Readings for reflection: the Harlequinade

Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 14.15-16
And those who practised this kind of sport were called among the Lacedæmonians δικηλισταὶ, which is a term equivalent to σκευοποιοὶ or μιμηταί. There are, however, many names, varying in different places, for this class of δικηλισταί; for the Sicyonians call them φαλλοφόροι, and others call them αὐτοκάβδαλοι, and some call them φλύακες, as the Italians do. Semos the Delian says in his book About Pæans—“The men who were called αὑτοκάβδαλοι used to wear crowns of ivy, and they would go through long poems slowly. But at a later time both they and their poems were called Iambics. And those,” he proceeds, “who are called Ithyphalli, wear a mask representing the face of a drunken man, and wear crowns, having gloves embroidered with flowers. And they wear tunics shot with white; and they wear a Tarentine robe, which covers them down to their ankles: and they enter at the stage entrance silently, and when they have reached the middle of the orchestra, they turn towards the spectators, and say—

Out of the way; a clear space leave
For the great mighty god:
For the god, to his ankles clad,
Will pass along the centre of the crowd.

And the Phallophori,” says he, “wear no masks; but they put on a sort of veil of wild thyme, and on that they put acanthi, and an untrimmed garland of violets and ivy; and they clothe themselves in Caunacæ, and so come on the stage, some at the side, and others through the centre entrance, walking in exact musical time, and saying—

For you, O Bacchus, do we now set forth –
This tuneful song; uttering in various melody
This simple rhythm.
It is a song unsuited to a virgin;
Nor are we now addressing you with hymns
Made long ago, but this our offering
Is fresh unutter’d praise.

And then, advancing, they used to ridicule with their jests whoever they chose; and they did this standing still, but the Phallophorus himself marched straight on, covered with soot and dirt.”

John Davidson, Scaramouch in Naxos Scene 3
Ariadne. Here, by this sea, I waked, how long ago!
Here, by this sea, you found me.

Bacchus. Would you be
My bride again?

Ariadne. Each day, each hour
I am your bride; and as the days and years
Gather behind us, every happiness —
And that is every minute of my life —
Doubles the joy of that which went before:
And yet the past is as a galaxy
Wherein no star excels the radiant throng.

Bacchus. Not that fair hour when first you loved me?

Ariadne. No.
I have no memory. I am striving now
To summon up the time when here you came,
And made me an immortal and your bride.
I might as well compel my thoughts to search
For some unnoted dream that I forgot
The moment after I had told you, love,
New wakened from the sleep I dreamed it in.

Bacchus. But memory goes afoot — invalid here:
Love has a high-commanding minister,
Imagination; and it serves alone
Beings who yield their moods and bow their minds
To its obedient masterdom: stout thought,
That trudges, blind and lame, the dusty way,
And memory, that casts its broken net
In Lethe’s waves, keep not among your train —
Fit servants these for mortals.

Ariadne. So I do —
I banish them : but still there clings to me
Something of earth.

Bacchus. I love you best for that.
A goddess born is tame, secure of heaven,
And there is nothing to endow her with;
But you derive divinity from me,
Yet keep the passionate heart that mortals have—

Bacchus. [To Harlequin]. You, with the wooden sword, I know your trade:
You shall do feats with that untempered blade. [To Ariadne.]
Should you not like to see these substitutes?

Ariadne. Rarely.

Bacchus. [To Harlequin.] Strike, knave; and deeper than the roots
Of aged oaks, as deep as is the sea,
Wide as the Ægean, and as Olympus high,
Your striking shall be felt. Come nearer me;
Now strike, until your sword in splinters fly.

[Harlequin strikes the earth with his sword.]

Bryony Dixon, Chaplin and the Harlequinade
Understanding this theatrical device is essential to understanding the harlequinade. Characters established in the main pantomime story (a young girl, her lover, her father, the servant etc) get into trouble, an impossible situation for which there is no solution, and are transformed by some benign spiritual agent (think fairy godmother, ‘the gods’, that kind of thing) into the characters of the harlequinade in a strange parallel topsy-turvy world. The purpose of this, dramatically was to introduce the comedy and to move the plot along by creating such chaos that the ‘powers-that-be’ would acquiesce to the union of the lovers just so that order could be restored. At that point the characters were transformed back and the drama proceeded with the full on happy ending, parades, fireworks, dancing girls, spectacles and general rejoicing.

