The origins of mask (Part 2 – From rites to early plays)

As we humans settled down, started to cultivate the earth and become domiciled other rites and festivities started to develop. It was harvest, fertility, initiation or transition rites among other. Those rites demanded more human masks, representing human types such as farmers, youth, age, men and women for example.
Most of those rites were religious and some of the masks moved in to the mysterious. They started to represent Gods, heroes, demons, spirits and so on. This is also when those masks started to be worn specifically by the shamans or other actors. The masks were acted out for an audience in order to serve a purpose, instead of being a part of the playful game of telling about the hunt (See Part 1).

When the masks got more specified the plots started to develop as an effect. What had been more of ritual revels or dramatic rituals turned into more dramatic exercises or even primitive emergent masked plays with a clear storyline.
Even though the plots and the masks got more particularized and refined the mask is always a type. It always is representing something more than an individual person. It is always more than just itself. It can be a kind of people, a God, an occupation, a gender and so on. Just like Pantalone is certainly a specific person with his own characteristics, but he also represents the patriarch, old age, and the old lecher – all in one. It is the exaggeration of the masks that makes him more than just himself.

Consequently masks are derived from hunters mimicking their prey. They become human in rites that first came from the joy of narrating, then in religious and other rites. The humanization gave the rites more of a storyline, which demanded more defined characters of the mask. But the masks still stay a type, like Arlecchino, Santa Claus, Batman or Moomin, not a psychological person.

All masks everywhere have their origins in animal masks.

Here is:
Part 1

See also:
Micke’s lectures
A definition of theatre
Mask and the sense of time

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The origins of mask (Part 1 – The hunt)

Masks are developed from hunting. When the hunters were trying to get closer to their pray they dressed in hides and furs from the animals they were hunting. It was not only the looks and the scents from the hunters that helped them to get closer. They also copied the movements of the animals. That led them to become better hunters as well when they got training from imitating animals.

One of many explanations to the birth of theatre has to do with the lust to narrate. According to the Norwegian theatre professor Jon Nygaard we can find remote, pre-stone age cultures today, where religion or benefits had nothing to do with the development of theatre. They built theatre on the lust for narrating and playing a role.

And as the hunters got better in imitating animals, they developed it into dances and theatrical sketches using the masks to tell the story about the hunt. Later the hunter also got his mask when narrating the hunting stories. And here the first human masks started to develop. We may find these scenes in many petroglyphs from the Stone Age.

Masks were also used in religious rites and ceremonies for good hunting. We are now talking about early totem religions. In other words religions that are not begging a God to fulfill their will, but who are forcing their God, or Gods, to obey their will, it may be a good hunt or later a good harvest. These rituals were festive and involved the whole town or village.The origins from the hunt may also be the reason why there never have been any women anywhere in any tradition conventionally wearing masks, at least not according to Franca Rame. There have been and are a lot of female masks but traditionally they have all been used by men. It is first now since the twelfth century in the western world that woman has started using masks (See HERE).

Here is:
Part 2

See also:
A definition of theatre
Early religion
Physical Theatre training

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Carnival and the popular feast (Part 5 – From the May feast to comedy)


From the material that are available there are lots of examples from primitive sketches to more sophisticated plays that can stand by their own, but have been a specific part of a wedding or another official feast.

