Pierrot: A Critical History of a Mask

Pierrot: A Critical History of a Mask

by Robert F. Storey


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Pierrot: A Critical History of a Mask by Robert F. Storey

Robert Storey's lively and gracefully written study of Pierrot is the first scholarly history of this fascinating popular figure. Unlike previous studies of commedia dell'arte characters; this book focuses as much on Pierrot as a literary metaphor and mask as on the roles and dimensions of his stage character.

Originally published in 1978.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691609430
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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A Critical History of a Mask

By Robert F. Storey


Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06374-4


Origins and Birth

L'origine de Pierrot n'est-elle pas aussi interessante que tous les arcanes qui ont excité la curiosite des Bochart, des Peres Kircher, des Cluverius, des Champollion, des Franck? — line histoire bien faite d'Arlequin, de Pierrot, de Polichinelle, serait des plus instructives et des plus intiréssantes. — Théophile Gautier in La Presse, January 25, 1847

To move from the etiolated, wraithlike clown who wanders, moonstruck, in and out of the vague, disquieting harmonies of Schoenberg's expressionistic song cycle to a quick and capricious buffoon of sixteenth-century Italy, who darts about a trestle stage in the glare of a bright noon sun, is to take a large step indeed, in point of both history and the imagination. But it is a necessary step if we are to grasp the sometimes elusive and mercurial character of Pierrot. Created and nourished by the popular imagination, he has survived four centuries of social and philosophical change, managing to adapt to the world in which he momentarily finds himself with remarkable pliability and success. For Pierrot was not always infected with the enervating weltschmerz and hypersensitivity of Pierrot lunaire, nor possessed of the troubled, dandiacal éclat of Jules Laforgue's little heroes, nor even succored by the shuffling tenacity of Charlie Chaplin; rather he had, in the very earliest days of his career, a comic, engaging poise and brilliance that bespoke nothing of the beautiful but vulnerable soul or the pirouettes of a pliant cane.

His career began in the commedia dell'arte. This development in the Italian theater of the Renaissance, in popular favor throughout the second half of the sixteenth century and the whole of the seventeenth, lasted, though in decline, well into the 1700's. The commedia was improvised theater (comedy was its métier) in which a scenario (plot outline) served in place of a script in dialogue. It was performed by a professional company of about a dozen members, each usually fulfilling in play after play an inherited or invented role and seldom straying from the "type" thereby sustained or created. Though the troupes' numbers began to swell towards the end of the seventeenth century when the commedia was moving into a kind of decadence, the basic company consisted of two vecchi or old men, Pantalone and the Doctor; two pairs of "principal" and "secondary" Lovers; a soubrette; a Captain; and a "first" and "second" zanni (comic valets, such as Pulcinella and Coviello, or Brighella and Harlequin). In the "classical" period of the art, all but the serious figures, the lovers, wore masks or correspondingly comic makeup, and each character dressed in traditional costume that was sometimes slightly modified as an inheritor of the role added or changed a nuance of interpretation. Perhaps taking their cues from professional actor-playwrights of the sixteenth century, such as Angelo Beolco ("Il Ruzzante"), the commedia players particularized the "types" and heightened the comic effects by putting dialect into the mouths of the zanni and serio-comic personages. Whereas the Lovers spoke only a pure and mellifluous Tuscan, the other characters, or "masks," conversed, babbled, and intoned in the dialects of their "origins."

