For years, U.S. universities have used theatre as a medium for the learning of a second language and the culture to which it appertains. I have offered a modest contribution to this discipline by writing “SET THE STAGE: TEACHING ITALIAN THROUGH THEATER: THEORIES, METHODS, AND PRACTICES”, edited by Nicoletta Marini-Maio and Colleen Ryan-Scheuts, and published by Yale University Press. That which I have not yet done is to publish materials used during years of teaching “Italian 40” at Harvard University, a course created in 2001 in collaboration with Professor Elvira Di Fabio.
I am personally convinced that the traditional method of teaching Italian in class must be accompanied, right from the start, by theatre, with its entertaining exercises and interpersonal comic interaction, or else through the dramatization of literature or episodes based on the daily experiences of the students. The highly communicative degree contained in these exercises to develop and revitalize one’s expressive capacity and, above all, oral and rhetorical skills, which are a product of culture itself, sensitive and political in nature, are important in that they reflect the lives of us all. As is illustrated by the teachings of anthropologists and sociologists, who are of different schools of thought and ideological tendencies, we see these expressive skills as an aspect of life that is in grave danger today, especially for younger generations,
Putting into practice theatrical parlance can and must become, more than ever, an active and critical existential experience for each student, placed in a small but concrete group of his or her peers, for the creative exploration of text, verification of dialogue, and the division and transmission of the ideas contained in it. This is also true for the “inevitable” use of other types of language we find in theatre, such as gestures and body language. They are no less important than their verbal and written counterparts when it comes to the “natural” study of other academic disciplines, which converge together in the process of dramatization. Such other disciplines would encompass history, geography, painting and graphic arts, the teaching of sound and music, psychology and the development of personality.
This short and very simple one act play, “Harlequin and the Scent of Money”, is nothing more than an entertaining example of the many materials used in my Italian teachings at Harvard, or better said, those written materials that remain.
Harvard University – Department of Romance Languages and Literature – October 2004
Harlequin and the Scent of Money
(A one act Commedia dell’Arte farce. Loosely based on a short story from “Il Novellino”)
By Walter Valeri
Translation by Marco Remo Zanelli
Balanzone – Judge and Head of the Court
Zanni 1 (a woman) – First Assistant Judge
Zanni 2 (a woman) – Second Assistant Judge
Harlequin – The Accused
Brighella (a travelling cook) – The Plaintiff
Colombina – A Cleaning Woman
(We are in a courtroom. Brighella is dressed as a cook, and suffers from a nervous twitch in his neck and stuttering. Harlequin is arrogant, defiant, but good-humored. They are seated with their backs to the audience. They are scratching themselves. They scowl at one another and cannot refrain from grimacing and committing spiteful gestures towards each other).
Brighella: (stammering slightly) G-G-G-G-Giul-Guilty. That’s how you’ll be judged!
Harlequin: What do you mean G, G, G, Giul, guilty, guilty, guilty…I am as innocent as a dove.
Brighella: Exactly, like a dove. An unfeeling and ferocious creature.
Harlequin: A dove is ferocious?!
Brighella: Yes, ferocious.
Harlequin: You’re blasphemous…a dove is white.
Brighella: White on the outside….black on the inside. Like the night of the assassins!
Harlequin. Ha! Why don’t you exaggerate a little more? Sausages, stones, and signs are now all the same thing because they begin with the same letter.
Brighella: Oh, that’s good. I never realized how stupid you were. There’s an “S” in snake, sausages, stones, signs…and assassins. The same “S”!
(A thunderbolt strikes, though the sky is clear. Colombina enters, hips swaying, with a bucket of water and a large broom. Intimidated, Harlequin and Brighella suddenly compose themselves and stop their chatter).
Harlequin and Brighella: Good day.
Harlequin: (whispering to Brighella about Colombina’s physical appearance) Ferocious, huh?
Brighella: She’s well put together, yes…ferocious…like a sail that swells and swells, then blocks the wind completely. It doesn’t let him through.
Colombina: Good day! (She hums softly) Think about me, only me. (She washes the floor). They make such a mess, a mess. They come to court to prove their point, or rather, to do penance, I say. They come to clean their consciences and then they dirty up everything else. They dirty the floor! A clean soul, a dirty surface. Look here (she leans over a footprint that will not clean off) Ha, look at what a mess. It’s crazy. Look at the foot this one had. So rude. (She looks at Harlequin’s feet) What a huge foot you have…and without a tip. What is that? Oh my God, Oh Heavens! (She holds her nose) What a stink, disgusting!
