized appetite for food and foolishness. Brighella is from "upper Bergamo," considered the craftier part of the town. Although a servant like Arleccino, Brighella’s intelligence has allowed him to better himself. In the plays he is an opportunist and conniver,capable of offering advice to a young lord down on his luck. Pulcinella, associated with the city of Naples, seems to be a reincarnation of the Atellan mask of Dossenuss. He is hunchbacked and pot–bellied and his mask has a deeply furrowed forehead, a hooked nose like a bird of prey, and a mustache. This is a quarrelsome clown, who can be by turns faithful, revengeful, cowardly, and a bully. His extravagant personality was captured in a series of hilarious drawings by Giandomenico Tiepolo.As if to emphasize the out–sized ego of the clown, Tiepolo has drawn him as a group of "Pulcinelli," filling the edges of the page with their activities.

The masks of old men include a host of familiar stock characters from the ancient theatre: Pantelone, recognized by his long nose and mustache, is the greedy miser. He clutches a full money bag at his waist (a faint echo to the satyr’s phallus) but is foolish enough to lose it all lusting after a young woman. Il Dottore, an elderly bachelor (or if he is married, a cuckold) is an orator, although he never makes any sense. In a round–faced mask of an elderly fool with bushy white eyebrows and a bulbous nose,he rambles on in various speeches until he is carried off the stage still talking. Tartaglia, whose name comes from the Italian verb "to stammer," is another elderly gentleman who makes a brief stammering appearance, usually as an additional comic opportunity. While neither a clown, nor an old man, Il Capitano serves as another role model for the puffed up arrogance and buffoonery of the upper class. An alleged soldier, he boasts of ridiculous bravery, but never fights as he is more inclined to become entangledin his overly long sword (yet another phallic joke). Sometimes he woos the young noble woman, other times the serving girl and lover of the fool, but he never wins their affection.

Although the performances were improvised, the actors had a stock repertoire of scenes and stories they could draw upon. The performances were physical affairs of tumbling, slapstick, mock fighting, and stolen kisses. In between acts, a young ingénue might perform a charming song on a mandolin, or one of the lovers would recite a well known poem on the subject of love. A few of the well–known actresses, such as Isabel Canali of the Zan Ganassa troupe, became quite famous throughout Europe for their performances. Occasionally, the accessibility of beautiful women on the informal stages caused public havoc. Young lords wereknown to interrupt the plays to court these celebrated beauties. In the 17th century fines were leveled against any man accused of impeding the play with his amorous intentions. Always on the edge of propriety, Commedia troupes were alternately praised and reviled. In 1590 Conte Ulysse Bentivoglio described one company as “a brothel of infatuation between strumpets and scamps.”

The Commedia plays usually centered around the problems of marriage, faithful and adulterous spouses, beautiful young widows in dire straits, cheating boyfriends, and elderly men chasing young skirts. The comedy took pleasure in exposing the inappropriateness of an old man thwarting a young couple in love by becoming an obstacle to their marriage. Either he was a father, preventing the marriage all the while lusting after the young serving girl, or he was an unlikely suitor,but with wealth enough to purchase the necessary dowry. The clowns acted to confuse the situation, creating a kind of anarchy on stage through misunderstandings and deceptions. But the net result of their chaos was restoration of balance. The greedy old man was separated from his money and the object of his lust. The lovers were married, and the servants were either fed or bedded at last with the serving girl.