Extemporal Comedies by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

It is a curiosity in the history of national genius to discover a people with such a native fund of comic humour, combined with such passionate gesticulation, that they could deeply interest in acting a Comedy, carried on by dialogue, intrigue, and character, all’ improvista, or impromptu; the actors undergoing no rehearsal, and, in fact, composing while they were acting. The plot, called Scenario, consisting merely of the scenes enumerated, with the characters indicated, was first written out; it was then suspended at the back of the stage, and from the mere inspection, the actors came forward to perform the dialogue entirely depending on their own genius.[1]

“These pieces must have been detestable, and the actors mere buffoons,” exclaim the northern critics, whose imaginations have a coldness in them, like a frost in spring. But when the art of Extemporal Comedy flourished among these children of fancy, the universal pleasure these representations afforded to a whole vivacious people, and the recorded celebrity of their great actors, open a new field for the speculation of genius. It may seem more extraordinary that some of its votaries have maintained that it possessed some peculiar advantages over written compositions. When Goldoni reformed the Italian theatre by regular comedies, he found an invincible opposition from the enthusiasts of their old Comedy: for two centuries it had been the amusement of Italy, and was a species of comic entertainment which it had created. Inventive minds were fond of sketching out these outlines of pieces, and other men of genius delighted in their representation.

The inspiration of national genius alone could produce this phenomenon; and these Extemporal Comedies were, indeed, indigenous to the soil. Italy, a land of Improvisatori, kept up from the time of their old masters, the Romans, the same fervid fancy. The ancient Atellanae Fabulae, or Atellane Farces, originated at Atella, a town in the neighbourhood of ancient Naples; and these, too, were extemporal Interludes, or, as Livy terms them, Exodia. We find in that historian a little interesting narrative of the theatrical history of the Romans; when the dramatic performances at Rome were becoming too sentimental and declamatory, banishing the playfulness and the mirth of Comedy, the Roman youth left these graver performances to the professed actors, and revived, perhaps in imitation of the licentious Satyra of the Greeks, the ancient custom of versifying pleasantries, and throwing out jests and raillery among themselves for their own diversion.[2] These Atellan Farces were probably not so low in humour as they have been represented;[3] or at least the Roman youth, on their revival, exercised a chaster taste, for they are noticed by Cicero in a letter to his literary friend Papyrius Paetus. “But to turn from the serious to the jocose part of your letter–the strain of pleasantry you break into, immediately after having quoted the tragedy of Oenomaus, puts me in mind of the modern method of introducing at the end of these graver dramatic pieces the buffoon humour of our low Mimes instead of the more delicate burlesque of the old Atellan Farces.”[4] This very curious passage distinctly marks out the two classes, which so many centuries after Cicero were revived in the Pantomime of Italy, and in its Extemporal Comedy.[5]

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The critics on our side of the Alps reproached the Italians for the extemporal comedies; and Marmontel rashly declared that the nation did not possess a single comedy which could endure perusal. But he drew his notions from the low farces of the Italian theatre at Paris, and he censured what he had never read.[6] The comedies of Bibiena, Del Lasca, Del Secchi, and others, are models of classical comedy, but not the popular favourites of Italy. Signorelli distinguishes two species of Italian comedy: those which he calls commedie antiche ed eruditi, ancient and learned comedies; and those of commedie dell’ arte, or a soggetto, comedies suggested.–The first were moulded on classical models, recited in their academies to a select audience, and performed by amateurs; but the commedie a soggetto, the extemporal comedies, were invented by professional actors of genius. More delightful to the fancy of the Italians, and more congenial to their talents, in spite of the graver critics, who even in their amusements cannot cast off the manacles of precedence, the Italians resolved to be pleased for themselves, with their own natural vein; and preferred a freedom of original humour and invention incompatible with regular productions, but which inspired admirable actors, and secured full audiences.

Men of great genius had a passion for performing in these extemporal comedies. Salvator Rosa was famous for his character of a Calabrian clown; whose original he had probably often studied amidst that mountainous scenery in which his pencil delighted. Of their manner of acting I find an interesting anecdote in Passeri’s life of this great painter; he shall tell his own story.

“One summer Salvator Rosa joined a company of young persons who were curiously addicted to the making of commedie all’ improviso. In the midst of a vineyard they raised a rustic stage, under the direction of one Mussi, who enjoyed some literary reputation, particularly for his sermons preached in Lent.

“Their second comedy was numerously attended, and I went among the rest; I sat on the same bench, by good fortune, with the Cavalier Bernini, Romanelli, and Guido, all well-known persons. Salvator Rosa, who had already made himself a favourite with the Roman people, under the character of Formica[7] opened with a prologue, in company with other actors. He proposed, for relieving themselves of the extreme heats and ennui, that they should make a comedy, and all agreed. Formica then spoke these exact words:

Non boglio gia, che facimmo commedie come cierti, che tagliano li panni aduosso a chisto, o a chillo; perche co lo tiempo se fa vedere chiu veloce lo taglio de no rasuolo, che la penna de no poeta; e ne manco boglio, che facimmo venire nella scena porta, citazioni, acquavitari, e crapari, e ste schifenze che tengo spropositi da aseno.”