Structurally, it is the act of transforming that is important to remember as this signals the move to the parallel world where things do not behave in the same way. Most comedy has to have an isolating device of this type to contain the strange goings on. The tool for effecting the change is another inheritance – Harlequin has his magic bat or slapstick, but it could be a wand, a magic lamp or a host of other things. Sometimes, the transformation is effected by falling asleep, or love potions, or drunkenness (a favourite of Chaplin’s). Chaos must be created (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the juice of the flower) in order that all are eventually brought to their senses.

Mel Gordon, Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia dell’Arte
Lazzo of Greeting. Pulcinella greets the Captain or another character with apparent reverence. “Son of Jove, new moon, twice the last name of Alexander!” Then, Pulcinella explains, “The son of Jove is Bacchus. Bacchus is a goat. The new moon is horned, and the last name of Alexander is Magno, which, when taken twice, becomes magno-magno. Thus the whole greeting becomes: ‘Manga-manga, becco cornuto!’” (Eat it up, eat it up, you horned goat <cuckold>)

Carl Gustav Jung, Neue Zürcher Zeitung 1932
And just as Faust is embroiled in murderous happenings and reappears in changed form, so Picasso changes shape and reappears in the underworld form of the tragic Harlequin – a motif that runs through numerous paintings. It may be remarked in passing that Harlequin is an ancient chthonic god. The descent into ancient times has been associated ever since Homer’s day with the Nekyia. Faust turns back to the crazy primitive world of the witches’ sabbath and to a chimerical vision of classical antiquity. Picasso conjures up crude, earthy shapes, grotesque and primitive, and resurrects the soullessness of ancient Pompeii in a cold, glittering light – even Giulio Romano could not have done worse! Seldom or never have I had a patient who did not go back to neolithic art forms or revel in evocations of Dionysian orgies. Harlequin wanders like Faust through all these forms, though sometimes nothing betrays his presence but his wine, his lute, or the bright lozenges of his jester’s costume. And what does he learn on his wild journey through man’s millennial history? What quintessence will he distil from this accumulation of rubbish and decay, from these half-born or aborted possibilities of form and colour? What symbol will appear as the final cause and meaning of all this. In view of the dazzling versatility of Picasso, one hardly dares to hazard a guess, so for the present I would rather speak of what I have found in my patients’ material. The Nekyia is no aimless and purely destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis eis antron, a descent into the cave of initiation and secret knowledge. The journey through the psychic history of mankind has as its object the restoration of the whole man, by awakening the memories in the blood. The descent to the Mothers enabled Faust to raise up the sinfully whole human being – Paris united with Helen – that homo totus who was forgotten when contemporary man lost himself in one-sidedness. It is he who at all times of upheaval has caused the tremor of the upper world, and always will. This man stands opposed to the man of the present, because he is the one who ever is as he was, whereas the other is what he is only for the moment. With my patients, accordingly, the katabasis and katalysis are followed by a recognition of the bipolarity of human nature and of the necessity of conflicting pairs of opposites. After the symbols of madness experienced during the period of disintegration there follow images which represent the coming together of the opposites: light/dark, above/below, white/black, male/female, etc. In Picasso’s latest paintings, the motif of the union of opposites is seen very clearly in their direct juxtaposition. One painting (although traversed by numerous lines of fracture) even contains the conjunction of the light and dark anima. The strident, uncompromising, even brutal colours of the latest period reflect the tendency of the unconscious to master the conflict by violence (colour = feeling). This state of things in the psychic development of a patient is neither the end nor the goal. It represents only a broadening of his outlook, which now embraces the whole of man’s moral, bestial, and spiritual nature without as yet shaping it into a living unity. Picasso’s drame interieur has developed up to this last point before the denouement. As to the future Picasso, I would rather not try my hand at prophecy, for this inner adventure is a hazardous affair and can lead at any moment to a standstill or to a catastrophic bursting asunder of the conjoined opposites. Harlequin is a tragically ambiguous figure, even though – as the initiated may discern – he already bears on his costume the symbols of the next stage of development. He is indeed the hero who must pass through the perils of Hades, but will he succeed? That is a question I cannot answer. Harlequin gives me the creeps – he is too reminiscent of that ‘motley fellow, like a buffoon’ in Zarathustra, who jumped over the unsuspecting rope-dancer (another Pagliacci) and thereby brought about his death. Zarathustra then spoke the words that were to prove so horrifyingly true of Nietzsche himself: ‘Your soul will be dead even sooner than your body: fear nothing more than l.’ Who the buffoon is, is made plain as he cries out to the rope-dancer, his weaker alter ego: ‘To one better than yourself you bar the way’ He is the greater personality who bursts the shell, and this shell is sometimes – the brain.”

