Molière--whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin--was a French actor and playwright from the 17th century famous for his comedy. He lived in a time where the secular and religious authorities were not his friends. He was often in trouble with the authorities (money stuff, mostly) and the church was decidedly not in favor of his absurd art form where seemingly nothing was sacrosanct. But that didn't keep him from becoming an extremely successful theatre artist.
In response to a world that was, in many ways, very practical, his over-the-top comedy came as a welcome relief. He took what was considered "normal" to the extreme, turning it into an absurdity. The relation of what seemed familiar and what was clearly outlandish became the basis of our modern sense of comedy.
While he started off as a struggling theatre manager (he was sent to debtors prison twice), he had a breakthrough in 1658 when he and his troupe enjoyed a successful performance in front of Louis XIV, and won the favor and patronage of the king's brother, Philippe, duc d’Orléans.
The church did successfully ban performances of Tartuffe (for five years) and of Don Juan (for Molière's entire life). Molière, ever the persistent Managing Director, responded with petitions and lobbies to the king, and he published a defense of his work, Lettre sur la comédie de l’Imposteur. When he didn't have the money to hire authors for his company, he wrote more works himself. In the end, Molière couldn't be stamped out.
Indeed, Molière wouldn't even let death get in the way of a performance. He famously collapsed in a coughing fit while performing the lead in The Imaginary Invalid. He refused to cancel the performance, and he finished the show. He succumbed to tuberculosis a short while later.
One of Molière's deep beliefs was that comedy was meant to be performed on a stage. He did not want to publish his works or to have them be read. He did so only to avoid exploitation from other theatres and playwrights. (Indeed, two of his scripts were pirated.) We at Ohio Shakespeare love this tid-bit--it reminds us of an exceptional English playwright whose works are best left to the stage rather than the page. (Don't read Shakespeare--see Shakespeare live!)
Did Molière write Commedia?
Short answer? No.
In the next slide, you'll read about the basic definitions of Commedia, but one of the key elements of Commedia is its unscripted nature. Commedia troupes did not work from a script, but off of familiar scenarios. Basically, they were the first improv troupes.
Molière was unquestionably influenced by Commedia scenarios, lazzis (comic bits), and stock characters. The very essence of his shows comes directly from the Commedia traditions. But the mere fact that he wrote the script down and made it exact means that Molière's work is not Commedia.
Molière’s great contribution to comedy was that he combined the best part of of Italian Commedia dell’arte traditions with the more streamlined aspects of French comedy of his time. Thus, he became the grandfather of our modern sense of comedy.
Painting: Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Molière (1622-1673),
"The Theatre of the professional"
Keep close--we are traveling through time here. Commedia dell'arte was originally a 16th century art form. Molière, whom you just read about on the previous page, was from the 17th century. But they are undeniably linked, as we will continue to explore.
It is nigh impossible to pin down the exact origin or roots of Commedia. Much like Shakespeare, most of our information about Commedia comes second-hand, and Commedia scholars today still debate the details.
At any rate, the date Feburary 25, 1545 is of particular significance. This was the day that Ser Maphio's troupe of performers signed a letter of incorporation, establishing themselves as a professional company. This stands as a major landmark in the history of theatre in that it is the oldest record we have of modern actors making a living through their art. In 1566, Commedia also gave us our first ever (that we know of) female professional actor, Vincenza Armani, almost a hundred years before women were allowed to act in London.
From there, Commedia troupes pop up in historical record all over Europe throughout the next century. Thanks to the professional nature of this kind of theatre, these actors could really focus on their craft, creating troupes of exceptionally talented performers who would each specialize in a particular stock character. Unlike theatre in England at this time which was based around playwrights and purpose-built theatres (think Shakespeare's company and the Globe), Commedia thrived on the actor's ability to improvise and to perform wherever the need arose.
A myth has persisted that Commedia troupes performed mostly "street theatre", when in fact, while they could and did perform anywhere, indoor venues were preferred, as it was easier to monitor ticket sales (hey--it's still easier to sell a seat even if we pay the actors).
