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Book Review : When Comedy Makes Its Way Around Once Again

June 18, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Triumph of Pierrot, the Commedia dell'Arte and the Modern Imagination by Martin Green and John Swan (Macmillan; $25)

There are two ways of photographing people, and they obey opposite concepts. One is to capture a person in action or repose as if the camera were not there. The other is to make the camera a participant. The subject is aware of it; the photograph is both the subject and the subject's response.

Each method can verge upon art or achieve it; yet it is art of two very different kinds. Or rather, it is a matter of contradictory principles that have existed, contended or merged in Western art since the Renaissance, at least.

The first proclaims that art should submerge in reality and bring it back--directly, through realism; indirectly, through symbols; or even, by antithesis, through certain kinds of surreal or abstract techniques. Thus, like Michelangelo and Rembrandt, thus Winslow Homer and Manet, thus even Mondrian or Malevich. Or Tolstoy, Dickens and Theodore Dreiser. Or Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen and O'Neill.

Second Principle

The second principle proclaims that art should declare itself and refer to itself. Reality is not altered or embodied; at best, it is played to and performed at. Reality is not open country to be conquered by strenuous hiking; it is a prison that can be lightened--and perhaps, in some ultimate way, conquered as well--by ingenious, malicious or lovely performances within its walls. Thus, Piero di Cosimo, Paul Klee, and much of Picasso. Thus, Laurence Sterne, Apollinaire, Evelyn Waugh and much of Rilke. Thus, Fellini, Bergman and Marcel Carne's "Les Enfants du Paradis." Thus, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Peter Brook and--yes--Shakespeare.

And, thus, as Martin Green and John Swan declare with a grand sweep that is both maddening and provocative, the whole tradition of Commedia dell'Arte.

Green, who seems to be the book's leading voice, is a cultural historian and philosopher of large vision. He travels by balloon and sees a long way, though sometimes at a tilt. In a previous flight, "Children of the Sun," he produced a stimulating analysis of decadence in British art and society. In this book, he and Swan use the tradition of the early Italian strolling players as reference and metaphor for the declarative and self-reflective tradition in Western art.

As originated in Italy, and refined in France at the time of Moliere, Commedia dell'Arte was a tradition of performing a group of basic stories, marked by improvisation, vivid costumes and masks, and the use of music, dance and acrobatics.

Fundamental Figures

Its three fundamental figures included Harlequin, the unquenchable, womanizing and sometimes sinister clown. He dressed in party-colored diamonds and carried a small but useful stick. There was Pierrot, the sad clown in white; and there was Columbine, promiscuous and a survivor. Her heart goes to the poetic Pierrot but her body usually ends up with Harlequin.

The authors identified particular qualities in the Harlequin-Pierrot tradition. It was "consciously brittle" and possessed "a readiness for reversal." It was marked by extravagance and gaiety, beneath which was a vein of sadness and sometimes violence.

It was frail, and easily submerged by more vital artistic currents. The severe Mme. de Maintenon exiled it from the Bourbon court to make way for the grandeur of Racine. It had no chance "against the Puritan steadiness of the 19th Century," against a Dickens or a Matthew Arnold, against a Victor Hugo or a Tolstoy. Pierrot and Harlequin, the authors write, "do not belong in the same part of our minds as our plans for our own future."

And, in fact, they place the resurgence of what they call the "commedic" spirit at the end of the 19th Century. In other words, just when our sense of the future began to give way, just when humanity's notion of its own progress lost its straight lines and became increasingly circular.

Circularity, Recurrence

Circularity and recurrence are the heart of the "commedic" spirit. The Italian troupers would parade musically around the village square, before or after a performance. There are circular parades in Fellini and sometimes in Bergman. The love-circle in Arthur Schnitzler's "La Ronde" is a turn-of-the-century "commedic" re-emergence. Late Shakespeare has its thematic returns: Prospero breaks his staff, and the lost wife of "The Winter Tale" comes back. The greatest achievement of Britain's post-war stage craft was, with its musicality and heartbreaking curtain-calls, to rediscover this Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday circularity in the Monday-Wednesday-Friday linearity of Avon's Swan.

Repeating, circling back and alternating big concepts with a mass of often trivial detail, the authors tell of 40 years--1890 to 1930--when the "commedic" spirit, or Pierrot's triumph, was at its height.

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