Women in Commedia dell’Arte (Part 1)

We have to start with admitting that Commedia dell’Arte was a very masculine form of theatre, at least if we see it from today’s perspective. It sprung out in a time when women, in the greater parts of Italy, just had got their right, from the Vatican, to act from a stage. This was still forbidden in the rest of Europe.  Commedia dell’Arte was born in a male society and that was naturally reflected in its contains both in how the performance was built and the characters of the masks.
Still we must remember that Commedia dell’Arte was an extremely equal form of theatre both artistically and social for its time. That was not only because that women were actually allowed acting on stage, but they also had eminent and interesting roles. The Innamorata is one of two “heroes” who must end happily. Also the Servetta was allowed to fleece and outsmart the patriarchs by being shifty and cunning.
Europe’s first stars in theatre were women, like Vittoria Piissimi and Diana Ponti and off course Isabella Andreini. They were (as mentioned HERE) not just great brilliant actresses, but also highly learned and could often function autonomously in their contacts with princes and royalties. Also within the Commedia dell’Arte groups, and here I also count the small less known groups, there was a relative equality, above all since the circumstances from constant touring demanded it.

Traditionally a mask is an exceptionally masculine object. According to Franca Rame, from Tricks of the Trade, traditionally there have never been any women anywhere who wore masks, just as there are no feminine devils in renaissance art. And accordingly as there were women acting in Commedia dell’Arte the roles was unmasked.
The mask in western tradition represents the grotesque, the exaggerated, the abnormal just as the ridiculous or the ludicrous, but also the powers, hypocrisy and oppression. Nothing of this has traditionally been considered feminine qualities.
Just as we don’t want to turn Commedia dell’Arte in to a dead museum-form-of-theatre we don’t want to discourage women from acting in masks today. As society changes into more gender neutral, it allows masks to be worn by both man and women, since much of the gender specifics are no longer relevant.
Another aspect is that most of us that work with Commedia dell’Arte want to try on and learn all masks and characters. Besides it seems that most theatre students in the western world are women and there are no Commedia dell’Arte masks that are feminine, except a very few modern variants which are very welcome.

Continue to PART 2

See also:
THE ROYAL THEATRE SPEECH (PART 1)
THE MASK AND THE ACTOR
VAR ÄR BOKEN? (WHERE IS THE BOOK?)

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