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Extemporal Comedies
by [?]

I shall give one anecdote to record the possible excellence of the art. Louis Riccoboni, known in the annals of this theatre by the adopted name of Lelio, his favourite amoroso character, was not only an accomplished actor, but a literary man; and with his wife Flaminia, afterwards the celebrated novelist, displayed a rare union of talents and of minds. It was suspected that they did not act all’ improvista, from the facility and the elegance of their dialogue; and a clamour was now raised in the literary circles, who had long been jealous of the fascination which attracted the public to the Italian theatre. It was said that the Riccobonis were imposing on the public credulity; and that their pretended Extemporal Comedies were preconcerted scenes. To terminate this civil war between the rival theatres, La Motte offered to sketch a plot in five acts, and the Italians were challenged to perform it. This defiance was instantly accepted. On the morning of the representation Lelio detailed the story to his troop, hung up the Scenario in its usual place, and the whole company was ready at the drawing of the curtain. The plot given in by La Motte was performed to admiration; and all Paris witnessed the triumph. La Motte afterwards composed this very comedy for the French theatre, L’Amante difficile, yet still the extemporal one at the Italian theatre remained a more permanent favourite; and the public were delighted by seeing the same piece perpetually offering novelties and changing its character at the fancy of the actors. This fact conveys an idea of dramatic execution which does not enter into our experience. Riccoboni carried the Commedie dell’ Arte to a new perfection, by the introduction of an elegant fable and serious characters; and he raised the dignity of the Italian stage, when he inscribed on its curtain,


[Footnote 1:
Some of the ancient Scenarie were printed in 1661, by Flaminius Scala, one of their great actors. These, according to Riccoboni, consist of nothing more than the skeletons of Comedies; the canevas, as the French technically term a plot and its scenes. He says, “They are not so short as those we now use to fix at the back of the scenes, nor so full as to furnish any aid to the dialogue: they only explain what the actor did on the stage, and the action which forms the subject, nothing more.” ]

[Footnote 2:
The passage in Livy is, “Juventus, histrionibus fabellarum actu relicto, ipsa inter se, more antiquo, ridicula intexta versibus jactitare caepit.” Lib. vii. cap. 2. ]

[Footnote 3:
As these Atellanae Fabulae were never written, they have not descended to us in any shape. It has, indeed, been conjectured that Horace, in the fifth Satire of his first Book, v. 51, has preserved a scene of this nature between two practised buffoons in the “Pugnam Sarmenti Scurrae,” who challenges his brother Cicerrus, equally ludicrous and scurrilous. But surely these were rather the low humour of the Mimes, than of the Atellan Farcers. ]

[Footnote 4:
Melmoth’s Letters of Cicero, B. viii. lett. 20; in Graevius’s edition, Lib. ix. ep. 16. ]

[Footnote 5:
This passage also shows that our own custom of annexing a Farce, or petite piece, or Pantomime, to a tragic Drama, existed among the Romans: the introduction of the practice in our country seems not to be ascertained; and it is conjectured not to have existed before the Restoration. Shakspeare and his contemporaries probably were spectators of only a single drama. ]

[Footnote 6:
Storia Critica del Teatri de Signorelli, tom. iii. 258.–Baretti mentions a collection of four thousand dramas, made by Apostolo Zeno, of which the greater part were comedies. He allows that in tragedies his nation is inferior to the English and the French; but “no nation,” he adds, “can be compared with us for pleasantry and humour in comedy.” Some of the greatest names in Italian literature were writers of comedy. Ital. Lib. 119. ]

[Footnote 7:
Altieri explains Formica as a crabbed fellow who acts the butt in a farce. ]