The world owes a lot to Pulcinella.
In the five hundred years or so of commedia dell’arte in Europe, its influence on the allegedly “legitimate” theater has been extensive and renowned, most obviously in the works of Goldoni and Shakespeare, and of course a long tradition of improv comedy throughout the world. It’s worked its way also into the English novel via Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne. Above all it’s given the world remarkable characters that even people who know nothing about commedia recognize, such as Arlecchino (Harlequin) in all his manifestations.
But my favorite has always been Pulcinella. Arlecchino gave us a thousand rubbishy romance novels. Pulcinella gave us slapstick comedy. Arlecchino is the strait-laced, romantic, vagabond hero of the Italian north. Pulcinella is the voice of the south. He is not strait-laced. He is not romantic, not even a little. He is anarchy itself. He follows no rules, gives no one respect, and scoffs at everything and everyone. Modern portrayals of Pulcinella on stage tend to cast him as a scheming psychopath and more than a little unpleasant.
To me, however, he has always been like Raven, or Coyote, or Anansi, or Loki, or Sisyphus, or the Monkey King, or Reynard the Fox. He is The Trickster character supreme, whose anarchic tendency is necessary to shake up and redefine the social order of one’s world. Pulcinella tricks everyone, thumbs his nose at everything, and never apologizes for it. This is exactly why authority figures around the world have despised him for the better part of four centuries. A New York Times article from February 11, 1896 describes one “grave gentleman” bemoaning the violence of the show, in particular its policeman-beating scene and crying “It is a shame to show such things to children! How can you expect them to have any respect for the law?” If this sounds familiar, it probably is: it’s the refrain of do-gooders everywhere who think that if you just do what everyone tells you life will turn out perfectly.
Pulcinella disagrees, and so do I. To see this quality of Pulcinella, however, one usually has to get away from the stage and head to the puppet theater, where the tradition of dissent is alive and well. As Paul Mesner put it in his talk after the show at NW Puppet Center last Friday, “Every day for the past 350 years someone somewhere at some time is doing this exact same show or something very like it.”
Mr. Mesner’s version of Pulcinella is pleasantly anarchic and filled with the copious amounts of pointless violence that makes slapstick slapstick. Every reason parents can think of to ban their children’s cartoons and comics are here in full regalia: complete lack of respect for private property and authority figures, a thoroughly arbitrary morality, and a negation of all things safe and bourgeois. In short: my kind of play.
Beyond the wonderful chaos of the storytelling itself, however, one gets a real sense of Mr. Mesner’s rhythmic genius not only in how he structures his scenes by duration, but also within each scene itself. His use of sound is quite exquisite, particularly in the alternation between the sounds of the slapstick and the wooden hand claps. The clapping dance between Pulcinella and the dog offers a remarkable example of his skill in action. It makes me thankful for Pulcinella’s evolution from marionette to hand puppet. The hand puppet version can play much more broadly. Everything the puppeteer does with the figure can be shorter, sharper, more ecstatic. Mr. Mesner plays with these qualities adroitly, creating his own compelling version of the traditional story of Pulcinella’s battle against Death. Having studied with Bruno Leone instead of the more strictly traditional Salvatore Gatto, Mr. Mesner has made the piece much more in his own image than another student of Gatto would, but it is not weaker for that; it’s simply different. That difference and variation is, I think, the greatest strength of the tradition and is in many ways more traditional than what Signore Gatto might call tradition. It takes Pulcinella back his roots in commedia.
Dickens once wrote of the English version of Pulcinella, aka Mr. Punch, that “In my opinion street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realties of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct.”
While I agree with him, authorities around the world have rarely agreed with Mr. Dickens’ assessment, and so to this day Mr. Mesner retains the traditional stage design that features an embroidered mask with eye holes on the front of the stage–so that the puppeteer can see the police coming. His own version of the Pulcinella story is not likely to get him into trouble with authorities in these parts–but one never knows. They may well try to arrest him for trying to do something that doesn’t put audiences to sleep.