Let’s see a few examples. In England there was a parade of suitors to the “maiden”, wish she brushed of in favor to the village idiot. The parade consisted of respected citizens like the lawyer and the sergeant.
The Italian plays – bruscello (meaning maypole) – were simpler but they were attentively modeled. Two rivals, either both are young or one is young and the other one is older, were struggling over a young girl. The struggle could be in form of a debate or a fight that had to be solved before a judge or a mayor. Finally there was dance and a great dinner. From Lucca comes a scene called Rondone e Rosalba, where an old man struggle with a young man over a young girl and the young man wins. Here we also meet characters like Arlecchino, Rosalba’s father and Paggio.
The reason we have so much material from Italy is that there is was considered them as plays more than simply party entertainment.
Il Mercato (the Market) is about the rivalry between a knife sharpener and Laterna, a doctor. They fight about the merchant’s daughter, Beppina. Other suitors comes in, a haberdasher, a calendar trader and a tinman. Finally the knife sharpener wins Beppina, with the help of the servant Brighella.
Gli Amore di Belinda e Milele is about two rivaling hunters, Gerano and Milene, who loves Belinda. Belinda loves Milene, but her father, who gets help from his servant Brighella, wants to merry of Belinda with Gerano. When protests, aggravating circumstances and litany doesn’t help Belinda simply refuse to marry Gerano. Gerano and Belindas father then plans to kill Milene. But Brighella who now is on the side of the lovers, interferes by involving a magician, who takes away Gerano and Belindas father, while Belinda and Milene are marrying. Then the whole thing ends in a feast.


In performances like Il Mercato and Gli Amore di Belinda e Milene it starts getting hard to draw a clear line between what is carnival entertainment and what is already a full comedy. These plays are not directly connected to either the May celebrations or any other feast.

Go to:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

See also:
Vulgar Comedy and its origins in Scandinavia
Ambivalence in Vulgar Comedy
Physical theatre workshop

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Carnival and the popular feast (Part 4 – From the May feast to comedy)


The carnival was the only one of the festivals that followed such a strict standard scenario all over Europe. There were also other main characters in the festivities, such as King of Fools, Re de Maggio, Verde Giorio even Robin Hood (even though that was a mistake when the French Robin á wood became known in England and got confused with the Robin Hood from the ballads). These characters were all jester kings but they had no other function than to be subversive and burlesque front figures for the official, wild festivities. There are no proofs that other fest and ceremonies had any regular scenario, like a test, a fight, a trial, an execution or a death.

One exception from this is the may feasts. These had usually a regular structure where the feast started by the king held a procession, gave orders of games, play and dancing. Later he went in to some kind of fight with the devil or another opponent with a painted black face, usually also followed by a clown devil called Buffone. In the end the King died, right after he was resurrected by a comical doctor. The most of the action was carried out by dancing, mostly sword dances or morris dances.

The may feasts were also the time and place for weddings, attendance and wooing. Much about the idea around the May feasts was about to pair the youngster together.
It is also from here the Italian idea to serenade under the window of the loved one came. Often then the girl and her father had a special sign to show if the accepted the proposal, which led to an engagement coming up. In England the young man came and woke up his girl in the morning on the first of May. Then they run out to the forest where they took a branch of a hawthorn. After having played their games of love they went to the village priest to publish the banns.


These games became slowly more and more sophisticated with written dialogs, a given role distribution and a formal/ritual plot. It was still not full-fledged performances, they functioned more as dramatic representations.
An example from Sardinia is Pricunta, and from Naples we have Canzone della Zeza. The first one is a loosely held plot about a group of herds that comes up to a farm to explain that they are missing an especially beautiful sheep. They do it in a written dialog. When the father and the rest of the household is out looking for the sheep, the young men “finds” the girls they have wooed.
The other one is more shapes as street entertainment. It contained both singing and an acted plot and it was played until the eighteenth century in Naples. Pulcinella and his wife, here she is called Zeza, are fighting about a young Calabrian man who wooing their daughter, Tolla. Pulcinella is against the marriage, but Zeza is for and in the end she wins and the young couple get each other.
From the north of Italy, foremost from Veneto, comes a great collection of dramatic exercises under the names of mogliazzi, mariazi or maritazi. They was most about burlesque and improvised parodies on proposals and weddings. In the gallery of characters we find masks from the Carnival and Commedia dell’Arte such as Arlecchino, Brighella, Il Vecchio and so on. Here we can see how ritual exercises transcends to more dramatic forms, even though we don’t see full performances yet.

