Simanaitis Says

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COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE began as street theater in 16th-century Italy. It continues today around the world, reaching as far as the antipodes. Matriark Theatre, in New South Wales, Australia, has among its goals “supporting emerging artists as well as developing better connections between professional theater makers and teachers across all sectors of education.” It also holds the view that “Commedia has a sharp political edge—long may we use it.”

Commedia dell’Arte Troupe on a Wagon in a Town Square, by Jan Miel, 1640.

The Commedia genre features stock recognizable social types: the young lovers, avaricious old people, the know-it-all buffoon, often wearing identifying masks. Its troupes have always featured women as well as men even back when this was innovative theater indeed. By contrast, Shakespeare’s female characters of the same era were all portrayed by men.

Performances were partly scripted and partly improvised. Standard themes included love, sex, jealousy, deception and general unruliness. For example, the term “slapstick” derives from a Commedia prop, a stick constructed to exaggerate the sound when used to slap a character. Also, stock characters and plots often poked fun at actual events of the day.

Today’s Commedia dell’Arte retains these characteristics. Think: SNL skits.

Il Capitano, a standard Commedia character of ridicule. Engraving by Abraham Bosse.

One of the Commedia dell’Arte regulars is Il Capitano. The Captain is a swaggering braggart, a liar and all-around boor. Traditionally, he’s portrayed as a Spaniard, because much of Italy was under Spanish domination from the late Renaissance into the 17th century. In one plot, Il Capitano is hired to protect the greedy old man’s daughter from her many suitors, only to set up a bidding war for her favors. Then he tries to woo her himself, unsuccessfully.

You know the type.

At right, George Zhao as Il Capitano; Nicholas O’Regan as a Lover in Matriark Theatre’s Much dell’Arte About Nothing. Photo by Robert Catto.

Matriark Theatre’s Scott Parker gives insights into Commedia dell’Arte as gleaned through his workshops with preteens: “Most of the time, my spiel is about Italian stock characters, masks and slapstick; like a renaissance Looney Tunes. Unfortunately, as I spoke I realised this explanation didn’t mean much to a group of kids who didn’t even know what Looney Tunes are.”

Giving this some thought, Scott decided to appeal to the kids’ awareness of today’s world, not old cartoon images: “As far as stock characters go, history repeats on an endless cycle. Today, we see Zanni [Commedia’s conniving servant, its Figaro] in the office worker walking around our CBD [Central Business District]. Politicians in Canberra [Australia’s capital] are as bombastic as the Dottore. Pantalone emerges from Gina Rinehart [Australia’s billionaire heiress/businesswoman] and Donald Trump gives us a real-life Capitano.”

Il Capitano. Photo by Robert Catto.]

Scott observes, “… a boaster and a 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 power by working 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 is a notorious coward.”

“I, of course, am giving you a stock character breakdown of Il Capitano, the imposter from Commedia dell’Arte…. Here, Commedia plays out again on a global scale.”

Scott says, “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.”

Bravo, mate!

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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