Posted by: mollymuellner | November 17, 2021

Commedia and Caricature

Reading about English caricature drew fascinating parallels to Commedia dell’arte, a form of theater that evolved in the 1530s and 1540s out of Italian street performance and flourished across Europe, predating but influencing the Punch shows and cartoons in Victorian England. 

Commedia featured an ensemble of recurring, masked, stock characters who were subject to the recognizable trials of daily life. The nomadic nature of outdoor street or festival performance limited possibilities for complex costume or scene design, and amplified the importance of the charisma and captivating skills of the actor to local audience. Heightened physicality and improvisational dialogue were characteristic to the performances, which typically lacked a formal director and relied on tailoring the comedy to its specific spectators. Disguised in flexibility and farce, parodies of power were played out allowing for political commentary that would have been censored in a more set form. 

Actors played the same characters in every show, surrendering themselves to a physicality distinct to the archetype they played, crystallized through their mask. The mask cemented the anatomic and emotional facial characteristics of each stock character and created the clear fourth wall between played, and player. 

Drama revolved around Gil Innamorati, or the Lovers, the only unmasked characters on the stage who continually faced stock dilemmas and were rarely crowd favorites. Adultery, or thwarted love would incite the unsolicited intervention of the vecchi, elder characters who generally complicated situations further, and were accompanied by the zanni, younger servant characters who brought the wit and the solution. 

A typical vecchi character was Il Dottore, The Doctor, who delivered nonsensical advice, wore all black robes, and drank too much wine but took himself quite seriously. 

Il Dottore mask [PC: The Venetian Masks]

Shifting between vecchi and zanni was Il Capitano, modeled after a swaggering braggart soldier with a physicality led by his phallus. 

[PC: Second Face] 

Il Capitano mask

Exemplifying military machismo, his mask is characterized by a ridiculously exaggerated phallic nose and intimidating expression that amplified his arrogant entries. With enormous boots and a stiff march, he always has a sword which stays in the scabbard. Only when he is challenged to a fight, Capitano’s secretly timid and cowardly nature revealed. A classic gesture he performs is to jump suddenly into the arms of the maid who he has just been courting, at a fright so small as the squeak of a mouse.  

Arlecchino or, the Harlequin, was the most popular of the zanni, styled after a pig, monkey, or cat with a red bump on his mask that indicated his being part devil. He had the ravenous appetite and manners of an untamable animal, or oversexed man, making heinous remarks and innapropriate gestures. A classic lazzi, or small skit, of Arlecchino, was to salt and eat the fly that bothered him. 

Pantalone was the greedy merchant who stood between characters and their happiness, Tartaglia, the announcer of important news suffering from a stutter. Another zanni was Pulcinella, a servant from Naples who was loveable and pitiable with a physicality drawing on the qualities of a chicken.

A reversal of appearance was a classic element of Commedia, which inverted the usual roles of social hierarchy, with the credentially and materially rich elders spouting nonsense and engaging in ridiculous physical trifles with one another, while their servants and fools continually outwitted them and averted disaster. 

Directed by the government, political caricature in the Punch cartoons communicated a nationalistic message that was made to ultimately incite fear a dividing force, below humor a uniting one. The two forms compared reflect the thin line between laughter and shrieks of fear, a response to surprise and pain that falls into close, but different realms. 

 The Irishmen in Punch were defined by their physical distance from the ideal Englishman, and as political tensions grew they were represented as increasingly apelike and simian, stereotypes like volatility, violence, and drunkenness reaching monstrous forms. Commedia also revolved around distortion of the body, but within a nation or region rather than exhibiting the definition of boundaries of that nation or region. Rather than recognizing an demonized “other”, the audience of Commedia were intended to recognize the features of themselves and those they knew upon the stage. Through exaggerated physicality and the masks worn by actors, the fourth wall of drama formed and protected the audience from suffering the discomfort of direct mockery or self-scrutiny, which was of course the humor. 

Both forms rely on the physiognomical idea that “the character of a man may be read in his face” (Curtis, 26). But the masks of Commedia make a purposeful separation between the characters and the actors playing them, unlike the English caricature which unified character and man, eliding the role of the actor. Moral exemplars are not funny, and this draws the distinction between the humor driven Commedia and first funny, but ultimately fear-based cartoons.

[PC: Apes and Angels, LP Curtis]

Painting of Commedia [PC: Thought.Co]

The similarities between the English cartoons and representations of Commedia are apparent, the people are positioned in gestural extremes in striking tableaus like actors on a shallow stage. The above painting is imagined; as commedia expanded across Europe and was embraced by other countries and cultures, the form became set and lost the improvisational and local immediacy that had defined its spirit.

The characters who had always shifted to reflect the movement of real life became frozen into moral exemplars recognizable to mass audiences, rather than local ones. Thus Pulcinella evolved into Punchinello, shortened to Punch in the English puppet shows and cartoons. I think it’s a little sad that a true form of entertainment laughing at everyone with proclaimed power became weaponized by those in power, but then it’s an evolution of art form in its own way and the changing hands of representation.

“Il Dottore Masks.” THE VENETIAN MASKS, 28 Sept. 2021, 

“Commedia Dell’arte Capitano.” Second Face, 

“Il Capitano.” Mayhem, Madness, Masks and Mimes – Commedia Dell’Arte, 

Costigan, Giovanni, and L. Perry Curtis. “Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature.” The American Historical Review, vol. 77, no. 2, 1972, p. 519., 

Hale, Cher. “How Did Italy’s Commedia Dell’arte Shape the Art of Comedy?” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 4 July 2019, 

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