Immortali. What’s it all about?


That William Shakespeare saw at least one Commedia dell’Arte play is not in doubt. His … lean and slippered Pantaloon, recruited to represent the sixth age of man in As You Like It, is confirmation enough.  What is not so widely known is that his comedies owe a great deal to the Commedia scenarios and Much Ado About Nothing was a title in regular use by the Italian troupes long before Shakespeare purloined it.

Molière, on the other hand, admits his debt of gratitude to the Italian company in which he learned the actor’s craft and where he found inspiration as a playwright, even if he did go on to found the forerunner to the world famous Comédie Française which put the Théâtre Italien out of business.

Alas, unlike the plays of Shakespeare and of Molière, those performed by the Commedia dell’Arte are lost to us forever and their written scenarios do little to convey the artistry which, for centuries, charmed and captivated rich and poor alike.  Hardly a trace of the genius is left because the magic was all in the acting and the actor’s skill was improvisation.  No lines were learned.  Nothing was written down, apart from a brief copy of the scenario pinned in the wings.  Yet a common misconception that these troupes consisted merely of buffoons and slapstick artists denies their true professionalism,  ‘… a mastery so skilful as, by a kind of magic, to compel even the most sophisticated members of his audience to submit to the illusion and in spite of themselves to laugh, applaud and acknowledge their admiration’,   –  Casanova, on seeing a performance of the actor, Antonio Sacchi, in the role of Arlecchino.

So who were they, the Commedia dell’Arte?   Where did they come from and when?

The second question is the easier to answer.  They came from Italy, in the middle of the sixteenth century, when the Renaissance was at its height.  Troupes of travelling players containing stock characters, some of them masked, made their first impact upon the social scene at a time of fervent creativity.  It is likely that certain individuals (Arlecchino is recognised as coming from Bergamo, Pantelone from Venice) had already appeared in impromptu regional entertainments but not until the middle of the century did these types come together within a single performance.

As to who they were, opinions differ.  Some scholars trace their origins back to the mimes of Ancient Greece and Rome.  It has even been suggested that Arlecchino is a direct descendent of the god Hermes (patron of herdsmen, artists and thieves).  They are both fleet of foot, wear a similar hat and were rumoured to have fathered many children.  But on one thing all are agreed, Arlecchino, the most endearing and enduring of the roles, is ‘a child of the Tuscan sun’.  And it is perhaps only in such a place at such a time that he and his companions could have flourished because, while they sought first and foremost to entertain, they also challenged.

The Commedia’s art was of the street, concerned with romance, intrigue, jealousy, all the human frailties; a true soap opera in fact.  But there was also within the tradition something else, something then quite new to society, an awareness of the growing tension between servant and master, a burgeoning realisation by the common man that he was as good as the next.  Beaumarchais borrowed the concept and Mozart turned his brilliant, scandalous play into a masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro.  So, if you thought you knew nothing about the Commedia dell’Arte, you were wrong.  You just didn’t know their name.

Throughout the centuries Commedia plots have been plundered, the names of their characters changed to suit national taste.  Arlecchino became Harlequin.  The French took Pedrolino to their hearts and renamed him Pierrot.  But that’s OK because these people are common property, recognisable citizens of the world  –  Pantelone, the elder, the symbol of authority; sometimes a miser, sometimes a lecher, eternally duped.  Pedrolino the dreamer, the nice guy who never gets the girl.  Brighella, the cultured sociopath.  Arlecchino, the sexy bad boy women love to hate.  And Colombina, the feisty, independent-minded heroine striving to keep one step ahead.  Do they sound familiar?  They should.  Peak viewing ratings mark them out.

In my novel, I too have taken liberties with the Commedia dell’Arte.  Within a real company, the actors would have kept the same role for much of their lives but gone by their own names off-stage.  Mine are known only by their characters’ titles and the essence of a Commedia performance, filled with its predictable plot lines and outrageous coincidence, spills over into the narrative so that the novel becomes its own scenario.  Like others before me, I have also tweaked the personalities so that they are more in tune with a modern readership.

All I hope is, the world I have recreated for my troupe would be preferable to them than their current ignominious fate.  Trapped in two dimensions, they decorate greetings cards.  Abandoned by time, their empty costumes are filled now by oblivious revellers on their way to masked balls.  No place for the Commedia, not even in the modern pantomime!

Anyway I disclaim responsibility for what happens in this book.  All I did was invite some characters I love back on stage to improvise.  They did the rest.