review by RA Goodrich
Steven Gration and Nicky Peelgrane
That said, for those of us interested in writing and the performing arts, Gration and Peelgrane betray a noticeable tension between the improvised and the written (104), which translates, ultimately, into a misleading segue from commedia dell'arte into contemporary scriptwriting pedagogy. It is a tension that, as they contend in passing, derives from a division within 18th century European practice (15-16). To elaborate briefly, Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi, the authors believe, upheld the use of masked, improvised, episodic work exploiting the ludicrous and the deceptive, the self-deprecatory and the anarchic in everyday dialectic, punning word play and thereby appeared to be drawing from commedia dell'arte. His Love of Three Oranges [L'amore delle tre melarance] (1761) was pitted against the fully scripted, less fantastical development of stage comedy, including musical comedy or opera buffa, deliberately cultivated by rival playwright Carlo Goldoni in such pieces as Servant of Two Masters [Il servitore di due padroni] (1745) and Country Philosopher [Il filosofo di campagna] (1752) respectively. Goldoni self-consciously looked to the craft of French satirical actor and playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin ('Molière'), who had himself notably employed techniques of commedia dell'arte in such plays as Sganarelle ou Le Cocu imaginaire [The Imaginary Cuckold] (1660).
Gration and Peelgrane then suddenly skip two centuries to a revival of commedia dell'arte in Europe during the late 'forties, which they associate with the teaching of Jacques Lecoq in Italy and France, without pausing to consider the whys and the wherefores. This neglect is in keeping with their tendency to skirt around the role of the improvised and the scripted, seen, for example, in Peelgrane's journal notes:
What she passes over in silence is how intensely verbal a medium television is by contrast, say, to cinema, and that dialogue, whether scripted or improvised, whether naturalistic or not, necessarily frames and dominates televisual portrayals of action across all dramatic genres.
Again, when introducing the readers to 'experimenting with recipes of their own' (89), the authors briefly touch upon burle which refers to 'verbal comedy, word play, puns and witticisms' (95). In 'successful' performances, readers are assured, albeit in largely aesthetic terms, that 'burle is beautifully balanced with the lazzi and physical comedy' (95). This is subsequently translated into a guide that 'is a mixture of Goldoni and Gozzi methods - some parts are improvised, others are written' (104). But what precisely for Gration and Peelgrane is scripted? Three major factors are nominated: a summary of the story or scenario in 'fifty words or less'; a division of the story or scenario into 'a numbered list of scenes (canovacci) that can be used backstage as a guide'; and 'a record of what is said (the good stuff, anyway) so that the story can begin to take a more polished shape' (104-105). However, the final chapter's suggested activities for teachers' assessments includes one entitled 'Playwriting', aimed at middle and senior secondary students:
Clearly, we have implicitly returned to the more fully scripted stage associated with both Goldoni and Gozzi, which their often vitriolic rivalry, both theatrical and political, tends to disguise. Perhaps this indicates the extent to which historical practice can be distorted by present-day notions of writing and the stage.
How might we account for this apparent slippage, if not lacunae, in Gration and Peelgrane's handling of scriptwriting and commedia dell'arte? The answer does not fully reside in the constraints of the practical manual as a genre. Nor does it lie in the limitations in the knowledge of its target audience. Rather, their problem is as much historical as it is conceptual. And, in saying this, we do not mean such shortcomings as their heavy reliance upon such early accounts of commedia dell'arte as exemplified by a Pierre-Louis Ducharte (1966) without any acknowledgement of, say, a Kenneth Richards and Laura Richards (1990) specifically upon commedia or a Marvin Carlson (2004) generally upon performance.
Without laying claims to the origins and evolution of commedia dell'arte as Gration and Peelgrane do (11-16), we find it curious that they pay no attention to its deep connections with the 'culture of folk carnival humor' associated by Mikhail Bakhtin (1968: 3-6) with, for example, the parish fête, the town square, and the village marketplace. Existing outside the sphere of Church and State whilst playfully parodying both, carnival rituals and activities 'do not command nor do they ask for anything':
Whilst reminding their readers only in passing of the value of observing 'how people walk, talk, shout, play and interact with one another' in 'a shopping centre, Sunday market or sporting event' (17), Gration and Peelgrane constantly connect the stock figures of commedia to those found in popular cinema and television, never mentioning the highly variable role scripting may play in depicting the central quartet of characters in, to cite one of their favoured examples, the Seinfeld series devised and principally co-written by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld up to May 1998.
In so far as commedia dell'arte in the period before Gozzi and Goldoni, indeed before Molière, was rooted in the carnivalesque as Andres Lombana (2007) for example realises, then Gration and Peelgrane have failed to recognise fully its non-theatrical, non-institutional dimension:
It is a failure shared by recent generations of historians and critics (not to mention teachers of writing) who see in improvised stage business of institutionalised entertainment - theatres and hotels, clubs and cinema - a genre all too readily identifiable with commedia. Furthermore, because commedia as carnivalesque 'marked the suspension' of 'norms' and 'prohibitions,' it also saw 'the creation of special forms of marketplace speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came into contact with each other and liberating [them] from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times' (Bakhtin 1968: 10). And the carnivalesque modes of communication in commedia manifest, in the words of Bakhtin (1968: 11),
As unpalatable as it may sound to those of us with vested interests in writing and performance, there are times when scriptwriters are no more needed by commedia dell'arte than they are by the local busker. For all its strengths, this book misses the opportunity to introduce into the contemporary teaching of scriptwriting something of the strangeness and creativity of writing practices associated with commedia dell'arte.
Bakhtin, MM 1968 Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press
Carlson, MA 2004 Performance: A Critical Introduction. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge
Ducharte, P-L 1966 The Italian Comedy: The Improvisations, Scenarios, Lives, Attributes, Portraits and Masks of the Illustrious Characters of the Commedia dell'arte. Trans. R.T. Weaver. New York: Dover Publications
Lombana, A 2007 Commedia in Transition: The Liminal
and Hybrid Nature of the Commedia dell'Arte, at:
Richards, K & L Richards 1990 The Commedia dell'Arte: A Documentary History. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell
Dr RA Goodrich teaches in the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia; co-edits the online refereed arts-practice journal, Double Dialogues; and, with Alison Burns, is currently investigating writing processes and pedagogy in the unpublished 1943/1944 New York writing workshop notebook of Christina Stead.
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Vol 13 No 2 October 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb