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In 1951, Paduan sculptor and mask-maker Amleto Sartori delivered a commedia mask to the Piccolo Teatro of Milan.1 As he ventured into the rehearsal hall, he saw an actor performing acrobatics with a very large rifle. It was Marcello Moretti (Venice 1910–Rome 1961), for whom he had made the mask and who was currently rehearsing the part of Arlecchino for a production of Goldoni's L'amante militare, directed by Giorgio Strehler.2 Moretti tried the mask on during the rehearsal, but quickly lost his temper. Sartori remembers, "He was furious like a wild colt forced to wear the bridle for the first time," and adds that Moretti exclaimed, "'I cannot act with this thing on my nose, it hurts me, I cannot see' and he slammed the mask on the ground."3 What started as a disagreement, however, turned into an enduring professional relationship between Sartori, Strehler, and Moretti that led them to successfully reimagine the commedia tradition after World War II.

Although Marcello Moretti played at least forty-four roles at the Piccolo Teatro of Milan, as well as many other roles for other theatre companies, he is best known for his interpretation of Arlecchino in Strehler's productions of The Servant of Two Masters.4 Strehler staged ten different productions of that play at the Piccolo Teatro between 1947 and 1997.5 By 1997, these stagings had been performed 2,394 times in 36 countries.6 Over the years, and through unprecedented exposure in Italy and around the world, these productions revived scholars' interest in the performance history of the commedia dell'arte and arguably became the most influential models for artists to follow, emulate, learn from, and sometimes challenge. Marcello Moretti played the central character in the first [End Page 7] three of Strehler's productions of The Servant of Two Masters, between 1947 and 1960.7 His performance was seen hundreds of times, touring across Italy and in another twenty-six countries, on three continents, reaching thousands of spectators.8 The international press hailed him as "the greatest Arlecchino of the 1900s," the "Italian Clown Prince," the "Italian Charlie Chaplin," and the "Universal Arlequin."9 In Tricks of the Trade, Dario Fo crowned him "the father-figure of all Harlequins of the last half-century."10 Luigi Ferrante even compared him to Antonio Sacchi, the famous Arlecchino-Truffaldino for whom Goldoni initially wrote The Servant of Two Masters.11

Arlecchino and his mask followed Moretti throughout his career. As Jacques Lecoq recalls: "Moretti was shy, and I often met him in a little restaurant behind the dome for lunch. He had his mask in his pocket, and from time to time he took it out to look at it, to touch it, he lived with it."12 "The mask was for Moretti equivalent to the character," Guy Freixe claims, adding, "[It signified] its concrete presence. He knew that it was stronger than the actor, and able to outlive him."13 By the end of his career, Moretti felt vulnerable without the mask and wondered what would happen to him when he would no longer be fit to play Arlecchino. Yet, he refused to wear a solid mask in Strehler's first staging of The Servant of Two Masters in 1947. Instead, he painted his face to reflect the image of the character, using dark, wax-based makeup. Only in 1952 did Moretti start wearing a solid mask in this production.14

The purpose of this article is not to explain how Moretti overcame his resistance to the mask and became one of the most influential Arlecchinos of the last century. Rather, it investigates why he refused to wear a mask in the first place.15 This account of Moretti's experience will, I hope, fill a gap in the study of contemporary stagings of the commedia dell'arte by focusing on the performance practice of a single actor whose career has been overlooked in English-speaking scholarship, largely because it is often discussed only in relationship with the lives and works of other artists (such as Giorgio Strehler and Amleto...

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