I recently saw my first Pagliacci ever, and I was blown away. What a powerful, tight, intense piece. Although I did not know the story in advance, I knew enough about operas to know where it was going, but I still got goosebumps at the ending with Canio’s rash act and his wonderfully meta declaration that “the comedy is over”.
And then I also really feel that Pagliacci marks a pivotal point in the history of male characters in theatre, namely the point of intersection between the cuckold as a comical and a tragic figure.
Certainly the comical cuckold is the more prominent one of the two. In the history of theatre, the figure can be traced back as far as to mimes and pantomimes in the 1st century B.C. The few surviving descriptions of the aliterary mime shows make it clear that infidelity was a recurring theme within the genre, and representations of the mime in various reliefs show tableaux of beautiful ladies, their charming lovers, and their stupid, cuckold husbands. As Marianne Grandjean notes in her article on the mime of late antiquity, the cuckold is often depicted as a bald man, perhaps to indicate that he is older than the woman and her lover, and it seems clear that these cuckolds are comical figures: The charming young lovers point at them with ridiculing attitudes, and the audience are supposed to laugh at these men. It is of course difficult to say exactly how these men became the butt of the joke, but as oscenity and sex jokes played an important part in the mime shows, it seems pretty safe to me to say that it was the cuckold’s unsatisfied sexual appetite that made him as a character: He wanted some, and he wasn’t gettin’ any.
No link has ever been identified between late-antiquity mime and the commedia dell’arte tradition of the 16th century, but the cuckold of the commedia dell’arte, Pantalone, has a lot in common with the cuckold of late-antiquity mime shows. Often known as Pantalone il Bisognosi (Pantalone the Needy), his trademark was, to put it bluntly, that he wanted to have a lot of sex, especially with his beautiful young wife, the female lead, who didn’t care for his advances and who would cheat on him with a younger, more handsome lover, while the audience laughed at the silly, cockblocked old man.
Pantalone. Even in the 16th century, footsie pajamas apparently did not do it for the ladies.
The Pagliacci characters are a typical travelling commedia dell’arte troupe. There’s no Pantalone in Pagliacci, but the character of Pagliaccio seems to be based partially on Pantalone, partially on the more recent commedia dell’arte character of clownish Pierrot. However, Pagliacci came about in the time of the Italian verismo in the 19th century rather than in the heyday of Pantalone and his fellow commedia dell’arte characters, and I think this shows when it comes to the motif of the cuckold. As late as in the 18th century the ridiculous cuckold could still be found on stage in plays by the likes of Molière or Beaumarchais, but by the end of the 19th century, the tragic cuckolds started appearing: Most prominently, I suppose, in plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. In Ibsen’s The Wild Duck the revelation that Hedvig may not be Hjalmar Ekdal’s daughter marks the crux of the tragedy, and of course in Strindberg’s The Father the entire plot revolves around the notion that Laura has made a cuckold out of The Captain. And there is certainly no humour in the Swedish realist’s take on the theme. Not only does The Captain genuinely grieve for the loss of the love that once was between himself and his wife:
CAPTAIN. (…) I feel your shawl against my mouth; it is as warm and soft as your arm, and it smells of vanilla, like your hair when you were young! Laura, when you were young, and we walked in the birch woods, with the primroses and the thrushes–glorious, glorious! Think how beautiful life was, and what it is now. You didn’t want to have it like this, nor did I, and yet it happened. Who then rules over life?
The idea of his wife’s possible unfaithfulness (and, thus, the fact that Bertha may not actually be The Captain’s child) also disrupts his entire perception of his own existence:
CAPTAIN. (…) I do not believe in a hereafter; the child was my future life. That was my conception of immortality, and perhaps the only one that has any analogy in reality. If you take that away from me, you cut off my life.
I haven’t done enough research to determine whether or not it is plausible that Pagliacci composer and librettist Leoncavallo had read or attended the cuckold tragedies of Ibsen and Strindberg, but the verismo opera composer clearly shares their interest in exploring the psychology of the cuckold. What is so exceptionally fascinating in Pagliacci is, however, that Leoncavallo examines the tragic aspects of the cuckold man all the while acknowledging the comic potential of the motif. The central aria of the opera revolves around the idea of laughing at the cuckold buffoon (“Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), and in the frantic play-within-the-play ending the opera, the ambiguity of the cuckold as a comical/tragic figure is constantly at play. The audience-within-the-play wants nothing more than to laugh at the buffoon, but cuckold Canio’s very real despair is constantly creeping into the caricatured pantomime grief of the cuckold Pagliaccio.
