Keynote speech

I gave the keynote speech at the conference “Crossing Boundaries: Commedia dell’arte across Gender, Genre, and Geography”, Friday, February 15 – Sunday, February 17, 2013 at the University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, Canada.


Class structure and the actress as suzerain in the Commedia dell’arte

Omellee somellee caac knok knok!

That’s Pingu, the modelling clay penguin boy, at the birth, or rather the hatching, of his sister, Pinga, as voiced for television by Carlo Bonomi, an Italian clown and comic actor. Bonomi dubbed all the different voices for the original made-in-Sweden animation series without a script, all’improviso, as we might say. The seemingly nonsensical language he used is sometimes called “Pinguish” or “Penguinese” by the numerous world-wide adult aficionados of the programme. When I say “world-wide”, if we take just one example of the The Pingu Show’s international success, it was aired between programs during lunchtime hours on YTV in Canada from 2004 until 2006, and I believe it can still be seen here since APTN airs it as part of its morning children’s programming block “APTN Kids” – but don’t quote me on that since I’ve only been here since yesterday evening…

Bonomi was in fact using Grommelot, the supposedly gibberish language of the comici dell’arte. Michel Saint-Denis, however, called it “the music of meaning” – not nonsense at all, but the distillation of sense into abstract vocalisation. Artaud, incidentally, was fascinated by it. Other names for this made-up language are “grammelot” or “grumelot”, sometimes with one “m”, sometimes with two, sometimes in the singular, sometimes the plural. It can be country specific – Bonomi almost uses Swedish words at times, though the Japanese, for example, have been known to claim his sounds as their own. The Canadian globe-trotting Cirque du Soleil call it “Cirquish”, but admit that’s just their word for “grommelot”. Jacques Tati spoke a faultless French version, notably as the hapless postman in “Jour de Fête”. Dario Fo used his own grammelots constructed from archaic Po Valley dialects and phonemes from Latin, Spanish, German as well as onomatopoeic sounds in his Mistero Buffo; he has also created Italian, French and American versions. In Fo’s opinion grumelot can be traced to the early 16th century playwright Angelo Beolco, a.k.a. Ruzzante, of whom Luigi Riccoboni said in his Histoire du théâtre italien:

His comedies … admit all the dialects of the corrupted languages of Lombardy.

and Maurice Sand in his The History of the Harlequinade states that

In truth Ruzzante was the first to open the doors of comedy to popular dialects. All his characters speak different languages from Paduan, Bergamese, Bolognese, Venetian and Tuscan to Latin, Italianised Spanish and modern Greek.

But I beg to differ with Fo: I think we can excavate a layer or two beneath Ruzzante. In vulgar Latin there was a word “grumellus” from which modern French derives “grumeau” meaning a small particle, e.g. of salt. And “grumeller” is to sprinkle with the above. In Italian “gremolada” is a mixture of chopped garlic and parsley traditionally sprinkled on Milanese osso bucco and a “grumelo” is a small lump. On the other hand “grommeler” in French is to mutter under one’s breath. Hmmmm. Either grumelot or grommelot would seem to be etymologically correct, therefore, if we admit that sounds can be sprinkled. I think we may discount “grammelot” as a misnomer based on the supposition that a language must have something to do with “grammar”.

The original Pingu series ended in 1998, but the rights were bought six years later by a British company who produced a further 52 five minute programmes. Bonomi was considered too old for the new series and he was replaced by Marcello Magni, a founder member of Complicité, and David Sant, a London-based Spanish actor and clown. Both had learned grummelotage at the Paris school of Jacques LeCoq. LeCoq learned it from Jacques Copeau’s son-in-law Jean Dasté when he was at the Comédie St. Etienne. Charles Dullin, Leon Chancerel and Michel Saint Denis also used it in their schools and all acknowledged that it sprang from the work initiated by Copeau in the Vieux Colombier School, where Dasté was a pupil. Copeau, I suspect, gleaned it from watching the Fratellini Brothers clowning at The Circus Medrano where he was a frequent visitor; he subsequently invited them to teach clowning at his new school.

