Commedia dell’arte


Commedia dell'Arte actresses and actors lived a live threatened by several institutions. Discuss by mentioning these institutions and why they posed a threat to these Companie.

This essay is about a very particular theatrical genre - Commedia dell'Arte - and the various resisting institutions it encountered during its existence. We will start by mentioning who these institutions were, then delve in the issue of how and why they acted in such a way towards anyone who had anything to do with Commedia dell'Arte, and finally see whether this opposition could have been one of the reasons for the fading away of it in the mid eighteenth century.

Emerging in Italy during the renaissance and replacing the traditional medieval religious plays, according to Taviani and Schino, Commedia dell'Arte is nowadays known as 'a theatre able to challenge acceptable norms', by representing love tales obscured by dishonesty, faults, family divisions and other daily life occurrences.

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Nobody knows the exact Italian region and city Commedia dell'Arte started from at that time; what is sure is that it originated in the southern part of Italy around 1540's and was created to make audiences laugh. Each Commedia dell'Arte actor in these small professional troupes that lived in small communities was a professional artist, as opposed to Commedia Erudita academic amateurs (Erudite Comedy was directed to the elite unlike Commedia dell'Arte). It was actor-based unlike the previous plays which were author and text-based. In fact according to Glynne Wickham, Commedia dell'Arte is said to have been a 'sharp, popular reaction against Commedia Erudita - itself a reversion to the traditional forms and standards of medieval secular drama'.

(A History of the Theatre - pg 101)

Duchartre in fact speaks of these actors as 'masters of their trade, not just amateurs'. However, what nowadays might seem as an interesting and harmless theatrical genre, Commedia dell'Arte always had the worse enemies against it ever since it began to attract attention around the mid sixteenth century.

To begin with, it was no hidden secret that anti-theatrical church polemic was nothing new. These Commedia dell'Arte actors used to play in city squares and in courts at important events commissioned by the Kings, and according to Glynne Wickham,'never did it pose a threat to the state: still less did it ridicule the prince or his entourage. So long as it remained closely in touch with human nature it could be relied upon to provide an ideal divertissement - sometimes serious, often frivolous, always harmless. Only in France did the actors let the exuberance of their wit outrun their discretion, an act of foll for which they paid with their expulsion from Paris in 1697'.

(A History of the Theatre, pg 112)

However the clerics in Italy condemned these actors since they considered this art as pagan. The church's view at that time was that Commedia dell'Arte was creating a different approach to way of living since it was accessible entertainment, and this worried the church too much.

Carlo Borromeo, Milan Archbishop from 1565-84, led this anti-theatrical church polemic as a most formidable opponent to Commedia dell'Arte. He thought that this kind of theatre was very bad and in fact stated this well-known phrase about it, "Comedy they call it, but believe me, for you it is always tragedy..." In 1579 he prohibited spectacles and those who did not obey and even attended these spectacles were instantly excommunicated and interdicted. Borromeo argued that theatre was able to alter the face of society and its culture. He attacked theatre's social roles calling them 'perverse and irrelevant', threatened the Christian social order because it 'substituted an artificial for a real, denied temporal space and time, and trafficked in dreams and imaginings'.

(The Commedia dell'Arte - Pg 235)

Church and theatre groups 'were seen to be as polar opposites: the former, celebrants of the Christian spirit in the world of men; the latter, pursuant of vacuous profane diversions'. (pg 236) Theatre was considered as a 'place of fabrications' and it managed to 'seduce man from confronting with the actual'. It also 'encouraged identification with the fictional world it presented' and 'denied the value of contemplative life by stimulating desire in participating in its fictional life...'

(The Commedia dell'Arte - pg 235)

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Later Borromeo was the one to sign for some Commedia dell'Arte plays to be performed, and the Companie were protected by the Archbishop who, especially for them, altered this decree forbidding public performance.

It is interesting to note that the church itself had been implicated in theatrical activity trough its association with religious drama. As an example is Cardinal Bibbiena (whose real name is Bernardo Dovizzi, Bibbiena is the place he came from) who had written plays in his youth and performed them - this contributed to the emergence of the Companie.

