Episode 21: Watch Out for That Banana Peel

Summary

If you’ve ever pondered how “time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana,” then this episode is for you. Join Jesse and Em as they discuss physical comedy and the origins of the commedia dell’arte, its French cousin the comedie francaise, and the Japanese comedic Kyogen style. With a lot of digressions about the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Key and Peele, Monty Python, and pretty much everyone else who has ever been funny on film.

Annotations and Corrections

1/ Previous episodes in this series include: The Not-Evolution of Theatre (episode 15), Much Ado About Puppets (episode 16), and Dance Like Nobody’s Watching (episode 17).

2/ Jesse: Commedia dell’arte is incredibly complex, and there’s a LOT written about it. Here’s the Wikipedia article.

If you want to delve deeper, I recommend The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte edited by Chaffee and Crick, which includes many essays by many scholars as well as a bibliography.

Em: I apologize for my continual mispronunciation of “commedia.” I was raised in a barn (that wasn’t in Italy).

The Comédie Française was founded in 1680 through the combining of two companies, one of which was Moliere’s former troupe (which was now run by his widow, Armande Béjart, and had already merged with another company shortly after Moliere’s death). The Comédie Française thus traces its origin directly back to Moliere and lays claim to being the oldest continuously active theatre company in Europe. (The Comédie Française actually lays claim to being the oldest continuously active theatre company in the world, but…that’s much harder to prove).

The Servant of Two Masters (Il servitore di due padroni), by Carlo Goldoni.

Carlo Gozzi (1720–1806) wrote a number of plays that deserve fame in their own right but are most famous for operatic adaptations (Turandot, adapted by Puccini, and The Love of Three Oranges, which was adapted by Prokofiev and premiered in Chicago, are probably the best known). Gozzi’s plays The Stage King, The Serpent Woman, and The Green Bird (adapted by Julie Taymore in 1996) also remain famous.

Some of the zanni:
Harlequin: initially referred to Arlecchino, a comic clown type of character. Most well-known as a servant character. Unrelated to harlequin romance novels, but definitely related to Harley Quinn. [Actually, Harlequin is the name of the publishing company that published the romance novels that eventually gave rise to the name “Harlequin Romance” (a bit like Kleenex=tissue, I guess). Their logo (their original logo, anyway) was a diamond with a jester/Arlecchino figure inside. The diamond itself mimics the diamond patches on Arlecchino’s costume. Today the logo seems to be the diamond with an “H” inside, but the diamond remains. Harlequin was purchased by NewsCorp in 2014 and is now a division of HarperCollins. To get a good look at Arlecchino’s costume with its patches, click here.–JN]

Columbina: A smart, sassy female version of Harlequin.

Jesse: Arlecchino and Columbina are both zanni, or clowns. Zanni were frequently servants (often of one of the vecchi or old man characters like Pantalone). Brighella and Pulcinella (who becomes Punch in England’s Punch and Judy puppet shows) are other examples of zanni. Zanni could be silly and inept or examples of the “smart servant” type.

The Braggart Soldier, aka il Capitano: A soldier who uses the fact that none of the locals know him to brag about his conquests and rank in an effort to impress others.

Some of the vecchi:
Il Dottore, or the Doctor: an old man who serves as an obstacle for the young lovers. He typically dresses in black academic robes and fancies himself an intellectual, although he often speaks nonsense. [Yes, an important reminder that Il Dottore is a professor–a PhD, basically–not a medical doctor. The medical doctor was il Medico or Il Medico della peste, who wore the famous plague doctor’s mask. Not until the modern era did “doctor” automatically mean “medical doctor.”–JN]

Pantalone, or Pantaloon: an old, wealthy (and greedy) man.

Innamorati: The young lovers.

Jesse: The “set list” was called a canovaccio.

Some of the lazzi:
(See also Mel Gordon’s essay “Lazzi” in the Routledge Companion above in note 2 and his book Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia dell’Arte.)

The lazzo of falling: Harlequin falls from a high ladder or wall after being shot, shaken, or gravitationally abandoned.

The lazzo of the statue: someone is pretending to be a statue, and makes fun of some passers-by when not regarded.

Getting teeth pulled: c.f. The sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors (Steve Martin!)

Food lazzi: c.f. Charlie Chaplin’s version from Modern Times. Also, this category includes lazzi where a character has to attend/serve two dinners at the same time.

3/ The Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers. You can see how they’re both playing stock characters even though they have specific roles within the film.

