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Smorfia: Prologue, 61
Dicette Pullecenella: ‘A ccà me trase e pe’ culo m’esce1
to the hardcopy version of book
The Character Who Kept the Commedia dell’Arte Alive
Antonio Fava

This work, VITA MORTE E RESURREZIONE DI PULCINELLA (Pulcinella’s Life, Death and Resurrection) is not a philological or historical work. It is a work of aesthetics, poetics, and structural analysis on what is nowadays called Commedia dell’Arte. This type of theater is the most concrete, long-lived, structured theatrical genre or system of theatrical genres. The character of Pulcinella provides the powerful aesthetic-poetic, and structural basis for viewing Commedia.

In the hardcopy version of my PULCINELLA, the patient reader will notice some insistence on a few concepts. There are two reasons for this. The first one comes from my teaching experience, in which I learned the importance of continuously repeating fundamental concepts and principles. The second is the direct consequence of the sometimes adventurous creative process of writing the book in different times and spaces, including non-traditional spaces such as airports and airplanes, trains, train-stations, hotels, and wherever I was walking by myself. In short, I took advantage of all those very precious, irreplaceable moments and spaces fundamental to writing a book, since 90% of my waking time is spent in social activities. For this reason, when I started to reread my notes, I noticed certain issues of repetition. I resolved most of them, but I didn’t want to resolve them all.
Repetita Juve, says my dearest friend and colleague Dottor Arcifanfo Spidocchioni of the Most Noble – or rather Most Asinine - Company of the Brigands of the Packsaddle. I do prefer the classical reading, Repetita Iuvant, but don’t tell Dottor Arcifanfo, otherwise he will start an endless debate.

Anyone directly involved in theater, wherever it is performed and however it is disseminated, never does – or at least, never does everything - that the theater historians and critics claim they do. To be more precise, the theater historians and critics are never able to explain, no matter how hard they try, what the actors actually do on the stage and how they do what they do: In which way and for what real and precise reasons the actors do what they do. The historians’ and critics’ explanations are always disconcertingly abstract, abstruse, and inapplicable. They are terrible observers. They watch and they definitely see something, but they see something other than what we really do and create; and if – after reading the critique of our work – we were to try to repeat on stage what we previously did, but according to the description given by one of these observers, we would not be able to do it again. We would not be capable of it.
When actors read critical reviews of their acting or of the performance they are part of, they may be happy, disappointed or angry, depending on the critic’s opinion - positive or negative. Artists are always thrilled by a positive review of their performance and get angry or depressed when the reviews are unfavorable. However, they never question whether the description or comment has to do with what was actually performed on stage. It is not that they miss the point, but out of pure human weakness: They only want to know if people liked them, to verify that they were successful.
Artists remain astounded when the criticism is incomprehensible, cryptic, indecipherable, and written in a highly specialized language - of the critics of course, not of the actors - because actors never use that language when talking among themselves. They talk in a straightforward, simple, direct, clear, and unambiguous language. For this reason, the critique doesn’t allow them to understand if their performance was good or bad; if people liked it or not; if it was a success or a failure.
Finally, artists don’t know what to think when they find out, after reading critique, that they did everything wrong, when instead, they know very well they were successful. The audience showed that very clearly, during the performance and in particular with the huge round of applause at the end.
The theatrical art is always explained, recounted and illustrated by people who aren’t in the theater. These observers of theater can be divided historically into three categories:
The ones who write the history of the theater (theater historiographers)
The ones who analyze the theater (theater critics)
The ones who would like to see the theater disappear (adversaries of the theater)
The actors and theatergoers are excluded.
Often, the three roles are combined in one person.

