Sunday, May 31, 2009

Commedia Dell'Arte
(more esoteric theory to keep me from
actually accomplishing anything)


I was amazed when I started delving into the world of Commedia. (I know, commedia is just Italian for comedy, but Ill be using it as an abbreviation for the full term, which is a bit long to type out over and over. Sue me.... )

The thing that really blows my mind about it is just how many of today's familiar characters have filtered down from it. Harlequins painted by Picasso, Cezanne, and many other artists, extended all the way to the Joker's sidekick Harley Quinn. Oh, and the Joker himself looks an awful lot like a Zanni mask with that long nose and long pointed chin.... rather similar to Paul Berry's Sandman puppet. Lots of examples throughout history, from Cyrano to (I suspect) Don Quixote and possibly even Quasimodo (his renaissance garb coupled with his acrobatic capering suggest Commedia to me). I'm sure there are countless others.


As a theatrical form, Commedia was very physical -- involving mime, clowning, acrobatics, and improvisation in addition to voice acting and often singing, or grammelot -- invented gobbledygook -- gibberish language made to sound like some language or dialect and including occasional words... it was designed to get the meaning across even though most of it was nonsense. There's more to grammelot than just made up gibberish... you can find a great description of it in Dario Fo's Nobel prize winning book Tricks of the Trade (along with excellent descriptions of techniques for various mime techniques and other physical acting methods).


Mister Punch is the direct descendant of Pulcinella (meaning Little Chicken), who walked like a chicken and beat everybody with his slapstick. Many commedia characters are modeled after animals... birds, monkeys, etc. Commedia is the theatre of TYPES.... characters aren't individuals with psychological depth but the masks and characteristic walks represent types -- The Old Skinflint (Pantalone), The Clown (Harlequin, or earlier Arlecchino), The Cowardly Braggart (Il Capitano, or The Captain), The Self-Important Windbag (Il Dottore - The Doctor) and others.


It was all set up within the framework of classes.... basically most of the characters were servants on different levels of the hierarchy.. with Pantalone and Il Dottore being the homeowners and their sons and daughters being The Lovers (who wore no masks and were completely self-absorbed, in love with the idea of being in love, but so narcissistic that they hardly noticed each other). These Lovers feature frequently in some of the films derived from Commedia... in particular the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. Chaplin, Keaton, and other silent clowns are direct descendants as well.


The Zanni are the lowest class... always at everyone else's mercy, but the most mischievous and clownish of the bunch. Zanni is a generic term (not sure exactly what it means) which eventually translated into Zany. As many of the characters did, they would often stand and walk in first or fourth position (ballet terms), lending them an exaggerated grace.

Here are some great YouTube vids on the subject of Commedia Dell'Arte:

Commedia Dell'Arte playlist on YouTube Some are good, some not so much. I offer the entire playlist, feel free to skip around it. Below are some individual clips I find excellent.

The Masks of Arnold Sandhaus
Commedia Dell'arte at Brennan High School
Commedia dell'Arte
Workshop de Commedia Dell' Arte com Antonio Fava (part 1)
Workshop de Commedia Dell' Arte com Antonio Fava (part 2) This girl does the best Zanni I've ever seen!!! This is the way Commedia characters are supposed to be.... acrobatic, walking with balletic grace and poise, speaking in unnatural voices... incredible!!!

And the books I've got (browse suggestions for many others):

Commedia Dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook by John Rudlin
The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre by Jaques Lecoq
The Mime Book by Claude Kipnis
The Art of Pantomime by Charles Aubert (available for free online download)
The Tricks of the Trade by Dario Fo
Mask Characterization: An Acting Process by Libby Appel
All highly recommended, especially when taken as a group... they feed into each other perfectly.



Edwound Wisent said...

(^ since you bring all this up:
(^ elmer fudd, bugs and daffy.
(^ check it.

(^ Sylvester and tweedy.

(^ and that doesn't even scratch Rocky and Bullwinkle.
(^ come to think of it:
Jay Ward's entire menagerie even down to the serial commercials.

coocoo for coacoapuffs
get lucky..
silly rabbit..

(^ which part of Commedia Dell'Arte covers the obsessed sneak who no matter how ingenious a plot .
no matter how crafty..
never wins in the end.

but we the audience love to watch the machinations.

Shelley Noble said...

So edgumacational!

I always thought that Pantomime, as standardized onlty relatively recently in Italy's Commedia dell’Arte, had chiefly pagan/psychosexual overcurrents at its roots. (But then, what doesn't?!)

"...the living tradition of ritualised folk plays celebrated in every agrarian community" "collective memory at work" "Crimes that delight us" The seductive edge of its darker influences.... (from Richard Lloyd's essay

Darkmatters said...

Right on bRYEnd!!

Shelley, keep in mind there are different varieties of pantomime and mime.... the French variety street mime with the white paces who act in pure silence really have little to no connection with Commedia or Lecoq's Physical Theatre.

not sure if this has anything to do with what you posted... in fact come to think of it, I'm not sure I understand what you posted.... ;)

Darkmatters said...

Ok Shelley, I went and read the article. Very good stuff!! Though I'm a little confused.... Im not sure exactly what he means by Pantomime. I guess he's using the term a little differently than I've heard it used before. He seems to be referring to a very specific type of stage play derived from a fairy tale.

I think of Pantomime as a way of an actor expressing himself through the body alone, as in silent acting.

Darkmatters said...

Hmmm... well you just taught me something Shelley!! A quick check on Wiki shows that Pantomime is indeed exactly what that article said. My only reference to pantomime had been from the book The Art of Pantomime, which as I recall didn't mention any of that other stuff, and concentrated strictly on movements of the face and body to express things, as in silent film acting. I suppose it was written for silent film actors, using techniques taken from the original Panto plays.

Edwound Wisent said...

(^ "mime" vs. pantomime.
(^ close but no cigar..

(^ ok that in itself is a very pantomIMPish statement.

(^ pantaloona.

(^ mime = sans? without?

(^ unsaid?

(^ the emperor hath no mask!!!

(^ but I'm flailing into abserdism: a subset. sorry.

(^ let's see. italia vs french traditions.

(^ conquerers vs the hidden meanderings of the conquered entertaining shuck and jive talkers.

(^ over and over , the mix of saying one thing out the side of your mouth while ventriloquiescentising off t'other..

(^ " hey.. what can we the actors get away with saying in front of the aristocracy without getting killed for mocking our very customers?"

(^ can we get away with teaching the youth and reminding the far to old to care anymoorish
that we remember when those in charge were not?

(^ that is another part of the whole " goes without saying" element to traditional folk telling..
..with a twist.

mock my words.. we're all marked to market.> try watching some old crazy Kat or read some POGO!!!!

Shelley Noble said...

Hooray! Seems an ancient tradition, with cultural function, as well. The art form you love emerging out of the act of communicating things of cultural import, as it were.

Dan Metalmadcat said...

i wish i had more time to read everything you write in your blog. I find a lot of things to dig...yet not the time to afford it all.

Anyway, so glad to more aware of what is blogger and all you people who introduced me to stop motion. I look forward to keep in touch with you all.


a guy in a gorilla suit said...

Much to think about, to consider in a new way and to re-think. It's a joy to read your blog and learn and getting hints about the deeper meaning of some things. Just today I talked about the difference between 'characters', 'role' and 'acting' with a friend of mine.... Very inspiring !