Buster Keaton clips and analysis from Every Frame a Painting.

Charlie Chaplin clips (eating machine–there’s nothing like food lazzi for many many lols!). And here’s some more hilarious commentary on mechanization and industrialization.

We previously discussed The Great Dictator in episode 10 (see note 20).

Alan Alda doing Groucho.

4/ Kate Bornstein wrote a play called Hidden: A Gender waaaaaay back in 1989. (You can find the play in her book Gender Outlaw. Here’s the film of the play. –JN]

5/ I would try to summarize the plot of The Magic Flute here, but it doesn’t make that much sense, to be honest. Sort of a boy is sent to rescue girl who was kidnapped, finds out that the person holding her captive wants him to go through various trials to be worthy of her, engages in some weirdly masonic-like rites, at some point the Queen of the Night sings “Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,” and at the end somehow everyone gets married and the Queen of the Night and her co-conspirators are magically cast out into eternal night.

The music is pretty amazing though. Here’s a version with Diane Damrau singing the Queen of the Night. The parts in it range from “singable by a decent amateur” to “top coloratura soprano arias of all time.”

The Marriage of Figaro. [Again, super great music. Obviously. This is Mozart. Anyhow, Figaro is also the main character of Beaumarchais’s play The Barber of Seville. The most famous opera version of The Barber of Seville is Rossini’s. It’s worth noting that Lorenzo Da Ponte–who was super interesting and Jewish, although his father converted the family to Catholicism–wrote Mozart’s libretto for The Marriage of Figaro, Don GIovanni, and Cosi fan tutte, so…that’s impressive. –JN]

6/ Falstaff, outlaw/knight/braggart and friend of Prince Hal, appears in Henry IV, pt 1 (probably the best one if you’re interested in him), Henry IV, pt 2 (he gets a couple of famous speeches here, too), The Merry Wives of Windsor (a comedy that has its devotees, but I’m not one of them–probably because it doesn’t read especially well–from Jesse’s comments below, you’d probably have to see it performed), and Henry V (largely off-stage, if I recall correctly). [Falstaff is only off stage in Henry V for many reasons, among them the fact that his death is reported (countless possible reasons why Shakespeare decided to do this). Merry Wives is a tremendous Commedia style play–the mature version of Comedy of Errors, which is also wonderful fun as long as you have someone directing who knows how to direct farce. Farce is HARD; if you get it wrong, it’s not funny, and there is no point.–JN]

7/ Moliere: French guy, wrote some plays, including Tartuffe. [Moliere is amazing, all respect, know and love him! But he did marry his lover’s daughter. So….yeah. For more, click on Armande Béjart’s link in note 2 above.–JN]

8/ Kyogen: Japanese comedic counterpart to Noh (we talked about Noh in episode 17 and a bit in episode 20 if you need a refresher. It has come up at least twice–I think that means it’s going to be on the exam).

Also, Einstein on the Beach is about five hours long, and it is typically performed without intermission, although the audience is permitted to come and go as they wish. To hear the section of the opera Em is referencing (with the counting), click here. A warning–I had only ever heard a recording of this before, and watching the visuals…doesn’t really clear anything up. Glass definitely has other operas that are a little more straightforward (The Penal Colony, for example).

We discussed Tropic Thunder in episode 15 (see note 2).

Some Kyogen plays:
Jesse: Thunderbolt (or Kaminari aka Thunder): a Thunderbolt falls from the sky, bruises his tailbone, and is cured by a quack medical doctor who performs acupuncture (a quack lazzo of acupuncture, actually). The doctor and humanity in general are then rewarded. Here’s a clip of the acupuncture lazzo. A translation of the play can be found in Karen Brazell’s Traditional Japanese Theater: An Anthology of Plays.

Mushrooms. (No idea if this is a good translation or not.) YouTube video of it. [Great video of the play; I show this in class. A translation can also be found in Brazell’s anthology linked above, although Kenny’s translation linked immediately above is probably good too.–JN]

The Delicious Poison. [Kenny’s translation of The Delicious Poison or Busu is in Brazell’s anthology linked above. Kenny’s translation of Mushrooms is also linked above.–JN]

9/ Hrotsvit is discussed in episode 6 (note 18) and in episode 20 (and in the forthcoming episode 22).

Jesse: Aristophanes was awesome. Lysistrata!