So where did the Fratellinis get it from? We are looking at, or rather hearing, here an oral tradition which may date back as far as the Roman mimes cast adrift to tour Europe in search of a living after the Holy Fathers closed the Roman theatres in the 4th century A.D. Dark ages follow so let’s time warp to

Paris, 14th May 1697, to the lieutenant general of the police:

The king has dismissed his Italian actors and His Majesty orders me to write to you to close their theatre forever.”

Tradition has it that the Italians had upset Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Maintenon, by proposing to perform a play entitled La Fausse Prude. In fact censorship was becoming the order of the day and the Italians’ vulgarity was proving hard to suppress since most of it came in unscripted lazzi. Louis thought he had banished them to Italy, and, incidentally saved himself 18,000 livres a year in subsidy.

Like the mimes, however, the commedianti went underground and joined with the acrobats, tightrope walkers and other fairground showmen who were already performing playlets, often written by well-known authors. The Italian repertoire was thus added to that of the théâtres de la foire. The professionalization of entertainment at the fairs began to worry the Comédie-Française, which didn’t like box office competition and tried every means to preserve its privileges; after many trials conducted before the law courts and the Parlement de Paris, it achieved the outright prohibition of performances with dialogue.

However, according to Emile Campardon,

… it had not counted on the tricks that fairground actors were able to deploy to subvert these prohibitions. Seeing themselves prohibited from using any dialogue onstage, the actors began in 1707 to only play their parts in the form of monologues, or to talk to a mute, to an interlocutor placed in the wings, or even to an animal. Later they invented a form of jargon evoking a sort of low Latin but which did not compete with the French language of which the Comédie-Française claimed exclusive use.

Just for once we do have a written example of this low Latin “jargon” from Arlequin Barbet, Pagode et Médecin, pièce chinoise en deux actes, en monologues, mêlée de jargon, performed in February 1723 at the Foire Saint-Germain. Arlequin, disguised as a medical doctor, has the following non-dialogue with a certain Le Colao, the Emperor of China’s prime minister.

ARLEQUIN Il va donc dîner?

LE COLAO Va dinao.

ARLEQUIN Et nous allons en faire autant?

LE COLAO Convenio, demeurao, Medecinao regardao dinao L’Emperao.

ARLEQUIN Comment, ma charge m’oblige à le regarder faire?

Le Colao mutters in his ear.

Pour prendre garde à ce qu’il a mangé.? Et que m’importe à moi qu’il mange trop, et s’il se crève de choses nuisibles?


Le Colao mutters in his ear.

ARLEQUIN Plaît-il? Comment dites-vous cela?

Le Colao mutters in his ear.

Hé bien! Si le roi venoit à mourir?

LE COLAO Pendao le Medicinao.

ARLEQUIN On pend le médecin? Miséricorde!

Obviously adding “ao” on the end of recognisable words is not true grommelot, Chinese or not, but the muttering in the ear certainly was, and Arlequin’s translations of this ‘jargon’ constitute a comedic as as well as an expedient device.

It is my contention, as always with an oral inheritance, hard to evidence, that the actors of the foires did not invent grumelot any more than did Copeau: the early comici dell’arte probably developed it as a lingua franca with which to make themselves understood on their tours round the republics and city states of Italy…

Savoy (Turino), Genoa, Lucca, Milano, Parma, Mantua, Padua, Venetian Republic (Venice,) Ferrara, Papal State (Bologna, Urbino, Rome) Toscano (Florence, Sienna), Napoli, not to mention Corsica, Sardinia, Sicilia.

Italy has always been an obvious geographical entity, but it was not until 1860, after the efforts of Mazzini, Cavour and Garibaldi, that it became a political and linguistic one. In the cinquecento and seicento the masks themselves spoke as many languages and dialects as there are kinds of pasta. Andrea Perucci says of Pantalone, for example

Chi rappresenta questa parte ha da avere perfetta la lingua Veneziana, con i suoi diailetti, proverbe e vocaboli.

