Commedia in Transition

The Liminal and Hybrid Nature of The Commedia dell’Arte

by andres lombana



Commedia dell’Arte, the improvisational performance created in Italy during the 16th century by professional actors, represents an interesting point of transition between Middle Ages and Modernity, between orality and literacy, between the rural and the urban, between the periphery and the center. Commedia dell’Arte is essentially liminal, it has been always “in between”.

The development of the Commedia occurred during the intense printing years of the Renaissance, the years in which theater and the printing press were emerging as central forms of cultural communication. The claim that Julie Stone Peters makes when she states that “after print, performance was never the same” explains why even the improvisational performance of the Commedia actors was not only a matter of orality but, instead of that, a matter of convergence of print and oral cultures.

Even if it is true that many of the elements of the Commedia dell’Arte are essentially oral and come strait from the piazza and the market place, it is also true that many of its elements come from the printed world. On the one hand, the improvisational performance of the Commedia has strong roots in late-medieval entertainment genres and oral practices such as the ones of the clowns and artists who entertained at the festivities of nobles, king’s buffoons, jongleurs, minstrels and medicine shows on the street, tumblers, jugglers, conjurers, itinerant family companies, tightrope dancers, mountebank announcers, saltimbanchis or mountebank assistants, and professional entertainers or giullari. On the other hand, the improvisational performance has elements of the Reinnassance print culture such as the Commedia Erudite or Humanist Comedy, the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, the Atellan farces of Rome, the satyr plays and New Comedy of the classical Greek theater, Bocaccio’s Decameron, Cicero’s De Oratore, commonplace and courtesy books, and even rough pamphlets.

The context in which it was born explains why this happened. During the Reinassance, Italy was not completely urban, and was not even unified into a single state, there were many little states and as well many different dialects inside the country. Economically and culturally, Italy was in the transition of neo-feudal to bourgeois practices. The residual practices of the Middle Ages were still visible even if they started to be excluded from the official culture, relegated to the periphery.

The blending of different elements is what made the Commedia dell’Arte so popular in Italy and as well in other European countries such as France, Germany, England and Spain. The professional actors of the Commedia understood well the importance of appropriating printing works for their improvisational performance in order to gain recognition and status, and to address a wider audience. Due to its extreme hybrid nature the Commedia was able to last for a long period of time and able to mutate into different theatrical genres across Europe (eg. Opera Comique, Puppet Theater, British Pantomime).

Bakhtin has elegantly discussed the complexity of the Renaissance and the way in which the carnival spirit and the folk culture humor resisted the transition to modernity. As he explains, “two kinds of imagery reflecting the conception of the world here meet at crossroads; one of them ascend to the folk culture of humor, while the other is the bourgeois conception of the completed atomized being. The conflict of these two contradictory trends in the interpretation of the bodily principle is typical of the Renaissance realism. The ever-growing, inexhaustible, ever-laughing principle which uncrowns and renews is combined with its opposite: the petty, inert ‘material principle’of class society.” (24)

The tradition of folk culture humor with its carnival spirit, grotesque imagery and unofficial speech became a very important part of Commedia dell’Arte improvisational performance. They provided the Commedia with a powerful spirit that was marginal to the emergent print culture and the classicism. The Renaissance was not interested in recording neither the carnival nor the grotesque through the printing press; instead, it was interested in rediscovering the classics, and promoting the humanism and the aesthetics of the beautiful. The improvisational nature of the Commedia provided a space where the tradition of folk culture humor could flow with certain freedom. It was a space of transgression, a space where the liberating principle of laughter and the carnival spirit could survive the seriousness and rationality of the bourgeois world. This principle of laughter is liberating and destructive. As Bakhtin states, “the principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities.” (49)

In order to understand the liminal and hybrid nature of the Commedia dell’Arte and the way in which the folk culture humor tradition survived in this kind of performance, I will describe the different elements that compose the system that the professional actors used for their improvisation. Since there are not records of the improvisational performances that the professional actors played, I will rely on the studies of Andrews and Henke to grasp some of the details of the improvisational system. These two scholars have documented extensively the Commedia performance through a systematic investigation of different sorts of documents such as letters, poems, printed dialogues, monologues, contracts, scenarios and other ephemera that the professional actors and other personalities of the time wrote, signed and utilized. I will also be doing a close study of three scenarios from Flaminio Scala’s Il Teatro delle Favole Rappresentative (1611) in order to provide concrete examples of the characters, scenarios and “lazzi”, and as well with the purpose of revealing the print and oral qualities of the first printed text where the Commedia dell’Arte was fixed. Other sources for illustrating the features of the Commedia characters will be the visual evidence of The Recueil Fossard (circa 1580) and Compositions de Rhetorique (1601). Besides that, I will be constantly making references to Bakhtin’s Rabelais and his world with the aim of comprehending the folk culture humor tradition, the grotesque and the carnival.


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Cambridge, Fall, 2007