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Commedia dell'Arte in Context.

Commedia dell'Arte in Context

Christopher B. Balme, Piermario

Vescovo and Daniele Vianello (eds.)

Cambridge University Press, 2018

86.67 [pounds sterling] hb., 357+xv pp.

ISBN 9781107028562

In this collection of twenty-seven chapters, the signature essay appears to be that of Ferdinando Taviani. Reiterating an argument that he developed in 1982 in II segreto della commedia dell'arte, Taviani lays out studies of the commedia dell'arte under two columns, one headed "myth" and the other "history". Myth tells how the commedia is a product of popular culture performed by itinerant actors devoted to improvisation and dedicated exclusively to their own chosen role type. History, however, tells of hard-boiled commercial actors in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries dependent on aristocratic protection and on box office income from an urban elite, performing indoors rather than in the piazza, with leading actors often doubling as writers. This binary ultimately collapses, because the myth generates new romantic and modernist practices which acquire their own history. This new mosaic of essays lends much-needed detail to a complex historical picture.

This is not an easy volume to negotiate, and for students it cannot replace ageing standard introductions like those of Allardyce Nicoll (1963) or Keith and Laura Richards (1990). [ohn Rudlin's 1994 Commedia dell'arte: An Actor's Handbook serves the needs of the student actor but takes no interest in questions of historiography. Robert Henke's Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell'Arte (2002) offers an accessible account of commedia's golden age (roughly 1580-1620) from the perspective of a theatre historian, and is a good point of embarkation. In the present volume, there is no clear editorial positioning of the book's overarching argument or embedded tensions, and it would have been helpful for the editors to have included a survey of the existing Italian and Anglophone historiography. Some of the chapters are written in an encyclopaedic vein appropriate to the genre of the "Companion", notably those which survey the history of the commedia in regions other than Italy, and those which survey the relationship between commedia and specific performance genres. Others, notably the chapters dealing with commedia in the modernist era, are built around vivid case studies. There is no cross-referencing between the essays, or flagging of the occasional contradiction. The majority are written by Italian scholars, whose academic style too often seems cumbersome in a distinctly literal English rendering. And there are no pictures.

Despite these caveats, the volume performs a valuable service for those familiar with the standard English studies by opening a window onto the energetic and imaginative scholarship that has taken place in Italy in recent years. It is an important corrective to the simplistic accounts that tend to prevail in monoglot scholarship. Commedia dell'arte in Italian theatre studies occupies a place comparable to that of Shakespeare in the Anglophone world, lending study of the actor a cultural kudos that it lacks in the academic environment of the UK. The volume is necessarily selective, given the scale of the field, and it proves to be shaped more by concerns about global networking than with Italian national and regional identity. It attends more closely to canonical modern directors than to pedagogues such as Jacques Lecoq or actors such as Antonio Fava and Carlo Boso who have striven to reinvent the form.

Though this book is hard to get hold of as a totality, I found much to enjoy in the detail: male actors fighting to the death to defend the morality of their women (Raimondo Guarino); Tristano Martinelli making a calculated use of folk culture when inventing the role of Arlecchino (Riccardo Drusi); the riches of an actor's sourcebook (Stefan Hulfeld); Konstantin Stanislavski rather than Vsevolod Meyerhold learning from commedia about the art of improvisation (Franco Ruffini); and a scheme to turn commedia into Italian cultural heritage (Christopher Balme).

The commedia dell'arte served the needs of many in the early 20th century who sought to "reinvent" theatre, prising theatricality away from the job of rendering a text, and rescuing actors from the need to psychologize their roles. A century later, we need the commedia for somewhat different reasons, to do with liveness, internationalism, connecting speech to the body for example, or Lecoq's project of personal self-exploration through the figure of the clown. To support present needs, we need a refreshed historiography of the commedia that forces the discarding of ancient cliches, and this volume points the way. Hopefully someone at some point will take on the job of synthesis.
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Author:Wiles, David
Publication:Theatre Notebook
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2018
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