The term commedia dell'arte, while usually applied to the comic theatre of Renaissance Italy where it has its origins, embraces a vast range of comic acting. Indeed, commedia dell'arte is perhaps best translated as "professional comedy" and Constant Mic, who performed commedia during the early twentieth century, dedicated a study of his art to a performer he believed to be the greatest exponent of his day, Charlie Chaplin.1 Nevertheless, two specifically performative features stand out as defining characteristics of commedia: use of a mask or heavy facial make-up and an emphasis on improvisation (particularly gestural) within a canevas or sketch. It is our contention here that a popular Renaissance ideology of emotion underpinned these aspects of performance.
Use of the mask and gestural improvisation were a hallmark of the first Italian players to arrive in Paris during the mid to late seventeenth century. Despite performing all their plays in Italian for the first twenty or so years, these troops met with phenomenal success, perhaps because the slapstick nature of their comedy mingled with scatological humour was relatively easy to follow. Fixed character types (tipi fissi) were also readily identifiable by their masks and costumes, while dramatic action was largely conveyed by physical gesture. We would face considerable difficulties attempting to determine the exact nature of these performances, since canevas or sketches were designed to be improvised upon and contain practically no didascalia. It was in any case a convention of the time to omit stage directions from transcripts and print just the spoken word, not simply because it was supposed to convey all necessary stage action, but also on account of the difficulties playwrights themselves had in explaining precisely which gestures were required:
[Il est] assez difficile de bien exprimer sur le papier ce que les poètes appellent jeux de théâtre, qui sont de certains endroits où il faut que le corps et le visage jouent beaucoup, et qui dépendent plus du comédien que du poète, consistant presque toujours dans l'action.2
Faced with this variation in performance, it is not our intention to detail specific gestures as signifying precise emotions in given plays. Such an analysis would imply a rigid gestural coding that was almost certainly not present. Instead it is our assertion that gestural improvisation and use of a mask in performance can only be fully understood with reference to a contemporary ideology of emotion that laid great emphasis on fixity of temperament and on physical mannerisms. Our discussion takes three parts therefore. Firstly, a brief introduction to those ideas of emotion most widely promulgated during the Renaissance. Secondly, a consideration of typology central to commedia dell'arte that was most clearly manifest in the masks used by performers. Thirdly, a discussion of gestural improvisation in commedia that was nevertheless bound by the constraints that wearing the mask imposed.
Predominant conceptions of body and emotion at this time were still founded on the theories of Galen and Hippocrates. Even though Greek medical knowledge had been seriously undermined by various medical advances during the seventeenth century, most notably Harvey's discovery of the circulation of blood in 1628, commedia dell'arte had its roots in the Renaissance and thus reflected Renaissance attitudes towards emotion. The basis then for all understanding of human behaviour lay in the idea of four humours: blood, yellow bile, phlegm and (black) atrabile. Depending on the composition of these four humours in your body, you would have a sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic or melancholy temperament. This temperament was essentially fixed, determined at birth by your astrological sign though varying slightly with age and, to a lesser extent, season. The central feature of the balance of humours was therefore its fixity, the fact that it determined a generally invariable emotional tendency.
This conception of pre-ordained behaviour can be seen in much Renaissance fiction. The tragic aspect of Robert Garnier's theatre, for example, depends on the response of immutable characters to their situation. Rabelesian characters also reflect this immutability, hence the scorn reserved for the escolier limousin who we know will never change, despite his castigation. This anthropologie théophrastienne, as Louis van Delft has termed the static characterization of pre-classical French literature born of an ancient Greek heritage, was still in evidence even in mid-seventeenth century theories of emotion. Moreover, this pre-ordained emotional tendency was considered readily recognizable in a person's air, that is to say their general physical demeanour, and more specifically in their complexion, that is the whole aspect of the face rather than just facial colour. As Montaigne relates 'Comme nous pleurons et rions d'une mesme chose':
en nos corps ils disent qu'il y a une assemblée de diverses humeurs, desquelles celle là est maistresse qui commande le plus ordinairement en nous, selon nos complexions: aussi, en nos ames, bien qu'il y ait divers mouvemens qui l'agitent, si faut-il qu'il y en ait un à qui le champ demeure.3
In this way complexion and temperament are fundamentally linked, one providing evidence of the other, enabling an "art to see the mind's construction in the face". Now although it would be facile to ascribe the construction of commedia masks to a particular theory of complexion in its relation to humour, there is nevertheless much evidence to suggest that the mask was the primary indicator of emotional tendency. This is borne out by what one actor, Carlo Goldoni, performing commedia in Paris during the eighteenth century, had to say against the use of the mask:
Le masque doit toujours faire beaucoup de tort à l'action de l'acteur, soit dans la joie, soit dans le chagrin; qu'il soit amoureux, farouche ou plaisant, c'est toujours le même cuir qui se montre; et il a beau gesticuler et changer de ton, il ne fera jamais connaître, par les traits du visage, qui sont les interprètes du cur, les différentes passions dont son âme est agitée.4
Therefore the masks cannot be used to express emotion beyond the fixity of their leather which, while posing a problem for Goldoni who wished to express more complex emotions, nevertheless suited precisely those needs of the commedia dell'artewhen it first arrived in Paris. Yet the physical masks themselves were not designed with given emotional expressions like the masks of ancient Greek tragedy and comedy or of Japanese kabuki. They were designed, as were the costumes of the commedia dell'arte, so that characters would be instantly recognizable to audiences. Since the same basic roles were played across different sketches, the masks allowed instant contextualization of a comic trait, relating in an instant what sort of character this would be and what kind of comic an audience could expect.
