- Commedia Dell’arte
Judging from the “Works Cited” pages of term papers and frequency of e-mail requests for information, students today rely more on the Internet than the library. This points out one of the major problems in online education. Without a formal scholarly seal of approval, we might assume that an “edu” domain website has a measure of academic credibility since it resides on a server at an educational institution, but there are many student “edu” pages with limited scope and excellent sites on “org” or “com” domains rich with information. Sometimes useful information is found in unexpected places. A curious scholar may be surprised to discover a site in Australia dedicated to the sixteenth-century Italian Commedia. The Commedia dell’Arte website does not have the gravitas of Pierre Duchartre’s Italian Comedy (1929) or Kathleen Lea’s Italian Popular Comedy (1934), but there are some wonderful features that illustrate how computer-mediated techniques can expand and enhance the learning process.
The start page has a brief description of commedia, a picture from a contemporary production and an animated movie that begins with a magic wand. When you hold your mouse over it and drag across the screen, five moving characters appear in costume. Click on a character and you’ll hear the zanni proclaim “the smell of foccaccia is making me drool.” The site is easy to navigate with hyperlink buttons on each page linking to the rest of the site.
The scenario page covers the origin and traditions of Commedia, mentioning “plot outlines scribbled on paper and pegged in the wings for the actors as an aid to memory and guide to improvisations.” There is an acknowledgment that only a handful of the originals exist, among them “the fifty scenarios of Flaminio Scala from the Gelosi troupe published in 1611 representing the best of the repertoire of the most famous of all Commedia dell’ Arte troupes.” Another page defines types of lazzi including acrobatics, comic behavior and “transformation,” which explains why there is an original scenario complete with time travel and a magician. This reflects more of a “panto” style in the tradition of eighteenth century harlequinesque performances originated by John Rich as “Lun” and not characteristic of the Cinquecento commedia all’improviso.
The section on staging concentrates on traveling arrangements and stagecraft. The information is clear and succinct. You discover that curtains and stage properties were transported by carts that doubled as performance platforms complete with storage and backstage areas; actors entered through splits in the curtain. Most descriptions are too brief and the one hundred words on the history page are hardly sufficient to summarize the long tradition of the Commedia. Nevertheless, what makes this site special is that there are original examples of contemporary commedia mask-making and performance connecting the historical past with the living present.
The “bio” page describes Jennifer Stannard, a mask maker and performer from Byron Bay, Australia. There are photos from an impressive exhibition of beautifully hand-crafted leather masks. The most interesting feature for online scholars consists of colorful illustrations of stock characters in the commedia troupe: Capitano, Arlecchino, Pantelone, Dottore, and Brighella, complete with descriptions of costumes and masks. The advantage cyberspace offers over traditional text-based sources is that dynamic pictures and video can convey more information. The site is relatively small with only forty-three pages and sixty-one files for a total of 839KB of data. Much of the information is presented without documentation, but it is artistically interesting despite the lack of historical accuracy. It is useful as a supplement to a textbook, but not as a sole source.
The virtual tour of a commedia setting, animations and audio clips indicate the tremendous potential of this medium, but this site could be improved with hyperlinks to additional resources such as a comprehensive history of the Gelosi. A scholarly approach might examine the social and financial status of women in the Commedia companies or whether women are represented on equal terms with men. Video clip examples of lazzi would exploit the possibilities of the web as would...