The troupes had no directors or playwrights. Instead the company manager (capocomico) would announce the title and theme of the upcoming performance and give the scenario to the performers. The scenario was usually no more than three pages long (we know this because more than 800 of these scenarios survive today) and contained no dialogue. The actors would then improvise their way through the scenario, making every performance vastly different than the one before. Peppered into the show would be rehearsed lazzi (bits of comic business) that were usually planned, often rehearsed, but sometimes improvised and created that the actors could insert them as needed into the scenario for guaranteed laughs. The mix of practiced, scripted routines and improvised scenarios made for an evening of theatre that truly engaged the audience.
Just like the rest of this production guide, the characters covered in this section are only the tip of the iceberg. There are way more characters than we have time to mention here. And there are way more thorough ways to describe them. But this will give you a little taste of a few that you might want to know when seeing our production.
The Commedia stock characters were shared among the many Commedia troupes. It didn't matter which troupe's performance you were attending--you'd get to see the same characters (or at least, mostly the same). The stock characters could interact with one another with infinite variance.
Scapino (whose name translates loosely to "Little Escape Artists") is one of the zanni (comic servants). He is defined by his wit, scheming ways, and his ability to make great confusion out of every-day situations. Self-preservation is his major concern, but he sometimes can be coerced into helping out others. As Scapin says in Molière's play: "Sometimes, you just have to let your humanity get the better of you."
Modern decedents of Scapino come to us the in the forms of:
- Bart Simpson from The Simpsons
- Bugs Bunny from Looney Tunes
- Lucille Ball from I Love Lucy
- Jim Halpert from The Office
Capitano (the captain) was not a servant character, and therefore had more status and power than the zanni. Capitano was proud of his strength, boastful of his bravery, and enamored of his own abilities. Mostly, it was a front for his deep cowardice and incompetence.
A few modern examples of Capitano:
- Professor Gilderoy Lockheart from Harry Potter
- Zap Brannigan from Futurama
- Gaston from Beauty and the Beast
- The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz
Pantalone was one of the vecchi (old men). He was a master, therefore far more important than the zanni in terms of status and power. He was often defined by his greed, his unsympathetic nature, his emotional extremes, and his self-righteous attitude. Usually, Pantalone was the person who gets in the way of the happiness of others (e.g. he keeps the lovers from seeing one another), and is therefore a crux of the plot.
Interesting tid-bit: Pantalone has lived the lives of all of the stock commedia characters, and therefore can perform the same physical moves (albeit with or without hilarious disabilities, depending on who's looking or how good he feels in the moment). When you see Mr. Burns do a fabulous song and dance (like Arlecchino), then go back to milking his back pain, that's because he was born a poor zanni. He's done it all. He's been a zanni, a lover, a capitano, and now an old man. This explains why he is greedy. It didn't come easy.
Modern-day examples of Pantalone come to us in:
- Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development
- Mr. Burns from The Simpsons
- JR Ewing from Dallas
- Scrooge McDuck from Duck Tales.
Dottore was another of the vecchi (old men) and also a man of status. He was very rich, but extremely miserly about his wealth. He was also very educated--or at least pretended to be--and enjoyed showing other people how smart he was. But in reality, his education never translated to cleverness. He was easily duped by the zanni.
Some modern equivilents of Dottore are:
- Vizzini from The Princess Bride
- Frasier Crane from Frasier
- Ross Gellar from Friends
- The Professor from Futurama
- Polonius from Hamlet
Looney Tunes & Commedia
Alive and well.
As we've already mentioned, the Commedia characters have survived and evolved throughout the history of modern comedy. (See the page above for some other modern examples of Commedia characters.)
Looney Tunes is one of the best modern parallels we can draw when comparing to Commedia. Not only do we see many of the archetype characters in Chuck Jones' work, we also see other Commedia conventions in these animated shorts. Read on to learn more.
The stock characters of Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies have deep roots in Commedia.
Scapino is often defined by his clever, scheming ways and witty personality. He's an easy parallel to Bugs Bunny, who is always wheedling his way into and out of jams--with style.
