Comic Mask in the Commedia dell'Arte: Actor Training, Improvisation, and the Poetics of Survival

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Winner, 2007 University & College Designers Association Design Award
Nobody says Shakespeare is dead, Antonio Fava tells us, but Commedia, they say, is dead. Why? Because clearly, he goes on, we have Shakespeare's texts, but nobody knows what to do with the improvisation that is the basis of the Commedia dell'Arte, despite massive documentation. This book by Fava, one of the few living master teachers of Commedia dell'Arte, is the first aesthetic and methodological study of the traditional Italian theater form—the first to describe, in a precise and practical way, what Commedia is and what it should be.

The mask—as object, symbol, character, theatrical practice, even spectacle itself—is the central metaphor around which Fava builds his discussion of structure, themes, characters, and methods. Drawing on twenty years of research conducted through his work as performer, director, mask maker, and scholar, he offers extensive practical, philosophical, and technical guidelines to performing the stock characters of Commedia, observing its structure, extracting its poetics, exploring its themes, and using the mask. A densely layered text combining historical fact, personal experience, philosophical speculation, and passionate opinion, and including copious illustrations—period drawings, prints, and color photographs of leather Commedia masks made by Fava himself—The Comic Mask in the Commedia dell'Arte is a rich work of singular insight into one of the world's most venerable forms of theater.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810123687
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 7/11/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Antonio Fava, one of the world's foremost experts on Commedia dell'Arte, is an actor, playwright, director, composer, teacher, and mask maker. He founded and runs the Teatro del Vicolo and the International School of the Comic Actor. He lives and teaches in Italy.

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Read an Excerpt


Actor Training, Improvisation, and the Poetics of Survival

Copyright © 2007

Antonio Fava
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2368-7

Chapter One The Mask

What Is the Maschera?

The maschera is first of all a physiognomorphic object. The actor puts on the object by placing it over his face and therefore acquires the face modeled by the mask itself, along with the characteristics that the mask is intended to express. The actor takes on all the expressive consequences imposed by the mask, including both physical behavior and qualities of character. Each mask's form is a combination of signifiers imposing distinct characteristics.

As soon as it is put on, the mask is put into action, made alive in the context of a ritualistic, staged, festive fiction. He or she who puts on the mask makes the actio, becomes an actor, actualizes.

Everything changes in the stage artist once the mask is on. Body, voice, language. Everything must change: by putting on a mask, an actor can no longer act or speak as he does in daily life.

A modern actor of Western culture who has not passed through a strong experience with masks, once the semblance is put on, tends to delegate. He slips into the mask and waits-or believes-that the mask itself will put into action all its aesthetic dynamic signifiers, simply by virtue of the presence and visibility of the mask itself. Beneath or beyond the mask, our actor "performs the text"; with proper pitch and pronunciation he loads each word with nuance and seeks out its subtext, no longer concerned with what the character says but rather with what the author wants to say (which, our actor naturally presumes, is totally different from what the character says). In all this, no attention whatever is given to what the character does, or should or could do or not do (after all, not-doing is an extremely dynamic action if motivated by the situation and played by an actor capable of action). Once again, the modern Western actor merely reproduces and is therefore not truly an actor, one who makes, who carries out the actio, who actualizes. This is the kind of nonmask actor we have inherited from a century and a half of obsession with psychology in theater. We must explain to this actor that the mask is not the explosive but the detonator. The explosive is always the actor.

Certain necessary qualities must be acquired by the stage artist. Others already exist in the mask, and still others must be achieved by the mask maker, to confer a complete result that perfectly coincides with the expectations of the actor and the audience. The audience always understands "miraculously"; that is, it perceives what is being communicated to it through the theatrical performance. It always either enjoys or is bored by the show. The audience is never wrong (except in cases-regretfully frequent nowadays-when overly difficult stage language induces it to feel guilty for not being "up to its level," when, on the contrary, it is actually the artists who have been unable or unwilling to make themselves understood).

While the actor must acquire the complex, difficult, and exquisite science of knowing how to delight, the audience naturally possesses the ability to be delighted: it "knows" when to laugh, when to applaud, when to be bored or moved, without ever having studied.

Necessary Conditions Within the Actor

With or without wearing a mask, the actor is a mask and gathers within himself a series of projects.

The actor appears on the stage of human culture as a necessary project; the cathartic or, on a still more basic level, the apotropaic representation of life and death constitutes a primary human necessity. If fear is an instrument for survival because it allows us to recognize danger and to react for the survival of the individual and the group, it is nevertheless a source of anguish, which itself undermines survival and imposes a search for solutions.

The problem of fear is felt by the entire community as a totality of the single fears felt by each individual. The community must resolve the anguish caused by fear. The common interest in a solution guarantees that it be applied and carried out collectively.

The representation of fear leads to the momentary resolution of the collective and individual anguish provoked by the fear itself.