Maybe the biggest issue between the clerics and professional theatre makers at that time was the introduction of women on stage. Moralists joined the church in attacking Commedia dell'Arte actors due to the female in very little clothing and the showing of adultery and other evil stories. Clerics and moralists made no distinction between actresses' stage and private life. 'Probably few actresses were as free-living as their critics maintained.' (pg238) Critic Petrus Hurtado de Mendoza said the following about the Commedia dell'Arte actresses:

'The women are always, or nearly always shameless. Players enjoy a free life together, and the women are not segregated in separate rooms. Thus the men can often see them when they dress, undress or comb themselves, and at times when they are in bed, or when they are half naked. And they are forever exchanging indecencies.'

(The Commedia dell'Arte - pg 251)

The Italian scholar Ferdinando Taviani has gathered an amount of church documents opposing the introduction of the Commedia dell'Arte actresses as a sort of courtesan, 'whose scanty attire, and promiscuous lifestyle corrupted young men, or at least infused them with carnal desires'. This was very offensive to the church. According to a 2001 Cambridge Journal, critics of theatre condemned the Commedia dell'Arte actresses as 'the embodiment of all the corrupting influences inherent in the Commedia...At the same time that professional actresses were becoming more visible in various piazze and stanze throughout Italy and France, religiously inspired women were becoming more visible in the schools and hospitals sponsored by the reforming Roman Catholic Church. The animus of religious men toward the actress must be considered within a wider social context that also included a growing uneasiness with and hostility toward the more public activity of religious women intent on claiming their place in the apostolic mission of Roman Catholicism'.

Cambridge Journals - Theatre Survey (August 2001), 42:1:1-24 - Cambridge University

Hostility by the critics was not towards court theatre but towards market place theatre, the type of theatre one paid to watch. This was seen dangerous in a way court theatre was not since it was under the control of critics. Market economy was of utmost importance to Commedia dell'Arte actors and they eventually depended upon it since their living depended on it. They used to think about how to make Commedia dell'Arte needed by the people so as to get their income, a kind of demand and supply. Kenneth Richard and Laura Richards comment how 'the increasing pressures felt by the theatrical profession from clerical and administrative authorities anxious to curb the freedom of itinerant improvising public players, and have remarked the suspicions accumulated against entertainers apparently concerned more with monetary aquisitiveness than with serving those moral and civic ends endorsed by the dominant culture.'

(The Commedia dell'Arte - pg 282).

In the late sixteenth century the most successful Commedia dell'Arte Companie managed to receive support from patrons of prestige and influence, and this helped them to be kind of 'protected' from the institutions which fought against them. In Spain, the Companie played in public playhouses (corrales - courtyards), and in fact Glynne Wickham states that 'These playhouses were everywhere established not only with royal approval, but with the active assistance of the religious brotherhoods through the hospitals which they financed and managed on behalf of the poor...By leasing their courtyards to the actors, and by entering into contractual agreements with them, the hospitals offered the actors open spaces of the right size for conversion into regular playhouses with controlled admission'

(A History of Theatre - pg 142)

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One might subsequently ask how come in Spain did Commedia dell'Arte actors were not labeled as 'rogues' or 'vagabonds'. To this Wickham answers by continuing that 'the surest answer is to be found in this intimate association with the hospitals and the charitable good works that their performances helped so greatly to finance.'

(A History of the Theatre - pg 142)

Therefore we have seen how for two hundred years, Commedia dell'Arte survived notwithstanding many hurdles it faced everyday by various institutions. However, it was neither the church nor other institutions that brought this theatrical genre to a halt. In the course of the eighteenth century, the Commedia dell'Arte was generally seen to have become stale and, despite the Italian dramatist Carlo Gozzi's resourceful prolongation, it faded away as playwright Carlo Goldoni's changes shifted the Italian theater in the direction of Realism. By the nineteenth century, after two hundred years of existence, only a hint of Commedia dell'Arte was left, and this could be seen in opera at that time.