Significantly, Canio’s unfaithful wife Nedda is not dealt the demonic tendencies of Strindberg’s Laura. Rather, she becomes a painful inbodiment of the conflict between the comical and the tragic cuckold: We can’t help rooting for the poor woman who loves her Silvio so dearly, and it’s for her sake that we want to regard Canio as the fool. As several researchers have noted, the theme of the cuckold in late-antiquity mime shows as well as in the commedia dell’arte did not come out of nowhere. The motif became popular in the male dominated patriarchies of late antiquity and 16th century Italy in which women would often be at the mercy of their controlling husbands and have very limited means of personal or sexual emancipation. Tellingly, both the mime shows and the commedia dell’arte marked themselves by allowing women to rise to fame and fortune on stage at a time when women were generally not allowed to star in theatre productions. In late anitquity there are even instances of women becoming managers of mime troupes and it is easy to imagine that these women would have been a driving force in the furthering of the ridiculous male authoritative figure in the mime shows. Pagliacci was written at a time when women’s liberation was slowly building and the need for ridicule of partriarchy was less acute, but the beauty of it, to me, is that the cuckold story of Pagliacci doesn’t claim to hold any simple solutions to the infidelity issue. Canio may declare that the comedy is over, but the tragedy that lingers instead pertains to both sexes. And the commedia dell’arte tradition with its clownish cuckold lives on within the verismo tragedy whenever Pagliacci is staged.
What then of the cuckold character today? More than a decade has passed since Pagliacci, along with a sexual revolution, so surely we must have reached some new level of awareness when it comes to the issue of infidelity?
Well, I guess maybe we haven’t. When it comes to the tragic cuckold at least, many of the perceptions of biological paternity found in Strindberg are very much alive today. I have noticed it, for example, in Per Olov Enquist’s excellent novel The Visit of the Royal Physician (2000) about King Christian VII of Denmark and Doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee. In Enquist’s take on the highly dramatic story of the German royal physician’s rise to power as de facto king of Denmark, enlightenment-inspired Struensee is portrayed as the hero in a horribly backwards, medieval Denmark, and his wrongful execution is depicted as a terrible loss. However, Enquist allows Struensee some vindication in the epilogue in which he notes that the child that Struensee fathered during his affair with Christian VII’s queen, Caroline Mathilde, lived on and granted him a kind of immortality. “The little daughter Louise Augusta grew up in Denmark (…)” writes Enquist, and goes on to describe the beauty and fertility of the princess:
“She is described as very beautiful, with a ‘disturbing’ vitality. (…) She married the Duke Frederik Christian of Augustenborg who was hardly her equal in any way. She did, however, have three children with him (…) today there is not one European monarchy that cannot trace its heritage back to Johann Friedriech Struensse, his English princess, and their little girl.”
The juxtaposition of sexual potency and immortality is striking to me in this paragraph in which the Danish monarchy seems to play the part of the cuckold husband whose DNA is not carried on or at least only carried on to a limited degree, opposite Struensee as the handsome lover who fathered a beautiful, vivacious daughter.
"I'm bringin' sexy back/Them Danish boys don't know how to act/I think it's special what's behind thy back/So turn around and I'll pick up the slack."
I also find it telling that the theme of the cuckold as a figure is still something that is predominantly associated with a male character. The betrayed woman has always been, and continues to be, a tragic figure, doesn’t she? Even today we love to revel in the not-at-all-funny pain of historical betrayed woman characters struggling to make it in a partriarchal society, such as Betty Draper or Saul Dibb’s Duchess of Devonshire. It’s still hard to imagine a hilarious comedy about a younger, handsome man cheating on an older woman who is laughed at for her inability to maintain her young husband’s sexual interest. I can’t even imagine a movie like Forgetting Sarah Marshall with the tables turned so that it’s the betrayed woman we’re laughing at, rather than Jason Segel’s naked, unattractive, blue-balled, cuckold boyfriend character. The idea that a woman might be a ridiculous sex-crazed authority rather than a vulnerable victim with hurt feelings still seems alien in our contemporary narratives. The only character vaguely of this sort that I am able to think would be Jennifer Aniston’s sexually harassing boss in Horrible Bosses.
I guess you could say that the development of the cuckold motif in the history of drama and comedy is a good indicator that we still have a long way to go towards equality. Still, I think I prefer to see it as a testiment to the genius of Leoncavallo, rather than to the backwards nature of today’s cultural perception of gender, that his tragic comedy Pagliacci still feels so intensely relevant today.