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Pulcinella’s wooden spoon

Commedia dell’Arte fascinates me. Short for “com­media dell’arte all’improvviso” (comedy of the craft of improvisation), this form of popular theatre born in Italy in the 16th century but whose roots go back to the crisis of the 14th century, was first introduced to us fifth-year primary schoolboys (1963-1964) at Tripoli’s De La Salle Brothers by a teacher, Fratel Egidio, who was for us then what I suppose an internet search engine is for kids today.

If this were Pulcinella waving his wooden spoon in Commedia dell’Arte we’d laugh but it isn’t
- Mario Vella

Later, it was the subject of long unforgettable conversations with Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, before and after the latter was appointed the professor of philosophy at the University of Malta and yours truly, following his advice, became a student of his. Fr Peter, as all who know him will confirm, is fascinated by the figure of the clown and teaches us to take clowns very seriously.

Of the Commedia’s stock characters Arlecchino, Pantalone, the Dottore, Brighella, the Capitano, Colombina, Pulcinella, Scaramuccia and others, I am especially intrigued by Pulcinella.

Known as either Punch or else as Punchinello in English, Polichinelle in French and the model for the German Kasper, this originally Neapolitan character is funny – in the sense that he clowns on the stage and makes audiences laugh – but fundamentally mean and potentially violent.

In fact, he is often presented as carrying around macaroni and a wooden spoon. The macaroni reminds us that Pulcinella is no fool and what he does, he does for gain, for his pocket and belly. The wooden spoon is his ultimate tool to get what he wants to get down his gullet and into his pocket. In the last instance, the spoon is a weapon with which to hit someone hard on the head if that someone hinders Pulcinella from getting whatever he wants to get. Or as a cathartic revenge. “Te l’aggio ditto ca la cosa fenesce a mazzate” (I told you that this thing would end with a beating).

Another intriguing characteristic of Pulcinella is that the effect is funny but he has himself no sense of humour. His dense local dialect is not always meant to be understood and the audience often perceives it as grumbling, as badly suppressed anger at a world where he himself is often a victim. For Pulcinella is frequently at the receiving end of the stick.

Even scholars that see in the Pulcinella tradition a celebration of antiauthoritarianism, such as Orenstein in her Festive Revolutions: The Politics Of Popular Theatre And The San Francisco Mime Troupe, admit that the oppressed Pulcinella tends to vent his frustrations on other oppressed.

Why this reflection on a 500-year old character of the Commedia dell’Arte? Why speak of Pulcinella in our present Malta, in a period characterised by an extraordinary sharpening of political conflict and the disintegration of traditional networks of power, the whole nested in a period of unprecedented European economic crisis?

Let me begin by solemnly declaring that this week’s piece does not refer to the case of the circus promoter who took to court two young animal rights activists because, so he told the court, “they had called him a clown, using the phrase ‘Silvio Pulċinell’, which was also carried on placards during a protest in 2010 near the granaries in Floriana” ( http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20120302/local/Circus-agent-felt-insulted-after-being-called-a-clown.409290 ). Any resemblance between these arguments and those that might be used to argue that the circus case might be interpreted as an attempt to repress voices of dissent – and intolerance is violence – is purely coincidental. Don’t believe me? Sue me.

No, I am worried by expressions of intolerance towards complaints regarding the state of public infrastructure in this country. You don’t have to look very far. If you are reading this column online, surf along the comments posted under reports concerning Mater Dei Hospital. Take the comments on the report of February 20, 2010 on the hospital bed shortage.

As is to be expected, the report generated a large number of comments (122 when I accessed it). Many spoke of mismanagement, others of political responsibility, some – like Frank Portelli – put forward concrete suggestions and a few shifted the responsibility onto patients. One of them suggested that the whole fuss is the work of anonymous provocateurs. Presumably referring to another comment urging citizens to wake up and see through political excuses, this commentator alleges that critical comments on the situation at Mater Dei are incitement to violence!

Quote: “These elves are just itching for a fight. Inciting the people to ‘wake up’ to throw out the government and it is counterproductive. The government will not allow anarchy to reign supreme and this call to arms coming from the same red elves known to one and all is criminal. So you better shut up. We have had enough of people beating doctors at Mater Dei and beating here and there. With the excuse that they are with the patients. We will have none of this. Force will be used against force” (sic) ( http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100220/local/patient-resuscitated-in-corridor.294848 ).

Suggesting that all those who demand a more efficient and humane hospital service are violent, politically-motivated doctor-bashing anarchists is preposterous. The promise of violent retribution, the warning “you better shut up” and the hysterical tone are shocking. If this were Pulcinella waving his wooden spoon in Commedia dell’Arte we’d laugh but it isn’t.

Dr Vella blogs at http://watersbroken.wordpress.com .

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