Lent -4: Carnival

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The time between Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday is Carnival. Carnival is intended to be the time before Lent begins when you prepare for the contemplative and lean time of Lent. Carnevale is the Italian word for carnival, and it literally means “no more meat for you, kids!” (that might be a liberal translation). The point is that you use up the things that you can’t have during Lent. It’s kind of turned into an excuse to binge hard so that you can get it out of your system and (in theory) be ready for the austere 6 weeks ahead. For some, it’s just about the overindulgence. While there are certainly carnival celebrations all around the world, arguably, the most famous (or infamous) ones are Venice and Rio.

This weekend has seen the Samba competition in Rio de Janeiro. They built an arena – the Sambadrome –  to highlight the spectacle of the samba competition. There are millions of people that attend the beaches during the day and the competitions, parties and festivities in the evening.

Contrasting with the spangly bikinis and metal-reinforced plumage of the Rio de Janeiro carnival are the ballgowns and masks of  the Masquerade in Venice. Tonight is the Grand Masquerade.

The Carnival of Venice has captured my imagination for a long time. It’s been celebrated in mostly the same way for 1000 years with the arts and crafts, theatre and music, and many, many parties, including extravagant masquerade balls. Venetian masks often originate in the Commedia dell’arte theatre tradition.  Even though it’s not as pervasive in it’s pure form anymore, we still recognize the roots it’s grown into our general fund of knowledge. We might not recognize (or be impressed by) the exploits, adventures, slapstick-style humour and love-stories-gone-sideways as our ancestors did in village squares and marketplaces, but they influences are still there. In Commedia, Harlequin/Arlequino was a suitor to the lovely Columbina. These two, along with the other major characters in the Commedia tradition wore predictable costumes or have predictable features on their masks, so that a pre-literate community would know who all the characters are. The satin diamond pattern of Arlequino’s costume takes the character’s name. It’d be like if fairy tale characters were on a stage – If a girl shows up in a red cape, you know who that is meant to be. It’s fair to say that some characters in fairy tale tradition, such as Clever Hans in Germany, served similar roles in storytelling. They were there to be plot conventions, their purpose was to move the story ahead.

In Italy in the 1600s, many people weren’t literate, but they would know all the characters from the traveling minstrels, bards, and troupes who told stories in return for a place to park their caravan, and perhaps something to eat. I think this appeals to me in the same way as performance companies with jugglers and acrobats – the really early precursor to Cirque de Soliel . I know that some of this also comes from my intense love of Tomie DePaola picture books, and The Clown of God  and Jingle, the Christmas Clown in particular. And even the Masquerade scene from Webber’s Phantom of the opera. So opulent!

In Italy, particularly in Venice, Commedia Dell’Arte was a big deal. Everyone knew the half-mask of fair Columbina, the emotional Arlequino/Harlequin, the beak-nose of the Doctor, sad old wisened Pantalone, the mischievous servant Pulcinello, the old woman, and Scaramuccio/Il Capitano. I really enjoyed Commedia when I studied it in drama classes, but I recognize that the tropes of these characters are often unfair stereotypes. The old woman is gossipy, the servants are untrustworthy. The length of a character’s nose or height of their forehead is directly proportional to their intelligence. So, if I enjoy Commedia in its various forms, including Shakespeare, Panto, and Punch and Judy-style puppet shows, that doesn’t necessarily mean I buy in to the exaggerated character traits outside the theatre. Commedia has evolved, even, Il Capitano is now less a villain and more an adventurer. Columbina isn’t always a helpless waif, tied to the railroad tracks, Dudley Do-Right style. Even the broken character of Harley Quinzel in the DC universe is a shit-kicking incarnation of Harlequin.

There’s also the plain white (creepy as all get out) mask that covers one’s whole face.  Emotionless nose and lips. Smooth brow. Entirely neutral. Or just a feathered, sequined, decorative mask, like a fascinator for your face. There’s even a contest for the most beautiful mask of the Venice carnival.

Still, the mask makes you anonymous, and mob mentality, peer pressure or being goaded by your equally inebriated friends can make it easy to “become the character” in ways that you would not without the mask. There’s a line between Playing The Part, and being an ass. Would that everyone knows where that line lies.

This Carnival, may I be thoughtful about my indulgence. May I be aware of the masks I wear every day, and how a mask changes my behaviour.

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