Robert Lima, Stages of Evil: Occultism in Western Theater and Drama pages 48-63
“Down, down to Hell, from whence ye rose.”

When the god Mercury speaks these words of damnation in the final scene of Harlequin Student; or The Fall of Pantomime, with the Restoration of the Drama he is addressing Harlequin and his fellows, English pantomime players out of the commedia dell’arte tradition. The Greek god’s vituperation speaks to what was once generally known but has lately been forgotten: the origin of Harlequin is demonic and lies within the dark recesses of antiquity. Mercury’s words may be ironic in that a pagan deity damns the players to hell, but the anonymous dramatist is, after all, addressing a Christian audience. The damnatory words are, consequently, effective in tying together the various religious and cultural traditions at play in the evolution of Harlequin from pre-Christian daemon to commedia dell’arte and pantomime jester.

The epithet commedia dell’arte defines and allies the peripatetic Italian theater companies that, from the sixteenth century through the eighteenth, traversed the continent of Europe performing comic scenarios that were largely improvisational in nature, first on outdoor platforms, carts, or other makeshift stages, and later indoors in the drawing rooms, salons, and theaters of the palaces of nobles and high churchmen. It was largely through the commedia dell’arte troupes, following on medieval pageants, that the secular theater of Europe was reinstated after the long hiatus caused by the church’s condemnation of all manner of public entertainments owing to excesses during the decline of Rome. In bringing popular theater back to the populace, the commedia dell’arte in effect revived the Western tradition of comedy, which had been born in ancient Greece and had lain moribund since the fifth century of the common era.

The outstanding comic figure of the commedia dell’arte stage was the masked, motley-dressed, acrobatic character known as Alrecchino on the Italian Peninsula, as Harlekin in Germany, as Harlequin in France and England, and as Arlequín in Spain, these being among the most prominent of his stage identities. The doings of Arlecchino and his cronies were promulgated by such as the I Comici Confidenti, the I Comici Gelosi (at one time I Comici Uniti) and the I Comici Fedeli, which, along with the famed sixteenth-century troupe, that led by Alberto Ganassa, were the leading Italian theater companies of this kind.

Such was the popularity of Arlecchino that the character, who had a secondary role at first (he was usually the second zanni, a buffoon or clown), soon took center stage and was often portrayed by the company’s leading actor, as in the case of Ganassa. Furthermore, Arlecchino’s uniqueness soon made him the subject of both anonymous illustrators and eminent painters from the sixteenth century forward, even to the present.

Arlecchino was not only the most memorable of the masked characters of the commedia dell’arte but also the most enigmatic owing to the shroud of mystery surrounding his origin, name, manner, costume and mien. The Italian Arlecchino had existed in other guises and functioned in other venues long before he became the dominant male figure on the stage of the European Renaissance. In previous antique manifestations he was anything but the zany, doltish servant, said to be from lower Bergamo, who entertained the populace and royalty alike at street and court performances.

To fathom the complex essence of Arlecchino, therefore, it is requisite that the elements contributing to the holism of his character be assessed fully. To that end, the delineation of the genealogy, the derivation of the appellation, the conventions of the manner, and the conceptualization of the costume, head cover, and mask of Alrecchino will each be treated separately.

The ancestral lineage of Arlecchino is both ancient and exotic. There are two principal veins in his bloodline, the first being the Central and Northern European barbaric culture, the second the classical tradition of the Mediterranean. Each contributed disparate elements to the evolution of the complex figure that ultimately established itself in the forefront of the commedia dell’arte scenarios.

Belief in nature deities in pagan times often became transformed in the Christian era. There are numerous instances in which such gods and goddesses became transmogrified, being given the role of purveyors of evil in the new faith. Among these is the figure that has come to be known as Harlequin.

