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Torchwood and Commedia dell Arte

In honor of the lovely cover of Gary Russell's book, I wanted to say a few things about what Ianto is wearing in the picture.  It's not clown makeup or "Joker" makeup.  It's the makeup/mask of Harlequin, one of the oldest figures in Western theatre.

Commedia dell Arte is a traditional form of Italian improvisational comedy that dates back to the Middle Ages, with roots going back to Ancient Greek commedies.  It has a group of professional actors, each of whom specializes in one traditional stereotypical character from the upper and lower classes.  The players wear traditional costumes and masks or makeup so the audience will know which traditional character they are playing.  The players meet every morning before a play and decide how their characters will react to a certain plot development.

Among the traditional characters are:

The Captain -- the oldest of the archtypes, he is a swaggering fellow in a spendid uniform who is always chasing the ladies.  He is always a foreigner who speaks with an accent.  His true history is always obscured and never as noble as he would like you to think.

The Doctor -- a buffoon with a high opinion of himself which others lack, dubious ability, and often dubious ethics.  He wears an old black coat or jacket and a perpetual frown.

But the most popular and best loved character is Harlequin, a.k.a. Arlechino. He is the quintessential sidekick, a faithful, clever servant whose schemes never quite go as planned, and who perpetually courts women who use or make fun of him.  He traditionally wears a diamond-checked costume, and his mask or makeup includes a tear to show he is always sad.  He often stands with his arms bent and his hands on his hips.

There are fewer female roles.  These include:

Isabella - the female lover

Columbine - the funny, clever female servant whom Harlequin adores

Another female character is the faithless wife, but I can't find her name at the moment.  I'll look more later.

The typical plot is of young love thwarted by pompous old windbags, with Harlequin having to sort out the mess.  Harequin is always trying to get in some courting of his own on the side, but he never succeeds.

Another traditional plot that goes back to the Middle Ages involves Harlequin falling mysteriously ill, being diagnosed as pregnant, and giving birth.

ETA:   pokerkittenwrote a nice addenmun which points out, among other things:

He embodies the younger generation within the Commedia, its satirical voice, and hence is not ridiculed to the same extent as the older. Not usually active in the main Commedia plots, he is involved in many minor intrigues, either on his own, or with other characters. He is notable for his impetuousity and resourcefulness. If he has an idea, no matter how farfetched, he will put it into action immediately, with no regard for the consequences

Some reference sites include:




ETA:  Gary Russell says he wouldn't deliberately use the Commedia in Torchwood.  Ah, well.  The analysis of the old forms still stands.




( 48 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 18th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC)

That's all kinds of crazy cool.

*memories this entry*
Dec. 18th, 2007 05:38 pm (UTC)
Isn't it? It's so cool whenever they update the really old Classics.
Dec. 18th, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC)
Now you've really got me hoping that that book at least will live up to its promise... :)
Dec. 18th, 2007 07:18 pm (UTC)
I added a bit more to it when I had some more time.
Dec. 18th, 2007 07:19 pm (UTC)
I saw. Shiny plus! ;)
Dec. 18th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC)
That's so freakin fabulous I had to sit down while in a rush to get out of the house after reading this. What a great touch to have it on the cover and especially what a great spin on how that plays with Ianto's character.

I think you were the one who also did the Oedipus comparison to Cyberwoman.

You do realize this only makes me heart you more, yes? :D
Dec. 18th, 2007 07:20 pm (UTC)
Aw shucks. :) I was in a rush this morning, but I found the time to add some more details.
Dec. 18th, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the information :D What I wonderful spin on Ianto's character.

The descriptions of the Captain and the Doctor fit Jack and Owen so well.

Dec. 18th, 2007 07:21 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I added a bit more when I had some extra time.
Dec. 18th, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)
As soon as I saw the cover art, I thought the same thing! I studied Classics and thus ancient theatre; its really interesting and you realize how the old archetypes are still used. I actually did a few papers on the subject, oh so much fun. I too hope the novel implores the style. (And I just have to use my shiny new icon.)
Dec. 18th, 2007 05:59 pm (UTC)
All the covers were gorgeous, weren't they? **sigh**

And it will be interesting to see if the theory applies to the story....
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:35 am (UTC)
The metaphor has to resonate with what we already know from S1, otherwise we wouldn't "get" the picture. Whether they develop it any further remains to be seen.

But isn't it exciting?
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:34 am (UTC)
The Classics rule!

Love your icon.
Dec. 19th, 2007 06:13 am (UTC)
Ah, another who understands my love of the Classics!

Thanks. I didn't think it was possible to be obsessed/infatuated with a book cover, but I am. Now I just need a poster of the image.
Dec. 19th, 2007 06:31 pm (UTC)
You're not the only one. There must, must, must be a poster!
Dec. 18th, 2007 06:34 pm (UTC)
Do you have any opinions what parts Gwen and Tosh would play?
Dec. 18th, 2007 06:49 pm (UTC)
I added some more up top.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:37 am (UTC)
You're welcome.

