Overlaps between commedia dell’arte and puppet shows have been occurring since the birth of professional theatre in the middle of the 16th century. Indeed, these two forms offer many analogies both on a structural and thematic level and in the way they are organized. First and foremost, their dramaturgy is not based on a clearly structured written text, but rather on a loose script, and improvisation plays an important part. At its core, improvisation relies on a clever montage of predetermined elements or stereotypes, a process that largely exploits the technique of mime alongside elementary actions such as beating scenes (usually with a wooden stick), typical of puppet theatre.
Commedia dell’arte and puppet shows could therefore be defined as two non-literary theatrical genres, that is to say, not necessarily linked to a text. Moreover, these two forms have borrowed elements from two other genres as well: the comedia erudita, or literary comedy, and tragedy, which are often parodied. It is known that puppeteers made use of the commedia dell’arte repertoire in the 18th century, but it is likely that this tradition was established much earlier. Puppetry and commedia dell’arte share several distinctive features, the most important one being the use of fixed types (often called “masks”) in their performances. In both forms, these characters “speak” with a specific local accent and with a particular style that helps establish them as types. The origin of the “masks” is a complex question. Clearly much can be attributed to the creativity and inventiveness of the most talented actors, but folklore and myth have an equally important role. It is thought that Arlecchino (Harlequin) has a demonic origin, and this could be confirmed by certain zanni or Harlequin puppets endowed with diabolical features or wearing the original black mask, and thus being put at a double remove from the original person of the living actor.
Numerous commedia dell’arte characters could be found in fairground booths and on puppet stages and it is very likely that borrowings occurred in the reverse direction as well. The most famous characters are Arlecchino (the mask probably originated near Bergamo, but as a puppet Arlecchino is more important in the tradition of Mantua) and above all the Neapolitan Pulcinella. According to Anton Giulio Bragaglia (Pulcinella, 1953), Pulcinella’s renown and ubiquity can be explained by the popularity of the puppet, which was much more agile, flexible and resourceful, as well as being able to speak every language. The Comici also included the Venetians Brighella and Pantalone, the capitano (supposedly a Spaniard), Pedrolino, Graziano, the Doctor (from Bologna), the Neapolitans Don Pancrazio (Cocoziello), Tartaglia and Scaramuccia. To this list of types, probably derived from conventional theatre, we can add other characters whose origins could certainly be traced back to the fairgrounds: Fagiolino (from Bologna), Giangurgolo, Facanappa (formerly Bernardone), Cassandrino (from Rome), Gerolamo (from Milan), Gianduja (from Turin).
The puppets would also be joined by other figures, such as Sandrone, Fagiolino, Sganapino, Gioppino in Bergamo, Stenterello in Florence, although they retained features belonging to the commedia dell’arte, as can be seen with the Roman character of Rugantino, whose name suggests arrogance and who shares many traits with the capitano, or the Bolognese Tonin Bonagrazia who is very similar to Pantalone. The most obvious case of actors’ theatre slipping into puppetry would of course be Burattino, a comico dell’arte.
The term burattino finds its origin in the 17th century in the term buratto (bolter), a kind of sieve made of a loose-weave fabric that people would shake in a jerky fashion to sift flour. This jerky movement, related to a peasant’s activity, gave its name to one of the many zanni (or manservant) in commedia. At the end of the 16th century, this zanni was so successful that many puppet figures were based on this type and this led to the creation of a whole category and burattino became one of the most common terms for a puppet.
Outside of Italy as well, one can note a similar shift from actors’ theatre to the puppet world. Thus we find Hanswurst in German-speaking countries and differently derived figures of Pulcinella in puppet booths in various countries such as the French Polichinelle, the English Punch, the Russian Petrushka or the Spanish Don Cristóbal. Whether played by live actors or by puppets, the masked characters often spoke dialects or a “flexible” language open to outside influences, which on the one hand would bear traces of its native region and on the other hand would adapt to its audience. The codes used could vary, and improvisation, in both cases, allowed some space for reactions based on audience behaviour. In this way folkloric and literary themes could be mixed, as often happens in oral genres which are as far as possible from literary theatre. This aspect also gave these forms an uncontrollable, subversive power when linked with improvisation.
Actors and Puppets
Some names of actors who became puppeteers are known. The actor Bartolomeo Savi trained as puppeteer and fireworks artist in Turin, where he created a small puppet theatre; Johann Baptist Hilverding (Salzburg, c.1670 or 1677 – Vienna, 1721), a “Pulcinella performer”, travelled across Germany with his big string puppets as well as mechanical ones, playing also in Gdansk (Poland) and Prague (Czechoslovakia). Company directors Joseph Anton Stranitzky (1676-1726) and Gottfried Prehauser (1699-1769) were both actors and operated the Hanswurst puppet. In the same way Laroche created the buffoon Kasperl for an actors’ theatre, and the character later became the most famous German puppet to the extent that Kasperltheater became a synonym for puppet theatre.