Harlequin: (He points to Brighella in protest) It is the fault of the dogs. I have nothing to do with it.
Brighella: That’s right, dogs.
Harlequin: The fault belongs to those who feed the animals without any thought of the consequences. They feed the animals that pass by and let the Christians die. It even rhymes.
Brighella: Even Muslims feed dogs, for that matter.
Colombina: That’s true. We are all the same when comes to death. (She looks at them). Whether it be this person or that one, it’s all same to me. You are two animals. That’s what you are! I know who should pay the cleaning fees for the court. I know. Law no longer exists. There is nothing left. Less than nothing. (She looks at Harlequin with contempt) Then, they acquit them, and they blame Society.
Brighella (Indicating himself): Society is innocent, the better part it, and so are those who make it up They are willful, sensitive, and collaborative. What I am trying to say is, that is I…ME, I mean!
Harlequin. Oh, right, right. Ha, innocent! Why are you talking about innocence? He is not innocent. He showers, shaves, flushes the toilet, goes on vacation…and thinks only of himself.
Colombina: (Laughs) He does nothing, then. Just sits and twiddles his thumbs all day.
Harlequin: Society is not innocent, if there is no room for one to dream. For those who look at the clouds. You have to look at the clouds. (Staring at Colombina’s breasts) You have to look at them very closely!
Brighella: Good. Look at the clouds. Dream…go look for trouble…And if they fall out of the sky?
Harlequin: I spend the whole day looking at the clouds. Even when they’re covered, they have a certain charm.
Brighella: Good. Very good. But I said…if they fall…if they eventually fall?
Harlequin: What do you mean fall. They’re not going to fall.
Brighella: One never knows. (Pointing at Colombina’s breasts) Can I touch them?
Colombina: Keep your paws off me, you crocodile. Rubbish. Idleness everywhere. Doesn’t make sense. (She looks at her own breasts) I belong to myself, and these are not going to fall into anyone’s hands….at least, not into the hands of those who are present.
Harlequin: Once a saw a nice woman…in the old courthouse.
Brighella: She was like a plate of lasagna, with besciamella sauce…exactly the same. Ah, those were the days!
Harlequin: Ah, yes. She smiled at me…a blond lasagna…with a small round mountain of Parmesan Cheese on top. Just an isty bisty sprinkle. Not too isty bitsy, though. (He starts staring Colombina’s breasts again) Eat, she said, eat. She told me that there was more than enough to go around. More than enough. There was even more in Heaven. More in Heaven than on Earth. Then she caressed my forehead, my cheeks, my neck. She tickled me with her small white hands. They were better than butter.
Colombina: They should put you to death. The death penalty for all of those with their hands always among the clouds…
Brighella: Without even looking where they put their feet!
Colombina: Exactly! (She exits)
(We hear baroque music. The lead judge and head of the court, Balanzone, and Zanni 1 and 2, the two assistant judges, enter. The judges make a ceremonious entrance with distance between them. They are wearing Italian tricolored sashes and carrying an overabundance of cumbersome law books. They are complimenting each other. They pompously sit on the court benches).
Balanzone: The gavel. Bring me the gavel. We need the gavel, at the very least. Everything is always missing, I know…but we must have the gavel. (Colombina brings in the gavel, her hips swaying more than usual. She flirts with Brighella, who gets confused by this. She places the gavel next to Balanzone, caresses his hand, then starts to exit, humming softly).
Colombina: One hand washes the other, and everything is just as it was before…always the same things, the same houses…
Balanzone: (He watches her go behind the backstage curtain, and a with a loud hit of the gavel, he startles the Assistant Judges. Court is in session). So, what do you think?
Harlequin: What do mean what do I think? I didn’t see anything. Where did she go?!
Brighella: Me either. And, I have very good eyesight, yes I do! Where did she go?
Harlequin: I can go look for her.
Balanzone: No, everyone stays here! Let’s begin…at… the beginning. What happened?