The repetition and structuring of the representation of fear generate a state of equilibrium between the unavoidable, continuous return of fear and the means of handling, withstanding, or bearing the fear. Thus is theater born. It instantly organizes itself in means, ways, and genres, all of which are aimed at catharsis, at purification, at overcoming anguish. Serious, tragic, dramatic theater offers thoughtful, moving, and intimate relief. Magic theater reassures without openly explaining why but effectively spreads the sensation of having escaped from something terrible. Epic-heroic theater allows us to participate in unforgettable triumphs. Mystical theater saves us through spiritual elevation or the superiority of thought. But above all, comic theater discharges anguish with an efficacy and rapidity unknown to the other genres.

It's curious, this condition of superiority of the inferiority of the comic. The aim is high: complete catharsis, purification, relief from anguish, but the means of attaining this catharsis are low. In fact, they are the very meanest. That's the natural state of the comic character. Critics have always seen in the comic only the lowest level. They have always distinguished-not necessarily with a negative attitude-between the superiority of the serious forms and the inferiority of the comic forms.

This matter doesn't disturb us, because we believe it to be the necessary effect of an opposition which critics have been mere instruments of. To elevate the comic means to neutralize it, to deprive it of its power to make us laugh. This arrangement is therefore as it should be.

Comedy literally shatters fear, releasing collective joy expressed in raucous, liberating, communal laughter. The comic actor neither arouses emotions nor raises questions. Rather, by exposing them to destruction, he resolves them. The laughing spectator is relieved. He is saved.

The sacred origin of risus (laughter) gives the spectator something more than safety from danger, relief from anguish. The sacredness of laughter renders the laugher immortal. He who laughs is immortal. Certainly, it is only a brief immortality, lasting the duration of the laugh itself, but with the certainty that the laugh, and with it, immortality, will be repeated. To the long and tormented catharsis of tragedy, comedy opposes an irresistible, brief, intense series of catharses, loudly expressed by the whole assembly.

The actor therefore defines himself as an anthropological project. The community manages its fears through a dynamic representation of the fear itself. The actor creates codes and symbols, organizes and structures these representations, and joins a category of specialists, whose original authority is surely religious and comes before the creation, invention, shaping, and putting-into-action of these saving representations.

Notwithstanding the social status in which actors have found themselves in different phases of history (almost always infamous and low), the actor immediately takes on and occupies an important presence in the community, which learns to recognize and console itself through his symbols in movement.

The necessity of putting symbols into movement makes the actor into an expressive project. Representation does not exist without a form that contextualizes it, develops it, explains it, that clearly contains what would be otherwise inexpressible. Given therefore a certain expressive form destined to perform a precise collective function, the actor becomes a specialist. His specialization permits him to perfect, improve, amplify, and vary his expressive project.

The great consequence of this is the artistic project, when form finds its autonomy, its self-unfolding. Form blends into content, becomes content itself, the object, the goal, without having renounced its original aims, often unconscious of its own complex formal elaboration, which is exalted-particularly in its effects on the spectator's psyche-by the varied paths to beauty now opened by the forms. This is art.

The signifying project concludes the necessary conditions. In the moment of representation, meaninglessness no longer exists. Not-signifying is not possible. It is impossible for a representation not to signify, no matter what the circumstances (especially when the effort is to represent nothingness). Everything is sign; everything signifies. Because of this, the actor, the stage artist, by becoming an artist of the sign, must always calculate and control the expressive and narrative process. It is useless to overload a representation with meaning when meaning already exists autonomously and the artist is merely the vehicle, the reelaborator, the one who selects. The weight of individual signifiers risks growing to the point of suffocating the intended joy of the message. The artificer has the responsibility to construct a perfectly signifying artistic machine, by managing the equilibrium of the meanings among themselves and between the meaning and form.

Necessary Conditions for the Mask

The mask is a useful project. The use of a mask is often necessary for practical reasons. It is called for to characterize, to create a character who is obviously and unequivocally that certain thing. Makeup alone may not be enough or be poorly visible or faded. The facial mobility and mimicry of the actor, even when excellent, are subject to inconsistency and confusion. From a distance, all facial expression is attenuated and becomes vague and therefore ineffective on an expressive level.

A mask never fails. It is constructed beforehand; its expression is controlled; its fixity is determined beforehand, inalienable, guaranteed to be clear, with a clarity that connects the intentions expressed by the performer and the comprehension of the spectators.

A concatenation of intentions is, in the last analysis, what an actor does when he "performs" a mask. The audience perfectly reads the actor's play when all the intentions of the character are expressed with a clarity that is always active in the actor, even when the actor performs a character that is intended to be vague, such as one with confusing, ambiguous behavior. A shadowy quality, obscurity, and ambiguity are to be understood as poetic characteristics of a role that must be performed with "scientific" clarity. The clearer the expression, the more clearly will be rendered the "shadowy, obscure, ambiguous" qualities of the character.

In the play of the mask, the concatenation of intentions is emphasized, exaggerated, pronounced, and maniacally specified. A concatenation of intentions elaborated to achieve credibility in the character's behavior will produce an effect of formal exaggeration of the reality that the actor wishes to describe. Thus the mask will have achieved its function.