Arlecchino is often defined by his nimble qualities and his role of thwarting his master's plans. But while Scapino will intentionally manipulate a situation, Arlecchino often finds himself wrapped up in it without knowing quite how he got there. He often makes a mess of the task he is assigned to accomplish. Arlecchino goes from point A to point B in the least effecient way possible, and reminds us undeniably of Daffy Duck's famous exit:
Capitano is often described as a bluster, always bragging about his strength and bravery. But in reality, he is often a coward (or at least, not quite as brave as he makes himself out to be). Yosemite Sam, the rootinest tootinest man in the west, is a clear Captiano decendent.
Stupino is, not so surprisingly, described as a rather dim-witted, slow character. He is always behind the curve, but doesn't even seem to be aware that he's out of the loop. Beaky Buzzard is the Looney Tunes Stupino. (But we have to be honest with you--Stupino is a very new Commedia character (1970s). So Beaky Buzzard was around decades before him. The parallel still maintains and is worth pointing out, but we can't honestly tell you that Stupino inspired Beaky.)
Did ya ever get the feelin' you was being watched?
In modern comedy, we have established a "fourth wall" dimension. This means that characters on stage (or on screen) are not aware that they are in a performance. For them, there is a fourth wall--one the audience can magically see through--that separates the action of the story from the world of the audience. For example, the characters in Seinfield are not aware that they are being watched (and laughed at) by the viewers.
Commedia characters had the special ability to be both aware of the action on stage within the world of the story and the world of the audience. They could react to the audience, play with them, and even change the scenario based on how the audience responded.
Maybe Bugs Bunny can't technically interact with us in real time, but that doesn't mean Chuck Jones didn't give a nod to this convention. Think of all those times Bugs turns to the viewer and directly addresses them. "Of course you know, this means war."
Wabbit season v. duck season.
Lazzi--planned bits of comic business--were a defining convention of Commedia. These little moments were guaranteed audience-pleasers and could be inserted wherever needed throughout the performance. Some Commedia lazzi included making up foreign languages, a servant sneaking a drink out of his master's glass using a very long straw, hiding in plain sight by becoming a statue, the classic tall-man bit with a long cloak, and so much more. Of course, repeating lazzi once, twice, or thrice throughout the performance could sometimes garner even more laughs.
Unsurprisingly, Looney Tunes is full of lazzi. Here's one of the most famous:
Commedia in our Scapin
"To be truthful, there are very few things I find impossible once I set my mind to them."
Just like Molière didn't write Commedia, our performance is definitely not Commedia. Like his script, though, we have allowed ourselves to be inspired by the Italian tradition, but with our own little twists.
Scapino v. Scapin.
Of course, there is no question that Molière's character of Scapin is also the crafty Scapino from Commedia. And in our play, Scapin is easily the most direct Commedia parallel character. But there are others.
Argante serves as a Pantalone, and Geronte is our Dottore. Leandre is a combination of one of the innamorati (young lovers--see more about innamorati in the glossary coming up) and the Capitano. Octave and Hyacinth are more clear-cut innamorati.
Like Hyacinth, Zerbinette is also innamortai-like, though she's got a touch of Columbina's wit in her. Both of them also enjoy lazzi that help define their characters (e.g. Hyacinth's crying and Zerbinette's laughter).
In the Ohio Shakespeare Festival production of Scapin, we've chosen to mimic the idea behind Commedia costumes without using the costumes themselves.
We've already talked about how audiences would recognize Commedia characters right away. Several factors would make them recognizable on-sight. Each character had his/her very specific posture, physicality, voice, mask, and costume. Combine those all together, and you'll never wonder if that's Scapino who just walked on stage.
Interesting side note: Remember how we kept saying that Looney Tunes is good Commedia parallel? This works with the costume convention, too. Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester, Porky, and the rest of the gang go through evolutions in their drawing--they look quite different now than they did in their first appearance. But, Bugs is always a grey and white rabbit, Daffy is always a black-feathered duck, etc. We never wonder who they are when they show up--we know them on-sight.
Our modern audiences, of course, don't have that same instant reaction to traditional Commedia garb and character. So instead, each Scapin character is costumed in a different time period that best suggests his/her personality.
For example, our Argante (Pantalone) looks like a 1880s railroad tycoon. Leandre (Capitano) is in a Revolutionary War soldier's outfit. Fussy servant Sylvester is in a classic butler's tuxedo. Sweet Hyacinth is dressed up like Little-Bo-Peep in a jumper and frilly skirt. Scapin himself is in a classic servant's costume.
