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Have you heard of the classic theatre form called Commedia dell’arte . It began back in the 16th century, and it has two key characteristics: the use of improvisation in pieces (its full name is commedia dell’arte all’improvviso, comedy through the art of improvisation), and the incorporation of masked characters playing certain roles. The use of masks in the Commedia dates back to the 1570s and the city of Venice: no wonder, then, that the Venetian Carnival so embraces the wearing of masks.

The Commedia was wildly popular, to the point that patrons would sponsor troupes and those acting in troupes gained celebrity status. Certain stock characters evolved, which meant audiences coming to see the Commedia were familiar enough with the format but enjoyed being surprised by the story created there and then by the actors. Many kinds of stories were told through the Commedia medium, but the most common plot was young lovers falling in love and being thwarted by the vecchi (the older ones, the masters), leading to comical and crazy servants intervening to ‘help’ and, ultimately, a happy ending. With the masks occluding expressions, speech and physical movement were important and exaggerated. Many performances incorporated song and dance, and well-known jokes and slapstick physical humour.

Characters fall into three camps: servants or clowns (zanni), masters/villains (vecchi) and lovers (innamorati). Each character had its own defining characteristics: a way of speaking, gestures, plots, attire and, of course, the mask. The following specific roles have become well known:

  • Pantalone, a wealthy but miserly Venetian merchant. Dresses in red with a large, red-nosed mask.
  • Il Dottore, Pantalone’s neighbour from Bologna. Either close friend or bitter enemy of Pantalone. Pompous and feigns being educated. Wears a black mask.
  • Il Capitano, an arrogant Spanish captain. Full of faux bravado. Wears lots of colour.
  • Inamorati, the young lovers. The only characters who don’t wear masks.
  • Arlecchino, a mischievous servant, also known as Harlequin. Wears a multicoloured outfit and a black mask.
  • Columbina, a clever and beguiling servant who’s often paired with Arlecchino.
  • Brighella, a dastardly merchant. His mask is green.
  • Pulcinella, a wife-beating servant (the model for the later Punch of Punch and Judy in England). His mask is black with a long nose.

 

For more details on the Commedia characters, see https://sites.google.com/site/italiancommedia/the-characters and http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/comm/hd_comm.htm. In addition, this video gives an idea of the costumes and mannerisms of some of the main characters:

Many of the Commedia masks feature in the Venice Carnival. For details and images of the masks, visit http://www.magicofvenezia.com/servlet/the-template/maskstory/Page.

My university degree was in French Literature, so it was inevitable that I would read the works  of French journalist Gaston Leroux.

Leroux (1868–1927) was a born and bred Parisian with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of his home city, gleaned through years working as a court reporter and theatre critic for L’Écho de Paris. He dedicated the last 20 years of his life to writing fiction, during which time he wrote a mystery novel, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, introducing the character Joseph Rouletabille, amateur detective, who for the French is on a level with Sherlock Holmes.

But it is for The Phantom of the Opera that Leroux is best remembered. From the Collins Classic edition blurb:

‘Look! You want to see! See! Feast your eyes, glut your soul on my cursed ugliness! Look at Erik’s face! Now you know the face of the voice!’

Living secretly beneath the Paris Opera House, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, Erik has haunted those who work there with his demands and shrouded the opera house in fear with the legend of his disfigured face. When Christine joins the company, a young woman with a beautiful voice, Erik is instantly smitten and secretly teaches her to become a great singer. He soon develops an obsessive love for his beautiful protégé, even though she has fallen for her childhood friend, resulting in her disappearance during a performance and sparking a tragic and terrifying chain of events.

One of the most well-known and well-loved gothic horror stories, Leroux’s suspenseful tale of unrequited love, passion and tragedy is both dark and moving in its portrayal of Erik, the anti-hero in his yearning for Christine.

Leroux’s story has captured imaginations for more than one hundred years now – from filmmakers to theatre producers, musicians to novelists – for good reasons:

  • The dramatic, visual quality of the writing: Leroux had set up a film company with a friend, and he wrote quite deliberately in the hope of his novels being brought to the big screen.
  • The realism of the setting: Leroux knew the Paris Opera House well, and had even covered a court case in which the premises were investigated thoroughly. He’d explored carefully, and had seen prisoners in the basement, held for the Paris Commune, which no doubt fired up his imagination.
  • The grande romance of the story: A classic love triangle, with a girl torn between stability and excitement, love and passion, security and danger, simplicity and a compassionate desire to heal, to help, to forgive, to rescue.
  • The pace: This book is a thoroughly good read, with plenty of action and excitement and twists to keep any reader on their toes.
  • The layers of meaning within the narrative, and the resounding messages that come through: This is not just a story; this is an exploration of the definitions of beauty and desire and possession, and of the consequences when a society rejects and ostracises one of their own.

For me, it is the last element that is the most powerful. So many lines in the book jump out as being poignant and moving:

  • ‘If I am the phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so. If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me.’
  • ‘You are crying! You are afraid of me! And yet I am not really wicked. Love me and you shall see! All I wanted was to be loved for myself.’
  • ‘None will ever be a true Parisian who has not learned to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrows and one of sadness, boredom, or indifference over his inward joy.’
  • ‘Poor, unhappy Erik! Shall we pity him? Shall we curse him? He asked only to be ‘some one,’ like everybody else. But he was too ugly! And he had to hide his genius or use it to play tricks with, when, with an ordinary face, he would have been one of the most distinguished of mankind! He had a heart that could have held the entire empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar. Ah, yes, we must need pity the Opera ghost…’ 

A key concept in The Phantom is masks – what they symbolise, what lies beneath. Disguise and deceit are also fundamental in my new novel The Echoes of Love, which is set in Venice, city of contradictions, and opens during the Carnival in which Venetian masks abound – hence as I polished The Echoes of Love ready for publication, I found myself drawn to Gaston Leroux’s work once more.

