theory of acting
from the church fathers to
the sixteenth century
1.Theatre as a Source of Irrational Impulses 2.The Condemnation of Christian Authors 3.The New Image of Acting 4.The Humanist Ennobling of the Theatre 5.Humanist Experiments and Court Performances 6.Professional Actors and the Commedia
all’Improvviso 7.The Revival of Religious
Opposition and the Actor’s New Status
1. Theatre as a Source of Irrational
The theoretical positions
that had emerged from Plato’s Ion to the time of Quintilian and Plutarch
were to quickly dissolve in the last years of the ancient world, not because
the questions they raised had been solved, but because a new idea of the
theatre was taking hold, one profoundly different from that which had guided
theoreticians in the classical age.
Thanks to this new idea, the very way in which the problem of acting was posed
was to change radically.
is generally known, between the second and fifth centuries Christian authors
rigorously rejected the theatre.
Their condemnation is explained not only by their critical attitude towards
pagan culture, but also by the nature of the most widespread forms of theatre
in the early centuries of Christianity.
By the time of Quintilian and Plutarch performance of comedies and tragedies was
already in decline and gradually heading towards extinction, but theatrical
activity was by no means running dry. In the last centuries of antiquity it
continued to be appreciated throughout the Roman Empire
and were followed by large swathes of the general public with a passion that
could border on frenzy. Not for
nothing did the fifth-century Christian author Salvianus in his De gubernatione Dei describe the
population of Carthage
as ‘going wild in the circuses’ and ‘running riot in the theatres’ while the
barbarians were laying siege to the city.
These were entertainments of
a very different kind, which, unlike the comedies and tragedies of the
classical period, were not performances of carefully written literary texts,
but depended more on the immediate effects of stage action, exploiting the
actors’ ability and the crudity and violence of the images. In the circus, as Seneca recounted in the first
century CE, the fights between gladiators were becoming more and more cruel and
Martial could witness displays in which a criminal condemned to death was
forced to ‘act’ the part of a character who was to die, and was actually
tortured and killed onstage.
In this period mime artists
reached the peak of their popularity.
They had probably been performing as wandering actors in the Greek world since
the fifth century BCE. Their
activities were extremely varied: they appeared as jugglers, acrobats, contortionists,
imitators and animal trainers. They
worked in the squares, on market days and on public holidays, and were
sometimes engaged to appear in private houses and at banquets. They could dance, sing and act out short scenes,
largely or wholly improvised. During
the imperial period some of them enjoyed particularly high regard, but their
performances were considered as belonging to a minor genre, and as a social
class they enjoyed little prestige.
At various times special decrees were passed banning their performances and
running the companies out of town, but this failed to stop them, enjoying as
they did the support both of the general public and of the upper echelons of
Our sources agree in
emphasizing the licentiousness of the mimes’ performances.
The stories, the gestures and the dialogue were often obscene. In addition the
companies included not only actors, who were traditionally the only
interpreters of the ‘high’ theatrical genres like tragedy and comedy, but also
actresses, who were often engaged in displays that would be counted as
pornographic today. As early as the
third century BCE, the celebrations of Flora included naked women onstage, and
we know that later the mime plays sometimes involved absolutely realistic
sexual display. In his Secret History Procopius of Caesarea has
left us a description of the theatrical work of Theodora, a young and much
admired porn-star, who later, as the wife of Justinian, became Empress.
However, what really
characterized the popular performances in the late period of the ancient world
was not so much the putative immorality.
Aristophanes’ most famous comedies in the fifth century BCE oozed obscenity. The change taking place was rather different and
modified the concept of what a play was.
Unlike the classical forms of tragedy and comedy, which invited the audience to
enter into the events of an imaginary world with imaginary characters, the new
form of theatre revolved around the exhibition of the actor’s body, inviting a
response from the audience either through the ability and skill of jugglers,
acrobats, imitators and dancers, or through the immediate display of the
physical, material reality of their bodies, aimed at stimulating the irrational
and violently passionate impulses of the spectators.
Whether it was the obscene acts performed by a naked actress onstage, or the
sight of a man being tortured in the circus, who, Martial tells us, offered
‘his flesh to a Caledonian bear’ while his joints were ‘still alive’ and his
limbs ‘dripped blood’, the aim was to provide extreme sensations, which dulled
the audience’s intellectual and imaginative capacities and played on immediate
and uncontrollable sense stimuli.
2. The Condemnation of Christian Authors
It was in front of this kind
of entertainment that Christian writers were to condemn every form of theatre. The
most famous work was probably Tertullian’s De
spectaculis: written in the late second century, it exercised an enormous
influence over later authors, while the most pointed remarks are to be found in
texts by Augustine, in particular in the
Confessiones, written in the late
fourth century, and in De civitate Dei from the early fifth century. The question had been tackled, however, by many
other Christian authors in a series of observations, explanations and
descriptions that were reproduced and repeated constantly and almost
In all these anti-theatre
comments we can identify some essential ideas that form a sort of theory of the
play still alive and kicking in the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment. It was a theory based on a vision of human history
as a battlefield in which Satan’s activity is contrasted with the building of
the Kingdom of God.
The theatre was recognized as a weapon of the devil to create his dominion on
explained the Christian authors, derived essentially from ‘idolatry’. Their origins
were linked to the cult of pagan divinities, and these were no more than
‘filthy spirits’, false simulacra of a religion beneath which was hidden the
presence and action of the Evil One. Each element of
the spectacle was linked to the influence of a particular divinity, and
expressed its malefic power. The
gestures and movements of the body, observed Tertullian, display the pernicious
action of Venus and Bacchus, and reflect the depravity of the senses in the
grip of an inebriating pleasure like that caused by wine, while the use of the
voice, rhythm and music celebrated an inspiration attributed to the
intervention and teaching of the Muses, Apollo, Minerva and Mercury.
With these filthy spirits
presiding, all theatrical performances had a destructive effect as they
unleashed in the audience feelings, passions and irrational impulses that
create ‘a profound disturbance to the spirit’, destroying the state of internal
serenity that is proper to the just and holy man.
God, explained Tertullian, has ordered us to behave ‘with the greatest
gentleness, and the greatest serenity’, without ‘fits of fury, bile, anger and
grief’, all of them impulses that ‘cannot be reconciled with the moral law’. Indeed no one can be victim of a passion ‘without
falling into sin’. But the shows put
on in the circuses produce a dangerous ‘frenzy’ in the audience, the
performances of the mimes stimulate our desires through the ‘foulness’ of their
gestures and their recourse to obscenity, and in any case, Augustine observed, all theatrical displays
aim to ‘excite’ the audience, which only follows the performance ‘with close
attention and pleasure’ when it is stirred.