I wouldn't call him scary, but what do I know? I'm a Goth.
Dec. 18th, 2007 07:16 pm (UTC)
I hadn't thought about Commdeia Del Art archetypes when first watching Torchwood but some of them certainly do fit
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:58 am (UTC)
Me neither, but I heartily approve of stealing from the classics.
Dec. 18th, 2007 07:45 pm (UTC)
Well that's an interesting theory, but the fact that they show the set of cards in the background kinda suggests that they weren't putting that much thought into it and were indeed just referring to playing cards. :/ Your theory is cooler though.
Dec. 18th, 2007 08:03 pm (UTC)
Eh, what culture and time period do you think playing cards come from? ;)
Dec. 18th, 2007 08:14 pm (UTC)
I'm sure there's an incredibly witty and intelligent explanation for every cultural good we own (as a matter of fact, I know there is). Fact is, most designers aren't coding things for cultural scientists and ethnologists, they're coding them for the common man who will read it accordingly.

That said, I was under the impression that playing cards have been used long before the Commedia, since Ancient China even, and that this is the Anglo-American play card set which AFAIK is a representation of famous kings and queens throughout history which first came into use under King James I. But I'm not really an expert in the subject of playing cards history, just something I picked up in the passing.
Dec. 18th, 2007 08:37 pm (UTC)
The Jack of Hearts is used for obvious reasons, but playing cards first became popular in Europe in the "resort towns" of Italy and Southern France, the Commedia's home turf.
Dec. 18th, 2007 08:44 pm (UTC)
I think you're generalizing way too much, but that's not your fault. It's just the kind of phrasing we get beaten out of us usually. Anyhow, I get your point and this isn't a ethnological discourse, so let's leave it at that.
Dec. 18th, 2007 08:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you. THANK YOU. Seriously.

I am a-fizz with the awesomeness of this idea.
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:56 am (UTC)
You're welcome. :)
Dec. 18th, 2007 08:12 pm (UTC)
Another traditional plot that goes back to the Middle Ages involves Harlequin falling mysteriously ill, being diagnosed as pregnant, and giving birth.

Jack's gonna knock Ianto UP!
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:55 am (UTC)
It goes to show that mpreg wasn't invented by fangirls after all. :)
Dec. 18th, 2007 08:32 pm (UTC)
Wow!!! Thats...wow! I don't actually know what to say to that!! You are like a walking book of this stuff its amazing!!! But thank you very much, for posting this, it was interesting to read! Very interesting to read! :)

Thank you. :)
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:53 am (UTC)
You're welcome. Just think of it as a trail of breadcrumbs....

Dec. 18th, 2007 09:12 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I had the same thoughts when I saw the pictures this morning, but that was pre-tea and post-prostitute-gender-constructs-of-Paris, so I figured it would be dangerous to attempt to articulate. (And you did it much better than I would have anyway.)

... And the medieval period just kind of rocks.
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:51 am (UTC)
I saw it last night around midnight, but my brain was too fried to do more than squee. I couldn't post coherently until this morning.

The medieval period rocks. The classical period rules. :P
Dec. 18th, 2007 10:37 pm (UTC)
Amazing how these archetypes & symbols do persist.

*Spectacular* covers on these most recent novels; I may have to get a copy of the Gary Russell one to hang next to my drawing of The Crow as dancing Shiva.

Which reminds me: RTD always says "The Doctor Dances" is all about sex, but when I first saw it, I thought "Shiva, creator & destroyer"--& I *still* think that. So there.

Dec. 18th, 2007 10:46 pm (UTC)
Eros and Thanatos are two sides of the same coin. Krishna and Shiva are two sides of the same archtype.
Dec. 18th, 2007 11:05 pm (UTC)
Dec. 18th, 2007 11:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this; it was very informative. I had just seen the cover up my flist and wondered what it meant.
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:49 am (UTC)
You're welcome. That cover was loaded with cool symbolism.
Dec. 19th, 2007 01:40 am (UTC)
This is wonderful. Thanks for helping me understand the possible reasons behind the cover. May I link to this on TWoP's Torchwood boards?
Dec. 19th, 2007 03:02 am (UTC)
Dec. 19th, 2007 02:11 am (UTC)
Thanks for the info! Hee, while I did pick up on the Harlequin reference, I didn't really give it any more thought. This is pretty awesome. I hope the book lives up to it.
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:48 am (UTC)
Well, Gary Russell (the author) did say on OG that it didn't refer to the Joker. :)
Dec. 19th, 2007 04:28 am (UTC)
This is fascinating, but I got lost -- what book? Link, pls?

But even without that, it's almost scary how close Ianto is to the traditional Arlechino.

Dec. 19th, 2007 05:06 am (UTC)
Dec. 19th, 2007 05:33 am (UTC)
Duh, you meant the Torchwood book! Sorry, brain go sleep-sleep. It's here: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1846074398/
Dec. 19th, 2007 12:12 pm (UTC)
Woah, that's ridiculous! I love it.

Thank you!! It's just scary how well those descriptions fit the characters.
Dec. 19th, 2007 01:35 pm (UTC)
Well, they've been out there for centuries. Davies and Chibnall are just showing us the 21st Century updates.

Me like. :D
Dec. 28th, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)
This is definitely an interesting read. I've never thought of how Torchwood would relate to the Commedia dell Arte.

I admit that I don't know much about the Commedia and its characters, so forgive me for my errors, but I do not think that Harlequin is portrayed as always having a tear painted on his face. Wouldn't that be more characteristic of Pedrolino, or Pierrot?

Which brings me to think that Ianto is more of a Pierrot than a Harlequin. Harlequin, although a faithful servant, is mischievous, a trickster. Pierrot is charming and honest, terribly faithful to his master, but also naive. He is unlucky in love, and many times made out to be the butt of jokes.

Harlequin's character is mischievous and comic, while Pierrot's is tragic, which I think is more fitting for Ianto.
( 48 comments — Leave a comment )