When the mask goes into action in a comic setting, it does not stop representing "true" things. To make things appear true, we must arrive at the level of creativity called for by the meaning we intend to express. We are not seeking the credibility of true truth, the real, or the truth of "realism" but rather that of formal exaggeration. We demonstrate a recognizable, known truth but in a different form than that found in reality. This truth is deformed, excessive, in order to confer on the represented fact the sense of an exemplary occurrence.

Exemplarity historically fixes the represented fact. To achieve as well as possible this historic fixity of the fact (banal, common, and private, if taken by itself), the actor proceeds by fixing all the audible and visible aspects of the character and the action, the factors we call maschemi. By fixing these elements, with or without an actual mask on his face, the actor enmasks.

Enmasking implies the continuous fixity of the expressive models. The fixity of the mask clarifies the character and constrains the actor to distribute onto other parts of his body the expressive variety of the character's intentions. Fixity here stands for the capacity of synthesis of a character and its poetic potential. Actor examples of poetic fixity are Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Totò and Peppino, Jacques Tati, and Roberto Benigni.

We are now at the expressive project. Having established the utility and necessity of clarity between actor and spectator, we need to specify the content of a single mask. The expressive project aims to define a character but cannot neglect consideration of the practical requirements involved in acquiring the mask desired.

The Form or Cut

The form or, more accurately, the cut of a mask of the Commedia dell'Arte constitutes a simplification and humanization of the masks already present in various manifestations of popular and elite culture, which developed and spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.

For the first Commedia dell'Arte actors (who originated in the 1530s and 1540s), it was a matter of being immediately recognizable as "familiar" figures that were simultaneously "surprising." In that era (beginning in the sixteenth century), masks were common both during celebrations and in daily life. The comics bring this costume to the stage but cut their phantasm specifically according to certain guidelines:

1. Anatomical proportions

2. Strongly caricatured but rigorously human facial features

3. The elimination of the lower lip, taking the form called mezasola (in Neapolitan), menzagiabbatta (in Crotonese), crosta (so-named by scholars Ferdinando Taviani and Mirella Schino), or mezzamaschera (half-mask). This permits the mouth to be free to speak, sing, and emit sounds without obstacles but also gives an illusion of overall mobility of the face through the exaggerated mobility of the free part of it.

The Proportions

The proportions of the mask are anatomical, but the mask is not anatomical. The mask is a wholly different face than that of the person wearing it. The distinction must be clear. A mask that adhered totally to the face of the actor would be a virtual portrait of the actor and therefore superfluous. The overall volume of the mask is proportional to human anatomy, but the individual features of the mask, as we shall see, are grotesque and excessive.

The Features

The features of the mask, with their protuberances and hollows, are the mask's physiognomy. They have two functions, one expressive and the other structural: expressive, in that they embody and illustrate the character; structural in that they constitute the armature of the mask and confer resilience and strength.

The Character

Knowing the character in advance, the mask maker can give the fixed personage his own interpretation. At the same time, however, we must take account of established tradition. Long noses are inevitable for the primitive Zanni, huge, curved noses for the Magnifici (Pantalones), snub or little noses for the Zanni whose names end in "ino" (Truffaldino, Arlecchino, Trivellino). Actors today want perfectly anatomical masks that they can hardly feel, with big openings for the eyes. Such masks would be little more than makeup. The primitive Zanni characters must have little eyes and big noses, so as to suggest a vaguely proto-human being, something just above an animal. The fierce frown of a Capitano must not be diminished by wide-open eyes that reduce the impact of his continuously flashing, furrowed brow, essential to that character.

The Separate Parts

The separate parts are the forehead, the eyes, the nose, the cheekbones, the lip (always the upper one), and the overall shape. They are formal exaggerations of their human equivalents. The nose, in particular, is subject to disproportion and deformation. The cheekbones, the brows, the forehead, the lip, and the outlines are the parts where the mask maker may exercise his skill, always however with respect for the fundamental humanity of the type he seeks to create and the recognizability of its character.

The Bumps

The red-tipped bump on Commedia dell'Arte masks has been explained as the vestige of the ancient devil's horns of medieval masks from which Commedia masks are said to be derived. This theory, proposed by many scholars and certainly evocative, can b

be accepted as an addition to tradition but not as the definitive explanation. The original Zanni characters were based on an extremely common social type of the era: the bumpkin in the city. These types crowded into the rich, beautiful cities of the Paduan plain. Padua, Milan, Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, and even Florence were invaded by natural Zanni in search of casual labor, willing to take on any heavy task that might temporarily guarantee their survival. (Continues...)

Excerpted from THE COMIC MASK IN THE COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE by ANTONIO FAVA Copyright © 2007 by Antonio Fava. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Comedy Goes On
1. The Mask
2. The Commedia dell'Arte
3. Poetic and Aesthetic Particulars of Commedia dell-Arte
4. The Structure of Improvisation
5. Method
6. Techniques

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