Now, it was certainly not a
new idea that the theatre tended to arouse irrational feelings and impulses in
its audience. All the ancient
authors agreed on this point. The
actor’s ability to emotionally involve the audience might actually be proof of
his artistic excellence, and so in this respect the Christian writers simply
overturned the usual criterion of judgment: if serenity of mind was essential
to a good and pious soul, arousing the passions was not a positive act, but a
However, their thought seems
profoundly original when it analyses the manner in which the stage action
manages to disturb and upset the minds of those watching.
According to the Christian writers, to enflame the passions of the audience,
the performances exploit the weakness of our senses, and our senses are genuine
‘windows on the soul’, through which vices penetrate, binding us to sin. Indeed, the
pleasure that comes from perceiving any sensible form seemed so dangerous that
Augustine not only wanted to refrain from enjoying the light and colour of even
natural phenomena, but even questioned the advisability of accompanying
religious functions with melody and song. The theatrical
spectacle is precisely a form of delight for the senses: the delight that comes
‘from gladiatorial combat, athletic competitions, the actions of mimes or the
performance of plays’, observed St Jerome, is like that we obtain from ‘the
splendour of jewels, clothes or precious stones’, and binds us in a net of
sensory seduction that ‘captures our soul’, depriving it of its freedom.
In this perspective the theatre
seems an infernal mechanism expressly designed to involve the audience in a
tissue of visual and sound incitements that penetrate the soul, disturb and
upset it, and are so effective as to break even the most determined will to
resist. There is a famous episode recounted by Augustine in Book VI of the Confessiones, where he describes the
experience of his young friend Alypius, who felt profound disgust for the
gladiatorial combats, but was dragged by his friends to the circus. Firm of will, Alypius decided to remain ‘as if
absent’, closing his eyes. But he
was shaken by a sudden cry from the crowd: the sound forced him to open his
eyes and glance quickly at the arena, at which point his soul suffered ‘a wound
more deadly than that received in the gladiator’s body that he had wanted to
look at for an instant’. The effect
blood and drinking in the cruelty was the work of a moment: he did not look
away, but fixed his eyes on the sight; unaware, he breathed in the mood of frenzy,
delighted in that wicked fighting, drunk on the pleasure of blood […] He
watched, he cheered, hot with excitement; when he left he took with him a fever
that drove him back there again, not only with those who dragged him there, but
leading them and others.
The Christian conception of
plays as a system of images that arouse our sense perceptions, and so penetrate
and overwhelm our soul, has some important consequences.
First, if the attraction of any sensible form is a dangerous source of sin,
then theatrical displays, expressly designed to entice and excite our senses,
naturally multiply the power and effectiveness of the presence of evil. Anything performed onstage before an audience
exalts its negative qualities and its power to corrupt.
Whether it is a bloody gladiatorial combat, the appearance of a female body, or
the representation of imaginary events through the gestures and movements of
tragic or comic actors, the stage emphasizes its perverse and destructive
The presence of actresses
onstage is an exemplary case. If,
says John Chrysostom, we can feel the stirrings of lust just by glancing at a
woman walking down the street, or even praying in church, then still less can
we remain immune in the theatre, where the appearance of women is deliberately
exhibited. And in the Liber de spectaculis attributed to St Cyprian actresses
performing onstage are actually considered more sinful and harmful than
prostitutes, who at least ply their trade in private.
But apart from the question
of the presence of women, who in any case, whether in the theatre, the street,
at home or in church, exercise a dangerous attraction, as the Fathers of the
Church saw it, there can be no subject or character, no situation, no story,
however pious or edifying, that does not project an inevitably sinful effect
when staged, as soon as the details of the story are presented so as to strike
the eyes and ears of the public. The
only morally innocuous spectacle would consist of images without charm and
interest, and so unable to attract an audience.
In addition, for the
Christian authors the fictional character of theatrical events is also
significant. If the play consists in displaying images designed to irresistibly
strike the audience’s senses, it is of no importance that the events
represented are only inventions of the imagination and the actors only pretend
to perform the actions of the characters, because, observes Tertullian, ‘if
tragedies and comedies are cruel and lewd, wicked and dissolute examples of
crimes and lusts, no exaltation of something terrible or vulgar is better than
the thing itself’.
In short, simulation on stage
does not have a weaker effect on our minds than that of a real event. Of course, when we are at a tragedy we know that
it is a mere imitation, and not really happening.
But that does not reduce the impression that it gives us, because this derives
only from the solicitation of our senses, our visual and auditory perceptions,
which are if anything strengthened and not weakened by the public display of
the fact in the staging. When the
mimes dress up, writes Lactantius, to simulate ‘shameless women with indecent
gestures’, and ‘show adulteries’, not only do they induce the audience to
perform real actions, but their example is particularly baleful because it
shows how this behaviour might be ‘observed with pleasure by all’.
Finally, far from mediating
and reducing the effect that a real event might produce on those watching, the
theatrical simulation, according to some Christian authors, is a dangerous
distortion that increases the negative quality of the stage experience. As Tatian writes in his Address to the Greeks, when the actor performs he is presenting a
‘falsification’, he is showing outside ‘what he is not inside’. And this kind of falsification, explains Tertullian,
is an extremely serious act in the eyes of God, who created the true. We absolutely cannot approve ‘those who falsify
their voice, their sex or their age, who solemnly simulate the display of love,
anger, sighs and tears’. An actor who
alters his features, dresses up, or simulates situations and states of mind, is
performing an act of violence on God’s creation.
In this way, by the sinful
seduction of the senses and the wicked falsification of reality, the theatre
not only excites the audience’s irrational impulses, which is in itself
extremely serious, but excites them perversely.
The emotions it produces imprison the spectator, who follows the performance
spellbound, and, writes Augustine, ‘trembles for joy with the lovers when they
enjoy each other indecently’, grieving ‘when they part’, and experiencing a
perverted and unhealthy disturbance.
This is clearly proved by the senseless pleasure we feel in watching the
horrible and distressing events of tragedy.
Of course, observes
Augustine, the painful events of tragedy can produce an impulse of pity in the
spectator, and that is in itself a good and proper feeling, ‘which arises from
the same vein as friendship’. But
true, authentic pity induces those who feel it to intervene and bring help,
while the pity aroused by theatrical representations invites those who watch
‘only to suffer’, and the greater the suffering, the greater the admiration for
the actor who simulates these fiction.
This makes it a deviant and distorted pity.
Bringing out in its natural ways the emotional reaction of the audience, plays
thus dissolve, annul and pervert the awakening of any potentially positive
feeling, which ends up losing itself ‘in a torrent of boiling pitch, in great
blasts of dark passion in which it willingly changes and deforms itself,
diverted from its true course and corrupted from its heavenly clearness’.
3. The New Image of Acting
This vision of the theatre
and its malign effect was important not only because it explains a condemnation
that was to hang over acting for a long time, but above all because it
radically shifted the viewpoint from which it was considered. That the actor onstage was in effect collaborating
with the devil seemed beyond discussion.
