Devil’s Dance

James H. Johnson

in Venice Incognito

Published by University of California Press

Published in print February 2011 | ISBN: 9780520267718
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520948624 | DOI:
Devil’s Dance

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)


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This chapter focuses on the theatre of the commedia dell’arte. The commedia’arte was the descendant of buffoni. One of the distinguishing features of the commedia dell’arte was the use of masks. Masks were part of the magic of those theaters. Masks freed actors and at the same time fixed their characters. Men and women cross-dressed, Christians posed as Turks, masters posed as servants, and several others became false magicians, pilgrims, beggars, and others. For the followers of commedia dell’arte, the theater was a magical world, filled with spinning convoluted stories with a few simple props and prodigious reserves of inventiveness. For the disapproving, the theater was the work of the devil. For the religious, commedia performances represented mortal sin for both the actors and the spectators, particularly the actresses. Actresses were seen as on a par with prostitutes and they were seen as agents of Satan. The masks that came with the performances of the commedia were also seen as agents of sin. To the religious, the masks transformed humans into beasts, allowing them to utter profanity, make lewd gestures, and commit immodest acts. However, when seen on a different perspective, the vices and desires of the commedia dell’arte were in actual fact just a version of reality. By laughing at the commedia’s absurdity, the audiences laughed at their own flaws. In addition, the masks of the commedia were not disguised contrary to the common notion. On the contrary, they preserved identities. Commedia masks held their characters in tact even as particular plots placed them in different occupations and family configurations. The mask also established the distance between the role and the performer.

Keywords: commedia dell’arte; masks; devil; agents of Satan; commedia

Chapter.  4771 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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