One part of this humour lies in the dialect, which is Venetian; but there was a concealed stroke of satire, a snake in the grass. The sense of the passage is, “I will not, however, that we should make a comedy like certain persons who cut clothes, and put them on this man’s back, and on that man’s back; for at last the time comes which shows how much faster went the cut of the shears than the pen of the poet; nor will we have entering on the scene, couriers, brandy-sellers, and goatherds, and there stare shy and blockish, which I think worthy the senseless invention of an ass.”

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Passeri now proceeds: “At this time Bernini had made a comedy in the Carnival, very pungent and biting; and that summer he had one of Castelli’s performed in the suburbs, where, to represent the dawn of day, appeared on the stage water-carriers, couriers, and goat-herds, going about–all which is contrary to rule, which allows of no character who is not concerned in the dialogue to mix with the groups. At these words of the Formica, I, who well knew his meaning, instantly glanced my eye at Bernini, to observe his movements; but he, with an artificial carelessness, showed that this ‘cut of the shears’ did not touch him; and he made no apparent show of being hurt. But Castelli, who was also near, tossing his head and smiling in bitterness, showed clearly that he was hit.”

This Italian story, told with all the poignant relish of these vivacious natives, to whom such a stinging incident was an important event, also shows the personal freedoms taken on these occasions by a man of genius, entirely in the spirit of the ancient Roman Atellana, or the Grecian Satyra.

Riccoboni has discussed the curious subject of Extemporal Comedy with equal modesty and feeling; and Gherardi, with more exultation and egotism. “This kind of spectacle,” says Riccoboni, “is peculiar to Italy; one cannot deny that it has graces perfectly its own, and which written Comedy can never exhibit. This impromptu mode of acting furnishes opportunities for a perpetual change in the performance, so that the same scenario repeated still appears a new one: thus one Comedy may become twenty Comedies. An actor of this description, always supposing an actor of genius, is more vividly affected than one who has coldly got his part by rote.” But Riccoboni could not deny that there were inconveniences in this singular art. One difficulty not easily surmounted was the preventing of all the actors speaking together; each one eager to reply before the other had finished. It was a nice point to know when to yield up the scene entirely to a predominant character, when agitated by violent passion; nor did it require a less exercised tact to feel when to stop; the vanity of an actor often spoiled a fine scene.

It evidently required that some of the actors at least should be blessed with genius, and what is scarcely less difficult to find, with a certain equality of talents; for the performance of the happiest actor of this school greatly depends on the excitement he receives from his companion; an actor beneath mediocrity would ruin a piece. “But figure, memory, voice, and even sensibility, are not sufficient for the actor all’ improvista; he must be in the habit of cultivating the imagination, pouring forth the flow of expression, and prompt in those flashes which instantaneously vibrate in the plaudits of an audience.” And this accomplished extemporal actor feelingly laments that those destined to his profession, who require the most careful education, are likely to have received the most neglected one. Lucian, in his curious treatise on Tragic Pantomime, asserts that the great actor should also be a man of letters, and such were Garrick and Kemble.

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The lively Gherardi throws out some curious information respecting this singular art: “Any one may learn a part by rote, and do something bad, or indifferent, on another theatre. With us the affair is quite otherwise; and when an Italian actor dies, it is with infinite difficulty we can supply his place. An Italian actor learns nothing by head; he looks on the subject for a moment before he comes forward on the stage, and entirely depends on his imagination for the rest. The actor who is accustomed merely to recite what he has been taught is so completely occupied by his memory, that he appears to stand, as it were, unconnected either with the audience or his companion; he is so impatient to deliver himself of the burthen he is carrying, that he trembles like a school-boy, or is as senseless as an Echo, and could never speak if others had not spoken before. Such a tutored actor among us would be like a paralytic arm to a body; an unserviceable member, only fatiguing the healthy action of the sound parts. Our performers, who became illustrious by their art, charmed the spectators by the beauty of their voice, their spontaneous gestures, the flexibility of their passions, while a certain natural air never failed them in their motions and their dialogue.”

Here, then, is a species of the histrionic art unknown to us, and running counter to that critical canon which our great poet, but not powerful actor, has delivered to the actors themselves, “to speak no more than is set down for them.” The present art consisted in happily performing the reverse.

