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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