I was in Venice a few weeks ago, fortunate enough to stage two one-acts I’d written. It’s a marvellous place. I spent my free time exploring, and it happened several times that I came across quiet alleyways dedicated to workshops producing masks for Carnival. These masks are an art form centuries old, potent symbols of the city. They denote at once the city’s exuberance and its decadence. They were developed during times when anonymity and identity had recognizable values, before the two changed places.
The masks are beautiful objects. They were put to a variety of uses through the centuries, and Carnival is perhaps the least interesting. More engaging for me are the masks for the Commedia dell’Arte. This was a form of farce born in Italy in the sixteenth century and embraced by the rest of Europe in the next century. Commedia dell-Arte relied on stock characters signified by masks, costumes, gestures, and ways of walking. Plots followed general formulae, but performances were largely improvisational.
I’m thinking it would be fun to draw in some elements of the Commedia dell-Arte into future plays. I particularly like the idea of caricatured, recognizable characters. Superhero movies have tried to live the cartoon in one sense. But the building blocks for their comedy and drama are still the standard ones from modernism. Wouldn’t it be fun to play with dance and movement the way ancient medieval theatre did, creating comedy from highly crafted bits? Isn’t that what Vaudeville and Burlesque were achieving?