The oldest known references that relate to Arlecchino’s barbaric lineage clearly show his ancestors to be daemonic. The Historiae ecclesiasticae libri XIII, a Norman manuscript by Ordericus Vitalis (1075-1143?), is the earliest extant written reference in this context. The Anglo-Norman monk who is its author narrates a legend – perhaps based on a real-life incident – centering on a supernatural encounter experienced by a certain Gauchelin, a French monk, when he was returning late at night to his abode in Bonneval, near Chartres. The text refers to his being accosted by a hellish band: “Haec sine dubio familia Herlichini est” (3.376). Clearly, the monk in the narrative had been beset by the “family of Herlichin” a “spectral host of relentless demons who marauded the countryside on certain winter nights, at the same time of year as the Carnival celebrations, rampaging through forests and valleys, destroying everything in their path” (Husband, 152-53). Gauchelin recognizes his assailants as the nefarious group that had come to be known among the populace as the Wild Horde, infamous beings out of a very widespread European folkloric tradition. The procession of damned souls is led by a gigantic figure with a club whose proper name is given as “Hellekins.” This will prove to be the earliest-known written version of the name that would ultimately become Arlecchino.

The fact that this episode, narrated in the twelfth century, is so well delineated indicated that the belief in the Wild Horde and its daemonic leader had currency much earlier. Ordericus Vitalis’s account is surely not an isolated one, only the earliest found to date. It is followed by others, narratives that show how deeply embedded was the belief in the Wild Horde and its leader in the imagination of the Middle Ages, particularly in France.

The continuity of the topos can be seen in the thirteenth century, which provides further folkloric and literary references to Hellekin and his cohorts in the works of several church and secular authorities. For one, Wilhelm of Auvergne, bishop of Paris at his death in 1248, verifies the wide range of the belief in the daemonic figures when he refers to the tradition in Spain in his Tractatus de universo: “De equitibus vero nocturnis qui vulgari gallicano ‘Hellequin’ et vulgari hispanico ‘exercitus antiquus’ vocantur, nondum tibi satisfeci, quia nondum declarare intend qui sint; nectamen certum est eos malignos spiritus esse” (par. 2. Chap. 12). That the folkloric figure crossed over into literature proper is also evident in the same century. The Norman poet Bourdet narrates in the verse Lay de Luque la Maudite the tale of a lascivious old witch of Rouen who on her deathbed calls on “Hellequin” to marry her. In response, the daemon leads three thousand of his hellish kin to the wedding feast and, ultimately, takes her soul into his realm, hell. In this text, as elsewhere, Hellequin has an obvious appeal as a sexual being to a dying woman; in being tied to the lure of death, he also represents the daemon-lover, which is what Hades is in the Persephone myth.

Another telling identification of Arlecchino with the daemonic in the thirteenth century is found in Le jeu de la feuillée (Play of the Bower) ascribed to Adam de la Halle, in which “Herlequin”, the ruler of the underworld, seeks to woo the fairy Morgue through the agency of the daemon Crokesot (Croquesot in later texts) rather than in person. Unfortunately, Harlequin himself does not appear onstage, choosing to remain invisibly ensconced in his nether kingdom.

The ascendant of the medieval French daemon evolved out of Norse and Teutonic mythological beings who came to be known in Germany and adjacent areas as the “Teufel Herlekin” or Hellekin (i.e. “Kin of Hel”), Hel or Hela being the goddess of the Norse underworld. As Hel’s consort Ellerkonge (variant Elverkonge) was the male deity of the sacred alder (elder) tree and of the land of the dead. The mistranslation of the Danish Ellerkonge gave Erlkönig, king of the elves in a Germanic saga. As Erl King, yet another variant, he was a German and Scandinavian spirit or personified natural power akin to Odin who led a band of ghostly riders across the night sky. In Middle English he is Herleking, while King Herla is the name of another mythical manifestation of the deity in England.

Herlekin is the probable source of Herne the Hunter, the phallic horned god variously known in the British Isles under such names as the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin-of-the-Wood, Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood. These are all manifestations of the King of the May, the ancient fertility deity whose phallus became the symbolic maypole featured in May Day celebrations held throughout Europe to welcome the rebirth (and impregnation) of Mother Earth in spring. The magical season of nature’s fecundity was emulated in rituals of sympathetic magic that culminated in sexual coupling.

