Theatre as Life in THE GLORIOUS ONES

Theatre as Life in THE GLORIOUS ONES

By Kathryn Harris on June 30, 2009
16th century Italian performer Flaminio Scala was destined for the theatre from an early age.  Eventually,  theatre became his life—so much so that he is barely able to perceive any distinction between the two.

Bookwriter/lyricist Lynne Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (Once On This Island, Ragtime, Seussical, Dessa Rose) explore this merging of performance and reality in their commedia dell’arte musical, The Glorious Ones. At three points in the story, Flaminio and his troupe perform a nearly complete skit, and each one mirrors Flaminio’s relationships with his actors, as well as his place in theatre as a whole. Flaminio kills himself in the final skit because a life without theatre is no life at all.

The first skit, “The Madness of Columbia,” is a typical commedia dell’arte piece. The actors all play variations of the characters they always play—the funny old man, the slave, the leading man and lady—and those characters are also indicative of their positions in the troupe. Despite the necessary improvisation, the characters and plot remain the same from performance to performance. The actor’s roles in the troupe don’t change, either. Like his leading man character, Flaminio is in complete control, recruiting new performers and creating characters and gags.

The plot also directly mirrors Flaminio’s life. In the skit, Columbina, as Flaminio’s betrothed, only speaks by quacking like a duck. It’s not until Flaminio’s character stabs himself that Columbina regains the use of language. “Oh, my beloved!” she wails. “I am mad no longer. But you are dead!” A few scenes before, Columbina is also mad—as in "angry."   She complains that Flaminio ignores her unless he wants to make love to her, threatening to return to the brothel she came from: “At least the men showed some respect!” Like his character, Flaminio wins Columbia over; just as there is no real threat of his character’s death, there is no real chance Flaminio could lose Columbina. With the skit’s characters and plot so in line with the troupe’s lives, it’s unsurprising that Flaminio would have trouble keeping them separate.

The second skit, “The Madness of Isabella,” further connects performance and reality in Flaminio’s mind. The first skit the troupe performs after a disappointing display in front of the French king, “The Madness of Isabella” defies Flaminio’s conventions. Flaminio, has put the young noblewoman Isabella in the lead. All unfolds as expected until Isabella’s madness departs. “You are the pompous old Captain, who drove me mad in the first place!” she accuses Flaminio. She then proclaims a supporting character her betrothed. Isabella completely upstages Flaminio by radically changing his plot without permission and by taking away his final bow. Furious, Flaminio charges Isabella with writing the new ending beforehand, unwilling to believe her improvisational skills could be a match for his. His troupe disagrees. Columbina even adds that Isabella is right to recast Flaminio’s part: “You are too old to play the lover. Face it, Flaminio.” Isabella deftly uses Flaminio’s own methods and storyline to edge him out—not just as the sole leader of the troupe, but as an actor.

The third skit is actually a full play: The Moon Woman, which Isabella has written. Flaminio is so out of his element in this play that it becomes clear to him that commedia dell’arte’s time has passed—and so has his.

On the heels of the king’s rejection, Flaminio desperately needs to prove that commedia dell’arte is significant for his life to be worthwhile:

“I’ve gone without bread,
Lived close to the bone,
Got into deep water
And sunk like a stone,
But now and again
I have risen and flown
Like a kite!...
For what is this life
But the beauty of improvisation?”

Flaminio refuses to accept that commedia itself is the problem. “Your majesty, why should a leader of your boundless generosity reward us so poorly?” he wonders.  “Were our songs too loud, our dances too sensual, our jokes too coarse?"  The rest of the troupe recognizes that the problems are deeper than that. Francesco, Flaminio’s protégé, is torn:

“On the one hand, he had created us. On the other, he’d made us small time—a bunch of vulgar, scruffy street players, improvising jokes and physical gags. I saw times were changing and we were not.”

The playwright Isabella’s arrival gives Flaminio even more cause to fear commedia dell’arte is no longer relevant.  When actors are no longer responsible for every aspect of a skit, they’re able to think more deeply about their characters. “I think you’ll find your roles a bit deeper than usual,” Francesco explains. “Pantalone, you’re still a miser, but now we realize that money is a substitute for love. We see into your soul.” Isabella’s play also demands an entirely different style of performance. Rather than the freewheeling and often crass spirit of commedia dell’arte, Isabella’s play uses elevated, elegant language; the characters even speak in rhyme.

Flaminio is plainly uncomfortable with this new form of theatre from the beginning:

“Why would we need our lines written out?...The words will have no life!...We know these characters better than we know ourselves. We are the characters! We open our mouths and out comes truth. There’s a chance for greatness when it’s improvised.”

Flaminio is even less at ease while performing. He is plainly unhappy with his role as the villain, his acting is wildly over the top, and he can’t remember his lines. Before the first performance, Columbina  suggests that they both leave the troupe, buy a house, and open a shop together.   She assures him that he’ll understand “[t]here’s more to life than theatre.”

Not for Flaminio. Towards the end of the performance that night, he abandons all attempts at remembering his lines and reverts back to the broad physical comedy of his beloved commedia—taking the rest of the cast with him. This, Flaminio realizes, is the last time he’ll experience anything like this again. Once Isabella’s style of theatre spreads, commedia dell’arte will become an antique. Reflected in commedia’s passing, Flaminio:

“Saw misers and pretenders
Vendors and buffoons…
In the twinkling of an eye
My life parading by
Everything I lived for,
Comical and true…
The beauty of improvisation!”

There would be no such thing as an “ordinary” life for Flaminio.  Echoing the gag from the previous skits, Flaminio stabs himself with a dagger. But this time, it’s real. Once the troupe he created performs a written play, Flaminio has to confront commedia dell ‘arte’s eventual fall into obscurity.  Flaminio sees no option but death.

As “The Madness of Columbina,” “The Madness of Isabella,” and The Moon Woman show commedia dell’arte’s fall from popularity, Flaminio finds his life’s purpose in jeopardy. Without commedia, he can’t perform, and if he can’t perform, he can’t go on living. Unfortunately, Flaminio has no way of knowing that commedia dell’arte will not disappear. Instead, commedia will inform comedy centuries later, from Charlie Chaplin to Lucille Ball to The Simpsons. Perhaps this knowledge would have been enough to convince Flaminio that the advent of written plays would not doom commedia—or Flaminio himself—to obscurity.

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