A lot of my students have been concerned with the highly misogynistic, racist and sexist tradition that follows the Commedia dell'Arte. To be honest, I was shocked when I heard their response to the canovacci (the traditional Commedia show structures) they have been writing this semester. Some of them feel they were forced into a direction that they are uncomfortable with only because of the traditional nature of the piece. What they are missing is that Commedia is not misogynistic, racist or sexist... it is actually bringing to light these issues in society through, you guessed it, comedy. In response to this I have had some serious discussions with my students on why Commedia lends itself to this direction.
Colombina, played by Allegra Libonati in Art For Sale (left) and by Patrick Berger in Love Letter Lost (above), suffer indignities typically forced upon the traditionally-female servant in a man's world (though she usually gets the last laugh!)
First of all, it is important to note that the strongest and wisest characters in the commedia are women. For instance, Colombina (whom I like to call the voice of wisdom) is the motherly, feet on the ground character that understands society and uses her brain (and her understanding of the testosterone-driven male - during which it is the attitude of the male we are laughing at not Colombina or her actions) to get what she wants or needs to survive. She also is the only one that can speak to the audience in a rational capacity... with the exception of Pulcinella from time to time. Another later, yet very important character, is the Strega (the witch). Strega doesn't necessarily have magical powers, but everyone believes that she does, so whatever she says is happening in the scene becomes law. For example, if she tells Pantalone that she has turned him into a frog, he believes he has been turned into a frog. This makes her the most powerful character in any Commedia show.
Racism is a hot button topic, especially as of late with the uproar against police brutality and the murders of African Americans across the USA. I can see how someone might be uncomfortable addressing this in their artistic work. Though, I find this a shame. As artists, I believe we have a responsibility to shine a magnifying glass on society. Maybe it is because I grew up around a lot of racism and having to deal with the understanding that there are too many people in the world who believe that the color of someone's skin actually means they are less important, less knowledgeable, less beautiful... lesser... this is an unfortunate part of our society and ignoring it doesn't make it go away, just like erasing the horrors of slavery or the genocide of the Native Americans from our history books doesn't erase our actual history... it just makes us more likely to repeat that history. We are doing a disservice to our audience if we don't tell the truth.
Careful though... Making a dark comic moment to poke fun at society's views on race is very different from making a blatantly racist moment. It is all in who is the butt of the joke. The joke is a sad one. We live in a community that does not accept people because of the color of their skin... are afraid of people because of the color of their skin... this should be a sad joke because it is ridiculous that this is even an issue. So, as a comic artist, I want to make these snap judgements as ridiculous as possible. How about we stop accepting people by holding up skin color paint swatches... "We will be irrationally afraid of you unless you are lighter than Latte Java." "Uh oh Uh oh... we've got a Toffee coming in!"
One of the best commedia shows I have ever seen had an Italian man playing an immigrant from Turkey. In the middle of the show, this man had a beautiful moment on stage all alone where he spoke about where he came from and the trials he had to endure to arrive in Italy in order to have a better life. During that moment, the rest of the cast were looking out on him, as chorus members from the curtains and you could only see their faces peering around completely listening to his story. All of the gratitude he had for small things he gained as a servant throughout the show began to make sense. He revealed a true, human character and the audience could share in his experience, opening up a universal dialogue of the trials and tribulations of illegal immigrants.
Zanni (ALi Landvatter) and Rosalina (Molly Tomhave) are two servants in Love Letter Lost who are exploited, abused , and treated like property by the ruling master class. It's hilarious! But you have to laugh, or else you'll cry. Since its inception, Commedia has served to highlight and lend some levity to the daily hardships of the poor and to slyly mock those who wield the power in society. Tut'Zanni aims to continue that proud tradition.
What we have to remember is that Commedia was formed as theatre of the people. Starving peasants related to Arlecchino pretending to eat his own shit or sawing his leg off to roast because they had those thoughts... deep down inside those that are starving have thoughts that we see as outrageous or crazy but they relate to these as survival.
Comedy has always been a way to survive great trials and struggles... to open up dialogue and shine a light in an overwhelming darkness. We need Commedia now more than ever. We need to have a voice that will be heard and accepted. We need to ask the tough questions and make humanity look at its reflection. It isn't easy... it is a big responsibility, but what better than cartoon on stage to pick up that challenge. It is this over the top ridiculousness that can make you recognize the darkest "secrets" in the heart of our society. They are only secrets if we let them continue to hide. I say, pull them out under the sun!