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.
As the King’s interest began to wane, however, Comedie-Italienne’s greatest supporters became the bourgeois. As one commentator wrote:
“Cleante or Jourdain only amuses himself at the Italian plays where every act ends with somersaults or a beating. This is some ignorant partisan or wholesale merchant who, after having heard nothing but accounts, disputes, lawsuits, is happy, at least one day a week, to hear comic things which violate reason and verisimilitude. He laughs at the rules which bore him, and whistles at the Italian actors who want to speak their own language….”
By the late 18th century, the theatrical genre’s popularity was fizzling, even among the French public. Comedie-Italienn had evolved its repertoire to be as appealing to their new audiences as possible, even performing entire scenes and plays in French. But tastes were changing; men in power were calling drama of all kinds (even plays by the Commedia-inspired Moliere) debauched and lewd, filling “theatres with the coarsest equivocations which have every infected the ears of Christians.” As one particularly astute commentator observed: “The impure expressions and indecent postures which filled [Commedia] plays…are not in fashion now, even though the age is no less corrupt than they were.”
The Commedia actors hit the bottom of their downward spiral in 1697, when, after at least one warning (“The Italian actors have been ordered to cut from their plays all double entendres which are too free”), the following message appeared on the Commedia performers’ stage door: “The king has dismissed his Italian actors, and his Majesty orders me to write to you to tomorrow close their theatre forever.”
Historians are unable to definitively conclude why exactly the King’s favors toward Commedia turned so sour, nor the details behind this specific act of expulsion. The most agreed-upon reason is that the troupe was planning to perform a piece entitled La Falsa (Finta) matrigna—La Fausse Prude in French—which was rumored to portray the King’s wife, Madame the Marquise de Mainteno, in a less-than-regal manner. The King’s decree remained in place despite numerous appeals, and his once-beloved troupe left for the native country, with the following as their final words on the French stage:
“With a tic tac, with our nonsense,
Our gay songs
Into good gold.”
Many Commedia performers fell outside the boundaries of the King’s banishment: after living in France for so long, most were no longer Italian citizens, giving them leave to continue practicing their craft in the country they considered home. They joined tightrope walkers, acrobats, and other artists as fair performers, and, to the dismay of Comedie-Francaise and other legitimate theatres, remained as successful ever. And so the French theatre troupes took action: in 1703, they prohibited performances of farces and plays at fairs. Italian performers, whose Commedia work was inherently grounded in improvisation and creativity, fought back by interspersing scenes with intermezzi, removing “plot” from the stage.
In 1704, the fictional performers of Good Devil were slammed with a very real proclamation: all dialogue was prohibited from the stage. In true Commedia fashion, the shows went on; performers spoke in monologues with responses shouted from the wings, even talking to animals and imagining their responses or writing speeches on their hands for acting counterparts to deliver aloud.
And the restrictions that are played out in Good Devil were hardly the end for Italian performers. In 1707, all speech was banned, so Commedia artists turned to singing, which was, of course, subsequently also disallowed. By 1710, performers were using pantomime accompanied by elaborate set changes, ballet, and music; they even resorted to writing text on placards, which actors tossed from the flies or their pockets into the audience to read aloud. Later, they substituted prose with verse, asking crowds to sing popular songs alongside musicians planted in the audience.
Despite their valiant efforts, Commedia’s place in French theatre eventually faded–but not until it had made a permanent mark in its adopted country’s history. Italian performers were defended until the very end, as seen powerfully in a 1792 play, Les chinois, by Commedia-inspired French authors Regnard and Dufresny. The play includes a scene between a French girl and Apollo, with the former complaining about her mother’s disdain for Italian theatre because of its use of crude language (in this instance, the word “cuckold”). Apollo defends Commedia, and the entire concept of freedom of expression, with the following, still-resonant argument:
“The theatre forms the mind, elevates the heart, ennobles the feelings; it is the mirror of human life which shows vice in all its horror and represents virtue in all its glory.”
*Special thanks to Jonelle Walker for providing access her amazing grad school resources!
Maegan Clearwood is Avant Bard’s Director of Audience Engagement and Resident Dramaturg. She recently completed a year as the Literary Associate at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, where she served as Assistant Dramaturg on Slaughterhouse-Five (music by Jed Feuer, book/lyrics by Adele Ahronheim) and End of Shift (by Jenny Connell-Davis). Favorite credits from her Olney Theater Center Dramaturgy Apprenticeship include I and You, The Piano Lesson, The Tempest, and Colossal. She studied drama and English at Washington College and is a proud Sophie Kerr Prize finalist, Association for Theatre in Higher Education Dramaturgy “Deb,” and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas member.