But that is not the point.
Concentrating on the effectiveness of the network of sensations the play traps
its audience in, and on the intrinsic falsity of the stage action, which
distorts the reality of divine creation in a filthy falsification of gestures
and features, the Christian authors no longer regarded the actor’s main task as
being to depict a character, rendering his emotions precisely. In their eyes acting consisted rather in the
ability to create images of any kind that were suitable for striking the senses
of the spectators, through the exhibition of the actor’s body, his skill and
his capacity to simulate. In short,
they did not see an actor in a tragedy as engaged in representing a character
and expressing his states of mind.
Rather they saw a body in action, moving in front of an audience and capturing
its attention by exhibiting its ability to change and perform actions that
strike our senses.
In this way the traditional
theory of contagion, by which the passions, authentic and real in the actor’s
mind, effectively shape his expressions and are transmitted by their natural
energy to the spectator’s mind, lost all meaning and became impossible. On the stage, which was the devilish territory of
the inauthentic, of fiction and of pure incitement of the senses, the audience’s
passions were stirred only by what struck their senses and by what was
simulated and falsified. The actor’s
performance was part of the lures and seductions of the stage, which offered an
exalted version of gestures, forms and figures for the delight of the senses. The actor achieved his aim insofar as he displayed
himself and his skill in performing all kinds of actions and in dissembling. A seductive physical presence and ability, and
skill in feigning and distorting became the fundamental parameters of acting. The only emotional involvement that mattered was
not that in the actor’s inner self, which became irrelevant, but that in the
audience who watched the actor perform onstage.
In addition, if the actor’s
fundamental task was to produce a strong impression on the audience through the
display of his body, his physical skill and his abilities, then there was no
longer any distinction between the mime who improvised licentious scenes, the
juggler who displayed his skill, the dancer whose physical presence and
movements excited the audience’s desires, and the actor who recited the
literary texts of comedies and tragedies.
Actors, jugglers, dancers, tight-rope walkers, acrobats and contortionists
merely produced images designed to strike the audience’s senses, and so
belonged one and all to the same indistinct category of entertainers, whose
perverted and wicked function was directly inspired by the devil’s action.
In later centuries it
gradually became the norm to assimilate all these categories in a single
grouping enjoying very low social consideration and sometimes extending to
healers and beggars who made use of more or less sophisticated forms of
simulation. In the later Middle
Ages, however, did there start to emerge
some attempts to distinguish low-level entertainers who worked through their
mere physical ability and skill, from those with culture who also wrote the
compositions they sang or acted, which had some literary qualities. In the twelfth century John of Salisbury contrasted the actors of the ancient
world, ‘more provided with decorum’, who represented to the audience real or
invented events, and made famous the works of authors like Terence, with the
hordes ‘of mimes, dancers, ballet-dancers, clowns, gladiators, strongmen,
gymnasts and conjurors’ that, now that tragedy and comedy had disappeared,
offered ‘vacuous frivolity’ and ‘foul entertainments’ for those wallowing in
sloth and trying to keep boredom at bay. Then, early in
the next century a penitential of Thomas Chabham distinguished entertainers who
‘transform and transfigure their bodies by unseemly positions and behaviour,
both denuding themselves and wearing indecent masks’, who were bound for
damnation, from those who ‘sing the enterprises of the barons and the lives of the
saints, and console men in sickness and affliction’. Finally, the
famous Supplica that Guiraut Riquier directed to King Alfonso XII of
Castile in 1274, followed by the King’s Declaratio, written by Riquier,
contrasted the troubadour, whose verses telling of ‘laudable enterprises to
exalt the brave’ may last in time, with the wretched activities of those who
‘perform only conjuring tricks’ or ‘exhibit monkeys and marionettes’, or
‘imitate the call of birds or play instruments and sing for a few coins in low
places’. For the late
mediaeval point of view it was the presence of a poetic text to pass on to the
audience in the acting that seemed to be the premise for salvaging the actor’s
work in a form that could be appreciated and accepted.
In this way there began to
emerge, at least theoretically, a sharp division between the forms of acting
that exalted the actor’s physical ability, his skill in using his body, his
acrobatic virtues, and his ability to capture the audience’s attention and
amaze it with surprising and unexpected performances and inventions, and the
forms of acting that involved reciting finished literary texts, with the main
function of giving full access onstage to the effects and power of an exercise
of the imagination that had been given a carefully arranged verbal composition.
4. The Humanist Ennobling of the Theatre
However, so far as we know, in mediaeval documents on the actor
there is no consideration of acting techniques.
In the high mediaeval period there are
very few comments on there being any actual theatrical activity in Europe, and it is mainly the church’s repeated
condemnation of mimos, histriones et
joculatores that suggests the continuing existence of professionals or
semi-professionals who made a living using their talent as public entertainers.
Later, between the tenth and
fifteenth centuries, there was a significant resumption of theatrical activity
and a slow development of various dramatic forms, from the liturgical drama to
religious drama in the vernacular, to cyclical dramas and plays with secular
subjects, farces and morality plays.
In some cases they were extremely complex: the play cycles, for example, might
last several days, involve numerous stage effects and involve hundreds of
performers. But for this later period
too, we have only fragmentary information on acting, and nothing that is even
remotely indicative of real acting technique.
In any case the acting of all
these theatrical forms was mainly entrusted to occasional and amateur
performers. At first, in the
productions of liturgical dramas in the churches, it was the task of priests
and deacons. Later the laity were
involved, and in some cases they ended up organizing themselves into
associations of amateurs involved in staging special kinds of plays. Of course, the professional entertainers who,
individually or in small itinerant groups, made a living performing as
musicians, singers, storytellers, acrobats and jugglers, might be hired for the
productions of religious or profane dramas, but their activity did not enjoy
sufficient prestige to be able to call attention to the more or less elaborate
techniques they had to employ, still less encourage any theorizing. And so, after the texts of the Greek and Roman
periods, thinking about the art of acting went into a long eclipse, and was
taken up again only in the late sixteenth century as the result of a long
process that began with the development of humanist studies.
As early as the fourteenth
century the rediscovery of classical culture had reawakened interest in the
plays of the ancient world. It was,
however, a prevailingly literary interest among the learned and in the
universities: once the works of the classics had been taken as models, the
first Latin texts imitating the tragedies and comedies of ancient Rome began to appear in Italy.
In the early fifteenth century some of these new plays were acted for a
cultured audience, sometimes in the palace of some aristocratic patron, in a
somewhat uncertain attempt to reproduce the styles of performance that the
culture of the time attributed to the ancient world.
Later, progress in scholarly research, and above all the rediscovery of
Vitruvius’ De Architectura from the first century CE, which
contained valuable indications on the structure of the theatres, gave a more
accurate idea of Roman staging and opened the way to more careful and
Towards the end of the
century interest in rediscovering Latin plays had now spread from the academy
to the Italian courts. There was a
performance of Plautus’ Menaechmi at
the court of Ferrara during the 1486 carnival.
