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Italian Theatre in the 1860s, from Venetian Life by W. D. Howells







Venice Art

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Commedia dell'Arte

Natural musicality of Italians

Venetian theatre and audience

Marionette theatre

Theatrical plays and Goldoni

Plays at the Marionette theatre

Burattini theatre in Venice

William Dean Howells, a prominent American writer until his death in 1920, lived with his newlywed wife in Venice from 1861 to 1865 where he filled the post of U. S. Consul in Venice under President Lincoln. 

Comments on the Italian style of performance known as Commedia dell'Arte, in which the back-stage is not hidden from the audience, and the strength of the play rests solely on shoulders of the actors.

One night at the little theatre in Padua, the ticket-seller gave us the stage-box (of which he made a great merit), and so we saw the play and the byplay. The prompter, as noted from our point of view, bore a chief part in the drama (as indeed the prompter always does in the Italian theatre), and the scene-shifters appeared as prominent characters.

We could not help seeing the virtuous wife, when hotly pursued by the villain of the piece, pause calmly in the wings, before rushing, all tears and desperation, upon the stage; and we were dismayed to behold the injured husband and his abandoned foe playfully scuffling behind the scenes.

All the shabbiness of the theatre was perfectly apparent to us; we saw the grossness of the painting and the unreality of the properties. And yet I cannot say that the play lost one whit of its charm for me, or that the working of the machinery and its inevitable clumsiness disturbed my enjoyment in the least.

There was so much truth and beauty in the playing, that I did not care for the sham of the ropes and gilding, and presently ceased to take any note of them. The illusion which I had thought an essential in the dramatic spectacle, turned out to be a condition of small importance.  (ed. Visit my Commedia dell'Arte page for more on this very entertaining theatrical style.)

Comments on the natural musicality of Italians

You hear the airs (ed. arias) of opera sung as commonly upon the streets in Venice as our own colored melodies at home; and the street-boy when he sings has an inborn sense of music and a power of execution which put to shame the cultivated tenuity of sound that issues from the northern mouth--"That frozen, passive, palsied breathing-hole."  


Comments on Venetian theatre and the theatre going public

I have seen excellent acting at the Venetian theatres, both in the modern Italian comedy, which is very rich and good, and in the elder plays of Goldoni--compositions deliciously racy when seen in Venice, where alone their admirable fidelity of drawing and coloring can be perfectly appreciated.

The best comedy is usually given to the educated classes at the pretty Teatro Apollo, while a bloodier and louder drama is offered to the populace at Teatro Malibran, where on a Sunday night you may see the plebeian life of the city in one of its most entertaining and characteristic phases.

The sparings (ed. remaining money) of the whole week which have not been laid out for chances in the lottery, are spent for this evening's amusement; and in the vast pit you see, besides the families of comfortable artisans who can evidently afford it, a multitude of the ragged poor, whose presence, even at the low rate of eight or ten soldi apiece, it is hard to account for.

It is very peremptory, this audience, in its likes and dislikes, and applauds and hisses with great vehemence. It likes best the sanguinary local spectacular drama; it cheers and cheers again every allusion to Venice; and when the curtain rises on some well-known Venetian scene, it has out the scene-painter by name three times-- which is all the police permits.

The auditors wear their hats in the pit, but deny that privilege to the people in the boxes, and raise stormy and wrathful cries of cappello! till these uncover. Between acts, they indulge in excesses of water flavored with anise, and even go to the extent of candied nuts and fruits, which are hawked about the theatre, and sold for two soldi the stick,--with the tooth-pick on which they are spitted thrown into the bargain. 

Comments on the Marionette theatre of Venice

... the one entertainment which never fails of drawing and delighting full houses is the theatre of the puppets, or the Marionette, and thither I like best to go.  The Marionette prevail with me, for I find in the performances of these puppets, no new condition demanded of the spectator, but rather a frank admission of unreality that makes every shadow of verisimilitude delightful, and gives a marvelous relish to the immemorial effects and traditionary tricks of the stage. 

