Pulcinella

Bruno Leone was studying to become an architect when he met Pulcinella, and that encounter changed his life. It’s a love story, but not a human one, since Pulcinella is a hand puppet of the Neopolitian streets and squares. The one remaining master puppeteer of that ancient tradition was close to retirement when Leone came along—and he had no successor. So Pulcinella was about to die, and with him, a vital cultural tradition that goes back to the commedia dell’arte of sixteenth century Naples, and possibly, through centuries of unrecorded street performance, to the Atellan street farce of Greek and Roman antiquity. So Leone apprenticed and became a puppeteer instead of an architect. Now he’s an unofficial Italian national treasure.

Leone is in his sixties, and you can see his work on a whole series of YouTube videos. Most of them are in Italian, my knowledge of which is rudimentary. But these routines and gags are so visual, and Leone’s gig is so entertaining that the language doesn’t matter much.

It’s a mistake to only look at one. You need two, because Leone treats us to a four-minute spectacle that shows us how 17th century street barkers pulled crowds into their shows. He wears a white coat, complete with silver epalettes and buttons, along with a huge, wide-brimmed white seigneurial hat—the kind you’d see on Moliere’s stage. A multi-colored flag hangs from the back of the hat. He moves quickly through shabby old streets, shouting and beating a small white drum, and at one point he pulls out a wooden flute and plays that. And then, having collected a crowd, he turns the hat back to front, so that the flag hides his face and—presto—he becomes a walking puppet booth. He pulls out a pair of hand puppets, one of which is Pulcinella, and they have a fight to the death, with Pulcinella as always victorious. The puppet talks in a high squeaky voice, the result of a pivetta (“swazzle” in the land of Punch)—a kind of whistle held at the roof of the puppeteer’s mouth.

Other videos present the show itself, and parts of it are familiar to anyone who has seen the sociopathic antics of Punch. Pulcinella was a minor character in the Commedia, but for some reason he caught on in a big way when he made his transition to puppet theatre, with the result that he exists, with variations, as Punch in England, Gignol in France, and Kaspar in Germany. In his Neopolitan incarnation, Pulcinella is always dressed in a loose white Pierrot outfit and the top half of his face is hidden by a big-nosed black mask. Interestingly, Leone wears a similar costume, and sometimes, in a neat mixture of theatrical forms, he and a couple of other performers from his troupe will play Pulcinella routines and music in front of the puppet booth—and then he disappears into It and the puppet Pulcinella appears. The booth is elegant and portable, draped in striped cloth, with a half circle stage back and two illuminated pillars up front, one on each side. There are unseen pockets and gaps in the body of the booth, out of which puppets can suddenly appear. And sometimes Leone himself emerges, to engage the audience directly and choose someone to be part of the performance. Or he’ll play a kind of interpreter role, his hand continuing to animate Pulcinella, who is still on stage and still talking in a shrill squeak, while Leone comments on the action in his own deep voice. The themes are ancient: Death tries to persuade Pulcinella to put his head into a noose and the puppet tricks him into doing it himself, whereupon he hangs Death; Pulcinella slays a crocodile; Pulcinella extracts a whole progeny of offspring from a hatched egg. Unlike Punch, he doesn’t quarrel with his Judy (“Joan” back in Samuel Pepys’ day) and he doesn’t tangle with a cop and he doesn’t throw the baby out the window: variations that say a lot about the British national character.

This is popular theatre but it’s also interestingly post-modern in the way it plays with the role of the puppeteer and the puppet. Leone wears the same costume as his puppet, thus blurring the line between puppet and performer. Who is imitating whom? I am reminded of a comment by Eric Bass of Sandglass: that the power of puppetry is the power of play; and when kids play they become the object of their play. Thus, watching Leone, we’re not fooled. We know that the puppeteer in floppy white is voicing and manipulating the puppet on his hand. But we can go back and forth between two forms of illusion without impairing the magic of either.

For a four-minute interview in French with Bruno Leone, which offers glimpses of his studio:

For serious students who have thirty-eight minutes, here’s the best. It’s a leisurely video that shows Leone and a top-hatted fiddler in a park doing the major Pulcinello routines (a distant dog barking; occasional rolls of thunder). Don’t worry about the Italian: just go with the flow. Believe me, this is the second one to watch –even if you only take in a few minutes.

If you want more, there’s lots. For a seven minute, chaotic night performance with a troupe:

Enjoy!

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