In an earlier blog post I shared the Masquerade scene from the most recent film version of The Phantom of the Opera. Today, I’m sharing the scene in which the Phantom is unmasked – which is horrifying and moving in equal measure.

Soon on this blog I will be dedicated a series of blogs to masks, so check back for plenty more romance, intrigue and a history of the famous Venetian masks.

Whenever I’m writing a book, I create a playlist of music that transports me to the time and place and feeling of the novel. For The Echoes of Love, my next novel that will publish on 6 December, I very much enjoyed immersing myself in Italian music, especially the romantic songs.

Today, I’m sharing with you one of the songs that features twice in the book, at times of great emotional impact for my hero, Paolo, and heroine, Venetia: once during their first chance encounter, and the next time when they dance. It is, if you like, their song, symbolic of how the world falls away when they are together. The song is ‘Il Cielo in una Stanza’,  sung by Mina, which translates to ‘The Sky in a Room’. I love the opening:

Quando sei qui con me
questa stanza non ha più pareti
ma alberi,
alberi infiniti
quando sei qui vicino a me
questo soffitto viola
no, non esiste più.
Io vedo il cielo sopra noi

 

When you are here with me
This room doesn’t have walls any more
But trees
Infinite trees
When you are here near me
This ceiling breaks
No, it doesn’t exist any more.
I see the sky above us

Mina,  ‘Il Cielo in una Stanza’ (1960)

I hope you enjoy the book trailer for The Echoes of Love. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, and please do share if you’d like to.

 

My university degree was in French Literature, so it was inevitable that I would read the works  of French journalist Gaston Leroux.

Leroux (1868–1927) was a born and bred Parisian with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of his home city, gleaned through years working as a court reporter and theatre critic for L’Écho de Paris. He dedicated the last 20 years of his life to writing fiction, during which time he wrote a mystery novel, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, introducing the character Joseph Rouletabille, amateur detective, who for the French is on a level with Sherlock Holmes.

But it is for The Phantom of the Opera that Leroux is best remembered. From the Collins Classic edition blurb:

‘Look! You want to see! See! Feast your eyes, glut your soul on my cursed ugliness! Look at Erik’s face! Now you know the face of the voice!’

Living secretly beneath the Paris Opera House, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, Erik has haunted those who work there with his demands and shrouded the opera house in fear with the legend of his disfigured face. When Christine joins the company, a young woman with a beautiful voice, Erik is instantly smitten and secretly teaches her to become a great singer. He soon develops an obsessive love for his beautiful protégé, even though she has fallen for her childhood friend, resulting in her disappearance during a performance and sparking a tragic and terrifying chain of events.

One of the most well-known and well-loved gothic horror stories, Leroux’s suspenseful tale of unrequited love, passion and tragedy is both dark and moving in its portrayal of Erik, the anti-hero in his yearning for Christine.

Leroux’s story has captured imaginations for more than one hundred years now – from filmmakers to theatre producers, musicians to novelists – for good reasons:

  • The dramatic, visual quality of the writing: Leroux had set up a film company with a friend, and he wrote quite deliberately in the hope of his novels being brought to the big screen.
  • The realism of the setting: Leroux knew the Paris Opera House well, and had even covered a court case in which the premises were investigated thoroughly. He’d explored carefully, and had seen prisoners in the basement, held for the Paris Commune, which no doubt fired up his imagination.
  • The grande romance of the story: A classic love triangle, with a girl torn between stability and excitement, love and passion, security and danger, simplicity and a compassionate desire to heal, to help, to forgive, to rescue.
  • The pace: This book is a thoroughly good read, with plenty of action and excitement and twists to keep any reader on their toes.
  • The layers of meaning within the narrative, and the resounding messages that come through: This is not just a story; this is an exploration of the definitions of beauty and desire and possession, and of the consequences when a society rejects and ostracises one of their own.

For me, it is the last element that is the most powerful. So many lines in the book jump out as being poignant and moving:

  • ‘If I am the phantom, it is because man’s hatred has made me so. If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me.’
  • ‘You are crying! You are afraid of me! And yet I am not really wicked. Love me and you shall see! All I wanted was to be loved for myself.’
  • ‘None will ever be a true Parisian who has not learned to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrows and one of sadness, boredom, or indifference over his inward joy.’
  • ‘Poor, unhappy Erik! Shall we pity him? Shall we curse him? He asked only to be ‘some one,’ like everybody else. But he was too ugly! And he had to hide his genius or use it to play tricks with, when, with an ordinary face, he would have been one of the most distinguished of mankind! He had a heart that could have held the entire empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar. Ah, yes, we must need pity the Opera ghost…’ 

A key concept in The Phantom is masks – what they symbolise, what lies beneath. Disguise and deceit are also fundamental in my new novel The Echoes of Love, which is set in Venice, city of contradictions, and opens during the Carnival in which Venetian masks abound – hence as I polished The Echoes of Love ready for publication, I found myself drawn to Gaston Leroux’s work once more.

In an earlier blog post I shared the Masquerade scene from the most recent film version of The Phantom of the Opera. Today, I’m sharing the scene in which the Phantom is unmasked – which is horrifying and moving in equal measure.

Soon on this blog I will be dedicated a series of blogs to masks, so check back for plenty more romance, intrigue and a history of the famous Venetian masks.

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