This dominance of the mask (indeed persona was its Latin term) over individual characterization from play to play has been commented upon by a number of scholars, though it is fundamentally rejected by Kenneth and Laura Richards. They claim that "the use of masked figures was not in itself a crucial and defining characteristic of the commedia dell'arte" and that the mask did not operate "to the extent that the personality of the player was absorbed wholly by the assumed persona".5 Yet although it is clear that the mask cannot dominate wholly and prescribe an exact performance, the actor nevertheless improvises within the mask's constraints. The mask or persona, despite its use from play to play, is not an absolute but like the humours is a tendency from within which a character operates. Similarly a temperament allows a vast range of emotions to operate, though they always operate within that tendency. Consequently it is possible for anyone to desire, for example, though a bilious character's desires will differ from those of someone who is generally phlegmatic. This is a well-utilized comic source, as the subtitle to Molière's Misanthrope (l'Atrabilaire amoureux) demonstrates.
Thus a persona versus character conflict that so many writers on theatre see as fundamental to commedia does not occur. The persona is a generic behavioural tendency from which a character operates within various individual canevas. This is made clear from the titles of these sketches, so often giving just the name of a character within a given situation (Arlequin roi de la lune, Les Desirs de Pantalon), showing how these fixed types (indeed they are named tipi fissiby commedia performers like Perucci) react in different situations. Moreover, this fixity of character further emphasises the need for improvisation that was such an important element to commedia performances. Gherardi in his avertissement to the collection of sketches staged by the Comédie italienne in the late seventeenth-century states:
On ne doit pas s'attendre à trouver dans ce Livre des Comedies entieres, puisque les Pieces italiennes ne sçauroient s'imprimer. La raison est, que les Comediens Italiens n'apprenent rien par cur, & qu'il leur suffit pour jouer une Comedie, d'en avoir vû le sujet un moment avant que d'aller sur le Theatre. Aussi la plus grande beauté de leurs Pieces est inseparable de l'action [physical acting]. Le succès de leurs Comedies depend absolument des Acteurs, qui leur donnent plus ou moins d'agrément, selon qu'ils ont plus ou moins d'esprit, & selon la situation bonne ou mauvaise où ils se trouvent en jouant.6
The importance of the actor is consequently stressed, though one should remember that generally these actors played the same role for the majority of their careers, so that they were readily able to play the same basic behavioural tendencies in any given situation. The performances were not wholly improvised, but the canevasprovided the scheme for the situation, while the mask provided the basic character motivations as determined by the various character types.
What of the different types of persona common to the commedia dell'arte? Most troops had ten to fifteen actors at their disposal, so there would be a corresponding number of tipi fissi. Nevertheless, Goldoni identified four elemental types common to italianate comedy: Pantalon, a miserly Venetian merchant, easy to anger, disrespected by everyone, and a born loser; il Dottore, a pedantic lawyer-type from Bologna; Brighella, a serenading servant who enjoys thieving, bragging and sowing discord and is a predecessor of Figaro; and Arlequin, a basically stupid servant permanently in despair over unrequited love. Though it may be unwise to identify these four types specifically with the four humours, Pantalone is clearly bilious and Arlequin frequently melancholy, Brighella takes a distinctly sanguine attitude to his scheming and thieving while there is some evidence of the doctor's phlegmatic tendencies, particularly if one traces an evolution towards Molière's raisonneurs. This analogy should perhaps not be pushed too far, however. Suffice to say that there are specific tendencies to these characters all indicated by their respective masks and costumes.
