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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


66. [Plate 57]
Commedia dell'Arte

The moonstruck lover. The bombastic pedant. The rascally servant. The none-too-bright yet none-too-innocent-either servant maid. What else could it be but commedia dell'arte? Ah, Pantalone! Zanni! Punchinello! Harlequin! And everybody's favorite, Pierrot - lazy, knavish, sometimes cruel, fool and trickster, deceiver and deceived, eternally recurrent seducer of Columbine.

The plays abound with disgraceful love affairs, mad schemes to obtain money, and elaborate deceits that quickly spiral out of control. What gives them their special flavor is the fact that they are unscripted. Oh, there's a chosen subject and the characters and their relationships to one another have been worked out and the situations broadly outlined beforehand. But all the dialogue is made up on the spot. Depending on how the audience reacts, the plot could go in any of a dozen directions.


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Imagine being a commedia dell'arte player. Every night a new performance, a new situation, a new challenge. Sometimes you triumph, but more often you're the butt of the action. You never know what's coming. Your fellow actors will spring the most outrageous surprises on you. A burglar climbs in the window! Your new young wife abandons you for your adult son! A drunkard accidentally sets fire to your house! It takes nerves of steel to climb up on such an uncertain stage over and over and over again.

Consider the masks. The stock characters wear them in part to remind the audience that their motives are essentially mysterious. Nothing is certain. Sometimes Pierrot is the lover, other times the scoundrel or the dupe. When you're on stage, you never know who is who. The priest may be a brigand. Your wife may be deceitful. Your closest friend may be your bitterest enemy. You plunge through the most desperate situations, improvising wildly, trying to keep your balance, and you don't even know for certain what you'll end up as. Hero or buffoon? You could be either.

Thank God it's not like that in real life.


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This is the 66th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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