Barbara Burns interviews Dick Andrews, author of Classical Comedy 1508-1786: A Legacy from Italy and France.

BB. Your impressive study spans the best part of three centuries of plays written in both France and Italy. This seems a huge remit – the culmination of a life’s work, perhaps? What is the background to this book?

Dick Andrews

RA. As an Italianist and a theatre enthusiast, I started concentrating more than 40 years ago on Italian comedies of the 16th century. They seemed not to have been assessed even by Italian scholars in terms of how they would be realised on stage, scene by scene. I had also studied Molière as an undergraduate at St John’s College, Oxford, under the tutorage of W. G. Moore. I soon perceived that there was a continuity between commedia erudita and Molière which had not been explored either. Although French scholars recognised the presence and importance in French theatre of Italian commedia dell’arte, they often had inaccurate or incomplete ideas about what that form of theatre really was. So, a number of things began to come together.

My first book was about the pioneering Italian comedies of the early 16th century. Some years later I produced a translation and analysis of commedia dell’arte scenarios which had first been printed in 1611: this was an attempt to show in detail, scene by scene, how arte improvisation might have worked. In this current volume, I sometimes find myself quoting from the earlier two books, though I also assemble and reinterpret a great deal of other people’s scholarship.

BB. My PhD was on German tragedy, which often made people look at me in a rather puzzled and pitying way when I told them. I wonder if the subject of comedy elicits a more positive reaction from others. What draws you to the study of comedy?

RA. Some people can see why it might be fun to study comedy, and they can even be envious. Others feel snooty about it, assuming that comedy is somehow inferior to tragedy or to other ‘serious’ drama. I think that comedy is both fun and worth studying ‘seriously’. Human beings need laughter: we constantly seek it in our entertainments. Moments of fun, even moments of absurdity, are important to us. For me they have significance precisely because they are not ‘serious’. Seriousness is overrated. Equally, though, laughter and comedy can be used for harmful purposes. We need to be aware of that too.

BB. What are the key characteristics of ‘classical comedy’ as you define it, and to what extent do we still recognise its legacy in plays that are performed and familiar to us today?

Contrasting forms of comedy in Paris: Molière's fairly literary L'Avare (1668), and Arlequin Empereur dans la Lune (1684), a masked show by the Italian theatre company. (As it happens, MHRA Texts and Translations publishes an edition of Arlequin Empereur, which was to travel still further to England.)

RA. Throughout the period which I cover, dramatists and actors were aware that they were developing formats and styles first proposed by the ancient Roman – ‘classical’? – comedies of Plautus and Terence. However, I use the word ‘classical’ in my own chosen way, to denote comedies which contain a particular set of repeated narrative units and of typical stage characters. During the 16th-18th centuries, audiences came to expect those elements, and to identify ‘comedies’ as being plays which contained them. There are other meanings given to ‘classical’, regarding literary style and tone, which I explicitly do not use in this study.

The book gives priority to plays which are still known and revived in modern times. In particular, we do still understand and enjoy plays in which lovers come together in defiance of social (or parental) efforts to prevent them.

BB. How important in classical comedy is the aspect of social satire or political criticism, as opposed to exploring broader psychological truths?

RA. This is a large question which I’ve tried to deal with in the book. Comedy can’t exist without irreverence, but there are huge variations in what one chooses to be irreverent about. At various times and places in this history, comic dramatists claimed (or pretended) that they dealt with general human traits, and that they avoided comments on their specific contemporary societies. For other writers social and cultural satire was openly (or sometimes not so openly) on the agenda. But specifically political satire was rarely pursued because it was too dangerous, especially for those who made their living from professional theatre.

BB. Was writing this book in retirement a pleasant or a challenging experience?

RA. Most of the time, I simply enjoyed what I was doing, over a happy seven-year period of composition. I was reading at my own speed and following my own agenda, without having to fulfil a programme lodged in advance with a publisher or a research organization. But things got a bit tougher when it came to the final chapter: I didn’t know how to conclude the book! Then I realised that the whole story I had been telling was permeated with a basic distinction between ‘erudite’ elements and ‘artisan’ elements in stage comedy: the genre had after all started with a kind of face-off between 16th-century commedia erudita and commedia dell’arte. So, I found my final chapter; and I just went back through the previous ones inserting relevant words and concepts to underline the point which had been there all along.

BB. You mention in your Acknowledgements that teaching courses on Classical European Comedy to undergraduates helped you form your views on the subject. I’m sure many of our students would be surprised and delighted to learn how insightful we sometimes find their comments, and how fulfilling it is for us as instructors to experience a genuinely two-way communicative process in our teaching. Can you give us a sense of how student responses broadened your perspective or made you think differently?

RA. The most important discovery, quite early on, was what different responses you could get from different people, with regard to material which an author thought was comic. Opinions and reactions could vary wildly, and some students were actually discovering for themselves what they did or didn’t find funny.

This was something to remember throughout the book: ‘my’ judgements about a comedy were never going to be shared by everyone else. And responses were equally varied at the time when the material first appeared. This led me to see that, in a history of this sort, facts are more important than judgements.

Two of many, many Trissotins. Above, Patrick Piard, in a 2011 production of Les Femmes savantes; below, reading aloud in an 1845 painting by Charles Robert Leslie (now in the V&A).

BB. Are you involved in any theatre groups yourself?

RA. I’ve acted in university drama from time to time over the years. Quite often, as it happens, in plays by Molière – I’ve played the part of the ludicrous poet Trissotin in Les Femmes savantes. Experience of mounting and performing plays has fed from the start into my writing about them. I found that this was the type of knowledge and experience which was most lacking in Italian academic criticism, especially that of generations before mine. (Things are now considerably better.) I’ve given up acting since retirement, though.

Pinocchio confronting the Fox and the Cat, from a 2008 production heavily rewritten and adapted as a basis for contemporary social and political comment. For more on the remarkable Teatro Povero, click here

On a quite different tack, over more than 30 years, I have been attending and monitoring the productions of the Teatro Povero di Monticchiello, a unique community drama project mounted annually in a Tuscan village. These shows have nothing to do with ‘classical comedy’, under any definition: they do relate to how a community can choose to express and define itself in theatre. My role here has not been as performer, but as spectator, as occasional adviser, and as historian and archivist.

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