Tag: Columbine

Pierrot in Popular Culture

Pierrot in Popular Culture

People often give me blank looks if I say my books are about the Commedia dell’Arte. Italian Renaissance improvised theatre is not well known today. Those who have done theatre studies or drama are likely to know about it, but most don’t. Audiences might remember seeing Commedia-style plays like A Servant of Two Masters and the hilarious musical The Venetian Twins, by Australian playwright Nick Enright.

However, if I mention my books are about Pierrot, Harlequin and Columbine, sometimes people’s eyes light up. Pierrot, more than any other character, still has name recognition. This is ironic, because the character was originally very minor. But there is something about his pathos and romantic adoration of Columbine that touches people. Not only that, but the image of Pierrot is iconic.

Mirano Fujita and the Sad Clown

For anyone of my era, feminised versions of Pierrot are very familiar. During the 1980s these images were everywhere. In my early teens I received a birthday gift of a tin with two soaps and a facewasher inside. All had one of Mira Fujita’s sad clowns on them.  The soaps are long gone, but I still treasure the tin.

Fujita was the daughter of a calligrapher. After studying at art school in Japan, she began doing illustrations for a girl’s magazine. Her work stood out because the characters seemed willful rather than meek. With the growth of manga over traditional storytelling in Japan, Fujita moved to Europe. There her style was considered novel and mysterious.

A Parisian poster company commissioned Fujita to do a series of images of clowns and Harlequins. These were extraordinarily popular and soon sold as prints and on various household goods. A large number of teenage girls in the 1980s had a Pierrot poster on their wall as a result!

Who was Pierrot?

There is an early (1547) reference to a Piero in Commedia history but the character seemed to disappear for decades. In the 1570s it reappeared as Pagliaccio, then Pedrolino. Pedrolino was very low-status, usually played by the youngest son in family player troupes. His early name derived from pagliaio, meaning a pile of straw, since the youngest often slept in the barn with the animals. Around 1665, as the Commedia grew in popularity in France, Pedrolino took on a French name: Pierrotto. This was ultimately shortened to Pierrot.

Pierrot wears baggy clothes because he is the youngest, and only receives hand-me-downs. Unlike other Commedia characters, he doesn’t wear a mask. Instead, he paints his face with white flour. This means the actor can be far more expressive. Perhaps this is why people remember Pierrot, more than other Commedia characters, for his big heart and sad expressions. He is highly sensitive, conscientious and totally honest. In writing the Tales of Tarya these seemed to me to be the perfect characteristics of a hero. In my fantasy series Luka not only plays Pierrot, he bears many of the characteristics of this iconic character.

Other Pop-Culture References

Pierrot has inspired many artists. One of the most obvious is David Bowie. For the video of ‘Ashes to Ashes’ he wore a Pierrot costume. He also wore one on the sleeve of the album Scary Monsters. The Seekers’ song ‘The carnival is over’, features the line: ‘but the joys of love are fleeting/for Pierrot and Columbine’. Musicians from Brazil to Italy to Japan have written songs or albums featuring the sad clown. There was even a Japanese rock band named Pierrot.

It’s still possible to find Pierrot (and Harlequin) themed decorative items. Generally the best place to look is in op shops. The Commedia dell’Arte may be mostly forgotten. But the sad clown lives on and can still evoke a sense of romance, pathos and gentleness.


What is the Commedia dell’Arte?

What is the Commedia dell’Arte?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Harlequin, Columbine and Pierrot so it always comes as a surprise to me when people look blank when I say ‘Harlequin’s Riddle is about the Commedia dell’Arte’. I’m not clear when I first became aware of these wonderful characters, but it was probably when my great-aunt gave me a tin with Pierrot on the lid. Inside was a facewasher and two soaps, also with different Pierrot images. Anyone who grew up in the 70s is probably very familiar with the classic images by Mira Fujita. The Pierrot in them is feminised, the face expressive. These designs were everywhere: on posters, on toiletries, on notebook covers. And Pierrot is the perfect icon for teenage girls – too sensitive for the world, and always yearning for something just out of reach (the beautiful Columbine).

Fujita’s images may be the reason that Pierrot is the most remembered of the Commedia characters today, but in fact he was a late addition to the line-up, and a minor character usually played by the youngest son, since player troupes were often families.  Harlequin too has survived, perhaps because tricksters have enormous appeal – just look at the current wave of interest in Loki in the Avengers movies.  Other characters are less well known now. But in their time they were adored by the public for whom they performed.

The Commedia dell’Arte is essentially improvised theatre that was usually performed in public spaces, in contrast to the Commedia Erudita, which was scripted and performed on private indoor stages. It appeared in Italy in the mid to late 1500s and its features, including slapstick humour and music, probably developed in order to compete with the noise of the marketplace. Those who look at the history of the Commedia suggest it grew from the antics of charlatans trying to sell their wares through any means possible.

Although Commedia performances were improvised, they had a clear framework from which performances grew. There were core characters, including the old men, Pantalone and Il Dottore, the lovers, the servants (known as zanni), Il Capitano (the Captain) and Columbina. Then there were secondary characters such as Pulcinella (later Pierrot), Scaramuccia and others. Harlequin, or Arlecchino as he was originally known, was one of the servants.

Each character was distinguished by a particular costume, status, posture and walk and particularly by their mask. This meant that when they appeared on stage the audience knew immediately who they were, and the function they would serve in the story. There were also set scenarios, or outlines of the events to be performed. Then, within the scenes, characters had set passages that they might recite, a repertoire of sight-gags the audience would expect from them, and particular ways of interacting with other characters. This means the improvisation actually occurred within very specific boundaries.  Much as Hollywood movies now follow certain tropes and patterns, Commedia audiences expected to see familiar characters, events and actions.

As with any popular form of entertainment, Commedia has changed over the centuries since its birth. Whilst there are still troupes today who try to maintain its original framework and characters, its influence can be seen in Punch and Judy shows, Cirque de Soleil and even musical theatre, which grew from the Commedia-like vaudeville performances of the early 20th Century. And, even removed from their Commedia roots, characters like Harlequin, the trickster, Pierrot, the sensitive, and Columbina, the unattainable beauty, still resonate with modern sensibilities.  For me, these enduring characters, and the magic that can emerge from improvised theatre, sparked my imagination, offering a world of possibilities that I explore in Harlequin’s Riddle.