Such fertility figures in the British Isles and on the Continent derive from a very early, perhaps Paleolithic, being known as the Wild Man, a larger-than-life, often gigantic creature covered in hair, fur, lichen, twigs or leaves whose primal identity was tied to woodlands, symbolized by the uprooted tree he carried, usually over his shoulder or in his hand. Later, in Carnival celebrations, in the wedding-night pandemonium called acharivari (chivaree), and in rites known as the Wild Man Hunt, a massive studded club was often substituted for the traditional tree. Paraphrasing Chrétien de Troyes, Husband describes this elemental being as “an ogrish wild man, black like a Moor, large and hideous, sitting on a tree stump and holding a large club in his hand” while Bernheimer cites the anonymous medieval French Renaud de Montaubon for its description of such marginal beings as noir et velu com ours enchainé (“black and hairy like a chained bear”).

In one of the strange symbioses that sometimes occur in folklore, the Wild Man came to be associated with mythological beings and himself was held to be daemonic. One of the identities of the savage is Orcus (literally, Wild Man), a telluric deity out of the Gallo-Roman era who led the processions of the dead and who, as a daemon of death, had an association with Pluto or Hades, the lord of the underworld in classical mythology. In the Tyrolean Virginal the epic gives the variant Orkise as the name of a cannibalistic hunter in the form of an ogre. The functions of Orcus as leader of the Wild Horde came to be preempted by the daemon Hellekin, and Herlequin or Harlequin in medieval France.

Similarly in the second vein, the complex world of classical and Eastern mythologies, there are several figures who are clearly antecedents of Arlecchino’s earliest relative, the Wild Man.

So too were the woodland deities Silvanus, who had the sapling of a cypress in his hand, and especially Silenus, who, like the Wild Man, carried an uprooted tree from his forest realm and was depicted with a thick coat of hair on Greek and Roman kraters, sculptures and murals.

Besides such prominent deities, there are figures of lesser position in the pantheons of classical antiquity whose similarity to Arlecchino is suggestive of ancestry. Out of the Greek theater comes “an actor dressed now in the skin of a goat, now in the skin of a tiger, variegated in colour, which clung tightly to his body, armed with only a wooden staff, his head shaved, and covered by a white hat, his faced by a brown mask; he was called by the vulgar a young satyr” (Sand 59). Some of these beings of reduced status have survived into the present day in folk festivals and propitiatory rites. Among them are such fertility figures from across the Mediterranean as Sardinia’s Sos Mamuttones or Mamutti which means “daemon” or “spirit of the earth” and Kalogeros, from Greece, whose hairy costumes are accompanied by dark masks, large bells, and sticks with animal bladders. Strikingly similar figures are also found in Germany. To this day Venetian Carnevale features such hairy masked relatives of the Wild Man.

The title of the first extant manuscript of a play in which Harlequin actually appears is Lustige Geschicte von den Handlungen und Heldentaten Harlekins, italiensichen Komödianten. The play, discovered in Paris by Emile Picot, had been published in the French capital by Didier Millot in 1585 as Histoire plaisante des faicts et gestes de Harlequin commedien italien. Its play directly relates the protagonist to things hellish, if in a comic manner, when he descends into Pluto’s realm, charming his way across Styx and into Persephone’s bed, and rescuing the madam Mutter Cardine, who had been wed to Cerberus on her death, in a motif that gives an interesting variant of the thirteenth-century Luque la Maudite’s wedding with Hellekin, Lord of Hell.

Also discussing the origin of the name Arlecchino, M. L. Sainéan traces it to the dogs used in the hunt of birds and animals in France: “These popular traditions taken together reveal the predominance of the dog in his legend, which is entirely natural, since the subject is a hunt. Hellequin was in consequence interpreted ashélechien, literally a ‘dog-caller’ or ‘haloo-hound’ let loose on the game.”

Again, the ancestral Wild Man, whose physique and strength were associated with the bear (there is a relation between the words orcus [wild man] and ursus [bear]) also looms large as the potential source of Arlecchino’s physical prowess since the gigantic being who uprooted trees and carried a massive club became associated with Hellekin, leader of the Wild Horde, as indicated by Ordericus Vitalis’s ecclesiastical history. And the contributory agency of Hercules should also be remembered in terms of Arlecchino’s strength.

