I recently had the pleasure of joining a masterclass in this amazing, historic performance type. Thank you to class leader Graham Shackell and organisers Top Banana for allowing me make my legs ache so intensely.
The masks shown in this blog are part of Graham’s amazing collection.
Commedia dell’Arte is a form of Italian theatre dating to the 16th century. Distinctive, with it’s masked characters who represent various archetypes and stereotypes, it spread across Europe over the next two centuries.
Graham learned his craft in Venice, on a course involving ten hour days and a live performance on day one!. Impossible to distil into three hours, those of us in the class were introduced to some of the characters of Commedia and some of it’s history.
First came the ‘Zanni’, a servant character. The ‘Zanni’ stem from the peasant workers from outside of the big cities who came to find work. They are oppressed both physically and mentally and, to be honest, not very bright. To represent this the performer places his or her weight on one leg, bent at the knee. The other leg is stretched out to one side, barely touching the floor. The arms hang down, lightly curved outwards with the back of the hand and arms facing forward. Just keeping this shape is, after a while, a bit tiring. When you add in a walk which raises one leg up, knee pointing out, while the opposite arm swings forward to mirror the leg. There was also a crying run, a laughing run and a thinking run.
We also ran through the ‘Pantalone’, the ‘Brighella’ and ‘Il Capitano’, each with their unique stance and walk to distinguish their status and character.
Each one caused it’s own level of hilarity within the group, and possibly a little hysteria too.
As a writer the characters and their history are wonderful to delve into. As a people watcher you will recognise them all in everyday life today.
The history Commedia dell’Arte is incredibly interesting and far too involved for this blog, but it did lead us on to such things as pantomime, Punch and Judy and the Harlequin. Even Fawlty Towers shows a strong influence of Commedia.
Check out the obligatory Wikipedia page and delve into this fascinating world.