A little later the first comedies written in the vernacular appeared, imitating
Latin comedies and tragedies. In
1508 Ariosto’s Cassaria was staged at the court of Ferrara. Five years later at the court of Urbino,
Bibbiena’s Calandria was performed, one of the most popular and
well-known comedies of the sixteenth century.
In addition, plays written and performed on the model of the ancients spread
from Italy to learned
circles in the rest of Europe, where they were
cultivated in the schools, courts and academies of the early sixteenth century. Furthermore, and more importantly here, this
started as a cultural experiment that was the fruit of a literary operation. By its very nature, therefore, it invited
theoretical thought, the essential tools of which were obviously to be found in
the conceptual apparatus of the classical authors.
The scholars were mainly
interested in two problems: defining a set of rules that could regulate the
writing of texts, and designing a suitable performing space. Thus, in the second half of the sixteenth century
a long series of commentaries and treatises appeared, using the ideas derived
from Greek and Latin thought, and in particular from Aristotle’s Poetics, to discuss the techniques of
dramatic composition. In 1529 Gian
Giorgio Trissino published the first part of his Divisioni della poetica, which was completed by the posthumous
second part in 1562. In 1548 Francesco
Robortello’s Latin commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics appeared, followed by the works of Bartolomeo
Lombardi and Lorenzo Maggi (1550), Giraldi Cintio (1554), Vettori (1560),
Scaligero (1561), Minturno (1563), Castelvetro (1570), Bernardino Pino da Cagli
(1572), Alessandro Piccolomini (1575), Viperano (1579), Segni (1581) and De
Nores (1588), while Vitruvius’ teachings inspired the study of theatrical
architecture and stage design. The
first indications of this kind could already be found in Leon Battista
Alberti’s De re aedificatoria, written between 1443 and 1452, and
published posthumously in 1485. A few years later
Pellegrino Prisciani, a librarian at the court of Ferrara, illustrated and
proposed in his Spectacula the building of a theatre in bricks and
mortar. But the most famous and
influential work appeared towards the mid sixteenth century. This was the Secondo libro di perspettiva, which Sebastiano Serlio published
in Paris in 1545, describing a model for
organizing the stage area with examples of the kind of stage design that was
spreading rapidly through Europe.
5. Humanist Experiments and Court Performances
While treatises on writing
texts and organizing the stage space continued to appear, the problem of acting
went on being substantially ignored.
Scholars had the models of Terence, Plautus and Seneca available to discuss the
literary composition of comedy and tragedy, as well as the considerations in
the works of poetics and rhetoric, and in the commentaries of the ancients. Vitruvius was a solid reference point for theory
on theatre design. But no source
could offer wide-ranging and exhaustive suggestions about acting.
Consequently ideas on the
subject were inevitably very vague.
According to a widespread theory of mediaeval thought, one still valued in the
fifteenth century, the acting of comic and tragic texts was delivered by the
ancient Romans as a sort of illustrated declamation: a recitator on a kind of
pulpit read, or declaimed, the text to the audience, speaking the lines of all
the characters. At the same time, or
later, some actors mimed the scene with gestures and body movements, without
the use of words.
This singular theory, which
may have derived from a passage in the Etymologiae, written by Isidore of Seville in the sixth century, was based on a
misinterpretation of an anecdote recorded by Livy. It was expressed
most clearly in a fourteenth-century commentary by the English scholar Nicolas
Trevet on Seneca’s tragedy, Hercules Furens:
and comedies used to be acted like this: the theatre was a semi-circular area,
at the centre of which was a small house in which there was a pulpit, on which
the poet declaimed the songs and read his text aloud; outside there were the
mimes who represented the expression of the songs, gesturing with their bodies,
which they adapted to the character of whoever was being treated.
This idea, as we have said,
was still accepted during the fifteenth century. And an imaginary
reconstruction of this kind must have influenced the first stagings of humanist
comedies in Latin by amateurs – scholars, teachers, pupils – where the
declamation of the work was entrusted, wholly or in part, to a single recitator.
In various cases the performances were used in scholarly circles as exercises
for the mastery of Latin and the techniques of eloquence, and so the recitator, whose task was to render the
text effectively to the listeners, could only base himself on the principles of
oratory, a discipline that was an essential part of scholastic teaching.
The rediscovery of ancient
acting took the form, then, of the declamation of a literary text following the
model of classical oratory. This
stylistic choice was to be maintained when the humanist dramas began to be
acted by two or more people, as in the performance of Francesco Ariosto’s In
Isidis religionem elegia at the court of Ferrara in 1444. The very composition of the text, which consisted
of two long tirades, first for one and then for the other character, encouraged
a declamatory style of acting. But
it was the learned character of the humanist experiments, which were works of
literary composition inspired by the models of the ancients, that required in
general a style of acting close to the declamation of a written text, suitably
embellished, observing the principles of correct oral exposition taken from the
treatises of the classical world.
In the late fifteenth
century, however, when performances of Plautus’ and Terence’s comedies
flourished, the figure of the recitator
finally disappeared and the parts of the various characters were invariably
entrusted to actors who spoke and moved.
It was in this period, too, that the taste for staging comedies spread in the
courts as a form of entertainment at carnival time, or on special occasions and
celebrations. The play was a
cultured diversion, and the centre of the attraction was no longer the literary
elegance of the text, but the liveliness of the plot, the humour of the
situations and in particular the splendour of the scenery.
The actors in these
performances were still amateurs, coming from the environment of the court, and
the only culturally guaranteed stylistic model available obviously remained
that of poetic declamation and oratory.
Moreover, the court of Ferrara, which saw the first staging of the classical
comedies, was still imbued with the cultural tradition established by the school of Guarino da Verona, the preceptor of
Leonello d’Este, a passionate scholar of ancient theatrical texts, the author
of dozens of orations, and a famous master of rhetoric.
The court festivities also involved university teachers, and Battista, Guarino
da Verona’s son and continuer of his school, was probably the translator of
Plautus’ Menaechmi which was performed in 1486.
The model of learned declamation was therefore present and could not be ignored.
The particular context in
which court performances took place in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth
centuries imposed a new requirement however.
The custom had begun in the circle surrounding the prince, in an atmosphere of
festive officialdom. This meant the
forms of learned culture had to be mediated by the contiguous but different
forms of the court, and so, in the presence of the prince and his guests the
performance of the actors, who were mainly members of the price’s circle,
inevitably associated the manners of poetic declamation and oratory with the
display of manners typical of a courtier who knows how to move, speak and act
in front of the nobility.