And, Perucci says, Il Dottore Gratiano: has to have “perfetto Bolognese”. But what was perfect Bolognese? According to Giarenzo P. Clivio

As the rest of the Gallo-Italic dialects, Bolognese shows the well-known tendency to drop unstressed vowels, but even more markedly so than Milanese or Piedmontese, so that its phonemic economy differs drastically from Italian and southern dialects, and even Venetian: abundant heterorganic consonant clusters, a complex metaphonic system affecting the surviving tonic vowels … contribute to making genuine Bolognese a very difficult language to other Italians.

The actor Pier Maria Cecchini recommended making the Doctor more comprehensible by Tuscanising his Bolognese, preferably incorrectly. Add to that Gratiano’s propensity for peppering his speech with misquoted Latin tags, his lisp and his persistent insobriety and one wonders whether comprehensibility was a sine qua non…

As a despised mercenary, Il Capitano could speak Spanish, Neapolitan, or even Sicilian.

1st zanni – any dialect, especially Bergamese, Milanese, or, in the case of Coviello, Neapolitan.

2nd zanni – mountain Bergamese, Neapolitan again in the case of Pulcinella

The Lovers, says Perucci, ‘studino di sapere la lingua perfetta Italiana, con i vocaboli Toscani.’ In other words they addressed each other in a bookish, rather archaic and stilted language that no-one actually spoke outside the literary academia.

The mention of the Lovers is my cue to turn from language and geography to the class structure of the commedia dell’arte. By reference and, in some cases, by actual birth, the inammorati were aristocrats, part of the permanently leisured class which had nothing to do but seek perfection of manners and deportment, passing time with pastimes such as poetry, diction and dancing – and the art of loving each other.

The Roman poet Ovid’s Ars amatoria (The Art of Loving), is essentially a satirical handbook for male seducers; it was reinterpreted in late C12 by one Andreas Capellanus in his De Arte Honesti Amandi. Andrew of the chapel, in English, was possibly chaplain to Countess Marie de Champagne. De Arte Honesti Amandi was still tongue in cheek, but it addressed itself to both sexes and became the handbook of courtly love. It was this work and its derivatives that the Renaissance rediscovered rather than that of Ovid, and which became the reference work for actors playing the Lovers, and those writing scenarios including them.

For Andreas stage one is, of course

Love at first sight:

When a man sees a woman worthy of love, and with a pleasing figure, he immediately begins to desire her in his heart, and the more he thinks about her the more he burns with love, until she fills his mind the whole time.

Then, once the lover has seen the beloved and been smitten by love, he or she enters the next stage when:

Love is felt but not yet acknowledged:

The most central proposition of the code of love is that to love is to suffer. But it is a pain that the sufferer would much rather endure than give up. I say “a” pain but it is basically of two kinds – frustration and fear; frustration at the unattainable and fear that one’s love might be unrequited, the fear of failure and rejection. However the lover is refined and ennobled by his and or her suffering. To love is an exquisite pain, yet gives great joy. But delicious though such almost masochistic sensations may be, the lover is bound to try to achieve the fulfilment of love – and the next step is to confess it, so

Love is declared:

This is a dangerous time, fraught with difficulties: shyness, inaccessibility, difference in status, physical incapacity through intensity of feeling, or w.h.y. Even when such difficulties are overcome, happiness is not attained because secrecy is essential. Love that is divulged quickly becomes the subject of gossip and rumour and loses its intensity. Next,

Love must be nurtured:

Andreas Capellanus rather cynically recommends a few difficulties, real or imagined, to keep interest alive:

First of all love is said to improve if the lovers can only enjoy the sight of one another and come together infrequently and with difficulty; and in fact the greater the difficulty in standing before one another, the greater the longing, and the more the desire for love grows…

Love is actually diminished, he considers, by lovers spending too much time in each other’s company. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, especially an anticipated separation when one lover is about to go or be sent away.

Another intensifier standing in the path of true love is jealousy. Andreas distinguishes between suspicious jealousy, which is an unworthy (and almost certainly unjustified) suspicion of infidelity on the part of the beloved and true jealousy, which is founded on conviction of the lover’s own unworthiness:

True jealousy is a passion of the soul, through which we are terrified that the substance of our love may be diminished by some failure to observe the wishes of our beloved.

