Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx as masks of the Commedia dell'Arte: theory and practice
LeMaster, David James
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Harpo Marx and Charlie Chaplin are cinematic representatives of the Commedia dell'Arte, the living theatre of the Renaissance. Their evolutionary developments may be traced by identifying their use of Commedia techniques at various points in their careers. Harpo used lazzi to strengthen the comedic value of his performance, while Chaplin used the lazzi as one technique to develop a three-dimensional character. Harpo remained a Harlequin throughout his career, relying on many of the same lazzi in his final films that he had created for his characters on stage. In contrast, although the early Chaplin possesses the Harlequin's traits, Chaplin continued exploring and sought a more fully developed character that did not rely on slapstick to convey emotion. The character known as "Pierrot" to twentieth century audiences is distinct from the Harlequin because he developed the characteristic of evoking sympathetic pity. Several conclusions may be drawn: First, the Pierrot is a natural product of the evolution of drama from comedy to tragedy to twentieth century tragicomedy. Charlie Chaplin is the link between comedy for the masses and tragicomedy for the common man. Second, Chaplin embodies Meyerholdian and Artaudian technique as both an actor and director, therefore achieving an artistic approach to comedy. Finally, Harpo and his brothers are a filmed link to vaudeville, which may, in turn, be traced to the original Commedia dell'Arte.