Go to:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 5

See also:
Origins and definition of Vulgar Comedy
Low comedy in Vulgar Comedy
Transformations in Commedia dell’Arte

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Carnival and the popular feast (Part 3 – The structure of the celebration)


The carnival started by electing a king of the carnival, who would rule the town or village through the festivities. It was often the village idiot or someone with low status in the town, usually with a grotesque or diabolic appearance. His task as king was to lead the disorder, mock the authority, order the games and playing and make sure everyone had food and drink after what they have deserved. Often the carnival started by the king – after a day of processions – parading through the streets with his entourage, legislate burlesque rules, changing public servants and office holders to his own followers and generally feasting and riots were called for.

Of all the activities that belonged to the carnival, the begging and stealing of food may have been what is mostly have followed it in to Commedia dell’Arte and other forms of Vulgar Comedy. The entourage of the carnival king went around town begging and stealing food and drinks, followed by ritual fights between thieves and their victims. The turmoil that followed increased the wild energy that was part of the carnival.
In Lombardy for instance the King of Carnival came riding in to town, right after being elected, to drive out the local potentates and gave orders about feast, dance, food and drinks.


Other names for the King of Carnival was for example “Re dei Matti” in Lombardy, “Nunnu” in Sicily, “Charnage” or Pére Chalende” in France and “Lord of Misrule” or “Jack o’ Lent” in England.
In some places there was also a queen or a female antagonist, which usually were just called “Lent”.

Except from that the King of Carnival himself usually was a monstrous or diabolic figure, his suite was, especially in early times, devils, ghosts or other creatures from the underworld. (See the DIAVOLAS) Their function was, since they did not usually take part in more dramatized ceremonies, to create chaos and turmoil by mixing up thins, making noises and rumble around. The suite were never part of the main action. They prepared and assisted it. They also always appeared in groups.
Among the characters in the entourage of the Carnival king we find masks, or the “prototype” to them, like: Arlecchino, Brighella or Pulcinella, il Magnifico and so on. Paolo Toschi have traced all the masks of Commedia dell’Arte from the masks of the carnival. Many of the carnival masks can also be traced to the ancient world.
They always wore masks, and by the oldest masks that have been found we can definitely find demonic traits. Already here we find how the characters are being called “masks” (Italian: maschere) a word that comes from the Medieval Latin word masca, meaning evil spirit. Dante also used the word larvae, meaning the dead.
The mask also had another more metaphysical function. (See MASK) It made the person who wore it into another role, and therefore he could not be held responsible for his actions. For instance in Venice there was a law that forbid persons to carry weapons when wearing a mask, except for the bauta mask that was only worn in order to hide the bearer’s identity.


By the time the carnival started to reach its end, and lent was coming closer, the carnival ended with a symbolic trial against the King of Carnival. He was accused his sinful living, excesses and to have weakened and distorted society. Alternatively it ended with a fray between the King of Carnival and Lent. In Italy these frays were called “contrasti” and in France “débats”. In some places they had a strong literary emphasis and by time they become recognized literary genres. I both these cases the Carnival King lost and were sentenced to death.
But before he was killed he read out his will. It was first of all a list of accuses and lists of sinners and sins committed within the local community, described in a humorous and satirical way and explaining what is weak and sick in society.
The last part – the death of Carnival – was divided into two parts: the execution of the King of Carnival and his funeral.
In Valfurva in Lombardy for example, the citizens hung up a doll representing the Carnival King, to later burn it while shouting “Out with the madman! Death to the Carnival!” Other societies slaughtered an animal instead as scapegoat. In Italy it was mostly a goat, in France a bear, in Asti a turkey and so on. Also the ways to kill Carnival was plenty. He could be burnt, shot, stoned. Sometimes a doll full of candy were made, much like the Mexican piñata. Finally the carnival was buried after a long procession.
When “Lent” was part of the celebration, as antagonist to the King of Carnival, the carnival had even one more event, it was her preparation before the fasting.

