Friday, August 04, 2017

Arte Farte Friday, Saturday & Sundry Evidence that Commedia dell'arte Lives on in the White House!

Searching for an artist to feature for Arty Farty Friday, I noticed among early August birthdays the name of Douglas Lionel Mays. Not a household name by any means, but I decided to take a look. He was a British illustrator with a goodly collection of book covers, magazine covers and vacation posters to his name. One of the latter, showed a Punch and Judy puppet show on a British beach, and took me down one of those pesky, winding, internet roads.

 Hat-tip HERE

I don't know how well Punch and Judy shows are known in the USA, but this particular style of mobile puppet show has been part of British, and particularly English, tradition since at least the 17th century. Samuel Pepys, we are told, noted seeing such a show in Covent Garden, London, performed by the puppet showman Pietro Gimonde from Bologna, Italy. Punch and Judy, for centuries a British favourite, isn't British in origin, but Italian. The show's characters' earliest ancestors derive from commedia dell' arte, as does another British tradition: pantomime.

For anyone unfamiliar with Punch and Judy, do take a look at a couple of brief videos from THIS website.

The photograph below was taken in 2004, by my husband during the year or so he stayed with me in England, at my home on the East Yorkshire coast. We regularly walked several miles along the cliff tops outside of town. One one summer afternoon we came upon a Punch and Judy show.

Back to Punch's ancestral line: Commedia dell' arte - humorous theatrical presentations performed by professional actors who travelled in troupes throughout Italy in the 16th century, possibly even before that, for I suspected some more ancient tradition is embedded in the concept. Encyclopedia Britannica does tell of Fabula Atellana, the earliest native Italian farce, presumably rustic improvisational comedy featuring masked stock characters, known to have existed during 1st century BC.

Performances of commedia dell'arte took place on temporary stages, mostly on city streets, but occasionally even in royal court venues. Music, dance, witty dialogue, and all kinds of trickery contributed to the comic effects. Subsequently the art form spread throughout Europe, with many of its elements persisting into present-day theatre.

If any passing reader saw and can recall a movie from the 1950s, Kiss Me Kate (a version of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew), the group of travelling players depicted within that plot was part of commedia dell' arte.

A troupe of strolling players are we,
Not stars like L.B. Mayer's are we,
But just a simple band
Who roams about the land
Dispensing fol-de-rol frivolity.
Mere folk who give distraction are we,
No Theater Guild attraction are we,
But just a crazy group
That never ceases to troop
Around the map of little Italy.

We open in Venice,
We next play Verona,
Then on to Cremona.
Lotsa laughs in Cremona.
Our next jump is Parma,
That dopey, mopey menace,
Then Mantua, then Padua,
Then we open again, where?

How does any of that relate to Punch and Judy? Well, Punch is a character based on one of the stock characters of commedia dell' arte. Originally the name was Pulcinella, which over time became anglicised to Punch. Commedia dell' arte's stock-in-trade was a package of archetypal groups and characters, for instance: The Servants (zani), The Masters (vecchi), The Lovers (innamorati). Within those groups were individual stereotypical figures such as
Snipped from HERE
The Doctor (il Dottore, Graziano): No, (probably) not that Doctor. Often an Absent-Minded Professor type; often the father of one of the innamorati. ....A parody of the Bolognese laureate intellectual (Bologna has one of the world's oldest universities). .....
Pantalone: Often the father of the other innamorato/a. Rich and miserly.... the Dirty Old Man. Sometimes an Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist. Based primarily on the stereotype of the rich Venetian merchant. Has a peculiar, shuffling walk, because he's always wearing Turkish sandals.
The Captain (il Capitano): Blowhard, thinks he's God's gift to women, will turn out to have Feet of Clay. Often serves as the Romantic False Lead. If the innamorato's biggest rival for the innamorata's hand isn't his own father, it's this guy. Typically a disliked foreigner, often from Spain (as Spain, the superpower of the time, held political sway over Italy). Usually has an Overly Long Name (very common in Spanish nobility). A variant is Scaramuccia.

Erm...did anyone catch that reference to Scaramuccia? Thought so! We've been there, done that though, last week. He's been and gone has our Scaramuccia!

Moving on...a piece, by Scott Parker HERE, weaves in another character we know, and do not love:

A Real Life Capitano
The spirit of Commedia is embedded in the way we critique and question society and now more than ever we need this in our contemporary theatre, film and comedy. Let me be clear, Commedia is not a protest form, it doesn’t demand, but in a grotesque way it holds the mirror up to life. Commedia stock characters persist continue to give us this reflection of real life. As far as stock characters go history repeats on an endless cycle. Today we see a Zanni in the office worker walking around our CBD. Politicians in Canberra are as bombastic as a Dottore. Pantalone emerges from Gina Rinehart and Donald Trump gives us a real life Capitano.
Trump is a boaster and braggart. He’s never wrong except when he’s wrong and then he pretends it never happened. He plasters his name on everything, tells outlandish stories that are so excessive they’re stupid. He obtains his power by worming his way into positions of influence. He likes to believe his power gives him free access to women, but they will always get the better of him. He feigns bravery and blusteringly threatens those who oppose him, but really he is a notorious coward.
I, of course, am giving you a stock character breakdown of Il Capitano, the imposter from Commedia dell’Arte but for all purposes here I describe The Donald himself. Here Commedia plays out again on a global scale.

That winding road I wandered onto at the top of the blog took me from a 20th century British illustrator's work, to a 21st century, real-life American Capitano, via English beaches and Italian theatres...quite a scenic and interesting trip!

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