Rambling Thoughts About Writing in the Commedia Dell’Arte Style

Dave and I went to see a staged reading of a new play last night. Overall, it wasn’t really very good — the characters were well drawn and funny in the commedia dell’arte style (which basically means what you might call “comedy of types”, in the sense of simple, easily recognized character types). But they never really got very far beyond their basic types — the gay men were flamboyant, catty, temperamental, creative, and sex-driven; the wealthy woman spent outrageous sums without thinking to get whatever she wanted; her daughter was spoiled and shallow; and so on. Don’t get me wrong, they were stereotypes but pretty well-written ones, almost always funny and only occasionally edging into possibly borderline offensive territory (that line about cucumbers, for example).

But there was a predictable paint-by-numbers quality to it, too, with very little to make the characters particular to this play, and after 15 minutes or so I wanted to tell them all that, okay, I really and truly get who you all are, so now can we do something with this information rather than just continue spinning out further variations, however well crafted, of the same eleven or twelve jokes?

There seemed to me to be no genuine conflict until about ten minutes before the end of the play. I think those two things are the same issue, actually. The way you develop a character in the commedia dell’arte style, as everybody is a “type” and there are no psychological depths to be explored, is to start with the archetype and then give each principal character one clear goal to work toward, something vitally important to that character, something that seems at the start to be impossibly difficult to attain, yet that he or she will go to extraordinary means to pursue. Then the character is particularized by this desire and by the manner in which he or she goes after it. (A common variation is to define a character in terms of what he or she desperately wants to avoid. Best of all, if you can do it without cluttering things up too much, is one of each: The central character desperately wants to get the woman he’s smitten by while staying far away from the mafiosi who are after him, or she desperately wants to rescue her boyfriend from pirates while not being herself kidnapped and bedded by the pirate captain.) In a nutshell that’s the classic basis of both strong melodrama and strong farce, depending on whether your tone of voice is serious or comic.

If an archetypal character doesn’t have an all-consuming desire to go after, though, he or she doesn’t have anywhere much to go, and that was the problem with last night’s play. Until quite late in the play, nobody had anything that they wanted so badly that they’d go to extraordinary means to get it; there was nothing that anybody was trying to avoid at all costs; nobody had any serious obstacles to getting what they wanted. There was no real conflict, just a lot of bitchy talk. Very funny bitchy talk, most of the time, but with never anything much at stake. It was like weak sitcom writing, everybody working very hard at swapping zingers to cover up the fact that nothing much was happening.

Near the end, though, a plot finally appeared, when the wealthy woman secretly bribed someone to try and sabotage her own daughter’s engagement. This never really led anywhere, though — it was too late in the play, the man never actually did anything to try and break up the couple, and the couple ended up breaking up on their own, just from their own incompatibility.

Then the sentimental ending in which all the seemingly cold and hypocritical (and therefore theatrically interesting) characters are revealed to have hearts of marshmallow after all. Everybody stops squabbling, drops the bitchiness, and makes up with everybody else, the sort of sitcom ending that is supposed to be heart-warming but always seems to me to be underlining how really unimportant the situation has been all along.

It’s always irritated me when a character who throughout the story has only been drawn in one dimension for perfectly legitimate comic or melodramatic purposes suddenly turns sweet and gooey in the last scene just because the playright thinks it’s time to make the audience go “aww!” In the final scene, Regina Giddens admits with tears in her eyes that she really always loved Horace, and she and her brothers are moved to make up their silly little misunderstanding, realizing that the love of family is what really matters after all; Sweeney Todd suddenly decides to let bygones be bygone and tells Mrs. Lovett to pack her bags, because he’s taking her away this very afternoon to that little cottage by the sea she’s dreamed of for so long; Lady Bracknell embraces Jack warmly, confesses that she has disapproved only because her own heart was once cruelly broken in her sensitive youth, and we see for the first time that under her lovably crusty exterior, all she ever really wanted was for Gwendolen to be very, very happy.

No, no, no, I just don’t get how you can even want to make the entire play depend for its working on the presentation of a character as single-minded and archetypal, and then in the last five minutes suddenly give this character a heart and soul and expect me to do an about-face and feel instant sympathy. If this has been the character’s nature all along, then what on earth has the rest of the play been about? If he or she is really that flexible and forgiving, what exactly have we been fretting about the whole evening? If the characters can shrug off so easily and nonchalantly in the final scene the conflict that has been driving the whole play, then aren’t we in the audience now being told that any emotional engagement with the story and the characters that we may have felt up to this point, based as it was on the now-exploded idea that anything has ever really been at stake for anyone, was all just a matter of ha-ha-fooled-you-into-caring?

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