Women comedians today owe a great deal to the pioneering women in comedy in the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy and France, as demonstrated for the first time in a new book by Domnica Radulescu, professor of Romance languages at Washington and Lee University.
Women's Comedic Art as Social Revolution (McFarland, 2011) is based on eight years of archival research and traces the lives of five women theater artists who, according to the book's description, "created revolutionary forms of comic performance that subverted patriarchal attitudes, conventional gender roles and stereotypical images of women."
Jill Dolan of Princeton University wrote in her review of the book, "Never before has the history of Western women in comedy been written with such scope or comparative detail."
"My goal is to demonstrate that women have created comedic art throughout the centuries which has counteracted sexist humor as well as resisted forms of gender and sexual discrimination," said Radulescu. "The book is both a historical study as well as a theoretical study of what makes women's humor different from male humor, how it initiates and incites social change, and how it is cathartically rewarding and empowering for women both in the theater as well as in society at large.
"My book goes against the grain of some feminist studies that have neglected to make the link between the commedia dell'arte actresses who produced such a revolution in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and the new 20th-century feminist theater. I show the connection and that women have actually developed a tradition of comedy across the centuries."
In the book, Radulescu demonstrates how the five performers, defying the stereotype that women are not funny, were complete artists in that they did not play parts written by male playwrights, but wrote their own parts, directed themselves and acted on stage. "That is why I placed them together in this group," said Radulescu, "I was fascinated with this type of female artist who was very revolutionary in the 16th century and continues today in the form of many women standup comics and performance artists. So I follow the way this comedic art has developed across the ages in the context of each woman's time."
The first of this line of actresses was the 16th-century playwright and performer Isabella Andreini, who was among the first actresses in Europe to perform on a stage. Known for her gracefulness on stage, she was one of the greatest comedic actresses of her time and was greatly admired for her improvisation. "Andreini was part of a generation of actresses that brought improvisation to the stage and took their comic performances to such a high level of virtuosity that they were better than the men in the troupes," Radulescu noted.
Andreini was followed by the 17th-century French Italian actress Caterina Biancolelli, who performed as a part of a troupe of Italian actors during the time of Louis XIV in France. "Biancolelli developed the role of the sassy maid and took comedic and improvisational art to a new, higher level where she derided the society of men and patriarchy," said Radulescu. "She used body language and played all sorts of tricks on the male characters, always having the last laugh."
Franca Rame was a 20th-century Italian playwright and performer who dealt with modern issues such as female sexuality, domestic violence, marriage, contraception and abortion. "She developed a kind of feminist stand-up comedy," explained Radulescu. "She created quite a revolution in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s because she dealt with issues that had been taboo before then. The women in the audience would often feel vindicated and empowered by her. For example, she broke down the very rigid gender roles of the woman who stays at home and the husband who goes to work, or the woman as a passive object of desire."
Taking the story to the present day, Radulescu examines several performers who create a similar kind of comedy but in the context of post-modern life: Deb Margolin, award-winning playwright and performer, and Kimberly Dark, a performance artist who deals with issues of sexual identity and women's size. "I show that there is a strong link between these five women and that today's feminist comedians draw a lot from the earlier tradition but with a modern theater strategy."
The final chapter of Radulescu's book provides a practical guide for performers and teachers of theater for creating improvisational comedy that deals with various gender and feminist issues in comedic form.
Domnica Radulsecu is a professor of French and Italian at W&L and the cofounding chair of the Women's and Gender Studies program. She has authored or co-edited nine scholarly books and collections of essays, two best-selling novels and numerous articles. She is the founding director of the National Symposium of Theater in Academe.
Women's Comedic Art as Social Revolution is available at the University Bookstore or find it on their website at http://bookstore.wlu.edu