Each mask has its paradox and that of the inammorati is that upperness of their class is undermined by the wobbly situation in which they find themselves thanks to Cupid’s darts. The security of their social position is destabilised by their romantic condition, which is often semi-masochistically self-induced. Sometimes the pressure comes from outside, however, usually in the form of parental intervention: he is to be sent away, she is to be locked in her room, etc. and for their pains they have to suffer angry tirades from Pantalone or tedious, Polonius style lectures from Il Dottore, both of whom assume it is their right to decide whom and when their siblings should marry.

Most studies suggest that the class structure of Commedia is pyramidal, with the parsimonious and paternalistic Pantalone at the top. This pre-eminence may have been true of his predecessor, Il Magnifico, with his thunder thighs and impressive codpiece, but as the ‘lean and slipper’d Pantaloon’ has come down to us, his ‘youthful hose’ (which he has been to mean or too vain to replace) has shrunk from his shank and his big manly voice has turned again ‘toward childish treble’, as Jacques’ describes it in As You Like It. Shakespeare is believed to have written that comedy in 1599 or early 1600. If the image of an enfeebled Pantaloon was already accepted as iconic in England by then, then the Magnifico/Pantalone transformation must therefore date from well before the end of the cinquecento. Slipping into his dotage, Pantalone was losing it: ‘it’ being both physical and mental. He became the butt of others’ jokes. He lost his (ahem) firmness and assertiveness (apart from occasional outbursts of ill-temper), and shrank in stature and personality. The pyramid was thus reversed. But why?

In my opinion this upending is due to Commedia coming indoors: in the outdoor world of the Zannata plays, as performed in carnival streets and market places, a commanding figure was necessary to control raucous audiences as well as irrepressible zannis. The final pay off was when the latter emasculated their boss to the delight of the former. Indoors, however, Il Magnifico was too oppressive to be funny, stalking around everywhere in his predatory manner. More refined audiences needed to feel superior, not inferior, to the target of their ridicule. The machismo role was passed from lynch-pin to parvenu, from Pantalone to the more peripheral strutting of the rodomontade, Il Capitano.

A lynch-pin is the thing that holds a wheel on to an axle and, as plots became more complex and performances longer, the hub of the comedic wheel needed to rotate less than the rim. Significantly, Pantalone can only only take a few steps at a time without running out of breath. Perhaps that’s why, if you will forgive me a gioco di parole, he’s called ‘Pant’alone…

Let’s return to the metaphor of the pyramid and its golden tip. For although the pyramid was inverted, its tip was still made of gold. There are not many scudi or pistoles to be found in a Commedia, but what there are belong to, or have been extracted from, Pantalone. The money motive is as strong as the amatory in moving things along. Indeed the two are sometimes interlinked — how else are the lovers going to be afford to elope? How else is Arlecchino going to afford a ribbon for Colombina if he doesn’t use the scudo Pantalone has reluctantly parted with for the purchase of pills from a Canadian pharmacy?

According to the books, Pantalone is, or was before he retired, supposedly a Venetian merchant. In a glass case in the Musée de l’Opéra in Paris there is a worm-eaten wood block which is supposedly the earliest surviving matrix for a Pantalone mask. I have doubts myself, as it is full face and even the teeth have been carved. It is however the nose which confirms its identity, whether or not masks were actually made from it.

The key to the creation of the magnificence of Venice in the Renaissance was its trading position between the Levant and Europe. The members of the merchant class were the key which opened the door to the city’s prosperity, unless, as Shakespeare’s Antonio in The Merchant of Venice was assumed to have done, they lost all at sea. The lynch-pin of the merchant class was the much despised Jewish community. From the 14th to the 18th century Jews were banned from trading themselves, but they could lend to gentiles. Antonio borrowed from one of the financiers of his day, and nearly paid with his life when the ships he had underwritten were presumed to have gone down. The Venetian Republic’s political restrictions on Jewish rights and residences culminated in 1516 in the building, on a site next to an old iron foundry in the unfashionable north of the city, of the first ever ghetto, now known as the ‘ghetto nuovo’. The word ‘ghètto’ meant ‘slag’ in the old Venetian language, and the use of a slagheap for Jewish housing was considered attitudinally appropriate: Venetian entrepreneurs needed to borrow from time to time, but they preferred to keep their lenders at arms length. Recently the Jewish cemetery on the Lido has been restored after centuries of neglect. Most of the headstones had been flattened into the mud by contemporary vandals. Contempt for their owners in life continued in death.