It was not uncommon for an actor to bring such a degree of sophistication to his interpretation of a role and to sustain it indefatigably for so many years that he and his character became synonymous in the eyes of his public. Dominique Biancolelli and Tiberio Fiorilli meant Harlequin and Scaramouche to seventeenth-century French audiences, just as Catherine Biancolelli, the talented daughter of Dominique, meant Columbine. This is not to imply, however, that a commedia performance was a one-man affair. On the contrary, all evidence seems to suggest that the comic effect for which it was conceived, or — since we are looking at it from the other end — which it was most capable of eliciting, depended for its success upon a delicate balance and harmonization of character relationships, of intrigue devices, and of serious and farcical incidents. To demonstrate this and, at the same time, to try to arrive at a clear understanding of how the character or "type" functioned in this genre, we may look at one of the several hundred of existing scenarios — this one from the only collection published by a contemporary, Flaminio Scala's Il teatro delle favole rappresentative (1611) — and briefly summarize the plot from its elliptic, diagrammatical prose. The play takes place on the thirty-second of the fifty days into which Scala has partitioned his scenari; its title is Li Duo finti Zingari (The Two Disguised Gypsies).

Isabella and her servant Pedrolino, both disguised as gypsies, have returned, after much traveling, to Rome. There they find family and friends grieving over their ominously long absence. Isabella's beloved, Flavio, has been overcome by a profound melancholy, and her brother Oratio has been driven mad by her assumed death. Oratio's own intended, Flaminia, daughter of Doctor Gratiano, has had to endure the distress of hopeless love for the madman, and Franceschina, Pedrolino's wife, finds herself daily making flirtatious overtures toward Captain Spavento in an effort to warm her empty bed. So much frustrated passion immediately arouses Pedrolino's theatrical instincts, and he takes advantage of his disguise, donned during his sojourn out of fear of adventurers, to pose as a pander and necromancer. To the eager Flavio, he exhibits Isabella's "corpse," the sight of which moves the duped young man to thoughts of suicide, while to Isabella's father, old Pantalone, he outrageously promises the carnal delights of his pretty gypsy companion. With characteristic cunning and impudence, he persuades the Doctor, the Captain, and Arlecchino, Spavento's valet, to dress up in women's clothing; then he boldly pairs the first two off, assuring each that his mate is a wench, and sends the innocent Arlecchino to Pantalone's bed. But while deep in this mischief, he shows a taste for plotting that runs to more than the pathetic and farcical: he reunites the lovers Isabella and Flavio and, by thus permitting his mistress to lay off her disguise, "cures" Oratio of his dementia. The cure results, of course, in a second happy union — of Oratio with Flaminia — and the consternation of the old men over Pedrolino's pranks melts, at the final curtain, into the joy of conjugal blessings.

We should keep in mind that Li Duo finti Zingari exists only in a bare, skeletal form: Scala's scenario (or a less elegant version of it) was drawn up originally as a kind of prompt copy, tacked up in the wings during a performance for the actors' perusal. I stress this in order to suggest that the latitude with which we can reconstruct the details of a commedia performance and thereby interpret the effects of the play upon an audience is unusually great, requiring of a critic some reliance upon information that lies outside the play and, therefore, more than usual caution and tact. This said, we may then ask ourselves: What were those effects? What was the play-world of a commedia production like?

In recent studies of the commedia dell'arte, "the social milieu of the characters," writes Allardyce Nicoll, "has received careful scrutiny and elucidatory comment. From this the passage is easy to an interpretation of these figures as objects of satire and hence of the comedy in which they appear as satirical comedy." But we need hardly quibble with the logic of this proposition to reject it, as Nicoll does, outright. For the moment let it suffice to recall that most of the "types" in this scenario, as well as in the other forty-nine of the collection, were at least twenty-five years old at the time of its publication, and their popularity had by no means diminished during those years. Indeed, the newborn Arlecchino had yet to know his greatest triumphs. Now satire, if it is to be at all pungent or comically vital, must reveal; that is, it must strip its victim down to his "essential" character, using most often, and particularly in the theater, a rather rough blade. If, in fact, the aim of the improvised comedy was social satire, its curiously long persistence in the theater would go unexplained. To have "exposed" such a character as Pantalone, for example, in terms of his social role in each play where he appears would have either quickly blunted the intended satirical sting or else wearied the most patient of audiences.

