For playwrights Mario Baldessari and Tyler Herman, the journey to The Good Devil (in Spite of Himself) began with a single chapter in The Routledge Companion to Commedia Dell’Arte—scarcely more than a page’s worth of information about a bewildering historical event. From that tiny shred of a historical anecdote about the French government prohibiting dialogue from the stage, inspiration for an entire 21st century farce was born.
Like any good dramaturg, I delved into the history of this play with full force, scouring books and articles for any mention of this dialogue-banning instance I could find. Unfortunately, while there is ample scholarly documentation about the expulsion of Italian actors from the French stage, this specific censorship attempt is recorded in few sources, only two of which I was able to track down myself: the aforementioned textbook chapter, and The Commedia Dell’Arte in Paris 1644-1697. After some book-borrowing* and a hefty day at the Library of Congress, I can confidently share the closest we have to the “true story” behind The Good Devil (in Spite of Himself).
First, we need context. Known then as “the “commedia delgi zanni” (theatre of the buffoons) or “commedia all’improvviso (improvised theatre), commedia dell’arte held the stage in Italy and throughout Europe for more than 200 years. In France, after some 90 years of intermittent performances, a troupe established itself in Paris and played there for 35 years. Comedie-Italienne, as it came to be known (to distinguish the troupe from the “legitimate” French theatre, Comedie-Francaise), evolved during its French residency from a conventional commedia dell’arte troupe—characterized by physicalized comedy and improvisation—into a more regimented French repertory whose survival hinged on the whims of its monarch. King Louis XIV was initially an avid supporter of his Italian performers. According to Routledge, five-year-old Louis supposedly laughed so much at the funny faces made by Fiorillo (the Commedia actor behind Scaramouch) that he “disgraced himself” while sitting on the latter’s knee. The King would go on to personally manage the company’s subsidy and even become godfather to one of the Commedia performer’s sons. [Read more…] about Spinning ‘Nonsense’ into ‘Gold’: The history behind Good Devil