This led to experimentation
with different styles of acting, which were to become current onstage in later
years. It was no coincidence that
the first writings on the actor’s art, many decades later, contain hints on how
to stand and act similar to the advice that Baldassarre Castiglione offered to
the perfect gentleman who had to live in the court environment, in his famous
work, Il libro del Cortegiano, first
published in Venice in 1528.
Castiglione identified a
basic quality in the courtier’s behaviour, which is ‘grace’. Grace should characterize every expression,
gesture or movement, making them elegant and pleasing.
It is a gift of nature, explains Castiglione, which must be developed with
‘pains, industry and care’ and with ‘discipline’. Grace is
contrasted not only with coarse and unreflective behaviour that has not been
corrected and perfected by ‘art’, but also with ‘affectation’, or the
ostentation of the care with which the gestures and words are carefully
elaborated to appear beautiful and arouse admiration.
Thus along with grace the
other indispensable quality is sprezzatura,
or ease, which should give the appearance that ‘what is done and said is done
without effort and almost without thinking’.
True art, declares Castiglione, ‘does not seem to be art’.
In this way the finest ancient orators, learned and expert, strained to give
the impression that they had ‘no knowledge of literary art’, and ‘hiding their
knowledge, they pretended that their orations were composed very simply and as
if springing from nature and truth rather than study and art’. In the same way
anyone who has to perform a physical action requiring careful exercise, like
shooting an arrow from a bow or handling a sword, seems ‘most perfect’ if ‘he
nimbly and without thinking puts himself in an attitude of readiness, with such
ease that his body and all his members seem to fall into that posture naturally
and quite without effort’. In short,
the actions, gestures and movements of the perfect gentleman in his court
appearances should be beautiful, pleasing and always marked by grace. They can become such only if they are the fruit of
‘study’ and ‘art’. But they should
then be performed with absolute nonchalance, so as to appear simple, natural
and true, and so spontaneous and as if ‘done by chance’.
Obviously, grace is also
expressed in speech, when it has ‘ease and elegance’.
But these two qualities alone are not enough. When describing
an incident, the perfect courtier should manage to describe things so
effectively ‘with his gestures as with his words’, that ‘those who hear him
seem to see what is recounted happen before their eyes’. In addition,
alternating where necessary ‘dignity and force’ with ‘simplicity and candour’,
he will be able to arouse ‘those feelings that our souls have within’ and
‘kindle or move them as needed’, or ‘soften and almost intoxicate them with
sweetness’. Even this,
though, is not enough. When the
courtier speaks and expresses himself, he should be able to adapt his action to
‘the place where he is doing it, those present, the time, the cause that impels
him, his age, his profession, the object he has in view, and the means that may
In short, this vision of
behaviour, where gestures and actions are marked by grace, art and ease,
includes a way of speaking that can evoke things and images, the ability to
arouse emotions and passions in those watching and listening, and the need to
behave ‘in situation’, selecting gestures, actions and movements, modulating
them and regulating their intensity, adapting them to different circumstances,
which are determined by the quality and character of the people we are
addressing as well as our intentions: the characteristics attributed to good
acting in late-sixteenth-century theory.
It is also worth noting what
happens when the perfect gentleman has to dress up to take part in games or
celebrations, or when he wants to imitate someone to amuse those present. Dressing up, observes Castiglione, ‘brings with it
a certain freedom and licence’, but should never conceal the person’s true
nature. If a youth disguises himself
as an old man he should have ‘his garments open’ so as to show ‘his vigour’,
and a knight dressed up as a ‘rustic shepherd’ should mount a ‘perfect horse’
and be ‘gracefully bedecked’. Thus imitation
should always be kept within certain confines, reveal the personality of the
imitator, and never become a complete metamorphosis, or grace and loveliness
would be destroyed. And this is all
the more necessary when a real flesh-and-blood person is imitated for the
amusement and entertainment of those present.
In this case extreme caution should be used, without ever ‘descending into
buffoonery, or going beyond bounds’.
On the other hand humour is
in itself a danger that can compromise the grace and elegance of those who make
use of it to amuse those present. In
fact, laughter is almost always aroused by a ‘deformity’ or by ‘something
unbecoming’. How, then, should
a gentleman behave who exhibits himself in court circles, evoking comic
situations or imitating ridiculous characters? He should avoid the solutions
used by professional comics, of pulling faces, ‘weeping and laughing, imitating
the voices’, or even ‘dressing up as a peasant in the presence of all’. All this, says Castiglione, is unseemly. Rather he should ‘steal’ from the professionals
these ways of imitating, and then reduce them and refine them, and so maintain
the dignity of a gentleman. The
excessive, instinctive and impudent style of entertainers like Berto, a famous
jester in the papal court, or of the most cultured and admired professional
actors, who were invited to perform in aristocratic circles, should be replaced
with a more moderate style making use of the allusive potential of gesture, so
by ‘making movements in such a way that those hearing and watching our words
and gestures imagine much more than what they see and hear, and so fall
6. Professional Actors and the Commedia
Alongside the theatre, which
had regained a kind of cultural legitimacy from the schools, the academies and
the courts by the imitation of ancient models and the claims for the literary
quality of dramatic writing, there was a galaxy of professional entertainers
who earned a living exploiting their performing abilities.
It was an extremely complex world that included court buffoons, mountebanks,
acrobats, contortionists, story-tellers, musicians and street singers, as well
as snake-oil salesmen and quacks who attracted an audience with short farcical
scenes, imitations or stunts.
In the social consideration
of the time these people were seen as hovering somewhere between beggars with
some special talent and hucksters of dubious repute.
Yet it also included some figures with a cultural background, itinerant
scholars or men of letters, who had fallen from a more acceptable condition to
that of street artist, like Poncelet de Monchauvet, who had once been a
Carmelite friar, but who ended up in the early fifteenth century performing as
a juggler and farce actor in the Parisian markets.
However discredited and
ostracized, professional entertainers were trustees of spectacular techniques
with important characteristics designed to obtain easy and certain effects,
able to attract an audience and hold its attention, surprising it with the
skill of their stunts, capturing it with an effective patter that could be
adapted to any circumstances, or making it laugh, whether with leaps,
pirouettes and somersaults, or with imitations, saucy quips and dialogues, full
of casual vulgarity and often gloriously obscene.
In short, they were
performances that even in their crudest forms were founded on some essential
elements extraneous to humanist oratorical acting or the assumptions behind
court performances: the direct contact with an audience, the absolute freedom
of expression that allowed recourse to obscene language and grotesque
deformations of the body and physical appearance, the ability to change their
voice and features in ridiculous, burlesque, caricatured imitations, and above
all the lack of any hierarchy among words, movement and body language as forms
In the late fifteenth and
early sixteenth centuries this complex of techniques would compete with the
theatrical forms that had arisen from the literary imitation of classical
models. The world of the
professionals had soon come into contact with the theatrical experiments that had
been carried out in literary circles.
