Moving from the Archive: Historiography and "Authenticity" in Commedia dell'Arte Performance

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This dissertation examines the multiple definitions of “Commedia dell’Arte” in historiography and contemporary performance, analyzing potentials and problematics behind attempts to understand “historical” Commedia dell’Arte and to (re)construct contemporary Commedia using what Franklin J. Hildy calls an “applied theater history” approach. Employing archival historiography, literary analysis, art historical techniques, practical dramaturgy, Practice-as-Research, and qualitative research, I describe different realities of Commedia dell’Arte performance from history and contemporary practice, including ways in which “mistakes” or “appropriations” in the form have become included within its present identities.

Chapter One describes the status of the field, problems, and approaches to identifying what Commedia dell’Arte “is” today based upon autoethnography and interview material from contemporary practitioners, whose competing approaches inform the ongoing conversation. Chapter Two traces the history of the form known as “Commedia dell’Arte” from its origins to contemporary pedagogy with special attention given to appropriations, evolutions, distortions, and efforts at reproduction. In Chapter Three, I narrow the focus to a specific case-study—a recent production of the classic scenario Il Cavadente (The Tooth-Puller) from the Commedia dell’Arte repertoire—with special attention to the problematics of translating, interpreting, and reconstructing historical sources as dramatic literary content. Chapter Four describes an art-historical approach to assessing, analyzing, and utilizing iconography from Commedia dell’Arte’s history, while Chapter Five describes a specific attempt to design the visual world for a contemporary production of The Tooth-Puller with reference to competing goals of faithfulness to the tradition and availability for artistic innovation. Chapter Six employs Practice-as-Research (and what I advocate as Research-as-Practice) to embody reimagined characters based on the Commedia archive. Chapter Seven utilizes participant interviews and audience surveys to reflect upon Ole Miss Theatre & Film’s production of The Tooth-Puller, the final (though always fluid) script of which is included as Appendix A. This concluding chapter also reflects, through the voices of contemporary teachers and practitioners, on the nature of Commedia dell’Arte and its place in current actor training and theatrical innovation.

While the field of Commedia practitioners today is divided between those who prescribe an “authentic” system for “historical” Commedia and those who freely declare that “Commedia doesn’t exist” in any knowable form, this dissertation models a middle way of interacting faithfully and rigorously with extant data from the past in order to freely create a continuation of the Commedia tradition for the future.