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Harlequin, Holberg and the (In)visible Masks: Commedia dell'arte in Eighteenth-Century Denmark

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2009


The profound influence of the commedia dell'arte on European theatre is commonly acknowledged, although it has not yet been extensively analysed. In Northern Europe some of its first traces are iconographic. There are masked Venetian characters among the paintings collected by the Danish king Christian IV. The first such masks to appear in a Danish context are three Pantaloons acting as stage hands in a court ballet which was part of Det store Bilager (‘The Great Wedding Feast’), the grandiose festivities celebrating the Crown Prince's wedding in 1634. Later, German troupes may have presented harlequinades. The first reliable accounts of Italian actors playing in Denmark feature a certain Venetian comedian-charlatan: Sebastiano di Scio, known as Harlekino, who travelled the country with a twenty-four strong entourage, at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He was employed as a royal comedian and physician, and furnished the Royal household with obscure medicines for obscure diseases. The combination of comedian and charlatan is, of course, typical.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 1998

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1. Krogh, T., Musik og Teater (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1955), pp. 133ffGoogle Scholar; Katritzky, M. A., ‘Lodewyk Toeput: some pictures related to the commedia dell'arte’, Renaissance Studies, 1, 1987, p. 92, n. 64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2. Nystrøm, E., Den danske Komedies Oprindelse (Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1918), p. 59Google Scholar; Krogh, 1955, p. 149Google Scholar; Hansen, Günther, Formen der Commedia dell'arte in Deutschland (Emsdetten: Lechte, 1984), p. 59fGoogle Scholar. Concerning Italian troupes in Denmark see also Hellssen, Henry, Harlekin og Columbine (Copenhagen: Carit Andersens Forlag, 1944)Google Scholar, and Sandfort, Paul, ‘La commedia dell'arte in Danimarca’, Il Veltro, 25, 1981.Google Scholar

3. Holberg, Ludvig (16841754)Google Scholar, a Norwegian-born university professor in Copenhagen, wrote 27 comedies for this short-lived Danish-speaking theatre on Lille Grannegade (1722–8).

4. In Holberg, L., Seks komedier, edited by Andersen, J. Kr., (Copenhagen: Borgen, 1994)Google Scholar. English quotations from Argetsinger, G. S. and Rosseel, Sv. H., eds., Jeppe of the Hill and Other Comedies by Ludvig Holberg (Carbondale, 1990), pp. 193ff.Google Scholar

5. Wegner, Henrich, c. 17011743Google Scholar, the leading comic actor of the Danish troupe.

6. He is called Harleqvin in the Epilogue, and Arlequinus in Holberg's Latin Memoirs, see below. See Krogh, T., Studier over Harlekinaden paa den danske Skueplads (Copenhagen: Jespersen og Pio, 1931), p. 19f.Google Scholar

7. In Arlequin Protée the classical ‘hero’ Arlequin is undressed by a second-hand clothes dealer: ‘Ah, qu'on est malheureux d'avoir des créanciers!/ Si l'empire Romain avait eu des fripiers,/ Contre lui dechainés et plus juifs que le Diable/ II n'aurait pas été si ferme et si durable …’, cf. Ulysses' line, ‘Oh, heavens, if I had undertaken to destroy all Jews instead of going to Troy, my reign would not have ended so abruptly’. See Brix, H., ‘Holberg og Théâtre Italien’, Edda, 11, 1919, p. 132ffGoogle Scholar, for further borrowings. Holberg's relationship to the Italian comedy is discussed in Tessari, Roberto, ‘Ludvig Holberg e il tramonto della Commedia dell'Arte’, Aion-n: Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale, 30, 1987.Google Scholar

8. The joke is borrowed from Gherardi: ‘Mezzetin. Il est vrai que la gloire donne un laurier: mais je n'aime le laurier que sur un jambon ou dans les sauces’, quoted in Brix, , p. 133.Google Scholar

9. Holberg writes ‘vantroe’, the adjective which characterizes doubting Thomas.

10. My article ‘Picture and Counter-picture: An Attempt to Involve Context in the Interpretation of Théâtre Italien Iconography’, Theatre Research International, Volume 22, Number 3 (Autumn 1997), analyses these relationships with regard to the Théâtre Italien. See also Jensen, A. E., Helte og Antihelte (Copenhagen, 1984), pp. 65ff.Google Scholar

11. See Chr. Elling, , Skuepladser (Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad, 1971), p. 106ffGoogle Scholar. La Motte and Voltaire were favourite victims of the Italian parodies. See Jensen, A. E., Europœisk drama i Danmark 1722–70 (Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1968), p. 61Google Scholar. Thus in 1722 La Motte's tragedy Romulus was parodied at the Théâtre Italien as well as the Foire Saint-Germain. His best known work Inez de Castro was turned into Agnès de Chaillot. A ballet intermezzo in the satirical Le Chaos (1725) showed ‘Roman’ (i.e. Théâtre-Français) marionettes, meant to suggest the circle of the Café des Beaux-Esprits. See also Schück, H., Ett Porträt från Frihetstiden, Carl Reinhold Berch (Stockholm, 1923).Google Scholar

12. de Courville, See Xavier, Un apôtre de l'art du Théâtre au XVIIIe siècle: Luigi Riccoboni (Paris: Droz, 1945), vol. 2, p. 277, n. 40.Google Scholar

13. This is what happened when the German Wandertruppen took over his comedies. See Roos, C., Det 18. Aarhundredes tyske Oversœsttelser af Holbergs Komedier (Copenhagen: Aschehoug, 1922), p. 3.Google Scholar

14. L. Holberg's first autobiographical letter ‘Ad virum perillustrem’ was published in 1728; here quoted from the Danish translation in Værker, edited by Jansen, F. J. Billeskov (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1971), vol. 12, p. 152.Google Scholar

15. Holberg, 1971, p. 115.Google Scholar

16. See Jensen, 1968, p. 57ff.Google Scholar

17. See Holm, B., ‘Holberg and his Double’, in Ludvig Holberg: a European Writer, edited by Rössel, Sv. H. (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994), pp. 191ff.Google Scholar

18. His view is two-sided: a delicate balance between on the one hand a homo homini lupus conception, and on the other the image of homo sociabilis, man as potential creator of society. Here and there one also finds passages about ‘natural’ man, close to the ‘old’ Harlequin;, see n. 25. ‘Natural’ in Holberg's terminology has more to do with sobriety than with emotion.

19. Between 1728 and 1746 pietism developed into a kind of Danish state religion. In practice theatre was banned for almost two decades. See Holm, B., ‘De talte om Comoedi-Spil som Dievlens Strik og Snare’, Fœnix, 14, 2, 1990.Google Scholar

20. Marivaux, , Théâtre complet (Paris: Garnier, 1968), vol. 1, pp. 71ffGoogle Scholar. See above, the contrast of the laurels of Glory with the ones on a pie in Ulysses von Ithacia.

21. Holberg, 1971, vol. 6, pp. 259ffGoogle Scholar. An important source is a love story from Scarron, 's Roman comique (1651)Google Scholar, entitled ‘Histoire de l'Amante invisible’. Another probable model is Riccoboni's L'Italien francisé for the servant's grotesque imitation of his master's manners; the inspiration for Columbine's revenge is found in Colombine avocat pour et contre, and the ending in Molière's Le Mariage forcé. A title like Arlequin persécuté par la dame invisible might indicate some influence. See also Citterio, Gianluca, ‘Le invisibili, una parodia riflesso nello specchio’, Aion-n: Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale, 2829, 19851986.Google Scholar

22. See Holm, B., ‘L'Image ambiguë d'Arlequin’, Iconographie et arts du spectacle, edited by de La Gorce, Jérôme (Paris: Herscher, 1996), pp. 155ff.Google Scholar

23. This may be seen as a mirror image of the above mentioned situation between Arlequin and Colombine in Arlequin poli par l'amour.

24. Holberg's central theme is ‘Know thyself’, and the structure of most of his comedies is marked by a mechanism that leads from a character lacking a sense of reality to reality's revenge. Holberg's comedy, like that of Marivaux, concerns (H)arlequin's relationship with an older woman, who, metaphorically, threatens to devour him; he has to liberate himself from this figure in order to be united with Silvia/Colombine. In Harlequin's case ‘Magdelone’ is also the name of his mother (III, 6)!

25. A number of passages in Holberg, , Moralske Tanker, edited by Jansen, F. J. Billeskov (Copenhagen: Borgen, 1992)Google Scholar, written almost twenty years later during the pietist and theatre-less period, form an interesting commentary to the comedy. For example: ‘A young peasant falls in love with a girl today and marries her tomorrow. Highborn persons’ marriages cannot take place without useless formalities and preparations. Each aristocratic courtship is a kind of drama. Four acts must be played before you reach the ending, which is the content of the fifth act… A peasant's courtship takes place without all these formalities. Everything happens in a regular and natural way, without the need to hide behind masks' (p. 139); ‘Small children are the proper judges of taste’ as they go for ‘natural pleasure’, whereas adults judge food according to the price: the more expensive, the better (p. 166); and ‘an apple which lies on the ground is ignored, and you climb instead to the top of the tree to pick another, which often, even if less ripe, tastes better, because it has been picked with difficulty … a sly woman pretends coldness and resistance and has a lover woo in the Romance way in order to increase his desire, as well as her own chances of reaching her goal’ (p. 168). The contrast between peasant and aristocrat, child and adult, reflects the basic contrast of The Invisible Lovers. The apple metaphor is repeated almost word for word from I, 2, when Leander's ‘invisible lady’ use it.

26. Cf. ‘THE INVISIBLE LADY. The more difficult the road, the more pleasant it is when you reach your destination.’ (I, 2) Perhaps an echo of Paul, 's Letter to the Corinthians, 9, 24Google Scholar, about winning the crown of victory. I mention this as at the time pietism was emerging. Obviously Holberg's intention was to write a so-called ‘marivaudage’. The pseudonymous Just Justesen writes in the preface to Holberg's comedies (volume 1, Copenhgen, 1723) ‘plays about Romance love are not appropriate in this country’. Holberg's concession to the new taste was decidedly ambiguous.

27. See Jensen, 1968, p. 39fGoogle Scholar; also f. Clausen, Stender, Holberg og Le Nouveau Théâtre Italien (Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad, 1970)Google Scholar, and the same author's ‘Ludvig Holberg and the Romance World’, in Ludvig Holberg: a European Writer (see n. 17), p. 112ff.There is no proof that Holberg saw the new Italian troupe in Paris in 1716; although he may have done so.

28. Such as Angelo Pompeati, mentioned by Casanova, and married to the singer Teresa Imer, daughter of Goldoni's impresario. Pompeati was the author of pantomime harlequinades in Copenhagen 1748–9 under the direction of Pietro Mingotti. The Mingotti troupe is later found in Hungary (see Nyerges, Lazio in Carlo Goldoni 1793–1993, edited by Alberti, C. and Pizzamiglio, G. (Venice: Regione del Veneto, 1995), p. 227)Google Scholar. This seems to be unknown to the thorough biographer, Netti, Paul, of Enciclopedia dello spettacolo, vol. 7, 1954.Google Scholar

29. In accordance with English and French market place pantomimes, the stock plot is Harlequin's disguises and tricks during his escape from Colombine's old father. Even if his character has become closer to that of the romantic lover, much of his versatility has been preserved. The fourth stock character is the stupid servant Pierrot.