Nearly all of the written documentation, both critical and testimonial, on Commedia dell’Arte is deprecating. And it is sincere in this sense. Nowadays, we can obtain a lot of information about Commedia from those disparaging comments, expressions of disgust that the art form provoked. We can even reach better understanding of Commedia through those negative comments than through praise. This is because the negative comments, besides being more frequent, are more detailed, sincere in their own way, and to the point. Here is what Tommaso Garzoni writes in
“Piazza Universale” on pages 739 and 740:

“The minute the Comics enter a city, immediately the drums announce their arrival. The Signora, dressed as a man and with a sword in her hand, passes them in review. They invite people to go and see a comedy, a tragedy or a pastoral in the palace or at the Pilgrim’s tavern. Eager for novelty, the curious commoners hasten to fill the room. Having paid admission, they enter the room that has been fitted with a provisional stage, with artless scenery drawn with charcoal. You can hear an overture played by donkeys and hornets; a prologue from barkers, an awkward tone as that of Fra Stoppino; acts as unpleasant as an illness; interludes worth a thousand gallows; a Magnifico who is completely worthless, a zanni who looks like a goose; a Graziano who shits out words, a vapid and silly procuress, a lover who cripples everyone’s arms when he speaks, a Spaniard who can’t say anything other than ’mi vida,’ ’mi corazon’; a Pedant who falls into Tuscan words at every turn, a Burattino whose only gesture is that of putting on his hat, a Signora who is coarse in saying, dead in speaking, asleep in gesturing, who has made the graces her perpetual enemies and keeps a capital disagreement with beauty.3

The language is colorful, very similar to the language used in that theater he was deprecating. In this passage there is enough material to reconstruct a world, a life, a profession. Most likely, Garzoni witnessed bad performances given by one or more low-level companies. The example of zanni Burattino, “whose only gesture is that of putting on his hat” is a case in point. Looking at various historical images, representing different times, companies and artists, and reading many scenarios, we ascertain that doing tricks with the hat was really a typical gesture for zanni. So, Garzoni’s observation confirms that Zanni used to play with his hat. The “critic-historian” Tommaso Garzoni could see that probably that actor wasn’t very good, but the true meaning of the gesture eluded him. That gesture was correct, because it pertained to the character, to the usage and style acquired by everybody involved in that role in that kind of performance. Thanks to an ungenerous observer, we can obtain information, or better yet, a confirmation, of what we thought existed and we can proceed, reassured, with the study of the interpretation of the character.
Curiously, the malicious comments of the past can be very useful, while today’s appraisal of the Art analyze it in a way that I, as an actor, don’t really know how to use.
With all due respect to the meticulous and in-depth research of the scholars of our time, what the actor does, used to do, and will do on the stage, can be explained only by the actors.
It is necessary to be an actor to think like an actor, or it is essential to be among the actors while they prepare shows to present in front of an audience; the ultimate purpose can be summarized in the audience’s enjoyment and the actors’ success. Incredible, eh, that one can say that! Besides, if I, the actor of the 2000s, have to act, let’s say, Shakespeare (just to name one example), or Goldoni (to name another) how do I know how it should be done? Should I try to find an answer in those incomprehensible, maybe inconsistent, methods so fashionable nowadays? What do I understand of how people used to act 300 years ago? Still, I’ve got to know, even though I am going to produce a modern version of what they wrote. Because, I won’t be able to modernize anything if I don’t know everything there is to know about the original piece. And what will people understand in 300 years about how we act today? The director is going to explain that to me? Ouch…! Yes, because the dreadful problem of our time is that the actors are in the directors’ hands. Directors who are trained in that kind of inquiry, analysis and language mentioned earlier. Directors who manipulate the actors at their own pleasure. Bewildered and made to feel guilty actors, unable to use their talent because it is censored and blocked by those directors. Those directors are non-theatrical, as is the case very often with scholars, as scrupulous and dedicated in their research as they may be.

