Cineasts may remember the film Stage Beauty all about Nell Gwynne convincing Charles II to keep Edward Kynaston from playing female roles that could be better served by first female actress Margaret Hewes (1645-1719).
Behind the times as usual. By the time Ms Hewes was born, the Italians had already buried and praised Isabella Andreini, as one of the finest exponents of Commedia dell’Arte.
Rather modern in concept, was Commedia dell’Arte, performance art by stock characters – Pulcinello, Arlecchino – often with stock masks (a throwback to Roman stage craft) and very loose scripts if scripts there were at all. Think An Evening At The Improv, with a touch of audience participation. You had to be quick to take on that kind of job.
One such company back in the day was the Compagnia dei Comici Gelosi, the Troupe of Jealous Comics – jealous of attaining virtue, fame, and honor, that is. And money, of course. It is this company which a young Isabella Canali joined at age fourteen. Instant stardom. She had the looks, which didn’t hurt.
More than that, she had stage presence, talent, and genuine wit. (There are claims that she could be a little loose with her costumery, which could hardly have hurt box office.) Within the year, her main competitor in the troupe had quite and she had married the leading man, Francesco Andreini. In due course, they took over the operation.
Players need material. She delivered on that as well. Playing the streets and passing the hat was one thing, and required a pretty broad and bawdy streak. Playing the palace was something else again. Quality folk, they like to have their finer sensibilities flattered, make use of that time consuming and expensive classical education. Isabella could do that. Her debut piece, La Mirtilla (the Blackberry), was a comic play that was highbrow enough to appeal to the moneyed classes, and soon I Gelosi were the top of the pops not just in the royal courts and merchants’ houses of Italy, but of France, Poland, Spain, Germany and England as well.
Her most famous work was the Pazzia d’Isabella the Madness of Isabel. It was a one woman show, largely improvisation, involving – well, Isabella going mad. In the course of the performance, she would play all the stock figures, both male and female, interact with the audience in a number of languages, and in the finale, regained her sanity. Reviews were ecstatic, and you can imagine how in the right hands it could have been pretty alarming. After her death, the figure of Isabella was added to the company of Commedia dell’Arte characters.
She was a poet as well, and famously entered a poetry contest sponsored by Cardinal Aldobrandini
Stop and consider that for a moment – a woman, and worse, and actress, a profession generally viewed as not much better than a hooker, was actually permitted to enter a poetry sponsored by a Cardinal of the Church. She came in second place – after her friend Torquato Tasso. A pretty rarified level we’re talking about here (the poem itself, alas, appears not to have survived).
She corresponded with the great and the good of the day and was a member of the literary association, the Accademia degli Intenti of Pavia. Other work included some fictional letters touching on subjects of interest to the thinking classes of the day.
And travel, always travel. She had seven children with her husband, leaving them in the care of some rich Mantuans. She died on the road, the result of a miscarriage. Her husband was so distressed he closed down the company. Not much point now the main draw was gone. Their son Giambattista Andreini brought it back, renamed it Fideli, performed, composed, and eventually disappeared into the maw of history. (Giambattista, by the way, is the author of “l’Adamo” , which Italians (and Voltaire, of all people) have noted was suspiciously similar to that later work by Milton, Paradise Lost. There are, however, as Norman Douglas noted, other candidates for that honor.)
Of the other children, one became a dual bodyguard, the others took religious orders. Fair enough. Their mother was a hard act to follow.