It is a curiosity in the history of national genius to discover a people with such a native fund of comic humour, combined with such passionate gesticulation, that they could deeply interest in acting a Comedy, carried on by dialogue, intrigue, and character, all’ improvista, or impromptu; the actors undergoing no rehearsal, and, in fact, composing while they were acting. The plot, called Scenario, consisting merely of the scenes enumerated, with the characters indicated, was first written out; it was then suspended at the back of the stage, and from the mere inspection, the actors came forward to perform the dialogue entirely depending on their own genius.
“These pieces must have been detestable, and the actors mere buffoons,” exclaim the northern critics, whose imaginations have a coldness in them, like a frost in spring. But when the art of Extemporal Comedy flourished among these children of fancy, the universal pleasure these representations afforded to a whole vivacious people, and the recorded celebrity of their great actors, open a new field for the speculation of genius. It may seem more extraordinary that some of its votaries have maintained that it possessed some peculiar advantages over written compositions. When Goldoni reformed the Italian theatre by regular comedies, he found an invincible opposition from the enthusiasts of their old Comedy: for two centuries it had been the amusement of Italy, and was a species of comic entertainment which it had created. Inventive minds were fond of sketching out these outlines of pieces, and other men of genius delighted in their representation.
The inspiration of national genius alone could produce this phenomenon; and these Extemporal Comedies were, indeed, indigenous to the soil. Italy, a land of Improvisatori, kept up from the time of their old masters, the Romans, the same fervid fancy. The ancient Atellanae Fabulae, or Atellane Farces, originated at Atella, a town in the neighbourhood of ancient Naples; and these, too, were extemporal Interludes, or, as Livy terms them, Exodia. We find in that historian a little interesting narrative of the theatrical history of the Romans; when the dramatic performances at Rome were becoming too sentimental and declamatory, banishing the playfulness and the mirth of Comedy, the Roman youth left these graver performances to the professed actors, and revived, perhaps in imitation of the licentious Satyra of the Greeks, the ancient custom of versifying pleasantries, and throwing out jests and raillery among themselves for their own diversion. These Atellan Farces were probably not so low in humour as they have been represented; or at least the Roman youth, on their revival, exercised a chaster taste, for they are noticed by Cicero in a letter to his literary friend Papyrius Paetus. “But to turn from the serious to the jocose part of your letter–the strain of pleasantry you break into, immediately after having quoted the tragedy of Oenomaus, puts me in mind of the modern method of introducing at the end of these graver dramatic pieces the buffoon humour of our low Mimes instead of the more delicate burlesque of the old Atellan Farces.” This very curious passage distinctly marks out the two classes, which so many centuries after Cicero were revived in the Pantomime of Italy, and in its Extemporal Comedy.
The critics on our side of the Alps reproached the Italians for the extemporal comedies; and Marmontel rashly declared that the nation did not possess a single comedy which could endure perusal. But he drew his notions from the low farces of the Italian theatre at Paris, and he censured what he had never read. The comedies of Bibiena, Del Lasca, Del Secchi, and others, are models of classical comedy, but not the popular favourites of Italy. Signorelli distinguishes two species of Italian comedy: those which he calls commedie antiche ed eruditi, ancient and learned comedies; and those of commedie dell’ arte, or a soggetto, comedies suggested.–The first were moulded on classical models, recited in their academies to a select audience, and performed by amateurs; but the commedie a soggetto, the extemporal comedies, were invented by professional actors of genius. More delightful to the fancy of the Italians, and more congenial to their talents, in spite of the graver critics, who even in their amusements cannot cast off the manacles of precedence, the Italians resolved to be pleased for themselves, with their own natural vein; and preferred a freedom of original humour and invention incompatible with regular productions, but which inspired admirable actors, and secured full audiences.