This observation suggests then a second possibility: that the commedia dell'arte existed as a showcase for a fixed number of characters, not as they were shown in any satirical light, but rather as they revealed themselves in all their human and serio-comic complexity in play after play, giving pleasure with each appearance by exposing hitherto unknown facets of their personalities. Such a hypothesis immediately proposes that we call up a single character whom we know (or think we know) to possess this near-human complexity, in order to compare him with the commedia "type"; and for most of us, that character would be Hamlet. Before we carp at such a comparison, let us recognize that Hamlet and Harlequin "possess certain salient qualities in common." They both evince "the almost unaccountable power of passing over all frontiers"; they both attract and accommodate the most disparate of interpreters — are admired, like Shakespeare himself, by "classicist and romantic alike." And yet a serious comparison is unthinkable, not merely because Harlequin is essentially a "comic" and Hamlet a "tragic" character, but because, as Nicoll points out, they "inhabit utterly different worlds." I think, however, that we can go beyond Nicoll's explanation of their differences — that Hamlet "stands forward before us as a character born of the penetrating imagination of a supreme playwright, expressing himself with that author's passionate eloquence" — and in so doing, arrive at, or at least approach, the essence of the "type."

In a figurative sense, Hamlet appears in no other work but Hamlet. Even his most recent appearance, in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, is nothing but a replaying of his eternal role. (Mr. Stoppard's play is only Hamlet from a Beckettian perspective.) To find him in any place but Elsinore would be a little like coming across Huysmans' Des Esseintes at a cocktail party: it would give us — as, in fact, the Dane's appearance outside Shakespeare's tragedy gives Nicoll —"a measure of discomfort." Our feeling would arise, in the case of Des Esseintes, from knowing that he himself was uncomfortable, that he had been taken from his orange rooms, his bejeweled tortoise, and his orgue à bouche, and set down in a room full of (ugh) people. Or — to abandon our metaphor — we would feel uneasy for Hamlet, and more so than for Des Esseintes, because we would be aware that, whatever he might be doing, he would be asking the same question of himself over and over: Is Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia — no, am I worthy of existence? Hamlet is a character whose introspective doubt has become almost proverbial, a character whose reflections about his own moral worth have given him a somber metaphysical dimension that seems to have jape vulgarly with Ophelia or goad Polonius with all the élan with which the Captain teases Franceschina; but we accept these departures from his proverbial (and princely) deportment not so much because Hamlet has a far-ranging and complex human vitality, but because for Hamlet there is only one character in his play: himself. He can do, therefore, anything he wants to do. Anything, that is, but what he wants to do most: escape the unblinking eye of Conscience.

In how different a world do we find ourselves and with how different a companion when we turn, however, to The Merry Wives of Windsor. For Falstaff, drawn in the true manner of the commedia dell'arte, is sublimely ignorant of the moral universe; "every moment," as W. H. Auden writes of him, "is one of infinite possibility when anything can be wished." And because he lives in this "eternal present," his creator has trouble confining him to the world of play (a world that is, paradoxically, impregnated with temporality and fixed moral values) and can restrain him to one play not at all. "Once upon a time," Auden writes suggestively, "we were all Falstaffs: then we became social beings with super-egos." Like Hamlet, he might have said.

