The message for the Commedia dell'Arte Day
Claudia Contin Arlecchino
Dedication by Claudia Contin Arlecchino
WHAT THE HELL IS CONTEMPORARY COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE?
I am the “umpteenth” Harlequin of the Third Millennium.
One out of many who have approached this “job” for nearly five hundred years. Today, I was invited to compose a letter to celebrate and support my colleagues who still let the fascinating and controversial phenomenon of the Commedia dell’ Arte inspire and pervade them.
On this occasion, I will still venture to write the word “Art” in capital A, even though the latest international standards (typographical, philological, editorial, etc.etc.) have decreed the reassuring obligation to use the “lowercase”.
In addition, allow me to blissfully use several “capitals” in mentioning ancient and, in my opinion, “noble” names of the operators of the Commedia dell’ Arte: Comedians, Jesters, Charlatans, Actors, Artists, Wire-walkers, Multifaceted Poets of the Theater Arts of the Cathartic Laugh.
In the wake of the great predecessors have written for 10 years, on this occasion, their messages to honor the “history” or the presumed “tradition” of the Commedia dell’ Arte of the past, now I find myself having to write something really convincing about the presumed Commedia dell’ Arte of the “present”. This is definitely a challenging …maybe thankless…still, pretty thrilling task.
We are Italian Comedians of the Third Millennium, belonging to generations that lived through the cultural revolutions in the Sixties and Seventies of the past century, the Cold War (both political and cultural) throughout the Eighties, the telematic revolution and the rise of the Third Millennium’s globalization, and yet we are now questioning that sense of conveyance and testimony lest the future not even forget itself.
Survived Jesters like us, are eternal nostalgic for the Italian verve, for the Mediterranean expressive gesticulation, for the polyglot musicality of the Romance and Indo-European languages, and now we are doing our best to keep communicating with the restricting contemporary tele-informatics’ vocabulary.
Proud laborers of healthy, genuine and professional laughs, we have built our formation and did our best during the so called “Short Twentieth Century” and the so acclaimed and yet so feared “Third Millennium”. We are used to the succession of the well-known times of “crisis”: ever since we have the gift of “Reason” we have been told that <<art is dead>>, <<literature is dead>>, <<poetry is dead>> and, in particular, <<theatre is deader than ever>>.
However, we have met Art monsters who were certainly very alive, contemporary and groundbreaking than ever, like (just to mention those particularly dear to me) Carmelo Bene, Ferruccio Soleri, Argia Laurini Carrara, Peppe Barra, Paolo Poli and many others.
The authority of their piercing self-mockery is unquestionably imperishable.
They keep telling us that everything was trampled firstly by the age of the technical reproducibility of artworks, then by the mass-media apotheosis and subsequent mass communication, as well as by the overflowing development of informatics, media and digital technologies and, finally, by the communicative decay induced by chats, blogs, the so called virtual reality, the “liquid” and “elusive” information offered by our IPads and smartphones.
Even so, after having experienced all these frenetic “revolutions” of the human knowledge, it’s always us, comedy’s obsolete dinosaurs, who are called as witnesses of the persistence of a possible formation of intelligences within art, poetry, literature, history…we, who, after all, have always considered the theatre a true profession, anything but “dead”.
For example, I’ve been Harlequin since 1987, and I’ve never considered myself properly “dead” over the last three decades. However, for the past few years, I’ve heard that the Commedia dell’Arte is not only definitely dead, but that actually <<it had never existed>>. I totally understand the (historical) motivations and also the (contemporary) disappointments that lead several remarkable intellectuals and artists to constantly publish such funeral notices without even providing the proper honors that once were dedicated in case of “theatre demise”.
I agree with anyone who reminds us that the expression “Commedia dell’Arte” won’t emerge in the theatre vocabulary until the end of 1700. It’s actually a late definition that modern people give to a polymorphic phenomenon that dates back to the XVI century or, if we consider masks and jesters, until even the Middle Age, the Atellan Farces, the Roman and Greek grotesque comedies.
But if we persist in remarking about the term’s philological flaws, we’d risk to degrade the semantic vigor that it has acquired in the contemporary mentality: “ Commedia dell’Arte” means “Comedy of Profession”. Therefore, it means “ Living Comedy”.
According to some relentless philologists, the Commedia dell’Arte is nothing but a posthumous name associated to a “dream”, to a mysterious “secret” (Pulcinella’s), to an imaginary, unidentifiable “collective memory” or even a nebulous “inspiration”, a lifesaver for those artists trying to revive their poorly acknowledged profession.
Yes, we are artists, we live on memories, on timeless Pulcinella’s secrets, on ancestral Harlequin’s pranks. However, it doesn’t mean that we live on “falsities”.
We rather live on actual competences, a “know-how” that requires knowledge, training, dedication, study, and broad experience. We are well aware that we have to listen and learn from both our eager admirers and our cultured detractors.
