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109 5 The Underside of the Comici Whether or not a given commedia dell’arte troupe or actor directly experienced or even cared about poverty, famine, destitution, or other social issues, by the time of the commedia’s“golden age” between 1560 and 1630, these themes had become part of the actors’ repertoire, much more central to their performance tradition than they were in English and Spanish early modern theaters. The hungry servant, stingy master, and related tropes became hardy perennials in the Arte repertoire, infused with new life in the late seventeenth century Comédie-Italienne and in the eighteenth-century theater of Carlo Goldoni. Especially because of the strong presence of itinerant mendicant orders in Italy, the commedia dell’arte inherited a culture in which poverty, begging, itinerancy, and a certain disposition to perform degradation were in the air, and this was absorbed into the grammar of their performance. Not only were tropes and gags of hunger and destitution continually deployed in the commedia , but some of the actors assumed for their own rhetorical purposes the histrionic pose of destitution. In other words, whatever their professional fortunes, they “played” poverty both onstage and in their offstage personae. Whether or not this social dimension of the commedia dell’arte had political implications is difficult to answer from the available evidence. In many cases, it is probable that the actors were exploiting gags and themes that, simply put, played well. According to the traditional Aristotelian notion of the comic protagonist as someone socially and morally inferior to the spectator, poverty, hunger, and degradation were funny to the early modern spectator. But if we establish that poverty was a central and persistent topos in the commedia, it is also possible to imagine representations of poverty that could pass beyond Aristotle’s limitation of Poverty at the Margins The Commedia dell’Arte 110 chap te r 5 the comic to that which does not cause pain—in other words, representations that could approach the pathos of Ruzante’s suffering peasants. Flourishing in the period of the Italian Counter-Reformation, arguably more closely tied to aristocratic patronage than the English and Spanish professional players, the commedia dell’arte could not claim to be directly “political,” or at least not in a contestatory manner that engages matters of state. When the theater was attacked, as it often was by ecclesiastical and municipal critics, it was not on political but on moral and sexual grounds. Churchmen decried the perceived pernicious effect of the sexually alluring actress on her audiences. When actor-authors such as Adriano Valerini, Pier Maria Cecchini, and Giovan Battista Andreini vigorously defended their art against the charges of moral corruption , their defenses frequently invoked orthodox theological and political principles, which did not challenge the status quo. Poverty, however, was one of the few social issues addressed by the church.If the church did not systematically address, or challenge, the real economic roots of poverty, it did speak out against the harshness of the new poor laws and against the sins of greed and excessive consumption. Italian preachers invoked patristic and medieval texts such as Chrysostom’s homilies on Dives and Lazarus and Aquinas’ critiques on hoarding. The great Harlequin Domenico Biancolelli, a contemporary of Molière, was rather well off, with a nice paunch to prove it. His repeated performance of hunger gags does not appear to have drawn from his own immediate experience. But it is certainly the case that many of the actors could have experienced poverty firsthand. Itinerant actors across Europe were often associated with vagabond beggars and other transient performers, such as minstrels, acrobats, and bearwards—and for good reason. The traveling actors of the commedia dell’arte must have shared some of the same roads as vagabonds. To be sure, the successful Arte troupes did enjoy certain advantages from their patrons: boats to convey them along the canals and waterways of the Po Valley; humble oneanimal carriages, horses, and mules as they carried their costumes and simple stage apparatuses from town to town. But water travel itself was dangerously vulnerable to bad weather. Animals of transport frequently became ill or injured and would have been too expensive for many actors to afford (renting a mule for two days would have cost an entire week’s salary for an artisan).1 Even with a horse or a mule, travel was difficult t he com medi a dell’arte 1 1 1 because paved roads were extremely rare, making...


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