Arlecchino could also manipulate situations as if he had superhuman powers, albeit in a comic manner. Some have associated these qualities in him with the Roman deity Mercury, who flew between the world of the gods and that of man, often as a messenger. As well, it may be that Arlecchino’s acrobatic ability was derived from his supernatural ancestor’s ability to fly, as his winged feet and helmet signified in the ancient world. Indeed, in Arlequin Mercure gallant (1682) he is dressed as the god and appears in midair mounted on Jupiter’s eagle. As Duchartre puts it: “He is without doubt of divine essence, if not, indeed, the god Mercury himself, patron of merchants, thieves, panders … Arlecchino, transformed into a citizen of Bergamo, made his appearance at the time when the ancient gods emerged from the fertile Latin soul.” Mercury carried his identifying wand or scepter – the caduceus – with the two entwined serpents. Similarly, the Greek Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans) had a thyrsus, a staff tipped with a pinecone and sometimes twined with ivy and vine branches. Both symbols of the authority of the deities have been held since ancient times to be emblematic of the male procreative member, the phallus. Male sexual potency is, therefore, paramount in the ancient worshippers’ conception of these gods, as the frequent representation of the phallus shows.

A purgated variant of Hermes’ caduceus and Dionysus’ thyrsus may be seen in Arlecchino’s principal stage property, the slapstick, which he often used lewdly after his leather phallus was no longer a part of his accoutrements. In this context, the manner of the commedia dell’arte character was openly sexual, and he pleased his audience, high and low, with energetic, satyr-like behavior, à la the Wild Man, of whose tree or club the slapstick is also reminiscent. All Arlecchino’s antics were carried out with a keen wit and rambunctious humor.

Arlecchino’s manner, therefore, was yet another remnant of his mixed deific and daemonic origins. It mingled elements out of classical Mediterranean tradition and barbaric Norse-Teutonic folklore: Hermes-Dionysus on the one hand, Orcus-Wild Man-Hellekin on the other.

Walter Map, De nugis curialium
In the air over Le Mans, there appeared to many hundreds of people a gigantic flock of goats. In Brittany, in deepest night, people have seen hordes of eerie soldiers who lead captured livestock, passing in silence, and the Bretons have often nabbed horses or other animals from them and made use of the beasts, some dying because of it, others surviving without harm.

There were also those night-borne companies and regiments called the Herlethingi, the followers of Herla, well-known in England even in this age of our present lord, King Henry II, wandering endlessly in crazed, meaningless circles, in dumb silence; among them appeared living many who had recently been dead.

It is said that Herla, a king of the ancient Britons, was once discoursing with another king, who was a pygmy, not being any taller than a monkey. This little homunculus sat atop a big goat, according to the tale, and could be described as looking a bit like Pan: burning red face, big head with a red beard that reached down to his chest, which was starred like a fawn’s hide; his belly was rough and hairy, and everything below the shins was like a goat. Herla spoke to him alone. The pygmy said: “I am king over many kings and princes, an innumerable and infinite populace, and have been sent by them to you. You do not know me, but I am impressed by the report that you too reign over many kings; you are exalted and close to me in rank and blood. You are worthy to have me present as an honored guest at your glorious and charming wedding feast – just as soon as the King of the Franks has granted you his daughter – yes, you don’t know about it yet, but it’s all arranged – the ambassadors will come today. Let this be an eternal bond between us: I will take part in your nuptials first, and you will do the same for me on the same day next year.”

He spoke these words, then, with the speed of a tiger, he turned his back and vanished before the king’s eyes. The king returned home filled with wonder, and received the ambassadors, accepting their entreaties.

During the solemnities of his wedding day, before the first course, behold, there was the pygmy with such a crowd of similar beings that the tables were full, and more sat outside in pavilions which the pygmy had erected in an instant. Servants leapt out of these pavilions bearing dishes, each dish made of a single precious stone, whole and well-crafted through some inimitable art. Everyone in the palace and the pavilions used utensils made of gold and jewels; nothing was served in silver or wood. Wherever there was the slightest desire, the servants were there.