We live on the ability to improve our activities and we need to be <<eight chess moves ahead>>, ahead of the professor, ahead of the critic in charge, ahead of a distracted audience.
And still, we live on that! We are not “dead”.
And we know that not even that inspiration, that socio-ethnological history, that ancient popular culture are dead, as they keep in fact alive the deepest sense of theatre and the dynamic communication between human beings.
If the Commedia dell’Arte was already pronounced dead by the contemporary world at the end of 1700 (when, actually, was probably coined the definition itself), for the living operators of the field like us, that means that the historical and intellectual ability to interpret the events of the latest two centuries and half is dead too. In other words, the historical ability to read contemporaneity is gone.
Much to my regret, I have to agree with those theatre’s academics and aristocrats disappointed by the failure of the 80’s educational trainings: we achieved the impossible to ensure the new generations with the proper acting competences that the avant-garde theatre had retrieved or re-invented to renew the Contemporary Theatre, but our transmission was, unfortunately, burnt out by the 90’s frenzied times.
Today, comedy’s old dinosaurs like us, are really disappointed in the naïve incompetence demonstrated by certain young companies that have misconceived in irreverent folklore the ancient archetypes of masks (turning them into throwaway clichés for Venice’s tourists), but also the exquisite improvisation techniques and the venerable scripts converted into mere pretexts to display sly and annoying animations, worthless even for street performances.
Nonetheless, as resilient, die-hard operators we haven’t given up yet on our “mission” to restore and regain the skills of these young generations . On the other hand, disenchanted Academics seem to have completely lost their hope to recover both the old and the new. But history goes on, also through
those who are really dead, the “historians” , who have spread and shared so far history’s motherly spirited eminence. Sadly, the greatest historians are definitely disappearing. Who knows if they have eventually managed to leave a significant mark in tomorrow’s intellectuals: today’s young university students, who are frantically chasing their time to “live their time”. Maybe…there is a funeral to attend…but it’s not the Commedia dell’Arte’s, but it’s for the contemporary society no more capable of interpreting it.
During the 10th Commedia dell’Arte World Day, I am in total agreement with my dear friend Antonio Gargiulo, an invaluable intellectual and philosopher, on the definition of Commedia dell’Arte as a “karst” phenomenon. Karst is a geological phenomenon formed from the dissolution of soluble and porous limestone rocks, typical of the Friulian Carnia, and it is characterized by underground water drainage systems with sinkholes and caves that, all of sudden, come to the surface from the deepest mountains in the form of overflowing waterfalls, then they elude again humans’ sight flowing underground through secluded and swirling aquifers, and finally they come out again downstream to form navigable watercourses, thereby becoming a priceless starting source for trading and human settlements ( like the ancient Pordenone, Port de Naonis).
Similarly, the Commedia dell’Arte can be referred to as a “karst” cultural phenomenon: vibrant and restless during periods of humanistic exuberance, apparently concealed underneath a drowsy bourgeois prosperity or an ineluctable totalitarian repression, and then, unexpectedly, it explodes in a supportive geyser of volcanic steams for the moments of crisis and popular rebellion.
As a Harlequin born in Friuli, I am impulsively erratic and cannot do other than keep building this subterranean karst bridge between the aquatic roots of Pordenone and the great undergrounds of Naples that, in the last few years, has demonstrated excellent skills in bringing to the contemporary light every glimpse of culture, however classic or pioneering it can be… and not only within the field of the Commedia dell’ Arte.
This year, Naples will represent the capital of the Commedia’s culture, and this is, in my opinion, an immense guarantee of reliability, and an honor for Italy all.
Ten years ago, Luciano Brogi, creator and founder of the SAT, launched the Commedia dell’Arte World Day aiming to create connections among all the theatre operators that felt a common bond with the Mask’s “eternal recurrence”. Was it nothing more than Utopia? A Utopia totally incompatible with the abstract “materialism” of a modern society in crisis?
Nevertheless, life cannot exist without Utopia. Without a utopian project, humanity has no future.
Therefore, we should to start from this renewed respect towards Comedians’ utopian attitude to project the new. To not give up life. To reject other people’s indiscriminate “death” declarations.
And even supposing we’ll have to accept them someday, Harlequin will turn to his “Plan Z”: we will all be Ghosts, we’ll be the 1300’s Charivari’s ancient “Revenants”, we will haunt the global lands of the Third Millennium.
And Madame Death will be more alive than ever, on our humble and devoted side.
Word of Hellequin!
With loving faith for the future,
Claudia Contin Arlecchino
actress, author, artist, known worldwide as the first woman who reinterpreted the masculine character of the figure of Harlequin, one of the most intriguing characters of the Commedia dell'Arte. Continuously since 1987, she is also the only one in Europe to build by herself all her masks and the ones for her company, as now happens only in the East. Her creative versatility switches from the theater to figurative art, from the actorial dimension to the craft manufacture, in a renewed retrieval of the "homo faber" in the artistic research.