Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Across the Marketplace (Cross-Pollination Pt I)

Commedia del Arte is a form of theater designed to be performed by a limited number of actors in a setting that is less than ideal for theater: The Renaissance marketplace. Each actor wears a specific mask and adopts certain prescribed poses that are universal to the form.

The characters bear Italianate names like Pantalone, the unscrupulous and grasping old man; Capitano, the strutting braggart; Arlechinno, the clever and (more or less) innocent servant... The iconic masks, poses and well-defined characters allowed the actors to perform amid the bustle of marketplace and festival in a time before microphones. The cavernous noses of the masks have even been alleged to magnify the voices of the actors.

Even if you could not hear every word or see them clearly, you knew who was doing what. Even from a distance, there was no question which actor was playing which role, so well-known were the archetypes they portrayed. Even today you would recognize them whether you realize it or not. Harlequin came from commedia. Punch & Judy as well. Shakespeare borrowed shamelessly from his Italian counterparts. Your pants are called "pants" as a short form of 'pantaloons' named for the costume worn by Pantalone. In more theatrical and modern(ish) terms, The Marx Brothers, Monty Python and the Muppets all owe an enormous debt to their frenetic forbears in commedia del arte.

But lest I lose you, I didn't come here to give you a lesson in the history of Western theater. The reason I bring this up is that what Groucho, the Pythons and Jim Henson all understood is the power of the iconic character.

So too can the form translate into written fiction, comedy or drama. You don't have to be writing screwball comedy to learn from the masks of the commedia. Falstaff and Hamlet are both iconic characters that resonate on a cultural level.

When I was a kid, we were taught that all fictional conflict could be summed-up as "Man -vs- Man, Man -vs- Nature, and Man -vs- Himself." In the time I've been alive this has broadened quite a bit and become gender-neutral, but the central premise remains the same: even as broad as it's become, there's a limited number of frameworks within which we can fit a story.

Yet, if that's true, why do we all find it so difficult to sum-up our books in a paragraph when we're pitching them to agents and publishers?

Because we tend not to think about our frames, or (worse yet) imagine that they're not there. Recognizing them allows us to identify places we can push at them without it collapsing. Seeing beneath the masks our characters wear is one thing, but seeing the mask itself is important too.

There's a term bandied about quite a bit in New York and Hollywood: "High Concept" -- put in simple terms this means your story can be explained in simple terms. It doesn't mean you're necessarily telling a simple story or that the book is lacking in complexity. At it's best, it simply means that you made good use of the iconic.

That your characters and story can be recognized across the bustling marketplace.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).