TEXT review  

Scriptwriters? Who Needs Them?

review by RA Goodrich


Steven Gration and Nicky Peelgrane
Commedia Oz: Playing Commedia in Contemporary Australia
Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, 2008
ISBN 978-0-86819-820-0
Pb, 179 + xiipp. AU$32.95

Commedia Oz is expressly a manual instructing Antipodean actors and directors, teachers and students in the traditions and the adaptability of commedia dell'arte. Whilst not departing radically from manuals produced in Europe and North America, it is unashamedly local as befits so much of the specific socio-cultural nature of humour, whether farcical or satirical, ironic or sardonic, characteristic of commedia. What distinguishes this volume from like works is not so much its practical tips nor its historical briefings. Furthermore, it is not the only manual to feature exercises for children and adolescents at primary and secondary levels of school respectively or, for that matter, developmentally graded suggestions for pedagogic assessment. Rather, it distinctively intersperses amongst its eight colloquially entitled chapters excerpts from the authors' journals during the production and performance of Stardust, the April 2000 script penned by co-author and director Steven Gration. The script figures in the seventh chapter (126-151) which teachers and students-'our apprentice Commedia chefs' (xi) - are invited to read before embarking upon preceding chapters. Added to this is Gration's interview in June 1991 with Jacques Lecoq, whose intensely physical training of actors included an exploration of commedia along with the realms of burlesque and melodrama, tragedy and buffoonery, reproduced together with a running commentary in the sixth chapter (107-113).

That said, for those of us interested in writing and the performing arts, Gration and Peelgrane betray a noticeable tension between the improvised and the written (104), which translates, ultimately, into a misleading segue from commedia dell'arte into contemporary scriptwriting pedagogy. It is a tension that, as they contend in passing, derives from a division within 18th century European practice (15-16). To elaborate briefly, Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi, the authors believe, upheld the use of masked, improvised, episodic work exploiting the ludicrous and the deceptive, the self-deprecatory and the anarchic in everyday dialectic, punning word play and thereby appeared to be drawing from commedia dell'arte. His Love of Three Oranges [L'amore delle tre melarance] (1761) was pitted against the fully scripted, less fantastical development of stage comedy, including musical comedy or opera buffa, deliberately cultivated by rival playwright Carlo Goldoni in such pieces as Servant of Two Masters [Il servitore di due padroni] (1745) and Country Philosopher [Il filosofo di campagna] (1752) respectively. Goldoni self-consciously looked to the craft of French satirical actor and playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin ('Molière'), who had himself notably employed techniques of commedia dell'arte in such plays as Sganarelle ou Le Cocu imaginaire [The Imaginary Cuckold] (1660).

Gration and Peelgrane then suddenly skip two centuries to a revival of commedia dell'arte in Europe during the late 'forties, which they associate with the teaching of Jacques Lecoq in Italy and France, without pausing to consider the whys and the wherefores. This neglect is in keeping with their tendency to skirt around the role of the improvised and the scripted, seen, for example, in Peelgrane's journal notes:

What I learned from the exercise is how much energy is required in Commedia and that the storytelling comes from a small part of dialogue and a large part of action. How this opposes the naturalistic cerebral courtroom drama that dominates so much TV... although the physical environment was mimed ... I had absolutely no trouble using my imagination to fill in the gaps. This was aided by vocal sounds and only a few words (52).

What she passes over in silence is how intensely verbal a medium television is by contrast, say, to cinema, and that dialogue, whether scripted or improvised, whether naturalistic or not, necessarily frames and dominates televisual portrayals of action across all dramatic genres.

Again, when introducing the readers to 'experimenting with recipes of their own' (89), the authors briefly touch upon burle which refers to 'verbal comedy, word play, puns and witticisms' (95). In 'successful' performances, readers are assured, albeit in largely aesthetic terms, that 'burle is beautifully balanced with the lazzi and physical comedy' (95). This is subsequently translated into a guide that 'is a mixture of Goldoni and Gozzi methods - some parts are improvised, others are written' (104). But what precisely for Gration and Peelgrane is scripted? Three major factors are nominated: a summary of the story or scenario in 'fifty words or less'; a division of the story or scenario into 'a numbered list of scenes (canovacci) that can be used backstage as a guide'; and 'a record of what is said (the good stuff, anyway) so that the story can begin to take a more polished shape' (104-105). However, the final chapter's suggested activities for teachers' assessments includes one entitled 'Playwriting', aimed at middle and senior secondary students:

Individually, students are to write a list of scenes (canovacci) for a Commedia performance based on a choice of given themes ... or titles ... From these listed scenes, they are to choose one scene to write in detail. It must contain two to three Commedia characters and at least one example of a lazzo (with detailed stage directions) and several examples of burle. Students should demonstrate appropriate characterisation, dialogue, movement, physical attributes, personality traits, and relationships with other characters (156).

