A Confluence of Carnival: Mardi Gras, Commedia Day, and More

“Three Fools of the Carnival” — After Pieter Breughel the Elder. Engraving by Hendrick Hondius I , 1642

The stars are aligned today such that there are three interrelated occasions to celebrate: Mardi Gras, Commedia dell’Arte Day, and the birthday of the great Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793).

I am fascinated by holiday traditions and the rituals that go with them, many of which intertwine and overlap with the performing arts: theatre, dance, music and song, puppetry, the circus arts, etc. The origins and histories of these human activities are some of my favorite rabbit holes in which to fall. I spent some time in my book No Applause exploring how American forms like vaudeville, circus, the medicine show and so forth evolved out of Medieval feast celebrations and the pagan culture that predated Christianity. Out of dozens of annual Medieval holidays, Christmas, Halloween and Easter have proved to be the most prominently enduring, though nipping at their heels (and in many ways threatening to surpass Easter) is Carnival, sometimes rendered as Carneval or Carnevale, and sometimes known in certain countries by other names entirely. In the Christian calendar, carnival is the culmination of the pre-Lent observances. Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, is a time of fasting, self-denial, and reflection (one which conveniently coincides with the end of winter, when stores of food were running out anyway). “Carne vale” in Italian means “goodbye to meat”. In this pre-Lent festival, society basically permitted one last blow-out, a huge party in the streets, where all manner of excesses ran riot: feasting, boozing it up, dancing, pageantry, entertainment, and all manner of grotesquery. Costumes and masks were often worn. As at certain other holiday times, a kind of temporary revolution took place where ordinary social distinctions were overturned. The lowborn were briefly equal to the nobility (as long as they didn’t push their luck). There were satirical displays and parodies of important personages, ostensibly to get it out of your system before the somber weeks that were to follow. The origin of this festival seems to have been Christian Rome. The most famous center for it became Venice. Then it spread throughout Europe and then to Europe’s colonies, where some of the best known of these annual celebrations now take place.

The climax of Carnival takes place on the very last night before Ash Wednesday and is known as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, or in French “Mardi Gras”. And so we come to America’s most famous manifestation of the carnival tradition, which unsurprisingly takes place in the former French colony of Louisiana, especially the city of New Orleans. Mardi Gras in New Orleans is special because of the influence of African American traditions and cultural practices, which has infused it with elements like jazz, voodoo, and the local Krewes which organize parades with floats, marching bands, and other festive iterations. Though this is ostensibly a Christian festivity, the names of the Krewes proclaim an intention of unleashed paganism: the Mystick Krew of Comus, the Knights of Momus, the Krewe of Proteus, the Krewe of Endymion, the Krewe of Bacchus, and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the largest African American Krewe. There is drinking and dancing in the streets. Prizes, known as “throws” are tossed out to spectators, usually things on the scale of candies and small toys: beads, “doubloons”, and the like. The connection to street theatre, I hope, should be obvious.

Which makes it significant that today coincidentally this year also happens to be Commedia dell’Arte Day. (Commedia dell’Arte Day always falls on February 25, Mardi Gras does not). Commedia dell’Arte is believed to have grown out of the Carnival of Venice in the 16th century. It is a form of semi-improvised farcical comedy employing a variety of masked stock characters, the best known of which are Arlecchino (Harlequin), Pantalone (Pantaloon), Columbine, Pierrot, the lovers, the Captain and the Doctor. These types and this form may owe something to the ancient comedy of the Romans. In the Renaissance, certain licensed companies brought these companies throughout Europe, greatly influencing the local theatre of each nation, from Moliere in France to Ben Jonson and Shakespeare in England. Modern clowning owes a debt to commedia, as do Punch and Judy puppet shows. Commedia dell’Arte Day is held on February 25 to commemorate the signing of the first contract of theatrical incorporation in Padua, Italy by a commedia troupe leader known Ser Maphio in 1545. “Commedie dell’Arte” literally translates as “professional theatre”, or, if you like, “show business”. It can be thought of then, symbolically at any rate, as the birth of show business. For a full list of commedia events happening around the world today go here.

Coincidentally, as we mentioned, February 25 is also the birthday of Venetian playwright and opera librettist Carlo Goldoni. Goldoni was not a commedia artist per se, but like those other playwrights we mentioned, especially Moliere, whom he frequently adapted, Goldoni was an outward cultural ripple that originated in commedia. How could he not be, coming from Venice? Yet, much like Terence in Roman times, Goldoni represented a step away from the older conventions. He aspired to greater realism and less dependence on ritual and type, which put him at odds with his contemporary Carlo Gozzi, who defended the old commedia traditions. When things came to a head, in 1761, Goldoni moved to France, where all his later work was created. But it’s all relative. from our vantage point, Goldoni seems much more of the commedia tradition than outside it. His best remembered work, still frequently produced, is The Servant of Two Masters (1746), the cast of characters in which are all fully within the commedia tradition.

Bottom line? Today you have a license to go CRAZY! I, for one, intend to eat pancakes.