AU this has taken us quite a way from Li Duo finti Zingari, not to mention Pierrot, but it is important that we do not fall into the all too easy error of misconstruing the word "type." The characters of the commedia dell'arte, like Falstaff, exist in a present "when anything can be wished," all living, so to speak, at the tips of their libidos. There should be no question of Flavio's sincerity when he offers, on erotic impulse, to kill himself over the "corpse" of Isabella, just as there is none when Hamlet broods upon outrageous fortune. The difference is reflected in our choice of verbs: Flavio, meeting experience directly and with no thought of its historical, that is, moral, implications, offers to give his life; Hamlet, rooted in the temporal present, with Time stretched tight both behind and before him, buffers the world with his ego and broods. The "type" can be conceived, then, as a bundle of passions, lacking none of those we commonly attribute to a "deeper" character, but merely expressing them with a spontaneity and forthrightness conventionally appropriate to his station. The actors themselves were cautioned against violating those conventions lest, I would suggest, they turn the world of the play into a frenetic confusion of unbridled impulses — in other words, into farce. Andrea Perrucci, in Dell'arte rappresentativa (1699), for instance, advises the Lovers to refine their concetti, soliloqui, and raconti — all those professions of their passionate attachments — to a pitch of elegance. Not only must they diligently read "books written in good Tuscan," but they must also master all "the figures and tropes of rhetoric." Moreover, their very gestures must betray no coarseness: in speaking, "they must not raise their hands higher than their eyes, nor lower them below their breast." As for the masked personages, Perrucci cautions strictly against the confusion of the characters of the Doctor and Pantalone, or, what would be worse, the lowering of either to the level of the zanni. "The role of the Doctor," says Perrucci, "must not be so serious [as that of Pantalone]. ... The vivacity of his wit and the prolixity of his speech give him license to abandon his seriousness, but not to the point of abasing himself to the role of second zanni, which would be an unpardonable mistake." As Nicoll makes clear, "Perrucci's instructions ... are not to be regarded as the impractical meanderings of a mere theorist. He was writing with full knowledge of what the commedia dell'arte demanded and of what could be found among its more distinguished practitioners."

With some understanding, then, of the kind of characters that people these scenari, we must put them back in Li Duo finti Zingari and see what we can make of the play as a whole. A cursory rereading of the plot immediately raises several important questions: Why do Pedrolino and Isabella remain disguised to the end of the play? Why does Flavio not think it curious that Pedrolino is in possession of Isabella's corpse? Why does Isabella deceive Flavio into thinking she is dead? The answer to all these questions is, of course, that there is no answer, but that if things had been otherwise, the play would not exist. Had Isabella revealed her identity to everyone in line 1 of the first act, we might have a newspaper article but we would hardly have a play. So the pleasure that we receive from reading or watching this comedy does not lie in our following a logical unfolding of events, leading to a conclusion that we sense as both inescapable yet pleasurably unsettling: neither the outcome of the intrigue nor, by extension, the ultimate fortunes of the characters really worry or concern us. Here the single question that gives so much teasing delight is simply: What will happen next? And because this is the question that the play presumes to pose, it liberates itself from the logical demands of realism — though this is not to say it cannot trespass freely on that ground — and consequently rises easily above the plane of social satire. For long plays, as the commedia productions were, to sustain themselves on such an elementary principle, it was necessary that both the actors and the writers of the scenari be gifted with a fertile invention as well as an intuitive sense of rhythm and proportion. The audiences' emotions had to be actively and immediately engaged from scene to scene in order that their reactions to the events transpiring be as naive and spontaneous as those of the characters on the stage. The pacing and balance of the incidents therefore had to be carefully controlled. A lover's speech of despair, a father's admonition to his son, a suitor's soliloquy of praise or admiration could not continue long enough to tire, nor the comic business, the burle and lazzi, last long enough to attract all interest from the serious personages. A close inspection of Li Duo finti Zingari will show this careful balancing of serious and comic scenes. Indeed, we may even say that, in this scenario, as the comic action becomes more frenetic in the second and third acts, the serious interludes, in which Flavio is shown Isabella's "corpse," acquire greater and more touching poignancy.


Excerpted from Pierrot by Robert F. Storey. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • List of Illustrations, pg. ix
  • Preface, pg. xiii
  • I. Origins and Birth, pg. 1
  • II. L'Education Foraine: The Eighteenth Century, pg. 35
  • III. Gilles and Clown, pg. 66
  • IV. Romantic Adolescence: The Nineteenth Century, pg. 93
  • V. Pierrot Fumiste: Jules Laforgue, pg. 139
  • VI. Pierrot Ephèbe: T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, pg. 156
  • Bibliography of Principal Works Consulted, pg. 195
  • Index, pg. 209

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