Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Commedia dell'Arte

A term that came into use in the mid-16th century and which, translated literally, means "comedy of professional artists"; it was coined to describe those wandering troupes of actors who presented quasi-improvised repertory comedies with a fixed cast of characters, first in Italy and subsequently throughout Europe, in performances which generally incorporated mime, buffoonery and music. The plots were traditional – the basic stories being traceable back to the Roman theatre – and Revel-like, generally featuring young lovers who, with the aid of unscrupulous servants, invariably escaped the restraints of their elders, making fools of them in the process; and they incorporated a sense that Cycles paraded constantly beneath the surface of the farce, a sense that the same Story – and the same Underlier cast – was infinitely retellable.

Significantly, the CDA very rarely attacked any elder of real power, for the aristocracy was normally (and the monarchy always) exempt. The CDA revel sagaciously fails, therefore, to threaten any genuine change; the form as a whole is of interest to fantasy mainly (a) as a repository of lessons in the creation of plots which reveal themselves to be in reality games, infinitely repeatable, in the manner of the Masque, (b) for the dramatis personae who enact these plots, (c) in the development of the sense that true drama lies in the masquerade, or in the family romance (perhaps generations old), that risks exposure on the stage of the world, and (d) in the intuition that the various CDA stories were one perpetually re-enacted Story.

The harlequinade of the 17th century did not differ in essentials from the CDA, though tending more to mime than its direct parent, which was defended as an artform in the 18th century by Carlo Gozzi, who reinvented it in the form of the fiable, combining fantasy and CDA conventions, selecting specifically the rigid cast of protagonists and the estranging Masks. The most famous of these plays are Fiable dell'amore delle tre melarance (1761; normally trans as The Love of Three Oranges) and Turandot (1762), each of which inspired at least one Opera of fantasy interest. In the UK, after the 18th century, the harlequinade gradually evolved into the Pantomime.

Not all CDAs or harlequinades are toothless. Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais (1732-1799) transformed the harlequinade into the subversive and highly literary Figaro plays – The Barber of Seville (1775) and The Marriage of Figaro (1778). These came too close to attacking the genuine rulers of the 18th-century world, and both were frequently banned. It is hard, moreover, to think that the complex uses made of automata-like Commedia figures, by E T A Hoffmann are unthreatening. And, insofar as Grand Guignol admits to its origin in Commedia figures, it too can be thought of as threatening, though the threat is meant to thrill, not to change minds.

In 1917, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote a preface to the premiere of the CDA-derived ballet Parade (music Erik Satie, text Jean Cocteau, sets Pablo Picasso); it was in this preface, as he attempted to explain the frisson generated by CDA techniques at the height of World War I, that he coined the term Surrealism.

The CDA has had a more direct influence on 20th-century fantasy, by providing (as noted) a fixed familial cast (see listing below) who knowingly enact and re-enact a basic tale. This has given the genre a traditional model for the use of Underlier figures as models and Avatars; has provided lessons in how to treat these in a gaming fashion; and has proved a fruitful group metaphor to use whenever – as in the masquerade-like Belle Epoque of MacDonald Harris's Glowstone (1987) – a period of history, or a particular venue (like Venice), is conceived in terms of theatre. It is, perhaps, in more than one of these senses that Vladimir Nabokov called his last novel Look at the Harlequins! (1974).

The Cast, and Their Modern Roles

Harlequin The most important of all, a cunning peasant who has become a servant. He is faithful to his love. He has clear affinities with the god Mercury (> Hermes), his "mercurial" nature being reflected in his patchwork garb, and in the invariable Mask which announces his double nature. He is a Trickster, a jester, who surfaces in the form of mutable characters like Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius; and he is a Liminal Being, a creature whose presence in a text is a harbinger of Metamorphosis. He is, however, double: he can announce change, or he can – in situations of Bondage, in Pastorals or in Revisionist Fantasy – corrode change through Parody. The climax of Nancy Kress's The Prince of Morning Bells (1981) neatly demonstrates this: we are led to believe that the enchanted dog, Chessie, who accompanies the princess on her Quest for the Heart of the World is a King under a Spell; but when he finally undergoes metamorphosis "an old, old man" is revealed, "dressed in the pointed shoes and Harlequin tights of a jester . . .". Harlequin is an actor, and cannot be expected to show his real face. History of Harlequin (1926) by Cyril Beaumont (1891-1976) is a nonfiction study couched as a biography of Harlequin over the centuries.

Brighella Much less known. A kind of parody of Harlequin, he is a masked thief who lacks any doubleness of motive or any decency regarding women.

Il Dottore The pedant, he is allied with the forces of stasis. He tries to prevent marriages (and Spring). He is analogous to the Knight of the Doleful Countenance.

Pantalone He is (in English) a pantaloon, an old dupe and butt – a failed property developer. Perhaps because it is no longer thought the height of wit to depict Jews as grasping usurers, he is not an underlier.

Il Capitano (Miles Gloriosus) The braggadocio who boasts about his military life but is a coward, and has bad luck with women – Falstaff is a version of the figure. Like most CDA figures, Il Capitano can be found underlying Heroic-Fantasy tales, Sword and Sorcery in particular; but here he generally turns out to be in fact brave beneath the veneer of cowardice. In the 20th century he is, in the end, epitomized by the Cowardly Lion (> Oz).

Scaramouche The flamboyant, tough-living soldier hoicked up from the ranks. He is commonly found in historical romances, and sometimes in heroic fantasy; he is an S&S staple.

Pulcinella A deformed, sullen, brutal freak. Unadulterated, he becomes the Hunchback of Notre Dame; as the Puppet Polichinelle, however, he is also capable of sardonic humour, and under the name Guignol was a central character in the late-18th-century French cabarets (> Grand Guignol). Transformed, and transplanted to England, he became Punch.

Columbine A servant girl loved by Harlequin. Like most female characters until recent decades, she lacks character; but in Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels she becomes a Temporal Adventuress.

Pedrolino (Pagliacco; Pierrot) A young lover, graceful and trustworthy. He is easily deceived, both by lovers and by Harlequin. He is often blamed for what he has not done, but always takes on the burden of guilt, tearfully. He does not normally wear a Mask, for he has no duplicity. In 17th-century France – inspired by Molière's play Dom Juan, ou le festin de Pierre (1665) – he begins to be called Pierrot and to wear a flounced white garment and large floppy hat. He is the Knight of the Doleful Countenance when young. He is also – to use Moorcock's evocative term – a dancer at the end of time. Like Cyril Beaumont in his treatment of Harlequin (see above) Kay Dick shaped her nonfiction study Pierrot (1960) as the biography of an immortal creature. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, visions of Pierrot are common in music, dance, painting and literature. Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) consciously emphasized her resemblance to a Gothicized version of Pierrot. In her later years, Isak Dinesen actually took to dressing as Pierrot. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.