Go to:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
Part 5

See also:
The roots of Commedia dell’Arte
Micke’s Commedia dell’Arte course
Laughter, humor and comedy

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Carnival and the popular feast (Part 2)


The carnival can be derived from ancient Rome and the Saturnalia. It was celebrated in Rome between 17 and 23 of December, up until the 5th century, to the glory of Saturn, the God. The coming golden age ruled by Saturn where no class differences existed were celebrated.
It was celebrated by giving gifts, total freedom of expression speech and slaves and their masters changed roles. But what is even more related to the carnival is the structure. It is very similar the STRUCTURE OF THE CARNIVAL: there was an elected king of the festivities, a Rex Saturnalis or Saturnalicius princeps, who ruled for as long as the feast lasted and by the end of the festivities he was executed, literally or symbolic.

Similar festivities where everything is turned up-side-down are still celebrated all over the world (and here I also count the European carnival) with different religious or traditional content.
Naturally the carnival was celebrated differently all over Europe. We are talking about a phenomenon that stretched its heyday during the whole medieval times and the renaissance and also was locally formed. But there was a lot of common features. It wanted to destroy everything that was associated with completed and static, that who represented the power, so that it could die and make way for new opportunities. Laughter and the merry feast was the weapons against whatever was restraining life. It was more or less the same structure when celebrating the carnival. Still when we look at the structure of the carnival celebrating we must see it as a generalization.


The word carnival comes – probably – from the Latin fraise carnem levare, “take away meat” or “remove the meat”. The carnival was celebrated from the feast of Epiphany to Shrove Tuesday when lent started. It was the feast that should let people eat and party before lent started and severity sat in.

Go to:
Part 1
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

See also:
Micke’s Commedia dell’Arte lecture
Theories of laughter and comedy
Frenzy in Commedia dell’Arte

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Carnival and the popular feast (Part 1)


As we have seen in Charlatano and the square in Commedia dell’Arte the market square and the life in the streets were a form of refuge from the hard everyday life and the oppression of the state and the church. It had a familiar and popular air and a lingo were swearwords, cursing and castigating everything (even the church) were allowed as long as it was executed in a happy and festive atmosphere. The carnival was celebrating life itself through the re-creating and the resurrection of spring. Everything old and dead, all order and power (that represents the static and permanent – therefore the dead) and all seriousness (the always talk the language of the power) were heckled and thrown away. Consequently the carnival was the merriest and the wildest of festivals.TS58

The carnival was also always playing on the limits of the law, even though the people had special rights during the carnival from an otherwise hard and totalitarian society. That was about freedom of speech, the right to eat meat, freedom from work, the right to wear a mask and so on.
An eyewitness from the theological faculty in Paris, as early as 12 mars 1444, complains to the bishops and the capital chapter in France about how the burgess and the lower clergy are amusing themselves in the church during the feast of fools. (Translated into English by E.K. Chambers.):

Priest and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of the office. They dance at the choir dressed as women, pandars and minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying Mass. They play dice there. They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts; and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performance, with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste.”

Another part of the popular feast was what Bachtin calls the language of the marketplace. Curses were an important part. They were mostly aimed at specific living persons. It could be the official persons of the town, old men with young wives or those married without children. The carnival celebrated first of all life in itself and those who are all in some way representing that that wants to suppress or deny life. But the curses where also ambivalent and familiar in the same way as we can call a friend “you old bastard” in a friendly way, or even to in order to confirm friendship.
Janus – the double faced god – was also the god of the carnival as a symbol for the ambiguous, the multifaceted, the undefined…MArket 02

When I write about the Carnival and the popular feast, as a part of Vulgar Comedy and its influence over Commedia dell’Arte, I also include church festivities such as: Christmas, Easter,  the Feast of the Ass, the Feast of Fools and so on. Also pagan rituals like the May feasts and other fertility rituals, the Midsummer Feast, the Harvest, New Year’s celebrations etc. and personal feast days like birthdays, weddings, even state celebrations like: victory processions, crownings, official weddings and so on may be included.
All of these festivities and celebrations are somewhat related, as will can see HERE. They are celebrated much in the same way, with primitive performance, dramatized ceremonies and/or rituals. They are all parts of the roots to Commedia dell’Arte with their characters, structures, and special freedoms.