In Neapolitan comedy there was a vecchio called Pangrazio il Biscegliese. Bisceglia is a little town in Apulia whose dialect, with its whining intonation, had the Neapolitans in stitches whenever they heard it. Apparently audiences laughed as soon as Pangrazio entered and hooted with ridicule as soon as he opened his mouth. Pantalone’s cackle would be similarly ridiculed throughout Italy, everywhere that is but in his own city: Venetians knew their merchant class was key to their pre-eminence and not to be scoffed at. But a skinflint from the ghetto? Money without power. Pantalone impotent in more ways than one? I’m not saying that Pantalone is a Jew, but it is possible that, in Venice at least, he was ‘jewish’…

Another class for pan-Italian ridicule was the professional. With Il Dottore, the paradox is even more obvious than that of Pantalone: he’s the know-nothing know-it all. Medicine, Jurisprudence, Astronomy, Rhetoric, et caetera, ad infinitum. In Italia he was most frequently a medico, but crossing boundaries into France, Gratiano found a different cultural attitude to health matters which rendered his medical sproloquio less amusing to les honnêtes gens. Even today there are as many pharmacies in French towns as there are ice cream parlours in an Italian one. Jules Romain’s Dr. Knock founded his hospital on hypochondria. In France, ill health is a serious complaint, not a risible quirk.

Molière realised this whilst sharing the Palais Royale theatre with the Commédie-Italienne. In an early exercise in writing a Commedia, Le Médecin Volant, he uses the disguising device to distance the humour. It is Sganarelle, not Arlequin, who is persuaded to be come a mock doctor in order to persuade a father (who has locked his daughter in the house to prevent her from seeing an admirer he considers inappropriate) that she should be allowed the benefit of fresh air to alleviate her symptoms.


Your very humble servant, doctor. I sent for you to come and look at my daughter, who is ill. All my hopes are on you.


Hippocrates says, and we are persuaded by Galen through unimpeachable logic, that no-one can feel well when they are sick. You have reason to place your hopes in me, since I am the greatest, the most capable and the most learned of doctors of medicine that can found in any faculty, animal, vegetable or mineral.


I am delighted to hear it.


Do not imagine that I am any ordinary doctor, a doctor in common practice. All other doctors are merely, in my opinion, medical minnows. I have particular talents, I have secret remedies. Salamec, salamec. “Roderigues, as-tu du cœur?” Si signor. No, señor. Per omnia saecula saeculorum. Let’s have a little look now, shall we?

(Sganarelle starts to examine the old man: it’s pointed out that that it’s the daughter who is ill)


No matter; the blood of the father and of the daughter are all the same to me, and by the adulteration of the sanguinicity of the father I will be able to diagnose the malady of the daughter […] would there be some way of being able to see the urine of the patient?

(A specimen is sent for)


Oh, doctor, I’m so afraid she may die.


Ah-hah! Then she’d better look after herself! She mustn’t be allowed the pleasure of dying without a prescription from a doctor.

(A flask is bought in by her cousin—almost certainly containing white wine)

This urine reveals extensive overheating, extensive inflammation of the intestinal tract: it doesn’t taste too bad, however.


What? You’re not swallowing it?


Don’t be astonished; doctors are normally content with a visual examination, but as I am not an ordinary doctor, I swallow, because I can discern even better through my taste-buds the origin and the prognosis of the malady. However, to tell you the truth, there wasn’t really enough to be certain in my diagnosis: tell her to piss again.

(To which her cousin replies that “It was hard enough to get her to do it the first time.”)


What’s this? Your daughter can only piss a drip at a time! Your daughter is a very poor pisser; I can see that I am going to have to prescribe her a pissative. Is there no way in which I can see my patient?

(The daughter is fetched)


Now then, Mademoiselle, I hear that you are ill?