Jesse: Terence was a great comic Roman playwright who was tremendously influential in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period and is therefore one of the roots of modern western comedy. He was (North) African, probably from Carthage, and was brought to Rome as an enslaved person. He was educated and eventually freed because of his talent, whereupon he acquired the name Terence. His full name is Publius Terentius Afer–he actually took the “Terentius/Terence” from the man who enslaved (but then also freed) him.

Jesse: Were the past 4 years worth it to watch Kate McKinnon play Rudy Giuliani (slightly NSFW) on SNL? I will have to think about it. There are too many Kenan Thompson clips to choose from, but this one is amazing and also has Leslie Jones. (To be fair, the lazzi are pretty restrained in that one. Here’s another one with lots of lazzi that may be considered NSFW.)

Conan O’Brien on Colbert.

The Ministry of Silly Walks (apologies–I could not find a version that was longer or had more pixels). [Honestly there are too many Monty Python possibilities to link to. Google and start watching!–JN!]

The Key and Peele aerobics skit. Also, if you’re interested in Jordan Peele’s interest in horror, this skit about racist zombies is worth watching (and hilarious, regardless of your interest in horror).

10/ Jesse: For more on Commedia, check out this modern company in DC, Faction of Fools. Here are some great images from Piccolo Teatro di Milano (in Milan), and this link should be all the images from their amazing production of Servant of Two Masters, stretching back decades. Here are some masks made today (we are not endorsing this company). Again, not an endorsement for this one either, but a lot of great images of masks–click through the characters.

Episode 15: The Not-Evolution of Theatre

Summary

In which Em and Jess discuss the important theoretical contributions of Tropic Thunder and Blazing Saddles to performance studies, thereby illustrating the important differences between performance, theatre, and ritual and vital questions about their respective origins.

Also, Jess calls Socrates evil, and then Em and Jess decolonize medieval theatre beginning with India and China.

(Aristotle loves theatre and therefore was not evil.)

Notes, Annotations, and Corrections

1/ Okay, to be honest–we didn’t talk about Australia, and that is a super colonized place that is ripe for a reevaluation–evidently, the period we refer to as “the middle ages” is typically called “prehistory” in Australia because there were no written records. (Refer to previous rant about the privileging of written records over other forms of memory.) Sometime we will have to circle back and think about this. [I read “super colonized” as “spider colonized” at first, which also rings true for Australia. But yes–we will definitely have to cover Australia and New Zealand!–JN]

2/ The dudes are emerging. [So many layers!!!–JN]

The new ice cream truck jingle by RZA. Turkey in the Straw information.

White Christmas “Minstrel Number”.

A NY Times article on the Met production of Othello. [Seriously, WTF!!! Come on, Met!–JN]]

I think the Ben Stiller/Spielberg movie was Empire of the Sun. [Yes, it was!–JN]

The Sean Penn movie was I Am Sam. I [Em] hadn’t heard of it, and–wow. Reading the summary, all I can say is it deserves whatever fun Ben Stiller was able to poke at it.

Also, as a face-blind person, the fact that so many actors become famous because they look like other actors is the bane of my freaking existence.

And here is the trailer for Satan’s Alley.

3/ [17:35] On performing parenthood: welcome to Em’s theory of how gender inequalities get perpetuated from generation to generation despite the idea that women shouldn’t have to do 100% of childcare and homemaking being a thing since at least 1989. (Actually probably a lot of women had this idea earlier, but 1989 is when The Second Shift was published.)

This doesn’t have too much to do with medieval studies, but whatever, sez I. [This was definitely an issue in the Middle Ages! We should have a medieval kid/parenthood episode.–JN] [I would totally be in for that.–Em]

4/ For Ishtar/Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, see Episode 8 nt. 18.

Oedipus Rex, by Tom Lehrer.