Someone has to do the critique of the critique. It is not the purpose of this book, even though, as an actor, it is hard for me to refrain from it. If I try to do it, it is not to protect or defend myself (I am doing well, really well: my health is good, touch wood, and I am fine professionally) but it is to offer my contribution (at least I try) to protect the actors, specifically those who act in the spirit of the Tradition.
When modern historiographers of the Art got into their heads that Commedia is only one character, Arlecchino5, who is (they say) a devil, inferring that Commedia is hellish, diabolical, they not only talked nonsense, but also, from their high academic authority spread monstrous and deliberate misinformation that has stuck. Unfortunately, we can’t now shake this impression off.
If Commedia really were what those “analyses” describe, we wouldn’t know what to do with the stories of its characters, which are (so) normal, urbane, secular, and down to earth. This is how it is in the comic repertoire (70% of the Commedia’s plays), in the fantastical and magical repertoire and also in the grim and gruesome tragedies. In the small – proportionally – quantity of magicians, magic, executions, appearances of supernatural beings, and hells of every kind there are always the normal, secular, and down to earth comic types. They are invariably present, always at the center, always indispensable: Old men lusting after young sweet things; Servants with their irresolvable survival needs; Lovers with their pangs of love; Captains with their arrogance. They are always there to remind us that they are the ones who carry the true, concrete, human and social truth. They impose it. They affirm it. Always.
What happened, in that moment, when some spread the historical blunder of the diabolical Commedia, to the scientific quality, the accuracy, the faultlessness that characterize these people, or better, by which they want to be characterized?
They pursued their idea only because they liked it. The need to attribute a “depth” to a genre that embarrasses them, because at base they see it as frivolous and superficial, forced them to come up with an underworld, from which the mask, the one character, and the whole genre derive. The agonizing desire to find depth induced them to look outside and not inside, because, at the end of the day, they are profoundly convinced that there was and there is nothing in it.
Can you see something scientific in it? Is there anything scientific when they use tons of paper, ink and megabytes to explain the etymology of ‘Arlecchino’? That wretched name, only one among the hundred, the thousands of names for zanni in the Commedia to lend itself to such exercises? And what about all the others – many – names of the other characters? How many and which ones are the names for the Old men? How many and which ones are the names for the Lovers? And for the Captains? At the end, there are thousands of them. Every name is a story, a meaning, so it is a behavior. Do they count for nothing? Only one is interesting? The only one who can be referred to (forcefully) as a little devil is the one who explains the whole system? Really?

One name. Only one name and all Commedia dell’Arte is wiped out for the benefit of one character and for the evocation of a fantastic world that has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with Commedia dell’Arte. In particular and, above all, it has absolutely no bearing on its birth, its origin, with the moment in which it appears, secular and of the renaissance, urbane and concrete. It declares everything about itself and its future. Even that baroque and degenerate future that throws everything in, including some moralist devils imported from abroad, the gods and goddesses of the Olympus and various other creatures. It throws in everything as if it were a large and welcoming landfill. But it can’t ruin the Commedia because all the set characters are able to resist to it. To the bone they are secular, urbane, down to earth, of the renaissance.