They did not serve the king’s food, or food from elsewhere on the earth; all of this abundance, they had brought with them – and it exceeded the prayers and wishes of all. The things Herla had prepared for the feast were saved; his servants quickly sat, and were not called for. The pygmies circulated, and everyone lined up to thank them. Their precious, gem-studded clothing gave them a glow that others there lacked – and it did not hurt that neither by word nor by deed nor by presence or absence did they annoy anyone there.

While these servants went about their business, their king said to King Herla, “Best of kings, with God as my witness, I am here at your wedding because of our pact. If there is anything which is lacking here, request it of me, and I will gladly supply for you; if not, be sure to repay this honor without delay when agreed.” When he had said this, he did not wait for a response, but quickly hopped off to his pavilion, from whence around cock-crow he and his train departed.

A year later, he appeared again before Herla and requested that Herla fulfill his half of the pact. King Herla agreed, and providing himself with everything he needed to repay his debt, he followed where the pygmy led. They came to a towering cliff and entered a cave at the bottom. After wandering for a while in darkness, they arrived at the pygmy’s subterranean home, lit not with the light of the sun or the moon, but with many lamps, a mansion as impressive as the Palace of the Sun described by Naso.

The goblin nuptials were celebrated, and the debt to the pygmy repaid. When Herla received leave, he set out burdened with many fine gifts – horses, dogs, hawks, and everything excellent that could be imagined for hunting and trapping. The pygmy led them as far as the dark passage, and then presented Herla with a small bloodhound to carry on his saddle. He warned Herla and the whole retinue that they must not dismount for any reason before the dog leapt to the ground. He bid them best wishes, and returned home.

After a short time, Herla reached the light of the sun and his own kingdom, where he greeted an old shepherd. When he asked for word of his queen, speaking her name, the shepherd regarded him with wonder and said, “My lord, your tongue is hardly intelligible, for I am a Saxon, and you are a Briton. I have not heard the name of that queen before … except there was one of that name who ruled over the ancient Britons, the wife of King Herla, who the stories say disappeared near this very cliff with a pygmy, and never again was seen on this earth. Truly, the Saxons have ruled this kingdom for two hundred years, and they expelled the Britons.”

The King was stupefied, for he believed he had only stayed three days. He could scarcely stay in his saddle. Though the King’s dog had not leapt down from his saddle, several of Herla’s train, forgetting what the pygmy had told them, dismounted – and immediately sifted away into dust. The King, seeing the true reason for their dissolution, prohibited the rest from stepping down to the earth before the bloodhound did, if they didn’t want to share the same death.

But to this day, the dog has not dismounted.

So the story goes that this same King Herla wanders always, lost in infinite circuits, harassed but holding onto his senseless course, without rest or hope of home.

This troop called the Herlethingi was last seen in the borderlands between Wales and Hereford in the first year of the reign of Henry II, at about noon. They traveled as we do, with carts and pack-horses, with baskets and panniers, with a rout of men and women, with hounds and birds of prey.

Those who first spied them raised the alarm among everyone in the area with horn-blasts and shouts. As is typical for the Welsh, that most vigilant race, they in no time gathered a large force, armed to the teeth, and parlayed with the Herlethingi.

Finding that they couldn’t extort a single word, they prepared to elicit an answer with their spears. But the Herlethingi rose up into the air in a mass, and suddenly were gone.

John Rudlin, Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook
Generically, the female of zanni:  zagne.  The role was first called sobretta (soubrette in French, later known as fantesca (maid) or servetta (female servant).  Although Columbina became the dominant name, especially as Columbine in France and England, she was originally also called Franceschina, Smeraldina, Oliva, Nespola, Spinetta, Ricciolina, Corallina, Diamantina, Lisetta, etc.

Le ballerine and/or le cantarine (French chanteuses) – with a tambourine provided entr’acte entertainment before women were allowed into the stage action proper.  Here, for once, there is an indisputable link with Roman theatre.  Its relatively late development meant that the role, unlike the male Masks derived from Carnival, was much more dependent on the character of the performer herself and on the taste of the audience. The early street performers (who were more often called Franceschina, Smeraldina, etc.) were older, lustier and more buxom than the later seventeenth and eighteenth century Colombinas, who as well as being younger and more graceful and engaging, were less overtly sexual.  In borrowing from the commedia erudita, which had a tradition of the maid appearing in place of her mistress, the servetta would have had a lot to do.  But once the Lovers actually appeared, the role was reduced to confidant and message carrier.  Later she became the counterpart of Zanni in function and the reflection of her mistress in manner and mood.

