The Rise of the Diva on the Sixteenth-Century Commedia dell'Arte Stage by Rosalind Kerr (review)
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Reviewed by
Rosalind Kerr. The Rise of the Diva on the Sixteenth-Century Commedia dell'Arte Stage. University of Toronto Press. xiv, 218. $65.00

Timely and fascinating, this study addresses what is arguably the single most important change in western theatre since classical times: the advent of the actress on the male-dominated stage. Kerr's impressive research is especially valuable for scholars of drama who know little about the Italian popular stage or the history of the actress before the Restoration. Women appeared in force in Italian professional troupes in the mid-sixteenth century and quickly became so popular and attracted such important patrons that the Church itself could not stem the tide, try as some clerical opponents might to denounce actresses as demonic agents worse than prostitutes because they did more lasting damage to men's souls. Kerr asks how the actresses and troupes managed this feat. Her ingenious argument trains a sharp eye on the mountebank stage, where clowns and actresses performed arte comedies and routines, and where the performing woman became a "fetish object" laden with magical properties associated with the nostrums on sale. These lowly entertainers marketed their own sexual allure without directly prostituting themselves, taking a measure of control over their own representation. Some skilled women entered acting troupes where they took over roles previously acted by males and brought a brand-new form of female subjectivity to the stage. But at all times they were tainted as vulgar and whorish for entering the public sphere as sexualized spectacles ripe for commodification, just as many actresses would be for centuries to come.

In provocative fashion, yet with admirable clarity, Kerr deploys the fetish theory of William Pietz, feminist, Freudian, and Marxist writings on erotic commodification, and the work of Christopher Rojek and Joseph Roach on celebrity to analyze the tremendous explosion of popularity, fame, and scandal that surrounded the early actresses. Showing a firm grasp of her wide-ranging Italian materials, from polemics, pamphlets, poems, letters, plays, and visual documents to a variety of arte scenarios, she tracks how the early actresses developed and marketed that magnetic quality of erotic charisma, skill, and glamour that Roach calls, simply, "It." Using Roach's framework, Kerr argues that the early diva attracted [End Page 143] fans by projecting a quasi-divine aura even as she inspired fantasies of access, intimacy, and authenticity. Despite her wide-ranging subject and the implication of a historical narrative in her title, Kerr has elected to keep her study quite brief and thematic, and certainly it left this reader wanting more. Eroticism is her focus in almost every chapter, so the more flamboyantly sexual roles and topics get the most air time. She begins her story in the crucial urban space of the piazza, where women players juggled, tumbled, danced, played music, and sang alongside commedia dell'arte clowns ("The Early Female Performer as Marketplace Fetish"). This chapter is especially rich in documentation and analysis of the physicality of the female dancers and acrobats who galvanized crowds. Then she turns to a chapter that examines the sexual adventures and fleshy displays of the bawdy balia, servetta, and cortigiana who were staples in arte plots; Kerr "close reads" images in the Recuiel Fossard from the 1580s and the famous murals of arte scenes in Trausnitz castle from the 1560s ("Pornographic Bawds, Courtesans, and Maidservants"). This chapter was a bit less persuasive than the others, in part because Kerr's definition of pornography sometimes feels strained and anachronistic, and in part because she lumps together the quite distinctive roles of the old Balia (Nurse) and the young servant Franceschina. In the next chapter ("Iconic Prima Donnas") she turns to the innamorata, a type that constitutes a radical departure from the bawdy women of farces, earlier comedies, and piazza entertainments. This was the haughty and elegant innamorata, the "desired and desiring" young woman from a respectable family, an innovation spurred by the arrival of multi-talented actresses in troupes. Some of these talented prime donne became the first divas worthy of the name, and a few became international stars.

The divas quickly became known for their spectacular cross-gender playing...


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