The Influence of Commedia Dell’arte

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The influence of Commedia Dell’arte Commedia Dell’arte is as it sounds the origin of supreme characterised comedy, it is its own art form. The familiar figures of Pierrot, Harlequin and Columbine recall the flourishing Commedia Dell’arte scene starting in Italy midway through the 16th Century and beyond. Growing up in the market place at the service of quack medicine men and such-like it developed powerful entertainment for the common people.

This culmination of various styles of movement skills was indicative of the performing behavioural arts. This utilised and allowed acting, dance, mime and circus to go back to their autonomous roots. This can be best exemplified by the none other than the Cirque Soleil. The French Mime Artist in their “Alegria” show presents the great skills of Commedia Dell’arte and similar to the Marcel Marceau clown character ‘Bip’. The grotesque musical theatre of the legendary post-punk cabaret band The Tiger Lillies is full of biting sarcasm, absurdity, black humour: this inhumanity is exemplified with Victorian Melodrama in West End Hit “Shockheaded Peter”.

The indigenous culture that existed in 16th century Italy was seen as a freeing of theatrical expression using characterisation that was far older dating back to the obscure ancestry of Ancient Greece and Rome – but it still exists today.

The modern festivals of mime, street performance and circus theatre side by side owe a great deal to commedia because even practicioners in a corporate contemporary sense utilise its ‘bite’ in feature film, theatre presentations and television.

A good example of the latter is the archetypes in the BBC’s television sitcom “Faulty Towers” where you have the master servant relationship and various eccentric characters of all genders. John Cleese is “the Captain” and the Spanish waiter Manuel(Italian when veiwed in Spain) ‘the servant’ who uses physical comedy because of his social ineptitude. The Major is a Captain Doddery, Polly a mischievous Columbine.

The art form is increasingly integrated into each sector without being recognised. Laurel and Hardy were both Zannis and Charlie Claplin was Arlechino; all servant clowns.

Britain’s favourite of this genre was undoubtedly Norman Wisdom whose slick and comic well timed skills even conquered the United States where the low birth loser was considered endearing.

Later generations show that tastes change as does traditional family entertainment. It is as if the Commedia themes with their Masks and Costumes represent and exist in a cultural backwater (Although you had a Pierrot character that could be whatever gender and the brilliant comedy of “Pantomime Dames”could be argued were undoubtedly ahead of their time): It is still seen as a ‘minority art’ for contemporary eccentric practicioners in an underground movement art form.

Barry Grantham or as British Commedia Dell’arte Expert Richard Handley describes as “A National Treasure” will not be spoken of in the same vein as Tom Jones, Elton John and Lulu because his context is Commedia Dell’arte. Barry’s experience covers all forms of voice, mime dance and what was called Music Hall and what is now Physical Theatre.

The film entitled ” Barry and Joan” by Director/Producer Audry Rumsby proves the old hetero-enormative adage ‘behind every man’. Born into a theatrical family Barry was imbibed with the traditions of Commedia Dell’arte of the Mask and the Comedy of Skills and with his multi-talented wife Joan they formed a practicle performance illustration of the development of its artistic integrity. The film is demonstrative of this wonderfull partnership and their contribution to British Music Hall.

Barry notes that ‘Clown’ or ‘Fool’ is the natural and historical bridge between all the singing dance-mime and circus visual gags and their imagery on the stage, television and film. He was impressed that I noticed old commedia visuals in the 1970s sitcom “Are you being served” which starts of with a ‘musical rapp’ about different floors in a Department store. The character John Inman portrayed “I’m free” a lazzi with comedy footwork customizing his character. Bruce Forsyth also had a specific foot sequence in his introduction and in the 1970s the very new ‘ Kenny Everet Video Show’ proved he was the king of the unpredictable Lazzi.

Barry Grantham has been studying the revival re-creation and development of Commedia with research, teaching, performing and lecturing acknowledging that there is a problem. New forms of entertainment can mean existing traditions can be forgotten and sadly without knowing it no longer recognised and thus disrespected. Barry exclaimed one can choreograph Commedia Dell’arte but it is not wise to refer to it as such because in the modern context it is misunderstood. Mike Bennetts “Glambuster’ that I choreographed based on the “Glamrock pop” movement that preceeded ‘Punk Rock’ had all the Classic Commedia Characters but even by the people who created the production would not have noticed this or recognized these characters as comedic.

A good example of forgotten traditions was the emergence of the “living statue” credited to the 1990s. It had been utilised by “Clowning” street theatre for decades like the “old travelling troubadours” who perfected an entertaining approach to their own and other people’s cultures, This ‘Still life’ is certainly not a new thing as I played a 1920s mannequin in the film starring Rik Mayall “Whoops Apocalypse” in 1985. I was performing as a Dancer/ Footballer/Statue in the Award-Winning International Opera tour in 1994 with Leeds based Opera North commissioned for the Munich Biennale Germany. I was noticed in performance and appeared in the Manchester City 100th Anniversary Celebration.

In 2005 working in Video, installation and performance with Greek Visual Artist Sophia Kosmaoglou this process and collaboration retrieved its “Still Life” source from the Victorian 19th Century presentation of ‘The Tableau Vivante’. This was the staging of scenes from popular paintings and sculpture where the participants hold postures and expressions for up to twenty minutes. This form can even be traced back to Geothe’s ‘Italian Journey’ where in his 1809 novel ‘Electrive Affinities’ where he describes the performance as “this living reproduction far exceeded the original sending the audience into raptures”.

Sky Television Ident Commercial “Ashley Banjo’s Secret Street Crew” used people (although trained in Dance/Mime/Accobatics/Robotics) who looked ordinary. The Producer ex-musician Junior Walker recognised the Commedia Dell’arte instincts of the chosen performers and like their approach especially as a lot of the ‘moves’ were invented by past generations.


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