In Venice, for
example, around 1430, some ‘histriones’ had been performing the Corallaria by Tito Livio de’ Frulovisi, a pupil
of Guarino and a famous teacher of rhetoric, and it had given rise to some
controversy. In the following
decades, particularly in the early sixteenth century, the involvement of
professional actors at events that included the performance of new plays as
well as theatrical spectacles of every kind became more and more frequent. In this way some features of professional acting
must have provided a sort of model that could, very cautiously indeed, be used
by the amateurs involved in performing on the stages at court, in the academies
or in some aristocratic homes. They
were comic effects, characteristic forms of imitation of behaviour and gestures
that the amateurs could adopt, or, in Castiglione’s words, ‘steal’, filtering
them and moderating them in the interests of an elegant and decorous spectacle.
Later, however, many of these
precautions fell before the attraction that the various forms of professional
acting seemed to exercise. In the
end these were used fairly directly and freely by some groups, companies or
academies of gentlemen, bourgeois or artisans, who began to take up the theatre
for amusement as plays became more widespread in the early sixteenth century. Sometimes they acquired sufficient fame to be in
demand for celebrations or meetings.
Among these, the most
important figure was undoubtedly Angelo Beolco, known as Ruzzante, a bourgeois of
both means and culture, who had created a company and wrote and acted his works
at the small Paduan court of the aristocrat Alvise Cornaro and in the cultured,
aristocratic circles of Venice. The very humour of his texts, which were violently
grotesque, obscene and outrageous, required a form of acting very different
from the legitimate ones, whose elegance and decorum was certainly accepted by
an exclusive audience. In February
1525, for example, he performed in Venice, the guest of a lavish evening of
theatrical entertainment, and one distinguished witness, the learned aristocrat
Marin Sanudo, observed how the actor acted the part of the peasant ‘most
excellently’, adding, however, that the performance of the comedy, was ‘utterly
lascivious and with filthy language’, and ‘was condemned’ by all.
While the methods of
professional acting were creeping in to the performances of amateurs,
professional actors found in the forms of comedy something that could attract a
large and varied public that could include both aristocrats and commoners. This meant that they appropriated the dramatic
offerings that had been developed in literary circles for their own commercial
purposes, removing them from the ceremonies of court and university and
offering them to a paying audience. Thus in the
second half of the sixteenth century some groups of actors were able to perform
an extremely wide-ranging repertoire that included, alongside acrobatics,
displays of skill, dance and song, productions of comedies written in
accordance with rules that were now well-established.
But, above all, they had now prepared a particular genre of play, in which the
elements of literary comedy were elaborated and adapted to the abilities and
procedures of professional acting.
This was the commedia all’improvviso, which had no
finished, written text, but just an outline, or scenario, which did no more than indicate how the situation
developed scene by scene. Each actor
decided his lines, varying them as he saw fit in different performances. The action made equal use of the effectiveness of
the words used by the performers, and of the poses, gestures and movements,
which could also become games of physical ability, leaps, pirouettes and
There was an essentially
fixed typology of characters in the mature period of commedia all’improvviso.
Along with the lovers, a couple of young people who acted without masks and
with limited physical activity, there were also the Maschere (stock
characters), each of whom wore a leathern half-mask and a specific set costume,
whose features identified a typical character, each with their own highly
characterized and caricatured way of speaking and gesturing. The Maschere
included servants (the zanni among
which were to emerge figures like Harlequin or Brighella or Scapino), who used
a generally comic language complete with extravagant gestures and spectacular
displays of agility. Other Maschere were those of characters
representing different social figures, such as the Capitano (a caricature of a
soldier who is both braggart and coward), Pantalone (a caricature of a Venetian
merchant) and the Dottore (a caricature of a pedantic, self-important Bolognese
man of learning). Each actor tended
to specialize in just one of these figures all his life, assimilating its basic
stage features (bearing, gestures, ways of speaking and expressing himself),
and then developing it with his own personal variations.
Although it was known as commedia all’improvviso as the actors
did not perform fixed parts following a written text line by line, the
improvisation of the performers had very precise limits.
Unlike amateur actors, who performed only on special occasions, the
professionals were constantly onstage, with any number of repeat performances
of the shows in their repertoire.
Even though the lines were not established by a complete literary text, they
tended to be fixed in the countless performances of the same scenes. Comic effects and particularly effective pieces of
dialogue were codified by use and could be transferred from one comedy to
another. It was also customary for
each actor to have a repertoire of monologues, aphorisms, or at least verbal
interventions (known as generici)
adapted so as to be included in typical, recurring situations, like, for example,
the lament of the betrayed lover, the praise of the loved woman, the retort of
a spurned lover, the derision of an ancient suitor, the reflections of a
traveller who arrives in a new city or returns to his native land, or the
reproaches made to a wayward son, and so on.
This meant that the actor
built up his part by combining long-established pieces from the repertoire that
were reworked and memorized (generici changed
depending on circumstances, lines that were known to work, or gestures and
movements for particular situations), adapting them to the requirements of the
character, making his own creative contribution. Of course, there
could be variations during the performance, but these were not so much
extemporary inventions as reworked materials that were already known by heart.
The final result of this
procedure led to a very special kind of acting.
Gestures and verbal expressions were not confined to the limits of decorum, but
could include freer, even vulgar and obscene language, and above all could
amply exploit the resources of the actor’s physical, acrobatic, mimic and
imitative abilities. In addition,
the character’s personality and behaviour were not a mainly literary creation
that was put onstage through the declamation of a written text, suitably
decorated with appropriate gestures.
It was something that had been constructed by the actor himself, who had over
the years assimilated the characteristic features – ways of expression,
attitudes, movements, vocal inflexions – of a particular figure, and then put
them into action for the audience, showing his typical reactions to the
different situations in which he found himself.
All this was in perfect harmony with the interventions and inventions of the
other actors, who were part of the same company.
The expression of character was thus an immediate fusion of gesture and words,
physical and verbal language, which had equal importance in the development of
the action. And, no longer anchored
to the words of a pre-existing literary text, this action seemed to have an
immediate, improvised spontaneity.
The modes and figures of this
type of comedy were to spread rapidly in Europe
via the tournées of companies of Italian actors, and were to exercise a
profound influence on the development of French, English, German and Spanish
theatre. In Italy the
particular character of this form of professional acting was perfectly
perceived by the cultural consciousness of the time.
Around 1550 Anton Francesco Grazzini, known as ‘Il Lasca’, celebrated in verse
the virtues of a company of professionals led by a Florentine actor, Benedetto
Cantinella, and insisted on the skill of their ‘acts, ways, gestures, voice’,
contrasting their acting with that of actors who bored the audience by
submerging them ‘in long discourses without any pleasure’.
