13 July 2011

Zaniness

The word zany comes from Italian. Zanni was a character in the ‘Commedia dell'arte’. Zanni or Zani in French was a servant cum coyote trickster, kin to Wodehouse’s Jeeves. Zanni is Venetian dialect for Gianni or John. This name often rang in the countryside surrounding Venice where peasants raised servants for a wealthy Gondola-Class. La Commedia dell'arte form of theatre, with its stock of set characters, had its heyday during the Renaissance, but regionally, similar theatre sport existed during the Roman Empire and the Ancient Greek playwrights only ever had room for three actors per play.

History holds it has always been safer to mock the elite and render the foibles of the state from behind a mask. For that matter, primitive cultures have donned the mask as talisman, token of God; symbolising at once, union, while confirming separation. The actor/actors who played Zanni, or his altar-ego, Arlecchino (Harlequin), required deep insight into politics and human nature. Certainly, the popularity of La Commedia in Renaissance Europe can be attributed to the panoply of talents evident in the extemporaneous excellence of actors who were also singing, dancing acrobats. I say, get thee to a Peking Opera School, Jackie Chan.

Across the Channel, in a kingdom built upon the ruins of camps fortified by the ancestors of these actors, the birth of Shakespeare and Marlowe coincides with the period when companies such as Gelosi Company, Zan Ganassa Company and Confidenti Company began touring the rest of Europe, often performing for the aristocracy. These two English playwrights were both to turn ten in 1574, the first time such an Italian company is recorded as performing in England. It would then be another 22 years or so before crumpled, sweat and swill stained manuscripts of The Two Gentleman of Verona, The Bard’s first play, were stuffed into the breeches and boots of English actors. Pulcinella, another character of La Commedia, begat Punchinello, who sired Punch, who married Judy. Much later, Freddie Mercury would implore, “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?”

O how I yearn for the jongleur’s life once more...

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