5/ [29:59] “Socrates is evil…we’ll footnote that.” Stub footnote so Jesse can provide some proof or something. Otherwise we are going to get nailed on this by the ancient philosophy crowd. [I stand by this!! I have long rants on this, but I can boil it down to a few points. 1) Socrates’s students–specifically Critias–were responsible for a coup that overthrew the democracy in 404 BCE and installed the Thirty Tyrants, who were sympathetic to Sparta (to whom Athens had just lost the Peloponnesian War). 2) The Tyrants, especially Critias, were only in power for 8 months but managed to kill a LOT of people (maybe 5% of the Athenian population). Scholars have excused this over the years as “necessary” blah blah BS. IT’S FASCIST; THEY WERE FASCISTS. (Or more properly proto-fascist, I guess.) 3) Socrates hated democracy and loved the idea of an oligarchy composed of elite individuals. (Read Plato’s Republic.) Welp, turns out oligarchs are f**king monsters. 4) Critias again. 5) The democracy was restored in 403 BCE, and it was agreed that because SO MANY PEOPLE HAD BEEN KILLED by the tyrants, the newly restored democracy would only kill the tyrants themselves and their closest allies. Everyone else would be given amnesty. SOCRATES continued to preach oligarchy. 6) Seriously, read Plato’s early work. It’s not actually Socrates, of course, but it’s certainly influenced by Socrates. He was a classist, elitist snob. 7) Socrates was told to stop preaching oligarchy (i.e., the idea that the best government was one run by a few “qualified” individuals), but he wouldn’t stop. He was told to leave town; he wouldn’t. He couldn’t be executed directly for his role in the 404 BCE coup because of the general amnesty. (His role was difficult to prove anyway, despite Critias. The tyrants ordered Socrates to help in an execution, but Socrates said later that he just went home). So, “corrupting the youth” was a euphemism for “convincing people to overthrow the democracy.” 8) We celebrate Socrates as a martyr to education and freedom of speech, which is the most BS thing ever. He was a genius philosopher, and he’s had an astonishing impact on Western Civilization (via Plato). BUT he was pretty evil too. He is, of course, not the only philosopher to have felt that he isn’t responsible for terrible things done according to his philosophy.–JN]

Em: Okay, in my Introduction to Ancient Philosophy class (where we read Socrates’s Apology), we definitely did not talk about it in any sort of historical context, and…I don’t remember if we talked about what “corrupting the youth” actually meant. Huh.

6/ Recovering Ancient Greek music (including Euripides’s famous chorus of the furies from Orestes).

For more on Greeks and whiteness, see Episode 11, midway through note 15 (on the Elgin Marbles).

7/ I was in a play where we just sang A Health to the Company in the middle of Henry IV pt 1. I dunno, directing is hard, probably.

Also, to be fair to community theatre, setting all the songs to different Beatles tunes did work pretty well. I do love community theatre, it is the most punk of all available theatres.

8/ The Banana Song, for those curious:

Time to gather your arse up off the floor,
(have a bana-na)
Brush your teeth and go toddling off to war,
Wave your hand to sleepy land,
Kiss those dreams away,S
Tell Miss Grable you’re not able,
Not till V-E Day, oh,
Ev’rything’ll be grand in Civvie Street
(have a ban-ana)
Bubbly wine and girls wiv lips so sweet–
But there’s still the German or two to fight,
So show us a smile that’s shiny bright,
And then, as we may have suggested once before–
Gather yer blooming arse up off the floor!

This site has all the song lyrics in Gravity’s Rainbow. There are actually song lyrics in all of his books. Sadly, only one of the books ever got made into a film (Inherent Vice–it was weird).

Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.

9/ Jesse: Here is the website of the Athens Epidaurus Festival. They live streamed Aeschylus’s Persians from Epidaurus this year when the festival finally reopened.

The theatre of Herodes Atticus.

10/ Hrotsvit was in episode 6 (note 18); she’ll also be discussed extensively in a forthcoming episode.

11/ Kalidasa, The Recognition of Shakuntala.

Sudraka, The Little Clay Cart.

The Natya Shastra.

12/ Things England brought back from India (an incomplete list):

  • Spices
  • Paisley
  • Sanskrit drama
  • Some really big diamonds
  • A lot of other artefacts, including a Buddha statue (the Sultanganj Buddha) that weighs over 500 kg (over 1,000 lbs)
  • Approximately $45 trillion worth of stuff (in 2017 USD) over 173 years

13/ Sanskrit is still a language that is around today and you can learn it. There are about 3 million people worldwide who speak it and maybe 25k speak it as their primary language, but I believe what they speak is different from the “perfected” version of Sanskrit you might learn on your way to a degree in Buddhism (in Em’s program, you had to take a semester or two of Sanskrit before you could take Pali, the primary language of Buddhist texts–note that Em did a different track and didn’t take either).

Also, incidentally, Thai derives a fair amount of its script from Devanagari (the script Sanskrit is written in), but not in a way that is obvious if you look at the two abrugidas side by side.

“When we speak of horses” is a misquote from Henry V, act 1, scene 1 (actual quote: Think when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth).