Harlequin and Brighella: (In unison, indicating each other) It was him. Him, him, him…
Harlequin: No, really, it was him, he, I mean.
Brighella: And I say it was him, he!
Balanzone: Ah! Enough! Who is the plaintiff?
(Harlequin and Brighella look at each inquisitively).
Brighella: I said it first!
Harlequin: But even plaintiff isn’t that great!
Balanzone: Who was the victim of the crime?
Balanzone: Then, you speak. (Balanzone is looking at the backstage curtain from where Colombina’s semi-nude leg is sticking out).
Brighella: (Stuttering) Ok, th-the-then, I-I-I will speak. Therefore, it is I who will speak…I will speak, with my own voice. (He clears his throat) With one voice…do you want the normal one, or the other one?
Balanzone: Why, do you have two voices?
Brighella: Yes, the normal one, which I use at the town hall when I renew my business license, and the other one for everyone else…the one I use when I’m selling in the street. My real voice.
Balanzone: And what is this real voice?
Brighella: (Stuttering) Like this, from the chest…when I am outspoken. Authoritative…
Balanzone: (Addressing the two Zanni) Normal or authoritative?
Zanni 1: Normal.
Zanni 2: Authoritative.
Zanni 1: (Referring to a law book) Ok, let’s see. “Authoritative: A scholarly voice, originating from the late Latin word ‘autorabile’…used by a highly a respected person”. It doesn’t seem appropriate. After looking at the man, it just does not seem appropriate.
Zanni 2: All right then, how about a moderately authoritative voice….improvising it a bit.
Zanni 1: It’s better he use the normal voice. Unrefined. Without any subtleties or authoritativeness.
Colombina: (Enters to get the bucket she left on stage. She is fanning her semi-bare breasts). Think of me…only of me…hmm….hmmm.
Balanzone: Authoritativeness, yes…oh, what a nice breeze…braze…bras…bris…broze…brins…brits.
Zanni 1: So, what are we even doing here? No, I mean, we’re in a position of power, right? We can set a standard of, oh, I don’t know…“authoritativeness pending a verdict”.
Zanni 2: Oh, that is good. I am going to note it in my smart phone: au…thor…i…tat…ive…ness…pend…ing…a…ver…dict…
Zanni 1: In fact, it adds a certain style, gives a certain power to the Court. A type of quid pro quo. After all, are we, or are we not, the legal authorities here?!
Balanzone: People, do we want to proceed, or is there anything else?
Zanni 2: Why, what’s wrong?
Balanzone: I am just asking, is there anything else?
Zanni 2: No. Everything is fine the way it is.
Zanni 1: Excuse me, please; I would like to clarify this issue. (Reads the law) It is written here and it is very precise: “Authority: Power safeguarded by law, to enact binding limitations to activities of certain persons”. Actually, yes, let’s ponder that. A moment of reflection never hurts.
Balanzone: So, then? What do we do?
Zanni 1: Therefore, I say it’s better he use a neutral voice, at least for now, a neutral voice. Then further along we can see. That is, if during the course of the trial it’s better he change it. It also depends on the sound technicians…they told me they are going on strike at noon…
Zanni 2: A moderate authoritativeness is better, in my opinion.
Zanni 1: Neutral.
Zanni 2: Moderate.
Zanni 1: Neutral.
Zanni 2: Moderate.
Zanni 1: Moderately neutral.
Zanni 2: Neutralisly moderate.
Zanni 1: Neutralisly moderate doesn’t exist. It is grammatically incorrect. It’s not even English.
Zanni 2: We are the law. We will make it exist, by God. Judges are also poets, and vice versa.
Zanni 1: Neutrophile!
Balanzone: Enough! I’ll decide which voice to use. (He ponders it a bit, then turns to Brighella) Use a voice that has some fear in it. That way there will be no risk…speak with a little fear, by God!
Harlequin: That goes for all saints in Heaven, too…
Balanzone: (He shoots him a nasty look. Then strikes loudly with the gavel) Let us proceed.
Brighella: (Fearfully) I was…I was in my restaurant. Just before the lunch hour.
Harlequin: A restaurant. Ha, Ha!
Brighella: Well, it’s on wheels, constantly in motion…but still a restaurant.
Balanzone: A restaurant on wheels?
Brighella: A mobile kitchen.