The same way that Commedia audiences would recognize character traits based on the visual representation of the characters, we hope our audiences use our cultural preconceptions to guess the personalities of the characters in Scapin.
Background photo credit: A scene from "Scapin." Directed by Alyssa Ravenwood, Produced by Radiant Theatre Company, Portland OR; Mask Design by Alyssa Ravenwood
Fun facts & Links
A quick list of interesting facts and fun links.
Play an interactive commedia dell'arte game!
Commedia dell'arte: Masks, Masters and Servants is an interactive online commedia game where you can influence the storyline, entertain the audience, interact with various characters and objects, and choose how to lead your troupe on the road of success!
- Molière performed up until the moment he died. He collapsed in a coughing fit while on stage playing the lead role in The Imaginary Invalid, but insisted that he finish the show. He died shortly after--he had been suffering from tuberculosis for a while.
- Ever heard that it's unlucky for actors to wear green? (Yeah, we hadn't either, but apparently that's a thing.) That probably comes from the face that Molière's costume during that fatal performance was green.
- One of Molière's most popular and widely celebrated plays--Le Misanthrope--was a big flop when it first premiered.
- Not everyone loved Molière. Actor Laurence Olivier once said that he was as "funny as a baby's open grave." Yikes.
- Molière was friends with fellow French playwright Jean Racine. But it doesn't seem like the friendship lasted--apparently Racine ran off with one of the actresses in Molière’s company, then also sold the rights to his play to a rival acting company. Et tu, Racine?
- The Battachio was literally two sticks hinged together that when snapped shut would make a loud popping sound. It translates to "slap stick" and that's where we get the terms from.
Cast of Characters
Scapin: the crafty servant of Geronte, left in charge of Leandre while Geronte is away. He is capable of scheming his way into and out of any situation.
Sylvester: the much-less-devious servant of Argante who tends to get himself wrapped up in situations that he would rather have nothing to do with. He is terrified of getting in trouble--especially with the law.
Octave: a young lover and the son of Argante, and deeply in love with Hyacinth, whom he has just met and married. Argante, however, wants Octave to overturn the marriage and marry Geronte's daughter.
Leandre: another young lover and the son of Geronte, he is deeply in love with Zerbinette. Leandre is both a fighter and a lover.
Argante: the unsympathetic father of Octave. He is a powerful person, prone to emotional extremes, and a little greedy. Status is everything to him.
Geronte: father of Leandre, and not terribly clever. He is easily manipulated by Scapin. Above all, Geronte loves his money.
Hyacinth: the beautiful young love of Octave. Hyacinth is never more beautiful than when she is weeping, which she is prone to do.
Zerbinette: raised by Gypsies, Zerbinette does not know who her family is. She is exotic and alluring, and when she laughs, it is an impressive display.
Nerine: Hyacinths very old nurse maid.
Glossary of terms
Battachio - the official weapon of any servant. Two thin slats of wood that slap together on impact--a slapstick. Ironically, the masters often get ahold of it or just get the servants to beat themselves.
Bastone - the official weapon of Capitano. A long stick that, according to Capitano, can be used in the most dangerous and exotic of ways. Mostly, he hurts himself with it by accident.
Improvisation - creating dialogue and action in the moment.
Innamorati - the young lovers of a scenario.
Lazzi - comedic performances typical to each character that can be inserted in any moment of the play.
Masks - half masks were used by the actors, and were usually made of hardened leather. They were shaped to associate with a certain character and they had exaggerated features such as long noses or wrinkles. Characters were also often referred to by the mask they wore.
Prima donna - the Innamorata, the female ROMANTIC lover often cut off from her Innamorato, the male romantic lover.
Scenario - brief outlines of the plot and the scenes
Seconda donna - is the female comical lover, usually Signora.
Servetta - an unmasked female commedia servant. She is confident and witty.
Signora - an unmasked female Capitano-like character, often paired with him romantically. Often married to Pantalone. She's a disaster, but at least less of a mess than the captain...sometimes.
Vecchi - the old men who have control over the lives of the others
Zanni - the male servants. It basically translates to "Johnny" or "John." As in, "He's just a John... a nobody."