One of the great things about working in the theatre is the way in which it can connect you to the past. For example, the play we just produced, Strange Interlude, is only the fifth American production of the play since it was written in 1928. Robert Stanton, who played Charles Marsden in the show, has been corresponding with Edward Petherbridge, who played the same role, 30 years ago, at the Roundabout Theatre in New York. Two dear old Charlies, united by a role over the span of decades.
This production of The Servant of Two Masters is another example of the ways in which different generations can suddenly start talking to one another through a play. Today, Servant is Carlo Goldoni’s most popular and often-performed play. But this wasn’t always the case. The play owes most of its modern-day popularity to the famous 1947 production directed by Giorgio Strehler at the Teatro Piccolo in Milan. The Piccolo was the first of the “national theatres” to emerge in Italy after World War II. Like his contemporaries Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Tynan at England’s National Theatre, or Bertolt Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble, Strehler and the Piccolo reignited Italy’s theatre. He staged new interpretations of the classics and nurtured emerging artists, such as the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo. His production of Servant was the first to revive the use of the traditional commedia dell’arte masks and archetypes. Much of what we now know of the commedia today emanates from Strehler’s project of rediscovery.
Here’s where the story turns. Strehler was unable to get his masks—made of cardboard and string—to work. They would fall apart underneath the actors’ sweat, and most importantly, they weren’t funny. One day, a French teaching artist at the Piccolo named Jacques Lecoq introduced Strehler to a maskmaker named Amleto Sartori. Sartori is the man most credited with rebuilding the commedia mask, but it was Lecoq who would become an international guru.
Deeply inspired by the writings of Antonin Artaud, as well as the French mime tradition, Lecoq would arrive at a synthesis of his teaching while working with Strehler and the Piccolo. In 1956, he would move back to Paris and open a school for actor training. The École Lecoq quickly became a center for aspiring young performers all over the world. Among the many distinguished graduates are Simon McBurney (of Complicité), Ariane Mnouchkine (of Théâtre du Soleil) and the inimitable Julie Taymor. In 1978, a group of graduates from the school founded the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis. Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp joined the company in 1984. And here they are, 25 years later, part of a continuum which stretches from Bayes and Epp in America to Lecoq in Paris and Strehler in Milan, all the way back to the roots of the modern-day commedia renaissance. What were the methods behind the mask, the ones which Strehler and Lecoq rediscovered? That’s for them to say.