Harlequin: Right, Mother Courage…and the wheels of Brecht.
Balanzone: Don’t be sarcastic. And do not take the name of Brecht in vain.
Brighella: (Irritated) It’s where I prepare and sell my food on the street.
Harlequin: Despite the wheels, I have to say that it is exquisite, to be honest…especially the braised beef, and, well, everything else, for that matter: celery, if it’s in season, pickles in red wine, spinach in butter with Parmesan cheese, the Vergnano type, produced in winter. It’s better than regular Parmigiano Reggiano, which costs too much. Broccoli with hot sauce, sausage with wild anise, Porcini mushrooms, organically fed pork and Felino salami…
Balanzone: (Exasperated, Balanzone strikes the bench with the gavel) Let us proceed!
Brighella: Nowadays, people are very active. They are always changing routes, taking different streets. One needs wheels to keep up with them.
Harlequin: They change political parties, religion, friends, interests…like the wind that blows now here, then there, and here and then there.
Brighella: They change places: squares, cities, open air markets…I have to be where they are… using my wonderful wheels…to feed them.
Zanni 1: So, you are always among crowds of people. You follow them, pursue them, flatter them, you turn them into great masses….you make them fat.
Brighella: The crowds, yes, great masses of people. I say this humbly, but I am highly regarded and well known by the crowds.
Harlequin: He’s consumed…by the crowds. The masses consume him…his consumers are like a stone out of water that bounces up and down…shhhh….shhhh…shhh…up and down…
Balanzone: Enough! (He hits Zanni 1 on the hand with the gavel, who whimpers in pain, then tones down the whine into silence). Be quiet!
Zanni 2: Do you pay your taxes regularly?
Brighella: Taxes? God forbid!
Zanni 1: “God forbid” meaning you never forget to pay them, or “God forbid” you never pay them?
Harlequin: He doesn’t pay them! He doesn’t pay them!
Balanzone: You be quiet. Speak only when I question you!
Brighella: Always paying, and then you die.
Zanni 2: Would you prefer to die?
Brighella: Death is not a piece of real estate, fixed in one place. Today, we’re here, tomorrow, we’re gone…it’s all uncertain…like the stock market…there are highs and lows in the world…and besides, even if wanted to pay, because I would like to pay my taxes, who would I pay them to? Huh? Who would I pay them to?
Zanni 2: In short, do you pay them or don’t you?
Brighella: I put them under my mattress. Then I wait. When the world asks for them, if I really have to pay, I will.
Zanni 1: Dura lex, sed lex. The law is tough, but it is the law.
Harlequin: In the meantime, though, he doesn’t pay them.
Brighella: (He hits Zanni 1 again on the hand with the gavel, who now reacts with a shriek) I said to be quiet!
Harlequin: All right, let’s proceed, but be sure to put everything on record…. Later we’ll see about this.
Brighella: I was in Liberty Square in Verona. Far from the Arena…and he approached me. He was hungry to death, this rogue. He had an old piece of bread in one hand, all flakey, dried up, and shriveled, as if it were on a diet.
Harlequin: (Indicating the size of the bread with length of his arm) Yes, poor me, but with a piece of bread this long, and, besides, bread doesn’t age.
Brighella: Exactly, a crusty loaf so long you couldn’t see the end of it…and I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. I was serving my customers, but all the while secretly watching him…
Harlequin: A loaf so long you couldn’t see the end of it. I took good care of it, too.
Brighella: But I was always looking at him out of the corner of my eye…and at a certain point…bing, bang, boing, he dipped his bread into my pan of smoking meat. Three times!
Harlequin: That’s right. And I held it there as long as I could, until the bread was all soft with sauce, poor thing. The bread was moved and emotional, as it sopped up the lonely and abandoned scent that was rising from the meat. What a delicacy.
Brighella: And the meat, too. (All worked up) I found him devouring both the bread and the meat like a dog. You should have seen him. A wild beast!
Harlequin: There wasn’t any meat, only the rising smoke, I swear!
Zanni 2: Well, if you swear to it…
Harlequin: Then he grabbed me by the throat, “Pay me for what you took”, he was yelling.
Brighella: And he said with a gritty look on his face, “I took some smoke, only smoke!”
