Eloquent action: The body and meaning in early commedia dell'arte

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One of the things that strikes one most forcibly in surviving images of early commedia dell'arte is its enigmatic physicality, the manner in which its actors everywhere adopt postures and make gestures that seem not merely emphatic and exaggerated but almost hieroglyphic, full of some additional implication, laden with a figural and emblematic resonance that we sense but no longer see. In general terms, this quality is easily understood, as the body clearly served in commedia as a complex and polyvalent instrument of expression. Its gestures and movements were, as in all theatre, indexically linked to dramatic action, and they also served, as in much masked drama, as surrogates for the facial expression of affect, in that the movements and aspects of the whole body were enlisted to articulate the motions and mien of a veiled face and to overcome or play upon the sensation of estranged speech produced by the half-mask's bifurcation of the visage. Moreover, in a manner less familiar but illustrated well in Fig. 1, these movements and aspects also functioned as expressions in their own right, not articulating the affect or expression attendant upon immediate speech or situation or delineating the lines of external action but signaling the many impulses and various appetites of the world, the varied aspects of all persons and of the body itself, and invoking at times as their implicatory context human nature, common character, and identity rather than situation, attitude, or emotion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)251-315
Number of pages65
JournalTheatre Survey
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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