Sometimes, in the long history of Commedia dell’Arte we find disconcerting moments of dumbness4 or superficiality or low pretentiousness; but rest assured no one should think that here we are thinking that you think that we think that centuries of activities of thousands of companies and actors could always be at their best, the epitome of perfection and that they never made mistakes or never let themselves do things the easy way. In this sense, there really is everything in Commedia. Commedia that continues also, if not especially, in its careless aspects. This way, the historical continuity of the detraction is guaranteed. Detraction that, with the passing of the time, becomes more elegant and scientific.
One point on which historiography and theatrical criticism agree, with varying emphases and intensity, is the assumed lack of structure in Commedia dell’Arte’s works, scenario, and written comedies. Sure, it takes a lot of hubris to affirm a concept so anti-scientific. Let’s be clear: everything that is made, manufactured, even a drawing done with markers or clay modeled by children, has a precise structure. If a single work of art (Michelangelo’s David, just to name one) has a well-defined structure, imagine a work of art that has been repeated, shared, polished, and refined in thousands of experiences and for several centuries.
I believe that the refusal to see a precise structure in an artistic system that created a profession and taught it to everybody, a system that has consistently held up for centuries and still persists, is the legacy of the embarrassment felt in the last century. Embarrassment that forced the historians of that wrong-headed century, still influential now, to invent the diabolical genealogy for the Masks of Commedia dell’Arte. They think and their descendants continue to think (we are in the third generation) that Improvvisa is a small thing, a little thing, a tiny, inconsequential thing.
However, this refusal is not caused by a profound and undisguised contempt. No. It is something much more embarrassing. It is their inability to see the structure. Why can’t they see it? Because you can see it only if you perform Commedia. Do they do it? Could they do it? No and no. Not all the actors can explain the Commedia’s structure, but all of them can understand it and put it into practice.
In my work, through the great mask of Pulcinella, I will talk of the poetic and aesthetic essence of Commedia. I will talk of the technique and how-to-act, that is, physically, the structure of the Commedia. The structure is nothing more than how the play is made and how it is possible to recreate it. It is on the earth’s surface; it is neither heavenly nor chthonic. It is not even in the dark depths of the psyche. Instead, it lies in the direct relationship between people, between social human beings. In two ways: in the situations presented on the stage and in the play given by the actors to the audience.
My intention is to help bring clarity and order to all the confusion created by those who mistakenly believed they were bringing order. I started with the previous work, THE COMIC MASK IN THE COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE. In that book I explained the structure of Commedia. For the first time. Many comic actors are benefitting from it.
In VITA MORTE E RESSURREZIONE DI PULCINELLA I talk about Commedia through the great character Pulcinella. Why did I choose to do so? Because Pulcinella is the only character who has never experienced any historical interruption. Pulcinella is the guarantee of the historical continuity of the Improvvisa.
During the Romantic period, when Commedia dell’Arte disappeared, Pulcinella remained, keeping it alive. Pulcinella, who was only a part of Commedia dell’Arte, succeeded in regenerating it and rebuilding it as a whole. Pulcinella, the Great Survivor, kept an entire world alive. And Pulcinella is human. Very human. Nowadays, false ideas are circulating about Pulcinella. It is believed that he is malignant and evil. Evidently, the influence of the “devilish” theories has come this far, to contaminate a character who is the ultimate expression of humans as social beings. As such, he is exposed to all, absolutely all, possible daily dramas, predicaments, entanglements, and always as a victim, because Pulcinella is a “chicken”6 (his name comes from “pulcino,” a chick), a fool, a blockhead, exactly because he is profoundly good. The exact and perfect contrast to the meandering theories about an evil Pulcinella (but who invented such a great blunder? Do they have names? Who disseminates this absolute nonsense without any artistic-historical foundation? Speak up if you know!).

My contributing effort will continue, soon after this work on Pulcinella, with even more material for reflection, explanation, and demonstration. I don’t have a title in mind yet for my next publication, on which I am already working. It will develop, amplify, update, and enrich the first one.
One thing is certain, quite certain, for me and for those who think like me: The current explosion (which seems an implosion, since it is confined to social networks, unleashed on the streets from time to time, but definitely absent from theaters) of a certain would-be Commedia, superficial, formless or a mix of forms, quickly diffused, seems to verify the hyper scientific historiography and critique. The paradox is only apparent, because that historiography and critique, trying to explain who knows what, has demonstrated anything. For this reason it legitimizes the overabundance of hammy wannabe artists who do whatever they want to do, whatever comes into their minds, because “after all, Commedia is whatever you want it to be.” In the face of the inventors of the Art, that is, literally, in the face of Professionalism.
Actors are almost never able to explain what they do. This is what people think. Unfortunately, it is very true. However, compared to that “almost” that means someone can do it7, there is the terrible reality of those historian-critics who are NEVER able to do8 what they strive to explain. We don’t want to preclude anyone’s freedom to express and divulge their thoughts (let them do it; it’s all gravy), but we would like them to be less of an exclusive caste. They should listen, pay attention, and recognize also our “theoretical” work. In fact, this work develops over time, it is formulated ’a ​​posteriori’, comes from practice, what is well done as well as what is not so well done. Practice that is precisely the object of any study on theater. It is experience. It is evidence. Precious things in these times, in which we are rapidly moving toward the extinction of all kinds of art and historical culture.