The little theatre of the puppets is at the corner of a narrow street opening from the Calle del Ridotto, and is of the tiniest dimensions and simplest appointments.  There are no boxes--the whole theatre is scarcely larger than a stage-box--and you pay ten soldi to go into the pit, where you are much more comfortable than the aristocrats who have paid fifteen for places in the dress-circle above.  The stage is very small, and the scenery a kind of coarse miniature painting.  But it is very complete, and every thing is contrived to give relief to the puppets and to produce an illusion of magnitude in their figures.

They are very artlessly introduced, and are maneuvered, according to the exigencies of the scene, by means of cords running from their heads, arms, and legs to the top of the stage.  To the management of the cords they owe all the vehemence of their passions and the grace of their oratory, not to mention a certain gliding, ungradual locomotion, altogether spectral. 

The drama of the Marionette is of a more elevated and ambitious tone than that of the Burattini, which exhibit their vulgar loves and coarse assassinations in little punch-shows on the Riva, and in the larger squares; but the standard characters are nearly the same with both, and are all descended from the commedia a braccio (ed. WDH translates this as Comedy by the yard, but he is describing Commedia dell'Arte) which flourished on the Italian stage before the time of Goldoni. ...

In the commedia a braccio, before mentioned as the inheritance of the Marionette, the dramatist furnished merely the plot, and the outline of the action; the players filled in the character and dialogue.  With any people less quick-witted than the Italians, this sort of comedy must have been insufferable, but it formed the delight of that people till the middle of the last century, and even after Goldoni went to Paris he furnished his Italian players with the commedia a braccio.

Comments on theatrical plays in Venice at the time, especially those of Goldoni

I have heard some very passable gags at the Marionette, but the real commedia a braccio no longer exists, and its familiar and invariable characters perform written plays. 

Facanapa is a modern addition to the old stock of dramatis personae, and he is now without doubt the popular favorite in Venice.  He is always, like Pantalon, a Venetian; but whereas the latter is always a merchant, Facanapa is any thing that the exigency of the play demands. He is a dwarf, even among puppets, and his dress invariably consists of black knee-breeches and white stockings, a very long, full-skirted black coat, and a three-cornered hat.  His individual traits are displayed in all his characters, and he is ever a coward, a boaster, and a liar; a glutton and avaricious, but withal of an agreeable bonhomie that wins the heart.  To tell the truth, I care little for the plays in which he has no part and I have learned to think a certain trick of his--lifting his leg rigidly to a horizontal line, by way of emphasis, and saying, "Capisse la?" or "Sa la?" (You understand? You know?)--one of the finest things in the world. 

In nearly all of Goldoni's Venetian comedies, and in many which he wrote in Italian, appear the standard associates of Facanapa,--Arlecchino, il Dottore. Pantalon dei Bisognosi, and Brighella.  The reader is at first puzzled by their constant recurrence, but never weary of Goldoni's witty management of them.  They are the chief persons of the obsolete commedia a braccio, and have their nationality and peculiarities marked by immemorial attribution.

Pantalon is a Venetian merchant, rich, and commonly the indulgent father of a wilful daughter or dissolute son, figuring also sometimes as the childless uncle of large fortune.  The second old man is il Dottore, who is a Bolognese, and a doctor of the University. Brighella and Arlecchino are both of Bergamo.  The one is a sharp and roguish servant, busy-body, and rascal; the other is dull and foolish, and always masked and dressed in motley--a gibe at the poverty of the Bergamasks among whom, moreover, the extremes of stupidity and cunning are most usually found, according to the popular notion in Italy. 

Comments on the plays performed by the Marionette in Venice at that time

The plays of the Marionette are written expressly for them, and are much shorter than the standard drama as it is known to us.  They embrace, however, a wide range of subjects, from lofty melodrama to broad farce, as you may see by looking at the advertisements in the Venetian Gazettes for any week past, where perhaps you shall find the plays performed to have been: The Ninety-nine Misfortunes of Facanapa; Arlecchino, the Sleeping King; Facanapa as Soldier in Catalonia; The Capture of Smyrna, with Facanapa and Arlecchino Slaves in Smyrna (this play being repeated several nights); and, Arlecchino and Facanapa Hunting an Ass.

