I introduced Amleto Sartori to Giorgio Strehler in a café in Vicenza, which led to the making of masks for the Teatro Piccolo in Milan. Sartori suggested to Strehler that he could try to make some leather masks for The Servant of Two Masters, and thereby revive the tradition of commedia dell’arte masks. And that was it. I remember taking him to the Opéra museum in Paris to look at the old zanni masks. Shortly afterward, the first leather Harlequin mask took shape. I put it on and tried to make it come alive, but to no avail. It didn’t work. I have that very mask at home, hanging on the wall, which is a sad place for a mask to be.
One day, Sartori decided to make me a neutral mask from leather. It took a long time, and there were many attempts, much measuring of my face, and finally I went to his workshop to try it on. It was so tight on my face that I couldn’t make it play and the leather was too soft. When he remade it in firmer leather, that was it: it worked. That’s when I realized that you need a distance between a mask and a face to make the mask play.
When you talk wearing one of these masks you have to find its voice, its language, its way of talking. The masks of the commedia dell’arte demand maximum physical rigor, as seen in the amazing body attitudes. It is not possible to act in a mask as you would in everyday life. You have to go beyond naturalism toward performance, finding the elements of vivacity that life has not yet revealed. Performing in front of a mirror is useless, you have to live within the mask. I remember one time when Marcello Moretti [Strehler’s Harlequin] took out his mask at a restaurant. He wanted to look at it before dessert came.
The mask is a mysterious and terrible instrument…it brings us to the very threshold of theatrical mystery, demons are reborn through these immutable, immobile, static faces.
What is the purpose of the mask? To magnify and simultaneously give the essence of the character. It obliges you to widen and develop your gestures, which must not be arbitrary, if you want the audience to follow you.
The stage is a physical and concrete place which demands to be filled and which must be made to speak its own concrete language. It consists of everything that occupies the stage, everything that can be manifested and expressed physically on a stage, all that addresses itself first to the senses instead of addressing itself first to the mind. This pure theatrical language has nothing to do with speech, it is a language of signs, gestures and attitudes […] This language, which evokes in the mind images of an intense natural (or spiritual) poetry, gives an idea of what it might mean for the theatre to have a poetry of space independent of spoken language.
(“Mise en scène and Metaphysics”)
The mask presupposes a constant and perfected play of the body which is an art in itself, requiring thorough study; in other words, the body must become a supplement to the mask—a new face, in fact.
The commedia is not only a study of the grotesqe and facetious… but also a portrayal of real characters traced from remote antiquity down to the present day, in an uninterrupted tradition of fantastic humor which is in essence quite serious and, one might almost say, even sad, like every satire which lays bare the spiritual poverty of mankind.