Much of the merit of these actors unquestionably must be attributed to the felicity of the national genius. But there were probably some secret aids in this singular art of Extemporal Comedy which the pride of the artist has concealed. Some traits in the character, and some wit in the dialogue, might descend traditionally; and the most experienced actor on that stage would make use of his memory more than he was willing to confess. Goldoni records an unlucky adventure of his “Harlequin Lost and Found,” which outline he had sketched for the Italian company; it was well received at Paris, but utterly failed at Fontainebleau, for some of the actors had thought proper to incorporate too many jokes of the “Cocu Imaginaire,” which displeased the court, and ruined the piece. When a new piece was to be performed, the chief actor summoned the troop in the morning, read the plot, and explained the story, to contrive scenes. It was like playing the whole performance before the actors. These hints of scenes were all the rehearsal. When the actor entered on the scene he did not know what was to come, nor had he any prompter to help him on; much, too, depended on the talents of his companions; yet sometimes a scene might be preconcerted. Invention, humour, bold conception of character, and rapid strokes of genius, they habitually exercised–and the pantomimic arts of gesture, the passionate or humorous expression of their feelings, would assist an actor when his genius for a moment had deserted him. Such excellence was not long hereditary, and in the decline of this singular art its defects became more apparent. The race had degenerated; the inexperienced actor became loquacious; long monologues were contrived by a barren genius to hide his incapacity for spirited dialogue; and a wearisome repetition of trivial jests, coarse humour, and vulgar buffoonery, damned the Commedia a soggetto, and sunk it to a Bartholomew-fair play. But the miracle which genius produced it may repeat, whenever the same happy combination of circumstances and persons shall occur together.

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I shall give one anecdote to record the possible excellence of the art. Louis Riccoboni, known in the annals of this theatre by the adopted name of Lelio, his favourite amoroso character, was not only an accomplished actor, but a literary man; and with his wife Flaminia, afterwards the celebrated novelist, displayed a rare union of talents and of minds. It was suspected that they did not act all’ improvista, from the facility and the elegance of their dialogue; and a clamour was now raised in the literary circles, who had long been jealous of the fascination which attracted the public to the Italian theatre. It was said that the Riccobonis were imposing on the public credulity; and that their pretended Extemporal Comedies were preconcerted scenes. To terminate this civil war between the rival theatres, La Motte offered to sketch a plot in five acts, and the Italians were challenged to perform it. This defiance was instantly accepted. On the morning of the representation Lelio detailed the story to his troop, hung up the Scenario in its usual place, and the whole company was ready at the drawing of the curtain. The plot given in by La Motte was performed to admiration; and all Paris witnessed the triumph. La Motte afterwards composed this very comedy for the French theatre, L’Amante difficile, yet still the extemporal one at the Italian theatre remained a more permanent favourite; and the public were delighted by seeing the same piece perpetually offering novelties and changing its character at the fancy of the actors. This fact conveys an idea of dramatic execution which does not enter into our experience. Riccoboni carried the Commedie dell’ Arte to a new perfection, by the introduction of an elegant fable and serious characters; and he raised the dignity of the Italian stage, when he inscribed on its curtain,

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[Footnote 1:
Some of the ancient Scenarie were printed in 1661, by Flaminius Scala, one of their great actors. These, according to Riccoboni, consist of nothing more than the skeletons of Comedies; the canevas, as the French technically term a plot and its scenes. He says, “They are not so short as those we now use to fix at the back of the scenes, nor so full as to furnish any aid to the dialogue: they only explain what the actor did on the stage, and the action which forms the subject, nothing more.” ]

[Footnote 2:
The passage in Livy is, “Juventus, histrionibus fabellarum actu relicto, ipsa inter se, more antiquo, ridicula intexta versibus jactitare caepit.” Lib. vii. cap. 2. ]

[Footnote 3:
As these Atellanae Fabulae were never written, they have not descended to us in any shape. It has, indeed, been conjectured that Horace, in the fifth Satire of his first Book, v. 51, has preserved a scene of this nature between two practised buffoons in the “Pugnam Sarmenti Scurrae,” who challenges his brother Cicerrus, equally ludicrous and scurrilous. But surely these were rather the low humour of the Mimes, than of the Atellan Farcers. ]

[Footnote 4:
Melmoth’s Letters of Cicero, B. viii. lett. 20; in Graevius’s edition, Lib. ix. ep. 16. ]

[Footnote 5:
This passage also shows that our own custom of annexing a Farce, or petite piece, or Pantomime, to a tragic Drama, existed among the Romans: the introduction of the practice in our country seems not to be ascertained; and it is conjectured not to have existed before the Restoration. Shakspeare and his contemporaries probably were spectators of only a single drama. ]

[Footnote 6:
Storia Critica del Teatri de Signorelli, tom. iii. 258.–Baretti mentions a collection of four thousand dramas, made by Apostolo Zeno, of which the greater part were comedies. He allows that in tragedies his nation is inferior to the English and the French; but “no nation,” he adds, “can be compared with us for pleasantry and humour in comedy.” Some of the greatest names in Italian literature were writers of comedy. Ital. Lib. 119. ]

[Footnote 7:
Altieri explains Formica as a crabbed fellow who acts the butt in a farce. ]

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