If you can fancy people going night after night to this puppet-drama, and enjoying it with the keenest appetite, you will not only do something toward realizing to yourself the easily-pleased Italian nature, but you will also suppose great excellence in the theatrical management.

For my own part, I find few things in life equal to the Marionette. I am never tired of their bewitching absurdity, their inevitable defects, their irresistible touches of verisimilitude.  At their theatre I have seen the relenting parent (Pantalon) twitchingly embrace his erring son, while Arlecchino, as the large-hearted cobbler who has paid the house-rent of the erring son when the prodigal was about to be cast into the street, looked on and rubbed his hands with amiable satisfaction and the conventional delight in benefaction which we all know.

I have witnessed the base terrors of Facanapa at an apparition, and I have beheld the keen spiritual agonies of the Emperor Nicholas on hearing of the fall of Sebastopol. Not many passages of real life have affected me as deeply as the atrocious behavior of the brutal baronial brother-in-law, when he responds to the expostulations of his friend the Knight of Malta,--a puppet of shaky and vacillating presence, but a soul of steel and rock: 

"Why, O baron, detain this unhappy lady in thy dungeons?  Remember, she is thy brother's wife. Remember thine own honor.  Think on the sacred name of virtue."  (Wrigglingly, and with a set countenance and gesticulations toward the pit.) 

To which the ferocious baron makes answer with a sneering laugh, "Honor?-- I know it not! Virtue?--I detest it!" and attempting to pass the knight, in order to inflict fresh indignities upon his sister-in-law, he yields to the natural infirmities of rags and pasteboard, and topples against him. 

Facanapa, also, in his great scene of the Haunted Poet, is tremendous.  You discover him in bed, too much visited by the Muse to sleep, and reading his manuscripts aloud to himself, after the manner of poets when they cannot find other listeners.  He is alarmed by various ghostly noises in the house, and is often obliged to get up and examine the dark corners of the room, and to look under the bed.  When at last the spectral head appears at the foot-board, Facanapa vanishes with a miserable cry under the bed-clothes, and the scene closes. Intrinsically the scene is not much, but this great actor throws into it a life, a spirit, a drollery wholly irresistible. 

Comments on the theatre of the Burattini in Venice

And I am very far from disparaging the Burattini, which have great and peculiar merits, not the least of which is the art of drawing the most delighted, dirty, and picturesque audiences. Like most of the Marionette, they converse vicariously in the Venetian dialect, and have such a rapidity of utterance that it is difficult to follow them.

I only remember to have made out one of their comedies,--a play in which an ingenious lover procured his rich and successful rival to be arrested for lunacy, and married the disputed young person while the other was raging in the mad-house.

This play is performed to enthusiastic audiences; but for the most part the favorite drama of the Burattini appears to be a sardonic farce, in which the chief character--a puppet ten inches high, with a fixed and staring expression of Mephistophelean good-nature and wickedness--deludes other and weak-minded puppets into trusting him, and then beats them with a club upon the back of the head until they die.

The murders of this infamous creature, which are always executed in a spirit of jocose sang-froid, and accompanied by humorous remarks, are received with the keenest relish by the spectators and, indeed, the action is every way worthy of applause.

The dramatic spirit of the Italian race seems to communicate itself to the puppets, and they perform their parts with a fidelity to theatrical unnaturalness which is wonderful.  I have witnessed death agonies on these little stages which the great American tragedian himself (whoever he may happen to be) could not surpass in degree of energy.

And then the Burattini deserve the greater credit because they are agitated by the legs from below the scene, and not managed by cords from above, as at the Marionette Theatre.

More excepts from Venetian Life by W. D. Howells on:

Italian food in Venice in the 1860s and new-fangled restaurants

Venice in the 1860s

More on W. D. Howells at the William Dean Howells Society site.


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