In praise of Commedia dell’arte
The roots of improvisational energy in the Western world run through Commedia dell’arte, a style of theater that first appeared around 1550 in Venice, the trading capital of the Western World at the time, and the one place where terpene-rich spices and stimulants flowed into the rest of Europe.
Over a century earlier, this same territory had birthed The Society of Smokers, the first composers of secular sheet music. I’d imagine high-quality hash provided the inspiration for that group’s appearance, although the Society was quickly dispatched off the planet and probably sparked the Inquisitions, some of which involved persecution of cannabis, facilitator of improvisational (sacred) energies. The reason so many women were accused of witchcraft is because it was highly-regarded as a medicine in their midwife culture. The Vatican, in case you didn’t know, had outlawed even speaking the word “cannabis.” Even though it grew wild in every stream bank at the time, you couldn’t say it’s name, which is why Rabelais called it the herb Pantigruelion at the time.
Maybe you’ve heard of the San Francisco Mime Troupe? I must confess I was a mime for two months in the late 1960s, and inspired my sidekick Larry Green to travel to France to study under the greatest living master of the genre. Larry and I put on some amazing improvisational performances before he left for France, always spontaneous and free to attend.
Mime is based off just one character in Commedia, the one who didn’t talk. His name was Pierrot. But there were a lot of other characters.
The Commedia troupes were the Merry Prankster and Grateful Dead of their day, traveling from festival to festival and putting on improvisational performances that involved music, comedy, and probably contained a dose of political satire. When you open up to pure improvisational energy, what rushes in tends to be really clean energy and that’s when real magic manifests.
There’s an under-appreciated film from 1952 starring Stuart Granger: Scaramouche, who was one of the greatest Commedia characters, and the one who always appeared dressed fully in black. He could be played as a fool or a trickster, a dummy or a genius.
That movie is the greatest sword fighting movie ever made far as I know, and the action sequences still hold up today. It was one of the first films to display realistic battles. Nothing like the gore today, but in the 1950s few film deaths showed red spots, much less the super realistic explosive charges that became ubiquitous after The Wild Bunch. Because it was all sword fighting, and extremely well choreographed, the deaths are quite realistic compared with every other sword fighting film of the time.
I don’t know if Ben Hogan saw the film but it’s amazing how the instructor tells Scaramouche to hold his sword like a bird, not too tight and not too loose. That’s exactly how Hogan told everyone to hold a golf club.