The message for the Commedia dell'Arte Day
Dedication by Roberto Tessari
A few months after his death, the SAT association wants to dedicate 2020 to honorary member Prof. Roberto Tessari, who has been a reference point for the study and protection of our tradition. In his memory we publish the message he wrote especially for the Commedia Day.
Women and men of the Commedia dell'Arte did not just write a fundamental page in the history of theatre. They showed how it is possible, even in modern times, to transform one's living corporeity (presential form, thought, memory, gesture, voice, etc.) into a perfect medium to evoke and to animate - within the magic circle of the scene - an organically structured imaginary: the initiatory adventures of a 'new biological species' of surreal figures, inserted with passion and wisdom in a game so involving and convincing as to make them seem real.
It was a game not too dissimilar from what - in quite other conditions, and with different intents - had been the specialty of shamans. Or they had constituted the secret engine and the basic script of the most effective religious rites that were to instill senses of sacredness to the capital turning points of individual and collective existence. Both in the first and in the second case, the primary need to which the impersonation of the other by himself, the masking, the studied staging suddenly of an event of dramatic high tension had to respond was to translate in terms of living corporeity, perceivable by the senses, actions and invisible and inaudible words of a superhuman world inhabited by symbols that illuminated, and vibrant with pure meanings.
Not surprisingly, the original and secret engine of the fantastic machine designed, assembled and installed by the comedians of the Commedia dell’Arte around 1545 is made up of a system of imaginary figures (masks, and 'fixed types'), where, often, the too human aspect of the conventional life of relations fades and confounds itself in the infra-human and super-human with theriomorphic and demonic icons carefully inferred from past religious traditions to ethnological legends, from ritual scenarios deformed in popular beliefs and in apotropaic ceremonies. Harlequin is a servant, but he is also a 'diabolical' lord of the underworld. Pulcinella is an uncouth villain, but is also a disturbing spirit revenant from the realm of death. Pantalone is an emblematic figure of the rich Venetian merchant, and yet it releases at times equivocal energy flashes that belong to the archetypal Senex, or to the priapism of the sileni ...
The founders and protagonists of the Commedia dell'Arte thus act certainly not to pay homage to either a lost shamanism or to the entire history of religions. They do it because - just like shamans and ritual promoters - they dared to choose not to be random extras of history, but actors-authors of human becoming. And actors-authors, rather than in the technical sense of the terms, in the deepest anthropological existential sense of these two words: men and women who know how to increase (augere: auctor) the magnitude of the existing, and who know how to act (act: actor) to give consistency and communicability to the forms through which the existing dimensions increase.
According to the Jesuit Paolo Segneri, professional actresses and actors in the theater of masks were to be considered unreservedly as witches and wizards. The spell which they would be the owners and masters of was to transfer their audience into a dream world: a world so likely and so fascinating that it did not only take over the spectators during the ephemeral duration of a show, but to still imprison them for a long time afterwards: inducing them to evoke, in their imagination, images and scenes they had contemplated, perhaps to prolong and vary their weaves and developments in a sort of amazing inner 'portable theater'.
Of course, the opinion of the counter-reformist theologian is functional to an accusation and condemnation both tendentious and pernicious. But it hits the mark, when it denounces as an essential and ultimate end of comedians an art of magic capable of translating a well-structured set of imaginary appearances into terms of spectacular evidence: so much so as to exert on the spectators the same formidable impression that dreams have on the dreamer, and to fascinate them for a long time with the identical pleasure and the identical enigmas that force the dreamer to revisit his dreams.
Today is no longer time to formulate anathemas against those actors-authors. As there is no time to praise them unnecessarily. It would perhaps be the right time to try to really understand them. That is, to undertake an itinerary of authentic knowledge of their ultimate secrets. The secret, first of all, of knowing how to 'waste time' in identifying and patiently learning the true language lived and spoken (beyond the common language we use and abuse without realizing it) by those among which we live. Maybe to discover that this language is not only made up of functional words for practical use, but of fantastic images lacking feedback in sensitive reality, yet full of energy and meaning, as well as hyper-active in the inner life of each subject.
Then the secret of the difficult choice of knowing how to live, as sacred, the act by which one chooses to offer one's self and one's body in sacrifice to one of those fantastic images: to allow it to manifest itself, to speak and to sensibly exhibit its own story in the presence of the spectators. Finally, the secret of learning and the more rigorous exercise of studies and techniques that, helping to avoid the shallows in which the figure of the actor-interpreter is lost, allow to conquer the dimension of the actor-author: those of a meditated but at the same time inexorable act of eclipsing the egoical identity, those of the lively daily attendance of the imaginary other-self, those of a lost art of memory aimed at scenic creation (the only authentic reality behind the ghost of improvisation). Without forgetting that women and men of the Commedia dell'Arte were capable of so much also because they had the courage to found their undertaking on the most basic of basis: a clear economic project designed to offer - to those who felt the desire - funny oneiric creatures, in exchange for an honest price. All things whose regret has not yet gone away today.
Professor of Drama Theater at DAMS University of Turin . In 1971 he was appointed by the French Ministry of Culture Maître de conférences associé at the University of Saint - Etienne . In 1975 the Academy of Sciences of Turin has given the Bonavera Prize for Literature . From 1980 to 1993 he taught History of Theatre at the University of Pisa and the University of Cosenza . He was playwright and essayist.