Men of letters, however,
reacted with horror to the success of professional performances, precisely for
fear that comedy as a literary work performed so as to bring out the verbal
composition of the text would be replaced by a dangerous surrogate that
attracted the audience by using tools extraneous to literature. ‘Squalid and mercenary’ people, wrote Giovan
Battista Guarini in his Compendio della poesia tragicomica, have
‘contaminated’ comedy, ‘taking here and there for filthy lucre excellent poems
that once used to crown their authors with glory’, while Niccolò Rossi in his Discorsi
intorno alla Comedia, of 1589, made quite clear that he would not consider
the works acted by people who brought onstage zanni, Pantalone ‘and similar clowns’ as plays. As for the
specific forms of acting, the literary reaction stubbornly opposed the forms of
professional acting with a style founded exclusively on the display of a
written text, to the point that, as Pino da Cagli claimed in 1572, those
performing a play should not be called ‘actors’, but simply ‘speakers’, able to
entertain the audience with the fine way in which they expressed ‘the beauty of
7. The Revival of Religious Opposition and the
Actor’s New Status
Towards the mid
sixteenth century, performances of the humanist comedies by scholars, the
custom of play-acting at the courts and aristocratic homes, and the development
of professional theatre had, then, generated different forms of theatre acting,
which partly conflicted with and partly influenced each other. Alongside the form of oratorical declamation
inspired by the precepts of Cicero and Quintilian, there was acting based on
grace, elegance and ease, following the models of court behaviour, while the
professionals had developed a technique of acting disengaged from the written
text, which exalted the actor’s creative resources and gave physical business,
mime and gesture the same importance as the word.
In this complex context of
inter-related acting techniques and trends, there was fresh thinking in the
second half of the sixteenth century on the actor’s art.
But in its early days the theoretical debate had already been influenced by a
particularly important phenomenon that was to have a profound impact on the
life of the theatre in the following centuries.
In the first decades of the sixteenth century the theatrical profession had
ended up attracting more and more cultured people from the bourgeoisie who had
had experience of amateur theatricals, ex-students impoverished by the economic
crisis that had hit Italy and were reduced to the trade of the comic actor, and
also ‘honest courtesans’, high-grade prostitutes who had the entrée to
sophisticated circles and were able to play instruments, sing and compose verse
with equal skill. At the same time
the professionals began to set up groups with clear legal guarantees, and at
least in the most fortunate cases they no longer found themselves in a state of
beggary or uncertain, irregular earnings, but in the condition of an organized
commercial business that could exploit the possibilities of the market that had
been created as performances became more widespread.
Around the end of the
sixteenth century, then, professional theatre had changed, the people working
in it were not uneducated, and it was able to provide plays that had
assimilated some of the elements of the standard comedy of the literary
tradition. The actors in the most
famous and prestigious companies began to aspire to claiming a social and
cultural dignity for their profession.
This aspiration, however,
came up against two obstacles. The
literary men, as we have seen, saw dangerous competition in the spread of the
professional performers, and were also absolutely determined to maintain their
activity and their condition as scholars rigorously separated from a profession
that had traditionally been stained by ill-repute.
In addition, religious opposition to the diabolical art of the theatre, in the
ferment of the Protestant reform and then in the Catholic counter-reform, had
acquired new polemical vigour, retrieving many of the arguments used by the
ancient Christian writers.
Actually, few authors,
Catholic or Protestant, claimed that the theatre was absolutely illegitimate. Initially both had used it as a tool of religious
propaganda against the other side, and while the Council of Trent, which ended
in 1563, had taken a series of particularly severe measures to strengthen
church discipline in the face of the spread of Protestant reform, it had expressed
no condemnation of actors. Following
Thomas Aquinas’ teaching, the art of the theatre was regarded as ‘indifferent’
– good or bad depending on the individual case: reprehensible when it was used
to attack or scorn morals or religion, but useful and praiseworthy when it
celebrated or at least respected the values of Christian doctrine.
Thus, the attitude of the
papacy in the following decades was broadly tolerant, refraining from any
radical condemnation even in the periods of greatest rigour. It was no accident that the Rituale Romanum published by Paul V in 1614, defining the rules
for excluding particular categories of sinners from the sacraments (like
prostitutes, concubines, usurers, magicians, witches and blasphemers) made no
mention at all of actors and actresses.
Among Catholics, however,
opposition to the theatre had its stronghold in the diocese of Milan, where
Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, who oversaw it from 1565 to 1584, took up an attitude
of absolute intransigence, dusting down bans and condemnations of plays as the
‘school of indecency and lust’. He admonished
magistrates to run out of town ‘players, mimes and all other lost men of this
kind’ and to admonish ‘innkeepers and anyone else’ who gave them hospitality. Preachers were exhorted to use the arguments ‘of
Tertullian, St Cyprian Martyr, Salvianus and Chrysostom’ to demonstrate ‘the
damage and disaster to the public’ that ‘performances and things of this kind’
caused the people of Christ.
Towards the end of the
sixteenth century the liveliest opposition in the Protestant world came from
the English Puritans, who saw in the attraction of theatres a reflection of the
hated pomp of the Catholic liturgy, an agent to corrupt the faithful through
the sensory wiles of Satan’s displays, which contrasted with the rigour and
simplicity that should characterize the just and pure of heart. An authentically
Christian rigour and simplicity of manner were also very obviously negated in
the work of the actor, who concealed and distorted his true nature onstage,
pretended and dressed up for the sake of dishonest gain. No less important
was concern that professional actors might provide formidable competition for
preachers, particularly as all attempts to justify the theatre insisted on its
capacity not only to delight wide sections of the public, but also to instruct
them and correct their vices. Hence
the scandalized insistence on at least banning plays on feast days as they
threatened the presence of the faithful at religious ceremonies and might distract
them from pious practices.
Yet theatrical performances
were not only staged by mimes and strolling players who enticed the masses for
the sake of gain. They were also to
be found in the protected circles of the courts, which were hard to censure, and
were used in schools and colleges to develop mastery of Latin and allow the
pupils to practise the techniques of eloquence, both in Lutheran Germany and in
England, France and Italy. In some
cases, as in the Jesuit-run schools, theatrical activity was given particular
care and attention.
Thus much of the anti-theatre
propaganda was willing to admit clear exceptions.
Silvio Antoniano, a friend and close collaborator of Carlo Borromeo, claimed
that acting was useful for educating children – on condition, obviously, that
the events depicted were of an edifying nature and women did not take part
‘apart from some old matrons of exemplary holiness’. In England too
some authors who raged against the theatre were willing to make allowances for
it in particular settings and circumstances, as in schools, where a teacher
might occasionally stage performances with his pupils, as long as he adopted
all the necessary precautions: the text had to be in Latin, fine and showy sets
were not allowed, and above all it was not to be performed in public, and still
less made the occasion for gain.