The doctor, for example, whose severe black mask with a long, imposing nose and all black costume identifying him as a graduate of Bologna is in marked contrast to his ruddy complexion, made up with excessive rouge to denote alcohol. Here is a man instantly denoted as confident in his own intellect, perhaps excessively so, but with definite implication of foolishness and possible fraudulence. Tartuffe may be a descendent of this doctor type, when he appears dressed all in black yet with his own ruddy complexion that does not sit easily with his ascetic teachings. Of the other types, the Capitan is most readily identifiable, his huge nose, bouffant costume and large sword indicate his egotism even before he begins to brag. Interestingly, his mask was usually yellow, the complexion of choler as befits a military man.7 The young lovers, who do not normally wear masks, nevertheless have their excessive vanity exposed by their ample make-up and their heavily adorned clothes.
For even though none of the actresses ever wore masks, except when disguising themselves as male characters, there are noticeable static distinctions between them. Silvia, whether depicted as a peasant or a bourgeoise, would seem to have been fashionably though not extravagantly dressed in marked contrast to characters like Lisette, who would often appear semi-naked, or Fiorinetta whose dress and make-up were lavish. Colombine was the character most prone to disguise, though her loupor hand-held half-mask would go some way to indicate her scheming otherwise. Isabelle, the last of the major female roles, would be dressed as a chaste and innocent girl, naive and fearful of the other characters. These costumes were therefore analogous with male masks in the sense that they denoted some kind of fixity of characterization and instant recognition.
This is how the fixed types are indicated and we do not expect actors to stray from them, since we recognize it as their temperament. We have not yet reached the theatre of Marivaux where emotions change sufficiently for characters to move beyond their masks. All improvisation takes place within the frame of the characters' humours, their demeanour pre-ordained by the persona adopted, the types as rigidly fixed as contemporary understanding of behaviour dictated.
But it is in their stance and mannerisms that these personaeare most clearly exposed. We see Pantalon's timorous but easy to anger nature in his quivering hands, shaking with anger at being disobeyed but incapable of satisfactory response. We see his fear of the servants, the zanni, particularly Brighella, when Pantalon stands always leaning away from potential pickpockets. The doctor paces around in circles meanwhile, trying to think of something relevant, twisting his fingers as if to extract knowledge from his hands. A Parisian engraving from around 1585 by Jean Honervogt shows this quite clearly, with the transcription:
Ce docteur est remply de si grande science
qu'il luy fault arracher tous les motz de ses doigtz.8
Brighella meanwhile, as a schemer and general crook, inserts himself into nooks and crannies only entering the main part of the stage to upset someone or other, or perhaps to serenade a female character. His stomach is always projected forward as an indication that, like all the zanni (servants), he is always hungry. Arlequin is elastic, as befits his fleeting emotions. He is continually in love and in despair, trying to commit suicide when rejected, but failing miserably. For example, he tries to hang himself but is scared of heights so cannot tie the knot, or attempts to burn himself alive but his tears put the fire out. The lovers generally rush towards each other before stepping back to adjust their make-up or some piece of clothing, smell a flower or pamper themselves with a handkerchief. The Capitan will try to occupy as much stage space as possible, hands on hips, feet wide apart.
Thus the general stance and demeanour of the characters indicates their temperament. This is the air referred to above. Moreover focus on stance is heightened by the lack of facial expressiveness due to the mask and to the initial language gap between performers and audience when the comédie italienne first established itself in Paris. Thus we see a need for bodily gestures to be clearly readable with a consequent emphasis placed on mime, which was the training of the commedia performer. Indeed contemporary accounts bear witness to the clarity of narrative expression of the Italian actors. The dramatist Charles Sorel, for example:
Pour ce qu'ils sont fort gestueux et qu'ils représentent beaucoup de choses par l'action [du corps], ceux même qui n'entendent pas leur langage comprennent un peu le sujet de la pièce; tellement que c'est la raison pourquoi il y en a beaucoup à Paris qui y prennent plaisir.9
A great deal of effort has been devoted to ascertaining where the gestures used by these performers had their source. There have been attempts to classify them according to contemporary handbooks on rhetoric or physiological tracts. It is true that when the Comédie italienne was at the height of its popularity, there were a large number of treatises dealing both with the subject of how to identify emotion, notably Cureau de la Chambre's L'art de connoistre les hommes (1640 plus subsequent posthumous editions) and how orators and rhetoricians should reproduce emotions for the pulpit, stage or court: René Bary's Méthode pour bien prononcer un discours of 1679, for example. There were also a number of works on the subject of how painters should reproduce the expression of emotion: Charles Le Brun's Conference sur l'expression given in 1668 and Jean-Baptiste du Bos' Reflexions critiques of 1719. These works have been ransacked to find precise indicators of the types of gestures commedia actors could have used in what has been a thoroughly fruitless exercise.
