John Rudlin, Commedia dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook
London and New York: Routledge, 1994 282 pp. ISBN 0-415-
ISBN 0-415-04770-6 (pbk)
Reviewed by Martin Walsh
Residential College Drama Program
University of Michigan
There are a lot of rather lightweight handbooks on the Italian Renaissance form of masked improvisational theatre known as the commedia dell'arte (theater of skill or craft). And there are the formidable theater-historical tomes. It is refreshing to find a book that can successfully occupy the middle ground. Rudlin's Commedia dell'arte: An Actor's Handbook aggressively takes the performer's point of view over that of the mere theater historian. The author is an active teacher and producer of commedia-inspired theater at the University of Exeter and his practical experience lends an immediacy and zest to his observations of performance. Nonetheless the book remains perfectly respectable in all its scholarship. Indeed Rudlin's work is likely to prove the best all-round introduction to this perennially attractive form of comic theater. Duchartre's 1928 classic, The Italian Comedy, thankfully kept in print by Dover Books, remains a richer source for visual materials, but Rudlin's book is certainly not lacking in this department and includes many contemporary commedia performance photos. Within the limited framework of a handbook, Rudlin succeeds in being the responsible theater historian while at the same time engaging himself in the more difficult enterprize of mapping the genetic codes, as it were, of this by no means fossilized vis comica. His approach makes this presentation of the commedia dell'arte more widely useful to those interested in ancient forms of comedy.
The book is divided into three parts, the first dealing with the origins and and bacic structures of commedia dell'arte performance. Rudlin's practical orientation stands him in good stead here, allowing him to freshen up several theater historical cliches and generally enliven the discussion of the sources, which hardly amount to more than bare lists--lists of plot situations or scenarios of a stultifying sameness, rather cryptic lists of slapstick routines (lazzi), lists of company members, itineraries, props, and so on.
Part II catalogs the major mask types or stock characters--the senex Pantalone, the servants Arlecchino and Brighella, the lovers, pedants, captains, etc. This has been done well before, in Allardyce Nicoll's The World of Harlequin or Giocomo Oreglia's The Commedia dell'Arte to name but a few. Rudlin's treatment has the advantage of great compactness and multifacteted illustration befitting the handbook mode. However, his attempts to illustrate the more effemeral aspects of these historical performances, under the headings Stance, Walk, Movements, Gestures, and Speech particularly, are not always as full or as helpful as one might wish. Sample Monologue and Sample Dialogue passages for the characters betray Rudlin's inherent limitations since he is forced to used scripted materials, often removed in time from the classic age of the commedia (c.1550- 1650). Although this material is scupulously footnoted one gets the impression that historical accuracy is occasionally sacrificed to the pure practicalities of the handbook. As a tool for actors, however, Part II is first- rate.
Part III is a welcome innovation to commedia studies, a series of eleven short chapters on twentieth-century directors and theater groups, from Gordon Craig, Meyerhold and Copeau to Piccolo Teatro di Milano, Le Theatre du Soleil, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, who have significantly experimented with and variously appropriated the commedia form. This provides a kind of source-book for commedia's substantial afterlife, with Rudlin's concluding chapter 'Restoration or Renovation?' providing some very probing meditations on the potentialites and consequent pitfalls of commedia for current theater practitioners.
It is the material in Part III, especially, that makes this volume particularly useful to those interested in the production of Ancient Comedy, since the tensions between faithfulness to a vanished tradition and desire for contemporary relevancy and bite are everywhere manifest in the history of twentieth-century commedia experimentation. And then there is the strong family resemblance. Rudlin only glances at the intriguing hypothesis that the commedia's mask-types are directly descended from those of the Attelan farces of ancient southern Italy, an hypothesis fully explored by Allardyce Nicoll in his 1931 Masks, Mimes and Miracles. Whether the commedia dell'arte can ever be convincingly linked to the lost popular theatres of Antiquity, it is abundantly clear that it was the beneficiary of much Renaissance thinking and research into New Comedy. Indeed commedia can be seen as an effort by performers to popularize and commercialize New Comedy's characteristic ensemble and formulae without the crabbed intervention of poets and scholars. Commedia dell'arte in one sense or the other is Ancient Comedy repackaged for the Renaissance, and then transmitted, in some cases in an unbroken line, right down to the twentieth century. In producing Ancient Comedy we have texts, of course, and a relatively thin visual record, but not really enough to go on if we are interested in tapping the full vitality of the performed event on its own terms. With the Italian commedia dell'arte, both in its historical reconstructions and in its modern avatars, we have a body of performance conventions that are still available (with a lot of hard work) to the modern actor and which, moreover, are a direct intermediary between us and the Antique Comedy. Performers of Plautus, Terence, Menander or even Aristophanes would do well, then, to look to commedia dell'arte for essential performance cues. Rudlin's work is just the primer to get one started, not least for its many practical observations on mask-playing, the repertoire of gesture, the 'inner life' of the stock character (there is even a lengthy appendix on the start-to-finish construction of one's own leather masks), but as well for its historical balance, theoretical sophistication, and sensitivity to issues involving repect for a vanished tradition vs. ones own current needs and desires in the theater. For the great mime teacher Jaques Lecoq commedia dell'arte, like Greek tragedy, was one of the 'finalized forms' of theater. Rudlin's book helps us appreciate how a perfectly realized form of the past can still have a vital legacy.
Martin W. Walsh
University of Michigan
Martin Walsh is a Lecturer in drama at the University of Michigan's Residential college.