These concessions for school
recitals and amateur performances in strictly private places certainly did
nothing to help the professionals however, who could not limit themselves to unpaid
performances in Latin, with only mature ladies of exemplary virtue allowed
onstage. Indeed, the admission of
amateur and school drama ended up reinforcing the condemnation of every form of
professional theatre. Plays were
essentially the devil’s tool, aimed at seducing and depraving actors and
audience. Handled with extreme
caution by trained, virtuous people, it might also lose its perverted
potentiality and be used for decent purposes.
But those who exploited the theatre only for economic gain were obviously going
to encourage all its powers of attraction and temptation, reinforcing its
In the perspective of
Catholic and Protestant culture, the professional comic actors were therefore
involved in immoral activity that brought with it an immoral, indecent,
scandalous and vagabond life, not unlike sexual promiscuity. Their performances were designed only to attract
the public as easily and quickly as possible, were constantly obscene and
scurrilous, and concentrated on reprehensible themes and situations,
particularly love intrigues, providing a school in the arts of seduction. The onstage action also set off emotional
reactions and passions that disturbed the minds of the audience, overcoming all
moral resistance. One need only observe,
wrote the future Bishop of Rheims and confessor of Cardinal Mazarin, Francesco Maria del
Monaco in 1621, ‘the faces of the spectators, their eyes’, one need only
interpret their ‘sighs and nods’ to realize how spellbound they were.
The presence of actresses
contributed to all this. The mere
appearance of flesh-and-blood women was clearly a manifest source of
temptation, but it was their manner, their poses and gestures that ended up
irresistibly ensnaring the audience.
Another Catholic author wrote that their words ‘are also accompanied by
movements of the person, glances, sighs, sneers, and (what cannot be said
without blushing) embraces and more still that can be seen on the public stage
from these infernal furies’. It was no better
if the actresses did not play amorous parts, but limited themselves to simple
displays of skill. In his monumental
work, Della christiana moderatione del teatro, of 1652, the Jesuit Gian
Domenico Ottonelli declared that it was unseemly when ‘these young females’ in
performing leaps ‘and many wonderful feats gracefully’ appear on the stage
‘bending, twisting and palpitating their bodies with lewd and extravagant
gestures and positions, and occasion a thousand libidinous thoughts in the
minds of the weak’. The dexterity of
the actresses’ art, combined with the allure of the performance, appeared such
as to be able to change reality before the audience’s eyes, and by a trick
traditionally attributed to the devil’s powers of temptation, actually made
attractive what is repugnant.
Significantly, even ‘old, ugly’ comic actresses posing ‘with grace and
artifice’ could seem ‘beautiful’, and please so much as to lead to sinning
‘with consent in the theatre, and again outside the theatre in memory’.
Improving the professional theatre
by suppressing its sinful aspects thus seemed a difficult if not desperate
task, and the proposals to this end were extremely cautious and above all aware
that a radical change would be required.
It was absolutely necessary that comics assumed a decent and sober manner, and
performed without recourse to obscene and vulgar words and gestures. Women were not to appear before an audience,
Ottonelli wrote, but could just be mentioned.
At most a female voice might be heard offstage, without the actress showing
herself to the public. It was also
indispensable to subject comedies to painstaking censorship beforehand, of both
the text and the actions, gestures and movements that would be used. This was clearly impossible for the commedie all’improvviso, and so it would
be more advisable to ban them completely.
To justify their human and
professional dignity and the cultural value of their work in the face of
opposition from literary men and religious condemnations, professional actors
thus had to adopt a characteristic strategy.
First of all they tried to make a rigorous distinction between the category of
actors who could perform plays and works of quality, and the ill-famed race of
low-level entertainers, clowns, street jugglers, and second-rate performers of
crude, vulgar scenes, who lived from hand to mouth by attracting the credulous. In the words of the early seventeenth-century
actor, Pier Maria Cecchini, one of the most representative actors of the time,
they were ‘the infamous players’, who, claimed a little later Giovan Battista
Andreini, another important figure in the theatrical scene of the time, ‘utter
a thousand vulgarities and indecencies’, and stain ‘the chaste ears of their
hearers’. An actor worthy of the
name should avoid ‘filthy words’, ‘immodest and lewd acts’, and any insult or
mockery that might harm people.
To distinguish themselves
from the clowns and mountebanks, then, they had first of all to eliminate all
forms of obscenity from their acting, and then present their work as inspired
by love of virtue. This also led to
some involuntarily comic effects, as in the oration published by a famous
actor, Adriano Valerini, on the death of the celebrated Vincenza Armani, in
which we read that she had devoted herself to the theatre ‘to purge corrupt
people of their vices’, depicting the ways men lived ‘as in a mirror’ that
could reveal their errors and so inflame them ‘to a praiseworthy life’.
But this was not enough. It was also necessary to demonstrate that the
actor’s ability is not inferior to that of the writer, and so in the late
sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries some famous actors set about
publishing materials concerning their profession, speeches, prologues,
dialogues and plays. Above all they
justified the ‘literary’ quality of their acting.
According to Adriano Valerini, when Armani improvised scenes on the stage ‘the
results were much better than those of the most expert authors who wrote after
There thus emerged an image
of the actor dignified by his relation to the profession of the writer. Acting worthy of the name, freed of obscenity, but
also of the tricks and expedients of street entertainers, tended to assume the
mantle of oratory. Not only was
Armani presented as a figure in full possession of the Latin language, but his
main gift was that of eloquence, in which he surpassed all ancient and modern
orators. Imitating Cicero’s eloquence’, wrote Tommaso Garzoni in
his Piazza universale, Armani ‘put
the comic art in competition with oratory’. When an actor
performs, Andreini claimed shortly after, he is simply an ‘orator’. The consequence
is obvious. The low ‘players’, the
category of entertainers which real actors must absolutely distinguish
themselves from, were those who made use only of physical dexterity, use ‘their
hands and their throats’, move ‘the mouth and other members in strange,
distorted, changed ways’, while authentic acting ‘was wholly averse’ from
‘playing games’ and consisted wholly ‘in the beauty of the arguments and the
beautiful manner of the speakers’.
In short it was the aura of
oratory, the requirement to make a speech that could arouse the emotions of
those present, maintaining a sober and elegant manner with restrained and
rigorous gestures, that guaranteed the loftiness of the performance. And this requirement was to have a decisive
influence on later developments in theory.
The free and creative gestures, the resources of the acrobat, displays of
dexterity, and ostentatious mimic ability in immediately effective comic effects
that had characterized professional acting compared with the erudite style of
the humanists and the gracious and elegant manner of the court amateurs – that
kind of acting, in short, that the church had already identified centuries
previously as the unequivocal tool of the devil – would be substantially
suppressed for more than three centuries in reflections on the actor’s art.
At the same time many of the most famous performers from the
late sixteenth to the eighteenth century would continue to use these techniques
bringing them to hitherto unknown levels of perfection.