For a distinguishing feature of commedia as already stated, was the improvisation of the actors that was constructed within the limits of the mask: "Qui dit bon Comédien Italien, dit un homme qui a du fond, qui joue plus d'imagination que de memoire".10 While we can point to specific stances or gestures that we have evidence of recurring on numerous occasions, there is nothing to suggest that French rhetorical treatises or very modern physiological concepts were adopted by the Italian troops. The gestures used by the commedia were popular concepts, just as their stereotypical personae were. For as René Rapin, himself an author of treatises on rhetoric tells us:
C'est le grand art de la Comedie [...] d'avoir des sentimens communs, & des expressions qui soient à la portée de tout le monde. Car il faut bien se mettre dans l'esprit, que les traits les plus grossiers de la nature quels qu'ils soient, plaisent toujours davantage, que les traits les plus delicats, qui sont hors du naturel.11
This is not to say that the gestures used were mere caricature. We can see how gestural acting can combine both conventional gestures indicative of temperament with full lazzi(the physical jokes of commedia) just by considering the mannerisms of the various characters. The self-pampering of a young, self-indulgent lover shows he is in love but can indicate that it is probably more with himself than the supposed object of his affections; the endless pacing of the doctor or spluttering of Pantalon indicate their demeanour but can be used to produce comic effect too. Indeed the vast majority of these apparently involuntary or unconscious gestures are conventional and caricature simultaneously, so that they demonstrate how commediacombined both an understanding of emotion with a comic purpose.
For even if the multitude of physiological tracts and discourses on expression that were in vogue at this time do not provide us with a guide to specific gestures employed by commediaperformers, they are nevertheless based on a premise that every emotion is visible in the body, not merely in the face, where complexion is such a clear indicator of temperament, but in every involuntary movement we make. Consequently every gesture that an improvising performer made was indicative of some latent emotion. Moreover, this emotion was always expressed with regard to the character's humour since it was performed with regard to the mask. These are the fundamentals of emotional tendency: the temperament is predetermined, though various emotions operate within that behavioural pattern. So it was with the character types of the commedia dell'arte.
It is of course important to remember that these gestures had a comic design. Indeed the main reason for their apparent involuntariness was to lead to comic effect, as famously noted by the twentieth-century philosopher Henri Bergson in his treatise on laughter:
Un homme, qui courait dans la rue, trébuche et tombe: les passants rient. On ne rirait pas de lui, je pense, si l'on pouvait supposer que la fantaisie lui est venue tout à coup de s'asseoir par terre. On rit de ce qu'il est assis involontairement. Ce n'est donc pas son changement brusque d'attitude qui fait rire, c'est qu'il y a d'involontaire dans le changement, c'est la maladresse.12
Yet such comic intention is derived from a contemporary awareness of emotion: Brighella cannot help but jump for joy having stolen someone's wallet, Pantalon cannot help but be wary of thieves, a young lover cannot resist just one last momentary adjustment to his or her hair before meeting a planned conquest.
Seeking the comic thereby leads necessarily to an indication of the emotional. The mannerisms adopted, indeed all the improvisations, are based on an understanding of emotional tendencies widely promulgated during the mid-seventeenth century. These tendencies are principally manifest in the use of masks as a fixed indicator of character. Yet there is no conflict between such typology and performance of character in specific sketches. The persona (mask) is the character, representing the limits within which we expect that character to perform and encouraging improvisation based on the mask itself. Although the physical masks are not themselves indicative of particular emotions, they nevertheless convey an idea of emotional tendency that was wholly plausible to a mid-seventeenth century French audience.
In summary then, although we have not examined specific stagings of the commedia dell'arte in Paris, we have nevertheless been able to discuss the performance of commediaand the gestural improvisation upon which it relied by exploring the latent ideology of emotion that underwrote these performances. How these plays were performed depended more on this ideology than it did on the text the actors worked from, since so much depended on a comic improvisation that was informed by a popular conception of character. Consequently we may talk of a performative ideology in which the tools and techniques of acting reflect an understanding that reaches far beyond the parameters of the stage. Yet we must take care not to overlook one of the commedia dell'arte's most important aspects, for we are dealing with comic theatre, and having highlighted its fundamental fixity let us recall, as Bergson states, that the comic is derived "par un effet de raideur".
Philippe Parker (1999)
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