Antonio Puricinedda Fava

Reggio Emilia, Italy, January-February 2014

1. Pulcinella said: “Here, it goes into the mouth and goes out from the butt”
2. Life, Death and Resurrection of Pulcinella.
3. Tommaso Garzoni, La piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo, Venice, 1589.
4. Gnoccaggine (dumbness), facility, ease. Gnocco 1: Typical bread flavored with ciccioli [food prepared from pig fat: translator’s note] the region of Reggio. Gnocca 1: Simpleton, silly person. Naïve. Gnocca 2: A beautiful and desirable woman.
5. Arlecchino is one of the many names for zanni II in Commedia dell’Arte. He is not a unique character, but he is one variation, among the others, of one specific comic type in Commedia dell’Arte. It is typical in Commedia to have many names for the few comic types. The Old man can be Magnifico or Dottore; the Servant has two variants: First and Second, Clever and Foolish; the Lovers come in pairs, multiple pairs in many plays; the Captain. There is nothing else. Other characters are only momentary, useful for a precise action or in a certain specific comedy. For this reason, they cannot be counted in the privileged group of the “set types” or indispensable characters. However, even if the set types are just a few, their names are countless. Why? For the obvious reason that if on the one hand there is the actor who continues the family tradition or the Maestro of great fame, on the other hand there are the majority of the actors who invent their names and their maschema [typical details of a character]. They remain in the Tradition, but with a personal touch. Arlecchino is only one of the many names given to the foolish servant. Also, let’s add that many zanni II, with different names, look identical, with the same colorful patched costume (later with elegant diamond shapes), the same cap, the same dark face, generally with a flat nose. The myth was born at the table, better yet, at the writing-desk: The first theories about the mask-devil appear in the 1950s. Everyone talks about the mask-devil as if it were real. However, no one will cast it as a character on stage because it is simply alien to the genre and thus not usable. The only concrete and disgraceful effect that comes from it is the ‘protagonism’, in that variation that is literally infesting: Commedia, ladies and gentlemen, doesn’t have ONE protagonist, for the simple reason that all the characters are protagonists. The Companies of the Art created a system in which all the specialists, the maestri were equal. There were only two requirements for everybody: to be good actors and make the audience happy.
6. In Italian “pollo” (chicken) means simpleton. [translator’s note].
7. Among the actors who have succeeded in explaining what they do: Massimo Troiano, Discorsi delli triomfi, apparati e delle cose più notabili, fatte nelle sontuose nozze dell’Illustrissimo et Eccellentissimo signor duca Guglielmo, primo genito del generosissimo Alberto Quinto, conte palatino del Reno e duca della Baviera alta e bassa, nell’anno 1568, a’ 22 di febraro, by Massimo Troiano from Naples, Musician of the Illustious and Most Excellent Duke of Bavaria. In Monaco, published by Adamo Montano, MDLXVIII. Flaminio Scala, Prologo della comedia del Finto Marito, in Venice, published by Andrea Baba, 1618 (1619); Il Teatro delle Favole Rappresentative, overo La Ricreatione Comica, Boscareccia, e Tragica: divisa in cinquanta giornate. In Venice, published by Gio:Battista Pulciani. MCDXI. Pier Maria Cecchini, nobleman from Ferrara, known as Frittellino among the comedians, Frutti delle moderne comedie et avisi a chi le recita, Padua, 1628. Nicolò Barbieri, La Supplica Discorso Famigliare di Nicolò Barbieri detto Beltrame diretta a quelli che scrivendo ò parlando trattano de Comici trascurando i meriti delle azzioni virtuose. Lettura per quei galantuomini che non sono in tutto critici, ne affatto balordi. In Venezia con licenza de’ Superiori e Privilegio per Marco Ginammi Lanno MDCXXXIV. Luigi Riccoboni, Histoire du Théâtre Italien, A Paris, De l’Imprimerie de PIERRE DELORMEL, 1728. Antonio Piazza, Il Teatro ovvero fatti di una Veneziana che lo fanno conoscere, in Venice 1777. Le mime Séverin, L’Homme Blanc, souvenir d’un Pierrot, Plon, Paris, 1929. Dario Fo, Manuale minimo dell’attore, Giulio Einaudi Editore, Turin, 1987. Antonio Fava, La Maschera Comica … cit. Maschera & Maschere, exhibition catalog. Les masque Comiques d’Antonio Fava, par THEATRUM COMICUM, Geneva, 2010. Vita Morte e Resurrezione di Pulcinella, ArscomicA, Reggio Emilia, 2014. Along with other, more important names. In any case, this is still a small sampling of from an extensive number of actors.
8. I adore the verb “fare” [which in English can mean both “to do” and “to make”: translator’s note]