Yes, Sir.


Never mind, it’s only a sign that you are not feeling very well. Do you feel terrible pains in your head and your kidneys?


Yes, Sir.


Excellent, well done… humours which are interconnected have a great deal in common; for example, since melancholy is the enemy of joy, and that bile, which spreads throughout the body makes us yellow, there is nothing worse for the health than sickness… [Sir] that your daughter is very ill. It would be a good idea if she took some fresh air — let her relax awhile in the countryside.


We have lovely gardens, and a summerhouse which might serve the purpose. If you find it suitable, I could put her up there.

(Which, of course, is exactly what the plotters were hoping for. Before Sganarelle can escape and drop his disguise however, he encounters a real doctor, not of medicine, but of law.)


I have the greatest desire in the world to make your acquaintance, and I have taken the liberty of making salutation to you towards that end. I don’t think you will find it unrewarding. It must be said that anyone who excels in a science deserves the greatest approbation, and particularly those whose profession is that of medicine, both by reason of its usefulness, and because it contains within itself several other sciences, a fact which renders a perfect understanding of it difficult to attain. As Hippocrates says, in a manner most à propos, in his first aphorism: Vita brevis, ars vero longa, occasio autem praeceps, experimentum pericolosum, judicicium difficile.

You are not one of those doctors who apply themselves only to that branch of medicine which is called rational or dogmatic, and in my opinion you apply yourself on a daily basis to experimentum magistra rerum. The first men who made medicine their profession were so esteemed for their knowledge of that superlative science, that they were placed among the gods in recognition of the superlative cures which they achieved every day. This is not to say that one should view with opprobrium a doctor who does not manage to restore health to a sick person, for that achievement does not depend entirely on his remedies, nor on his expertise: interdum docta plus valet arte malum.

Sir, I’m afraid that I am delaying you: I will take my leave, in the hope that this is only a first acquaintance and that I will have the honour of conversing with you at greater leisure. Exit.


What do you think of this man?


He is quite intelligent. If he had stayed a little longer, I was going to sound him out on a matter of sublime rarification.

The dry as dust lawyer, for the French, can therefore be a direct rather than an indirect target. He is a know-it-all who does know it all, including the correct description of allopathic medicine. He became known as Le Pédant and wears the smallest of all the masks, just a black sheath on the end of his nose — which he pokes into everything. Molière, of course, was not shy of tackling medical matters, but preferred later to satirize hypochondria itself in La Malade Imaginaire, rather than its treatment by the médecin, however malgré lui.

The Comédie Italienne scene on which he based Sganarelle’s treatment was played by Dominique as Arlequin. We can judge how much more ribald the Italians were accustomed to be by the fact that when Arlequin tasted the urine, he spat it out in Pantalone’s face…

Cue Arlecchino, originally second zanni, rabbit scut on his head and cattle prod in his belt, newly arrived in Venice from the mountains above Bergamo in the Po valley. We are now, obviously, at the base of the triangle.

When I was not at all happy

I found myself forced by hunger

To leave Bergamo urgently

Because many people told me

That nowhere in the whole world

Was there a city more beautiful

And more wealthy than Venice

Crammed with silver and gold

So I left Brescia behind me

Then Verona, Vicenza and Padua

To find myself on a quayside

Next to a fishmonger’s slab

Which drove me nearly mad

With quantity and variety of fish.

A crust or an apple core were more likely sustenance for the migrant workers who fought each other for the privilege of carrying bundles of firewood or sacks of flour from the canal barges to the warehouses. Old flour sacks also made hard-wearing garments. This shirt that I am wearing is made of linen: when tightly woven such material won’t let fine flour through, yet it breathes in hot weather and keeps you warm in cold. That flour would sometimes have been powdered rice, which forms the basis of white-face make-up as worn by the infarinata, the zanni who later became Pierrot through the Parisian transmogrification that also turned zanni’s slapstick bat into the magical wand of Arlequin. But zanni does not carry a batoccio in order to beat, but to be beaten: Pantalone or Leandro take it from him in order to chastise some often minor misdemeanour. The pyramid is thus restored to verticality. Zanni’s beatings reveal the cruelty of commedia dell’arte: our laughter is of relief that we are not similarly at the bottom of the societal heap. For Arlequin, however, as he developed his unique status in France, whacks were only a pretext for acrobatic displays and laughter became tempered with admiration: the paradox of this mask is that his station in life may be of the lowest, but his saltimbanque tumbling is of the highest. The dimness of his intelligence is contradicted by the soaring of his imagination. But he is still second zanni. First zannis such as Brighella or Scapino were not only clever but also ambitious to improve their social status by intrigue and manipulation. Second zanni complicates matters by incompetence, first zanni by intention.

