Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Moliere, Commedia Dell'arte, and the Question of Influence in Early Modern European Theatre

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Moliere, Commedia Dell'arte, and the Question of Influence in Early Modern European Theatre

Article excerpt

Moliere, Commedia dell'arte, and the Question of Influence in Early Modern European Theatre by Richard Andrews

Although Moliere's links with Italian commedia dell' arte are recognized in general terms, there is still much analysis to be conducted on the level of detail. This paper attempts on the one hand to identify some typical units of comic monologue and dialogue which can be seen as influenced by practices of Italian comedy, both scripted and improvised. At the same time, it raises questions about the criteria which should be adopted in identifying 'sources' and 'influence' in this period of European drama when, within the theatre profession, texts and ideas were circulated by oral transmission as often as by written means.

The notion that the commedia dell'arte and Moliere have something to do with each other is hardly a new one. As a performer, Moliere was compared more than once in his lifetime to contemporary Italian actors--sometimes perhaps as a compliment, at other times as an accusation of plagiarism. As a playwright, his regular use of Italian models was perhaps first systematically highlighted by Luigi Riccoboni, in the early eighteenth century. (1) Riccoboni might have been biased, being himself a practitioner of comedie italienne in Paris; but the subject has never gone away since, and for most commentators it is now just a commonplace that Moliere lived and worked cheek by jowl with Italian actors, had Italian playscripts in his personal library, and was subject therefore to a steady stream of influence from Italian dramatic material. It might be supposed, then, that the subject has now been covered, and that there is no more to say. In fact, close examination of relevant material suggests that much remains to be researched and understood. In 1999 the Swiss scholar Claude Bourqui published a hugely impressive survey of Moliere's sources, (2) which gives the impression of being definitive; but Bourqui himself insisted in his own introduction to that volume that there is more work still to be done on Italian material in particular. He suggests (on p. 19) that surviving scenarios of Italian improvised theatre have not yet been studied as closely as they could be, either in themselves or in their implications for other drama. Bourqui's work is invaluable, and it is impossible now to work without constant reference to it. The present essay nevertheless claims to offer some further proposals, in respect of both material and methodology, which it is hoped will complement his approach rather than subvert it, and which may also suggest further lines of detailed enquiry. The proposals relate equally to the specific question of Italian influences on Moliere, and to the wider question of what we can regard as a 'source' in early modern European theatre.

In the first place we could suggest that, in order to designate the Italian material to which Moliere was responding, the very use of the words commedia dell'arte is understandable but has its dangers. The term itself was not known in Moliere's time: it is not documented until its use by Goldoni in 1750,. (3) Since then, a stereotype picture has been created of what commedia dell'arte was (or ought to be, or ought to have been), on which Italian researches of the last thirty years should now cast considerable doubt. It is a romanticized image, clung to especially hard by some French scholars, and indeed it was created first of all in France out of the researches of Maurice Sand. One of its most obstinate, but in fact most questionable, assumptions is formulated by Gustave Attinger at the end of his 1950 study of 'the Spirit' of commedia dell'arte in French theatre. 'La commedia dell'arte,' he says, 'c'est une conception plastique du theatre'; and a little later 'la commedia dell'arte subordonne tout au spectacle'. (4) In other words, it is allegedly a non-verbal form of theatre, in which meaning is regularly entrusted to gesture, slapstick, even mime, more often than to words. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.