One of the most instructive texts on the Commedia dell' Arte that I read while researching The Innamorati was John Rudlin's classic Commedia dell' Arte: An Actor's Handbook. It is a wonderful combination of history, explanation of the different stock characters and their individual personalities, mask work, and performance technique for Commedia. It has been argued that what made the Commedia so vital in its time was its fluidity, the ability of a troup to shape a performance to any audience. The stock figures (masked and unmasked) had a list of specific characteristcs, a recognized persona. But within that framework, performers could improvise and invent provided they didn't do an injury to the essence of the character.
Here is a short video by a contemporary actor, Carlos Garcia Estevez talking about the mask, and in particular the brilliant work of Donato Sartori -- perhaps Commendia dell'Arte's most famous mask maker.
It is remarkable to think of a troupe pulling together the suggestion of a story, stock bits of action, a verse from a well known song, local politics or gossip, and improvisation in between to make this both a studied and yet a free wheeling performance. The great playwright Carlo Goldoni would in the 18th century pin down the plays by scripting them to within an inch of their lives. He desire was to preserve the Commedia tradition though the result was to effectively kill it. He wanted a more elegant theater, a more predicatable outcome for every performance. And he despised the mask, believing it to be an obstruction to truely skilled acting claiming "the soul under a mask is like a fire under the ashes." Yet, many of the great masked performers speak of the almost frightning and mythic possession by the mask, their work shaped by the power of the mask, rather than their will. And such a surrendering to the mask necessitates a non-egotistical work, "a state of availability of mind and body, or rather mind in body." (And any writer on a really good writing day can attest to something similar in their work experience -- where the writing flows as if the characters are in charge and not the writer.)
Research Notes: Rudlin, Commedia dell'Arte:
"Persona versus Personality: A masked man had no right to bear arms during Carnival season in medieval Italy because he was considered to have divested himself of his own identity by assuming another person, for who actions he was therefore not responsible. Similarly, in commedia dell' arte...personality disappeared to be replaced by type: the personality of the actor is thus overtaken not by an author's scripted character, but by the persona of the mask to be played." (34)
"Each mask represents a moment in everyone's (rather than someone's life). That is not to say that the fixed types of the Commedia are simplistic or reductiveof life: each contains and expresses at least one paradox and its seemingly obvious physicality usually implies a metaphysical quality which may take an actor years tp acquire. " (35)
"The actor who plays in a mask receives the reality of his character from a cardboard object. He is commanded by it and must obey it willy-nilly. No sooner has he put it on than he feels an unknown being spread into his veins of whose existence he had no suspicion. It is not only his facewhich is modified, it is his entire being, the very nature of his reflexesd where feelings are already performing themselves that he was equally incapable of feeling or feigning when bared-faced...even the tone of his voice will be dictated by his mask." (Jacques Copeau, Reflexiion d'un comedien sur le Paradoxe de Diderot.) (36)
"The 'great' Commedia actors tended in fact to 'become' their masks, and their biographies often became inextricably intermingled with the characteristics of the Mask. Antonio Fava teaches that when the mask is raised after performing, it should seem as if the actor's face is still formed by it, wearing its imprint, if no longer it's actual contours." (36)
Dario Fo writes: "Firstly wearing a mask can, in an actor, induce anxiety deriving not so much from the use itself as from the fact that the mask restricts both the visual field and the accoustical-vocal range...That is the first reason. Then there is a second which is mythical, magical almost. A singular sensation afflicts you when you take off the mask--this is at least my reaction--the fear that part of my face has remained stuck to it, or the fear that the face has gone with the mask. When you remove the mask after having had it on for two or three hours, you have the impression of annihilating yourself." (37)
"The other reason for leather (masks) is that it is practical. Italy is a hot country. Playing Commedia is sweaty business. A new leather mask is like a new shoe or glove, only gradually will it take onm the identity of its wearer and become something comfortable rather than alien to wear. Simply, the two skins learn to co-operate rather than conflict." (39)