I’m not going to say much about Il Capitano because he does not form part of the intrinsic Commedia class structure. He is from out of town, sometimes out of Italy even, external to the fixed interrelationships which form the basis of a scenario. His function is to threaten that status quo by pretending to be as rich as Pantalone, as handsome and dashing as an inammorato, as lascivious as Arlecchino. In the end, of course, he is none of these things and there is only one place for his tail as he finally exits, leaving everyone else to their happy ending.

So much for the flour sacks, now let’s turn to the farthingales. We are talking Court fashion here, not the bum-roll of the woman in the street. Part of an inammorata’s attraction on stage was that her costume and accoutrements had to be the last word of the fashionista. The French farthingale, a sort of cage made of wire or whalebone, which came in about 1580, made it look as if the wearer were standing inside a wheel, with the skirt attached to the rim. The Italian farthingale was slightly tilted at the back, a precursor of the nineteenth century bustle. In either case the diameter could be as much as four feet which, when you consider that the Commedia stage could be as little as twelve across, created considerable problems for the wearer, and for the beloved acting alongside her.

The comici dell’arte are usually credited with being the first to introduce women performers, importing from the sister arts the singers and the ballerinas, who became the servette (soubrettes in French) and what we would now call ‘glitterati’ from the academies to play female lovers. After the Council of Trent there were also numerous courtesans available as they were forced to leave their bishops as part of the Catholic church clean-up and become actresses, or rather female actors, as political correctness would have it nowadays…

In fact, the first ever actresses were ancient Roman and performed in the pantomimes, which were unashamedly obscene. One of them, Theodora, actually rose to be Empress and, in the course of many good works, strove to improve the lot of the members of what had been her calling, by making it possible for a woman who had appeared on stage to attain the standing of legal wife.

In post-Renaissance Europe the first legitimate actress appeared on stage in Italy around 1555, in France in 1610, and in England after the restoration of the monarchy, in 1660. Why did England lag behind? I quote:

Our players are not as are the players beyond sea, a sort of squirting bawdy comedians, that have whores and common prostitutes to play women’s parts, and forbear no immodest speech or unchaste action that may procure laughter: but our scene is more stately furnished than ever it was in the time of Roscius, our representations honourable and full of gallant resolution, not consisting, like theirs, of a pantaloon, a whore, and a zany, but of emperors, kings and princes, whose true tragedies they do vaunt. [Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless, 1592]

In the Tudor and Jacobean periods there were two kinds of boy actors engaged to play women (until their voices broke). Firstly those who were legitimately apprenticed to a professional player in the same way that any youth would have learned his craft in any other artisanal guild. Secondly there were boys from the great Choir Schools such as the Chapel Royal, St. Paul’s and Westminster. Aged from nine to thirteen they learned the arts of declamation, dancing and playing instruments, as well as singing in the choir. Until about 1576 when inn-yards began to be replaced by dedicated theatres which in turn became the homes of the major adult companies, the companies of ‘little eyases’ had, with their settled part ecclesiastical, part scholastic ambience, been the major suppliers of courtly drama. In 1590, however, they fell foul of political controversy and were banned for a decade. There was thus no shortage of suitable boy performers of female roles for the likes of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to call on. When the ban was lifted the boys became all the rage again, and it is this re-found popularity which is alluded to in Hamlet. That Shakespeare was not entirely comfortable with cross-gender casting is evident from his getting boys playing women to play men, as in Twelfth Night and As You Like It. His reason becomes obvious in Anthony and Cleopatra when he has Cleopatra say, just before committing suicide

The quick comedians

Extemporally will stage us… and I shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’th’ posture of a whore.