Harlequin: “Then pay me for the smoke”, he yelled like a lunatic. This guy continued to squeeze my throat tighter and tighter. He has hands are like a pair pliers, like the shape of Saint Peter’s Square, and I have a delicate neck, I do. Very delicate.
Brighella: Without the smoke, my smoke, and the meat too, the bread would just have been bread. It would have been nothing. Besides, you don’t eat bread and smoke like he did.
Harlequin: What? How are you supposed to eat bread?
Brighella: You should have seen him. He married the bread and smoke together, like newlyweds, the smoke rising from my meat. He’s a thief, a ragamuffin!
Harlequin: Me, a thief? I am not a thief. I’m a food connoisseur…I respect good food. A thief is someone who steals. I didn’t steal anything.
Balanzone: If you are not a thief, then you are just a ragamuffin?
Harlequin: Well, yes, I am wearing some rags. (He indicate his clothing) Who’s denying it?
Brighella: Look at him. He is wearing rags. They are most definitely rags.
Harlequin: At least they’re colored rags…it’s not a crime to be poor. Besides, isn’t written that “Blessed be the poor for they shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven”. I say it looks better that they are colored and not plain. All you have to do is read the Bible…read it, and reread it…the thrift edition, though, page…
Balanzone: Ok, Ok ,Ok, we get it. Plaintiff and defendant stay here, standing. The court will meet and deliberate in private. (He strikes the gavel, but the Zanni 1 manages to pull away just in time) Now you, what do you think?
Zanni 1: (Astonished) In my opinion, I think…but aren’t we going to meet in chambers?
Balanzone: Yes, but we should sneak away quietly, right?
Zanni 2: In your chambers we can have snack and take a little nap…
Zanni 1: But quietly. (softly to Balanzone and Zanni 2) Plus, I have a nasty joke to tell you.
Balanzone: In that case, we’re going stay here. Right here. Today we need to work.
Zanni 1: But the public is in the courtroom and television cameras, too.
Zanni 2: They are airing the proceedings live on all the major news networks.
Zanni 1: Television cameras…oh no! I didn’t put enough makeup on!
Zanni 2: (Looks at Balanzone) Even you…sir. You just can’t say anything you want with that face!
Balanzone: Where’ the makeup artist. Makeup! MAKEUP!
(Strobe lights start to flash. Hard rock music begins to play. Colombina enters with a makeup cart. Everyone touches up his or her makeup with the help of Colombina. The strobe stops. Once the makeup is done, the judges take on the semblance of characters from Theatre of Expressionism. Colombina exits with a satisfied look on her face and with her trademark sway of the hips)
Zanni 1: (Stands and slowly paces back and forth) Ahem, ahem! Therefore, in my opinion, the smoke, or rather the scent, if you prefer the term, does not belong to the cook, considering it is not a concrete substance in itself…
Harlequin: And it never did. Good! It doesn’t belong to the cook (indicating Brighella).
Zanni 1: This is precisely why there are no supermarkets or grocery stores that sell smoke.
Harlequin: That’s the proof, right there!
Zanni 1: Please! (Slams the gavel on the bench and accidentally hits the hand of Zanni 2, who in turn slaps Zanni 1 in the face) Based on this fact, we can conclude (Rubbing her face from the pain) that there is an absence of habeas corpus.
Harlequin: (to Brighella) That’s right! There is no habion corruptium. Hey, if it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist. Miracles can happen…
Zanni 1: Hence, for this reason, Harlequin is inn-o-cent.
Harlequin: Oh, this is just too good!
Balanzone: Be quiet, or else I am going to clear the court. (Addressing Zanni 2) And you, what do you think?
Zanni 2: What do I think? I do not think…so. On the contrary, I do not agree.
Brighella: That’s what I thought!
Zanni 2: Let me explain: the scent, or rather the smoke, if you prefer the term, is a sublime form of the meat. If you don’t have smoke, you don’t have a roast. They are inseparable, like twins! And, if you do not have smoke, you do not have a roast, if you do not have a roast, you do not have a roaster of meats. In our case, I will say rather, “a man of the culinary arts”…who is present here. A first-rate cook, much more than just a roaster.
Brighella: A culinary artist!
Zanni 2: Who invests in his “compétences culinaires” to later capitalize on a well-deserved profit.
Balanzone: What do you mean “compétences culinaires”?
