Josephus Flavius described an occasion when he was seeking access to the Roman imperial court in order to negotiate the freeing of some Jewish captives. It turned out that the convenient intermediary for this mission was an actor of Judean birth named Alytura who had influence with the empress Poppea.
This function of Jewish theatrical performers serving as a bridge between commoners and the highest echelons of power had a long history, and it resurfaced in Renaissance Mantua. The local Jewish community was often called upon to provide theatrical entertainments, at their own expense, for the powerful Gonzaga dynasty. This was a demeaning obligation to which the Jews submitted in return for the privilege of residency in the duchy, where they also served as bankers, merchants and physicians. Nevertheless, their stage productions, which included participation by broad segments of the duchy’s tiny Jewish populace, was of value to the political leadership, helping to validate their pretensions to legitimate nobility and to demonstrate their aristocratic liberality before the local masses and foreign dignitaries.
Although their thespian activities might have been imposed on them, some of the Jewish participants took their assignments quite seriously. They assembled a semi-professional troupe that mounted works of artistic merit. Chief among them—as author, set designer, director and choreographer—was Leone de’ Sommi (1527-1592), scion of Italy’s illustrious Portaleone family, who was known in Hebrew as Yehudah ben Ya‘akov Sommo. De’ Sommi, in addition to his endeavours as a ritual scribe and poet, was a prolific playwright, though few of his works have survived, and most of his oeuvre (amounting to some sixteen volumes) perished in a conflagration at the Turin library in 1904.
It is generally agreed that de’ Sommi’s most substantial artistic legacy consisted of his Italian treatise on stagecraft titled Quattro Dialoghi in Materia di rappresentazioni sceniche [Four Dialogues on Scenic Representation] in which the author’s views were placed in the mouth of his literary persona “Veridico.” It is the earliest known monograph on the subject, approaching it from perspectives that are at times broadly theoretical, didactic or meticulously practical.
Several of the ideas that de’ Sommi set down in his dialogues sound so familiar to our modern ears that it may require a special effort to appreciate how novel they were in their original historical setting. For example, because the principal venue of the Mantuan stage productions was in the aristocratic court, often as part of celebrations of family milestones or affairs of state, the distinctions between spectators and performers were not rigidly maintained. Members of the audience might wander on the stage, or even be drawn into crowd scenes or dances.
De’ Sommi, on the contrary, proposed a very different paradigm in which the activities on the stage constituted a separate and autonomous universe. Thus, instead of keeping both the audience section and the stage illuminated equally as was customary in his time, he proposed that fewer lamps be placed in the audience section so as to focus people’s attention on the performance on the stage. He also described how lighting can be utilized effectively to project a mood—brightness for joy and gloomy darkness for sadness. He instructed the performers to interact with one another, and not with the audience.
Of all the manifold components that make up a major stage production, it appears that the text of the script was given top billing prior to de’ Sommi’s time, and drama was treated as a branch of literature. De’ Sommi, however, saw the performance as an integrated process, and shifted much of the attention to the director and actors. Indeed, he observed that gifted actors are even capable of successfully carrying poorly written plays, whereas poor performers can murder a well-crafted script! Acting, he argued, is not merely a matter of eloquent recitation, but must extend to natural-looking gestures and appropriate body language, particularly in comedic roles. It is through the actor’s craft that the author’s purposes are imbued with life. De’ Sommi went so far as to compare the relationship between text and performance to that of body and soul. The spectators’ attention should be drawn to the characters rather than to the stars who are portraying them (who should ideally be unrecognizable).
De’ Sommi was reluctant to tread on the specialized crafts of the playwright or set designer, but wrote from the perspective of the person who brought all those skills together in a unified performance—thereby embodying the role that modern drama would learn to assign to the director.
In ways that anticipated several features of modern “method acting” he insisted that the actors—though cast because they fit their specific roles—must familiarize themselves with the entire play in order to obtain a full understanding of how their character functions in the broader context. The actors must not only be capable of expressing the personalities of their own characters, but also of understanding how they relate to the others on the stage and to the situations in which they are operating. In this vein, he urged that the costumes should be authentic to the characters even if that must be achieved at the cost of their visual splendour.
The ultimate purpose of a performance should be grasped from the perspective of the audience’s experience. Toward that end de’ Sommi was quite prepared to tolerate religiously questionable elements like pagan deities or risqué dialogue, on the grounds that the theatrical audiences (even in an era marked by growing prudery in the Catholic church) were not composed entirely of saints.
In spite of his impressive achievements in the realm of the theatre, as well as his important contributions to the Jewish community (such as his endowing of a new synagogue), de’ Sommi provoked some hostility from religious traditionalists, including his own teacher. He inserted a few remarks into his Dialogues that served to justify his activities from a Jewish perspective. In one such passage he suggested a connection between the structures of the standard five-act play and the five books of the Torah. He also claimed that he was pursuing an authentically Hebrew tradition that could be traced back to the earliest Hebrew play—the biblical book of Job.
In an inspired bit of pious symbolism, de’ Sommi (preempting Shakespeare by several decades) described how our mortal lifetimes are comparable to staged plays in which we function alternately as the spectators and as actors in diverse roles (both comic and tragic) concealed by metaphoric masks—until after that final curtain when, stripped of our artificial costumes, we must await our ultimate critical review.
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