Places of Performance
Places of performance were a key factor in the evolution of the two forms predominantly played in cities, public squares and marketplaces. Touring artists would travel all over Europe, making the same stops one after another. During these two “golden centuries” of commedia improvvisa (as commedia dell’arte was originally known), portable puppet theatres competed for space with the trestle stages of the comici in public squares, laying claim to specific spots in Rome (Piazza Navona), in Naples (largo of the Maschio Agioino castle), in Venice (Riva degli Schiavoni), in Florence (Loggia dei Lanzi) or in Turin (Piazza del Castello). One can even assume that puppeteers, with their ability to move about and set up faster, outstripped the commedia dell’arte roadshows. It is only in the 17th century, however, that documents start attesting to connections between the two genres without clearly settling which came first. It is with the commedia dell’arte that professional theatre was born, creating an organized, contractual structure – an early type of “show business industry” – with completely untried ways of producing shows that allowed for mixed audiences paying an admission charge. This consolidated a system for touring shows which has been a feature of the work of puppeteers from the very beginning.
However, one must differentiate between management methods of these two “businesses”. Whereas management in the commedia dell’arte was based on task sharing, in puppetry it was concentrated on a very small group of people, or even on one single performer handling all tasks. In the 17th and 18th centuries, places of performance varied from public squares, where mobile stages were erected, to auditoriums more or less reserved for artists. Glove puppets were used in portable theatres set up in urban places, while string puppets reached the more prestigious realm of palaces (in Germany and Italy mostly). In Venice, in the 18th century the Borgogna staged glove puppet shows on the Piazza San Marco but also inside the Doges’ palace or in other palaces.
During the time of the reform of the performing arts in the 18th century, when stock characters tended to disappear to the benefit of more individualized characters, some figures established by two centuries of commedia dell’arte were forced off the stage, but survived in fairground booths and as puppets, thus disappearing from the “official” theatre. For years, the assumption that only written sources were reliable prevented historians from studying puppet theatre in order to better understand commedia dell’arte. What happened during this period, however, perfectly illustrates how the commedia handed down to puppeteers not only its stock characters but also part of its repertoire.
Thanks to censorship, which has perennially made life so hard for actors, the scripts for some satirical shows that were never staged have survived. These plays would have been lost, with their modifications and mandatory omissions, if authorities had not compelled the artists – who most of the time were improvising, using commedia dell’arte techniques – to submit the dialogues in written form for approval before the performance could take place. This is how, thanks to Napoleon III, the repertoire of Guignol was preserved and thus puppet theatre in France enjoyed its most glorious period as a form of satirical theatre. In his plays Louis Edmond Duranty adapted stock characters from the commedia dell’arte for satirical means; the Erôtikon Théâtron, a gathering for artists and literati, perfected the art of parody of the official theatres and their repertoire; the Pupazzi theatre of Louis Lemercier de Neuville (who had directed the Erôtikon) offered caricatures of the political and artistic world by presenting puppets made of silhouettes cut-out from newspapers.
The commedia dell’arte also, like the puppet theatre where this is common, focused the dramatic action on the central role of a leading comic character, or on a pair of zanni. Relatives or descendants of the stultus (buffoon or clown) of antiquity, comic figures such as Punch, Pickelhering, Hanswurst, Kasperl or Kasparek became spokespersons for a form of subversion belonging to the popular classes. According to some scholars, this is how, in the revolutionary era of the late 18th century, new comedic heroes proliferated on the trestle stages of Europe. Starting in the 18th century, these comic figures, following the path of the most celebrated zanni of the commedia dell’arte, moved from scenarios to the fully written text, often introduced as valuable sidekicks to the main character; Hanswurst or Kasperl appeared alongside Faust or Don Juan as servant-buffoons.
- Duchartre, Pierre Louis. The Italian Comedy. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.
- Leydi, Roberto, ed. Burattini, Marionette, Pupi. Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 1980.
- McCormick, John, with Alfonso Cipolla and Alessandro Napoli. The Italian Puppet Theater – A History. Jefferson (NC): McFarland & Co., 2010. (See chapter on puppets and the Commedia dell’Arte.)
- Nosari, Pier Giorgio. “Le Avventure di Testa di Legno e Faccia di Cuoio. Interazioni e scambi fra teatro in persona e figure animate alle origini della commedia dell’arte” [The Adventures of Wooden Head and Leather Face. Interactions and Exchanges Between Actors’ Theatre and Animated Figures to the Origins of the Commedia dell’arte]. Zani Mercenario della Piazza Europea [Zani Mercenaries of the European Square]. Ed. Anna Maria Testaverde. Brescia: Moretti & Vitali, 2003.
- Rudlin, John. Commedia Dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook. London: Routledge, 1994.
- Rudlin, John. Commedia Dell’Arte: A Handbook for Troupes. London: Routledge, 2001.