Go to:
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

See also:
The market
Origins and definitions of Vulgar Comedy
Micke’s videos

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The life among Commedia dell’Arte companies


Commedia dell’Arte was a very pragmatic art form. The purpose for the actors to act was simply to amuse their audiences, make money, and reach a better social status. But that didn’t make it dull or futile.  It was just that the romantic ideas of art as something more elevated, where the actor should be driven by “higher” visions and ideals was not yet invented. It came first by the end of the nineteenth century.

If we look at the first contract among professional actors that we have (from 1545 by the company “Maphios” in Padua, Italy) we can see an almost socialistic collective under the direction of a capocomico, whose responsibility it was to lead and prepare the rehearsals. They shared all the money they earned equal and they even had put aside some money as insurance if anyone of them got ill. If they were to spend any of the money it had to be a consensus agreement.
In the contract there is also an item preventing actors to leave the troupe while the contract was valid.
This contract also indicates that this was not the first contract for a group of actors. It shows that it was already a functioning tradition to live under the mentorship of a wealthy protector and preventing actors to leave for other companies shows us that there were already other companies established.


Some actors where freelance as early as the mid-fifteen hundreds, while others jumped from company to company. They could also work alone, join smaller constellations or create temporary companies.

The competition among companies was tough and it was not always fair.
The name “dell’Arte” also means “by guild” (See HERE). And as in many cases nowadays (at least in Sweden) the guild’s or actors union’s aim is as well as to help the actors within their trade to minimize competition from companies outside their own guild. They worked to get a monopoly on the best squares or towns where they were, and they did not hesitate to throw out competing companies.
The rich and more famous companies were not so considered about the rules. They had connections higher up in society and were able to use them. Here is a quote from a letter to Don Pedro Enriques, duke of Milano from the actress Isabella Andreini:
…”if they now have planned to raise a stage in the public square to play a comedy, or rather disfigure it, I ask you therefore to write to Signore Podestà and ask him not to approve to it.”


Even if the actors of Commedia dell’Arte were professional most of them could not live solidly on their acting. They had to – much like actors to day – be a Jack of many trades, like organizing public feasts, Musicians, private teachers or help the duke with public relations. Even a famous actor like Flaminio Scala worked for a while as perfume dealer.

Other related posts about Commedia dell’Arte is:
The content in Commedia dell’Arte
The roots to all popular western comedy
Acting styles in Commedia dell’Arte

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Dottore’s prolog


Here comes another prolog. It is a later text from Lo spirit delle maschere (The spirits of the masks) by Giueseppe Petrai written 1901. But it is a good example of a Dottore’s prolog.

Do you laugh because I happened to stumble?
When I stumbled I could have hit my head. If I hit my head you would have called for a physician and he would have given me medicine and medicine is made out of drugs. Drugs are from the orient and from the orient are the philosophy of Aristoteles, who was the teacher to Alexander the Great and he was the sovereign of the world. The world that is supported by Atlas, Atlas who has tremendous strength and strength is what is used to erect the pillars that carry palaces. Palaces are being built by masons and they are following architect’s orders. Architects can draw; drawing is one of the liberal arts. The liberal arts are seven, seven are the Sages of Greece that are guarded by Minerva and she is a virgin. Justice is a virgin who is armed with a sword. The soldiers wear swords. Soldiers go out in wars. In wars one kills with bullets. There are bullets in the arms of Florence. Florence is the capitol of Tuscany where they talk beautifully. Cicero was the greatest of talkers; Cicero was a senator in Rome. Rome had twelve senators, twelve are the months of the year, and the year is divided in four seasons. Four are the elements; air, water, fire and earth. The earth is plowed by oxen, oxen have hides, hides are being tanned, and when it is tanned it becomes leather.  From leather one makes shoes. Shoes are worn on feet. Feet are for walking. When I walked in stumbled and stumbling I came in here. And here I am and I say: Good day!