Zanni 2: It’s French, meaning: “cooking skills”.
Brighella: Money and profit.
Harlequin: Be quiet, or we are going to clear the court.
Balanzone: (Strikes the gavel for the umpteenth time, hitting the hand of Zanni 1 again, who now makes threatening gestures of strangulating Harlequin).
Zanni 2: I was saying…that smoke is the twin brother of meat.
Zanni 1: Twin brother of meat?
Brighella: There was meat! There was meat!
Harlequin: (Sighs) Oh boy. What a total confusion for little bit of “smoke and meat”…
Zanni 2: I was saying if, I was just saying if, and I emphasize if…the meat was the property of the cook, so was the smoke, as it is the twin brother of the meat. You can’t abduct the meat’s twin. Even the culinary writer, Pellegrino Artusi says it (With exaggerated emphasis) Now, don’t steal this idea from me…”Don’t become slaves of your own stomach, which takes pleasure in tormenting those who eat more than they need to”.
Brighella: (As if there is an echo) What do you m-m-m-mean “m…m…more…th…than…the…they…n…need…t…to? More than necessary? Is that what you mean?!
Balanzone: Yes, we understand…we got it. (He motions to Zanni 2 who is talking too much and makes a gesture to cut it short).
Zanni 2: The law clearly states: he who does not have money to pay, should not order neither drink nor food, and…
Brighella: And they should never abduct the meat’s twin brother.
Zanni 2: Especially since twins, brothers and sisters, children, etcetera, are so sacred.
Harlequin: They were sacred, if that’s what you’re saying. Besides, he doesn’t have a twin, or siblings, or children. He has a restaurant…on wheels, but he doesn’t have a twin…or siblings…or…never mind…you get it. Even if he had children, he wouldn’t send them to Sunday afternoon service, with the vicar’s hands everywhere.
Balanzone: Actually, that’s true…one never knows. But, leave the children out of this, and the vicar too, with his hands everywhere, please.
Brighella: There’s no doubt. I was ruined. A family destroyed and without a future.
Zanni 2: What’s life without children?
Balanzone: A life up in smoke…a lot of smoke. It’s true.
Brighella: Yes, that’s the way it is, your Holiness: Up in smoke…a lot of smoke…too much smoke.
Zanni 2: All the smoke that exists, I would imagine.
Balanzone: Hmm…(he takes a long pause) If the relationship between meat and smoke is as you say, then it would be the same between a coin and the sound it makes…(He motions to Zanni to rise and prepare all present for the verdict)
Zanni 1: Please stand. The court will now deliver the verdict.
Balanzone: Harlequin, take a coin and flip it onto the bench, so the cook can hear it sound. (Harlequin flips the coin on the court bench) Listen! Now, consider yourself paid with the sound of the coin. (Balanzone adjourns the court with a great slam of the gavel, which hits Zanni 1 on the hand yet again).
Zanni 1: (Shrieks desperately in pain) Ahhhhhhh! Enough!
Harlequin: (Takes the coin again from the hand of Zanni 2. He flips it in the air. The coin bounces on court bench. We hear an amplified and silvery clink. Blackout)
Walter Valeri is a published poet, playwright, and scholar. His collection of poetry Canzone dell’amante infelice was awarded Italy’s national literary prize, the Mondello. Most recent poetry collections Ora settima (Societa’ Editrice “Il Ponte Vecchio”, 2013) My Name/Il mio nome (qudu, 2015) Parodie del buio (Societa’ Editrice “Il Ponte Vecchio”, 2017). Valeri has also translated several dramatic, fiction, screen, and poetry texts into Italian, including Which Side Are You On? by Ken Loach, Carlino by Stuart Hood, Les Aveugles by Maurice Maeterlinck, The Memory of War by James Fenton, Knepp and Krinsky by Jorge Goldenberg, Adramelech by Valère Novarina, Nobody Dies on Friday by Robert Brustein, Eight Poems by Sam Cornish, The Dear Remote Nearness of You by Danielle Legros Georges (in collaboration with Pina Piccolo), and Mistero Buffo by Dario Fo (as a new American translation, in collaboration with Robert Scanlan). He is one of the editors of Italian online literature and culture journal www.lamacchinasognante.com.
Featured image: painting by Giacomo Cuttone.