14/ Chinese opera: Dear China, I say this with the greatest respect as a Sinophile and a lover of opera: your opera is pretty extra.

Also I (Em) forgot, when we had this conversation, that Samuel Ramey used to leap out of the orchestra pit when he played Mephistopheles. Maybe. I was told this at one point. [Yes, in Boito’s Mephistopheles! I saw it at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Great production! Also, it starts with something akin to the Dialogue in Heaven, a medieval tradition followed by Goethe in Faust (and hence by Boito in his opera about Mephistopheles and Faust). Goethe might have decided to include the Dialogue in Heaven specifically because of the influence of Sanskrit dramas, which apparently made prologues cool again. Anyway, the Devil shows up to talk to God and bets God that he (the Devil) can tempt Faust. It’s quite Jobian. Anyway, this is why Ramey lept from the orchestra pit (Hell) to the stage (Heaven) to have a chat with God.–JN]

Jesse: Also, a shout out to David Cangelosi’s Mime in Wagner’s Ring Cycle (in a production originated at Lyric Opera of Chicago), where he climbed around the set of his hut (hanging from the rafters and such). It was very exciting!

Zaju 雜劇 is traditional Chinese theater. The technical term for Chinese opera is xiqu (戲曲), I think.

The Injustice to Dou E, by Guan Hanqing. Technically I think it’s not “E” like the letter e, it’s “ə” (not in the sense of an unaccented vowel, just that’s the sound). Unless the pronounciation has changed since the Middle Ages–totally possible. Hm. We will also discuss this one more in a future episode.

The Chalk Circle by Li Qianfu.

Possibly, rather than a common source (although that would also be pretty cool), people have merely observed certain human traits that are universal? [Nope, there’s definitely a common source. I mean, it’s not hard to believe–Genghis Khan’s troops traveled in both directions, for example, but so did a lot of other people, and people bring stories–JN]

Jesse: Here’s a favorite scene–it’s the battle scene in White Snake. The legend is old. Briefly, the hero is a female immortal (a white snake), who falls in love with a mortal. An evil monk tries to separate them, and White Snake and her best friend (the female immortal Green Snake) rally their good troops to fight the monk and his evil troops. This scene is the fight–color symbolism of good vs evil abounds. There are a lot of dancers and acrobats in this battle scene, but the women playing White Snake and Green Snake are also singers. (More on this in an upcoming episode too.)

Here’s the first half of the opera, to hear the singing.

In medieval Chinese theatre, men could play women and women could play men. Much later, only men were allowed to perform on stage (probably because of the influence of Japan). Today, women again play female roles. However, Mei Lanfang was one of the most famous male Chinese opera stars of the twentieth century, and he specialized in female roles. Seeing him perform on stage inspired Brecht to theorize alienation (Verfremdungseffekt). Here’s a (poor quality because it’s old!) video of Mei Lanfang.

Here’s a reconstruction of a medieval mural of a Chinese acting troupe. The leader of the troupe is in the center in red, and she’s costumed in a manner that suggests she might be about to play a male lead role. The female actors appear to be dressed in robes that cover their feet, regardless of the gender of character they are playing. (This is not because of foot binding, which didn’t exist yet. Instead, It seems to be a way to signal to the viewer that these actors are women, regardless of how they are costumed. It might also have been a way for women playing male roles to disguise the size of their feet.) Also interesting, some of the men in the mural seem to have fake beards. On the left, we can just barely see a stage hand peeking out from backstage. In other words, this is a troupe in costume and ready to perform!

Here is the original mural. The text above the mural reads “Ráodū liked it. Zhōng Dūxiù, a famous actress of sǎnyuè performed here. The fourth month of year one in era Tàidìng.” This is how we know for sure that the troupe is led by a women, Zhōng Dūxiù.

15/ As Jesse says, we don’t often set new lyrics to existing tunes…but Weird Al and Tom Lehrer sure do. (Side note: Tom Lehrer is now 92 and still, as of this writing, alive.)

Jesse: Yaaay Tom Lehrer!!! Also, Weird Al tells the following story about “Smells like Nirvana:” Weird Al asked Kurt Cobain if he (Weird Al) could parody “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and Cobain said he liked Weird Al, but so many of his parodies were about food, and Cobain didn’t want this one to be about food. And Weird Al said–Don’t worry, it’s going to be about how nobody can understand your lyrics. And Cobain said yes.

I love this because A+ for both Cobain and Weird Al. And also, Weird Al was not wrong.