Clearly, we have implicitly returned to the more fully scripted stage associated with both Goldoni and Gozzi, which their often vitriolic rivalry, both theatrical and political, tends to disguise. Perhaps this indicates the extent to which historical practice can be distorted by present-day notions of writing and the stage.

How might we account for this apparent slippage, if not lacunae, in Gration and Peelgrane's handling of scriptwriting and commedia dell'arte? The answer does not fully reside in the constraints of the practical manual as a genre. Nor does it lie in the limitations in the knowledge of its target audience. Rather, their problem is as much historical as it is conceptual. And, in saying this, we do not mean such shortcomings as their heavy reliance upon such early accounts of commedia dell'arte as exemplified by a Pierre-Louis Ducharte (1966) without any acknowledgement of, say, a Kenneth Richards and Laura Richards (1990) specifically upon commedia or a Marvin Carlson (2004) generally upon performance.

Without laying claims to the origins and evolution of commedia dell'arte as Gration and Peelgrane do (11-16), we find it curious that they pay no attention to its deep connections with the 'culture of folk carnival humor' associated by Mikhail Bakhtin (1968: 3-6) with, for example, the parish fête, the town square, and the village marketplace. Existing outside the sphere of Church and State whilst playfully parodying both, carnival rituals and activities 'do not command nor do they ask for anything':

the basic carnival nucleus of this culture is by no means a purely artistic form nor a spectacle and does not, generally speaking, belong to the sphere of art. It belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play (Bakhtin 1968: 7).

Whilst reminding their readers only in passing of the value of observing 'how people walk, talk, shout, play and interact with one another' in 'a shopping centre, Sunday market or sporting event' (17), Gration and Peelgrane constantly connect the stock figures of commedia to those found in popular cinema and television, never mentioning the highly variable role scripting may play in depicting the central quartet of characters in, to cite one of their favoured examples, the Seinfeld series devised and principally co-written by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld up to May 1998.

In so far as commedia dell'arte in the period before Gozzi and Goldoni, indeed before Molière, was rooted in the carnivalesque as Andres Lombana (2007) for example realises, then Gration and Peelgrane have failed to recognise fully its non-theatrical, non-institutional dimension:

carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it (Bakhtin 1968:7).

It is a failure shared by recent generations of historians and critics (not to mention teachers of writing) who see in improvised stage business of institutionalised entertainment - theatres and hotels, clubs and cinema - a genre all too readily identifiable with commedia. Furthermore, because commedia as carnivalesque 'marked the suspension' of 'norms' and 'prohibitions,' it also saw 'the creation of special forms of marketplace speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came into contact with each other and liberating [them] from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times' (Bakhtin 1968: 10). And the carnivalesque modes of communication in commedia manifest, in the words of Bakhtin (1968: 11),

the peculiar logic of the "inside out" (à l'envers)...of the continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings.

As unpalatable as it may sound to those of us with vested interests in writing and performance, there are times when scriptwriters are no more needed by commedia dell'arte than they are by the local busker. For all its strengths, this book misses the opportunity to introduce into the contemporary teaching of scriptwriting something of the strangeness and creativity of writing practices associated with commedia dell'arte.


Bakhtin, MM 1968 Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press

Carlson, MA 2004 Performance: A Critical Introduction. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge

Ducharte, P-L 1966 The Italian Comedy: The Improvisations, Scenarios, Lives, Attributes, Portraits and Masks of the Illustrious Characters of the Commedia dell'arte. Trans. R.T. Weaver. New York: Dover Publications

Lombana, A 2007 Commedia in Transition: The Liminal and Hybrid Nature of the Commedia dell'Arte, at:
http://mit.edu/lombana/www/commedia-in-transition.pdf [accessed 09.09.2009]

Richards, K & L Richards 1990 The Commedia dell'Arte: A Documentary History. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell



Dr RA Goodrich teaches in the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia; co-edits the online refereed arts-practice journal, Double Dialogues; and, with Alison Burns, is currently investigating writing processes and pedagogy in the unpublished 1943/1944 New York writing workshop notebook of Christina Stead.


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Vol 13 No 2 October 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb