Spectacle, Exoticism, Intricacy, and Comedy: Exploring the High Theatre of Carlo Gozzi's Turandot
Theatre has always been something of a bellwether for cultural progress and change, with societal issues dealt with explicitly in the action of stage plays since the time of the ancient Greeks and with trends in performance styles and subject matter providing a clear representation of societal mores and cultural values at any given place and time. During the Dark Ages, for example, there essentially was no theatre aside from Church-inspired and -- approved drama recounting certain Biblical stories, primarily those related to Jesus' passion. This reflected society at large, in which literacy and learning had stagnated and very little cultural or technological progress was made throughout much of Europe. With the Renaissance comes the return of drama, and indeed one of the high points in theatrical writing and performance just as the period was one of the most productive in other areas of progress: political liberation, the emergence of scientific understandings, and more.
Of course, the Renaissance couldn't last forever, and drama went through many different phases in different regions of the world. In Italy, the style known as commedia dell'arte emerged in the latter part of the Renaissance, and though its popularity waned as plays were becoming more sophisticated and less slapstick throughout much of Western civilization the form remained popular for several centuries. One of the last -- perhaps the last -- great commedia entertainers, and one who helped transition Italian theatre into something more modern, was Carlo Gozzi.
Commedia dell'arte is all about the spectacle of the performance, with exaggerated characters often wearing masks and nearly (or entirely) nonsensical plots that almost always end happily, however improbably, with the god guys winning and the bad guys appropriately punished. Gozzi took this style, which relied on stock characters, standard (if outrageous) plot twists, and improvisation on the parts of the actors, and transformed it into something more recognizable as a modern play: a clear and deliberate structure to the plot, scripted lines for the actors, and more realistic and human motives for the characters the actors portrayed (Opera America, 2012). The larger-than-life characters and events remained, however, and though more reasonably motivated the plot was still quite complex, bawdy, and gaudy. Turandot serves as an excellent example of Gozzi's work, standing as a strong representation of the continuing traditions of high theatre while at the same time becoming more grounded in realities and perspectives of more modern society and theatre.
One of the key elements of high theatre and the commedia dell'arte style is the spectacle of the dramatic presentation. The visual aspects of costumes, sets, and to a lesser degree in the pre-electricity era lights, all contribute to the feeling of grand transportation and the other-worldliness of high theatre. While Gozzi strived to create characters that were more realistic than in older and perhaps more authentic commedia dell'arte, he still captures the feel of their visual spectacle as well as other visual elements of commedia in Turandot.
At the very outset of the play, several traditional commedia dell'arte characters such as Pantalone appear in a full procession, stopping in front of a row of bloody heads. While the visual impact of this is of course going to vary form production to production, it is clear that Gozzi intended the audience's first view to be arresting both in terms of the violence and in the heightened feel of the characters that enter, describing the scene as, "One of the city gates of Pekin. Over the gate, planted on iron poles, a row of severed heads with shaven crowns" (I. i.). The view of royal life and of other elements of the plot and play is made quite rich through this and other such descriptions, and the costumes and scenic elements of an authentic production must necessarily present a dazzlingly beautiful and intricate visual display to the audience in order to achieve the effect Gozzi was attempting to create. By creating such a transport-conducive scene, Gozzi was remaining true to the style of high theatre.
Many plays of the Renaissance, in Italy and elsewhere, dealt with the societies in which plays were presented. Most commedia dell'arte plays and examples of high theatre did not involve radically different cultures or lands, so the sometime exotic setting and characters of Turnadot cannot be listed as a standard element of high theatre. This does not mean that this aspect of Gozzi's masterpiece is unrelated to high theatre, however; the connection is simply more subtle and complex than the connection apparent in elements such as spectacle. High theatre, as noted above, is about creating a world apart from the audience and transporting the audience there, and Gozzi achieves this spectacularly.
By creating such an exotic setting for Turandot, which even though based on actual tales from China and/or Persia is heavily adapted by Gozzi in this text, the playwright is helping to establish this feeling of otherworldliness, and it is in the description and interactions of the characters with this exotic setting that the transportation of the audience is achieved (Opera America, 2012). When Calaf meets his friend Barak by chance in the city, for example, the latter describes how he started, "Before the gates of Astrakhan, and fled / Close followed by the Sultan of Taschkent" (I. ii.). The strange place names and the existence of a Sultan are both highly exotic elements, and the action they inspire is of an extreme sort in and of itself, yet the way these elements are spoken of and referenced by the characters in the play creates a familiarity of the strange that helps to transport the audience to this exotic world. This sense of transport is the definitive feature of high theatre.
While confusion is not generally in and of itself a desirable quality in drama or any literary text, it can definitely be another boost to the ability for a play to transport an audience. In Turandot as in many commedia dell'arte plays, the plot is highly intricate, involving many different characters and a series of sub-plots that interact to various degrees. Unlike older and more traditional commedia dell'arte plays, however, the plot of Turandot is not composed of elements, actions, and scenarios that would already be familiar to audiences through repetition and convention. This actually helps the play reach the realm of high theatre even more.
The basic central plot of Turandot is rather simple: Calaf loves the princess Turandot and successfully answers her riddle, which means he can marry her instead of being put to death like ninety-nine failed suitors before. He offers the princess and escape if she can guess has real name, which she eventually learns but decides to marry Calaf anyway. Embedded within this basic plot, however, are a variety of supporting characters with interesting and sometimes hidden pasts that allow the information necessary to the major plot to come to light, other characters with other desires and goals that pursue these objectives throughout the play add more layers of complexity, and a series of hidden truths and half-truths that all lead to a confusing and hectic flurry of activity and emotion. While plot is certainly an important aspect of the play, it is not the singular, linear, and concrete through-line that exists in modern drama, and instead is very much the same in scope as the spectacle of the drama. Again, the plot establishes the play as an example of high theatre through its drawing in of the audience, wrapping them in the confusing whirlwind of the intricate plot.
Commedia dell'arte is, as the name suggests, involved quite heavily with comedy and elements of humor. This does not mean that commedia dell'arte plays, even the fully traditional ones,…