In a short workshop session with fifteen preteens I started my usual explanation of Commedia. What is Commedia? Most of the time my spiel is about Italian stock characters, masks and slapstick; like a renaissance Looney Tunes. Unfortunately, as I spoke I realised this explanation didn’t mean much to a group of kids who don’t even know who the Looney Tunes are. So, what is the comedy is Commedia about, why did it exist? Why does it persist?
I mumbled something about power and status and masks to the kids but as I drove home, I felt dissatisfied. I thought deeply about it. What is the essence of the comedy that I’ve spent the last five years of my life exploring?
Commedia is Political Satire
Commedia is about masters and their servants. It’s about powerful people and not-so-powerful people and their relationships. The way that rich people brag, hoard and indulge while the poor scrape by on nothing and survive. This is the essence of Commedia, the root of this political satire.
A Real Life Capitano
The spirit of Commedia is embedded in the way we critique and question society and now more than ever we need this in our contemporary theatre, film and comedy. Let me be clear, Commedia is not a protest form, it doesn’t demand, but in a grotesque way it holds the mirror up to life. Commedia stock characters persist continue to give us this reflection of real life. As far as stock characters go history repeats on an endless cycle. Today we see a Zanni in the office worker walking around our CBD. Politicians in Canberra are as bombastic as a Dottore. Pantalone emerges from Gina Rinehart and Donald Trump gives us a real life Capitano.
Trump is a boaster and braggart. He’s never wrong except when he’s wrong and then he pretends it never happened. He plasters his name on everything, tells outlandish stories that are so excessive they’re stupid. He obtains his power by worming his way into positions of influence. He likes to believe his power gives him free access to women, but they will always get the better of him. He feigns bravery and blusteringly threatens those who oppose him, but really he is a notorious coward.
I, of course, am giving you a stock character breakdown of Il Capitano, the imposter from Commedia dell’Arte but for all purposes here I describe The Donald himself. Here Commedia plays out again on a global scale.
Above: Nicholas O'Regan and George Zhao perform in Matriark's Much dell"Arte About Nothing as a Lover and Capitano. Photo by Robert Catto
Our Own Commedia
Commedia is the seed of satire and for this reason we must feel free to transform it and shape it to our own ends. When we teach it in Matriark, when we pass it on, we encourage our students to find their expression, their own Commedia. The form has evolved and changed over history but it has never left our side, it remains as relevant as ever and we see its echo every day on TV, the news, social media and walking down the street.
Historical Commedia is good and important to understand, but disembodied from its prior political context it begins to lose relevance. Commedia needs to be tied to the politics of the time in which it is performed, and so it’s not enough to think of these characters as Venetians and Sicilians but we need to see them as Australians. We need to ask who is our Pantalone, who is our Dottore, our Zanni?
Commedia is a gift in so many ways, but as I’ve dug down into why it should remain relevant, I’ve found its primary value is in rendering the world around us in blunt, bold, Looney Tunes colours. Commedia has a sharp political edge - long may we use it!