There was also a small number of adult female impersonators, as we now call them, the most celebrated of whom was John Pigge, who was married and performed for a number of years opposite Edward Alleyn under the management of Phillip Henslowe. Roles such as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet would have been their speciality, however, so their personal sexuality was not an issue. The problem the moral would-be majority found with the apprenticeship of ex-choristers was that it often entailed a boy becoming the ingle of one of the leading men of a troupe. I use the term ‘ingle’ since, as Carl Miller points out in Stages of Desire, Gay Theatre’s Hidden History, homosexuality had not yet been invented. The use of boy-players was particularly deprecated by preachers quoting Deuteronomy 21 : 5, ‘That the woman shall not wear that which pertaineth to a man, neither shall a man put on woman’s garment, for all that do are an abomination to the Lord’.

In Italy the early comici dell’arte knew their Bible and, since they had anyway been excommunicated by the Pope as part of the aforementioned clean-up, saw a great commercial opportunity in upgrading singers and dancers from the intermezzi into in the main dramatic action. They didn’t want these new characters to wear the mask, however, since the faces and figures of the actresses who portrayed them quickly became their companies’ fortune. And because they didn’t wear the mask, the Colombinas, Olivas, Fiamettas Pasquellas, Nespolas and Spinettas were human rather than grotesque, attractive as opposed to ridiculous, sympathetic rather than sycophantic, and, it has be said, sexy rather than grotesque. Their role thus became pivotal: Colombina, for example, was most often required to deliver the prologue since she too was, in a sense, a spectator to the male foolishness which would ensue.

It is remarkable that when women became performers in Commedie they did so from a position of power, not weakness. Even the whores, and there were undoubtedly some, knew how to use their attractions to their own advantage, rather than be abused by their punters. Mae West would have been their role-model. The remarkable achievement of the likes of Silvia Roncagli was, in a very short space of time, to elevate the role of female drudge into that of a self-educated lady’s maid with aspirations to marrying and settling down as the independent owner of say, an albergo. Roncagli was the first to use the name Franceschina and went to France with the Gelosi in 1578. She spoke perfect French and improvised in it when appropriate.

Amongst their mistresses, the prima and seconde donne, there were also Greta Garbos, known for their virtue and unattainability. This is nowhere more evident than in the fact that two of the most prestigious companies, the Dediosi and the Confidenti were led by Diana Ponti and Vittoria Piissimi respectively. Another prima donna, Vittoria degli Amoevoli, was not actually capo comico in the Gelosi, that was her husband Francesco Andreini. Isabella Andreini, as she was known, was though an eminent member of the Paduan Academy of letters, honoured and admired throughout France and Italy by all classes, and accepted at court in her own right as a poet and songwriter. She died in 1604 Lyon in childbirth on the way home to Italy after performing for Henri IV at Fontainebleau. After a state funeral, a medal was struck in her honour. On the verso she is depicted as a goddess with the inscription aeterna fama.

An English visitor to Venice, Sir Thomas Coryat, noted in 1611:

I saw women act, a thing I never saw before, and they performed it with as good a grace, action, gesture and whatever convenient for a player as ever I saw any masculine actor.

‘Nuff said… So, the class-based cruelty of Commedia was mitigated by its new found female performers: the comiche bought humour and refinement to the farce, they redeemed and humanised the masks— Pantalone in particular — and without them no happy endings would have been possible. Class divisions were not, however, overthrown by Commedia performances, which were tolerated by the Roman Church because their impact was normative rather than revolutionary. It is not too much to say that the advent of the actress universalised the commedia dell’arte of the street by making it accessible to all, including aristocracy and royalty. The tensions between social levels were resolved and society re-integrated, not only on stage but also (through the cathartic power of laughter) in the audience — at least until the next performance. Talking of which…

© John Rudlin February 2013

Delivered as the opening address to the conference ‘Crossing boundaries: commedia dell’arte across gender, genre, and geography’ held at the School of Dramatic Art, University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

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