See also:
Parody in Commedia dell’Arte
Prolog or opening
Micke Commedia dell’Arte workshop

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Charlatano and the square in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 2)


Off course there has been jesters and actors around all the time despite prohibitions and censorship. It is just that we have no written witness descriptions since it mostly played in the country side for ordinary people who could not write. But there is laws against them that proves that they have been around.

But we shall not mix up jesters and Commedia dell’Arte actors, even if they are closely related. The jesters had their own professional qualifications. They did not act out plays or performances, their skills were more of circus skills. They were acrobats, jugglers, animal trainers, fire eaters and such. There was a few known professional actors though, like Zan Ganassa who spent a more then 10 years in Spain where he re-created and inspired the Spanish comedy and Zan Polo half a century before him in Italy and France. They were probably some form of mix between jesters and actors, especially Zan Polo.

CdAScen01When the vendors and street peddlers started entertain the public and turned in to become Charlatani they naturally got more costumers. They often used jesters and acrobats as helpmates or as a form of advertising.
There were also girls helping out by the booths. Often they were prostitutes – attrice. Their function was, besides from just being a beautiful ornaments (just like modern day car expos), as singers and musicians, sometimes dancers. The girls could also benefit from the fact that the potentates did not differ very much between jester, actors or Charlatani, which may very well be one of the reasons women get the chance to act in Commedia dell’Arte plays as they later got into the mask of the Servetta. The Servetta also had the function in early Commedia dell’Arte performances to act the role of call-boy or rather girl. (Hey, it was the only translation I could find.)

With time the jester’s tricks and the Charlatani’s tirades words and larks developed to more of sketches. From there it grows into plots and into more of ready plots that are being written down to scenarios. Some characters developed from life around them, from carnival masks, fairytales and stories, and so on. They were reshaped to work on stage, just as in all Vulgar Comedy, masks have always grown out of age-old traditions and developed to fulfill new demands .

A good description of what life on the streets and market squares looked like in 1585, by Tommaso Garzonis:

…Towards the evening the crowd of quacks and blind musicians and acrobats thicken. Here is Zan della Vigna with his performing monkey; Catullo and his guitar; in another corner the Mantuan marry-andrew, dressed up like a zany, Zottino singing an ode to the pox, and the pretty Sicilian rope dancer. Tamburino spins egg on a stick; the Neapolitan capers about with brimming bowls of water on his pate; and Mastero Paolo de Arezzo makes his solemn entry with a waving banner, on which you see St Paul, holding a huge falchion in one hand, while the rest of the field is painted over with twining hissing serpents. The mountebank clears his throat and relates his fabulous pedigree. St Paul was his great ancestor.”

During the medieval times and the renaissance the markets where much more than what mean when we talk about markets. It was not just a place where one could buy and sell things. The markets were folk festivals, among the many other feast days. For example there was a book market in Lyon that lasted four time a year, this means 8 weeks a year of feast.
The markets also had a social function, were people got to meet. We can very well talk about a carnival atmosphere during the markets when people from towns and villages all around came to meet. This is what Bachtin calls “popular-festive forms” (my translation) in his book “Rabelais and his world”:

…all of these popular-festive forms from the squares lived around the church festivals. A more or less carnivalesque atmosphere were also maintained at the markets (that used to be held at the installations of a church or at a first mass). Finally also private celebrations (such as weddings, baptizings, or funerals) kept some of their carnivalesque inclinations so did the festivities of the countryside such as the wine harvest, the slaughter fest etc. What is common for the carnivalesque in the festiveties is the connections with the cheerful time. Wherever the free and popular aspect of the feast is maintained, the connection with time and the carnivalesque elements are also maintained.Kivik

All this stages of development existed simultaneous on the streets and squares even when Commedia dell’Arte was playing. There are lots of pictures saved from the markets were we can see jugglers, Charlatani, peddlers and Commedia dell’Arte groups working side by side on the places.

Go back to PART 1

See also:
The marketplace
The language of the marketplace
Commedia dell’Arte

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