Her appearance was initially strong and attractive like a circus artist, later petite and pretty. She goes unmasked, but with eyes wide and well made-up.

Loves Arlecchino, but sees through him.  Feels a need to look after him, educate him in the hope that he too can break the bounds of being a fixed type.  She therefore scolds him, punishes him, deserts him, takes him back, but in the end he does not change and she has to accept him for what he is, which is still more lovable than Il Dottore, Pantalone , Il Capitano, etc. She can be very affectionate to other characters as well, and her affections seem to flow through her physically, but she always holds something back.  As a result she is pestered by other men, especially Il Capitano and Pantalone.  She is always ready to help the Lovers, perhaps through natural sympathy with their plight.

She has a collusive relationship to the audience as she is a spectator herself. Almost confidential in the sense that she too can see what fools the rest of them are.  Flirts with spectators moving closer so they can see her eyes, but not too close.

By her keen and active wit, she was able to hold her own in every situation and emerge with ease and dignity from the most involved intrigues. The only lucid, rational person in commedia dell’arte, analogous to Maria in Twelfth Night.  Autonomous and self-sufficient, she has no negative attributes; she has enough to eat, decent clothes and no ambition to be rich.  She can read and write: in fact she is very fond of books and owns several.  She sings, dances captivates, but has gone beyond her entremetteuse origins to become a self-educated woman.  In this respect she is influenced by contact with Isabella, indeed it is difficult to see how the later could confide in anyone who did not share her outlook on life.  The main difference between servette and zanni is that whereas Arlecchino thinks on his feet, Colombina uses her brain and thinks things through.  Like Il Capitano she is a lone figure, capable of appearing solo.  Often, in fact, the prologue is entrusted to her.  Although capricious and coquettish she is good at her job, careful with money, and will, with great reluctance, make an excellent housekeeper one day.  Although she is very sexually knowing she is sometimes a virgin, when it suits her.

Synopsis of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos from the Metropolitan Opera
The Ariadne myth tells how Prince Theseus of Athens set out for Crete to kill the Minotaur, a creature half man, half bull, who was concealed in a labyrinth. Princess Ariadne of Crete fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of thread that enabled him to find his way out of the labyrinth after he had killed the Minotaur. When Theseus left Crete, he took Ariadne with him as his bride. During their voyage home they stopped at the island of Naxos. While Ariadne was asleep, Theseus slipped away and continued his journey to Athens without her. The opera Ariadne auf Naxos begins at this point.

Ariadne is alone in front of her cave. Three nymphs look on and lament her fate. Watching from the wings, the comedians are doubtful whether they will be able to cheer her up. Ariadne recalls her love for Theseus (“Ein Schönes war”), then imagines herself as a chaste girl, awaiting death. Harlekin tries to divert her with a song (“Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen”) but Ariadne ignores him. As if in a trance, she resolves to await Hermes, messenger of death. He will take her to another world where everything is pure (“Es gibt ein Reich”). When the comedians’ efforts continue to fail, Zerbinetta finally addresses Ariadne directly (“Grossmächtige Prinzessin!”), woman to woman, explaining to her the human need to change an old love for a new. Insulted, Ariadne leaves. After Zerbinetta has finished her speech, her colleagues leap back onto the scene, competing for her attention. Zerbinetta gives in to Harlekin’s comic protestations of love and the comedians exit.

The nymphs announce the approach of a ship: it carries the young god Bacchus, who has escaped the enchantress Circe. Bacchus’s voice is heard in the distance (“Circe, kannst du mich hören?”) and Ariadne prepares to greet her visitor, whom she thinks must be death at last. When he appears, she at first mistakes him for Theseus come back to her, but he majestically proclaims his godhood. Entranced by her beauty, Bacchus tells her he would sooner see the stars vanish than give her up. Reconciled to a new existence, Ariadne joins Bacchus as they ascend to the heavens. Zerbinetta sneaks in to have the last word: “When a new god comes along, we’re dumbstruck.”

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