When it became so obvious that even they noticed, many were forced to concluded we live in “clown world.” Apparently this has been the case since at least 1892 and the archaeological record suggests the comedy has been going on far longer. Ruggero Leoncavallo’s two act opera Pagliacci (Clowns) has the ability to draw people unwittingly into its action. It transcends the opera house entirely, fusing seamlessly with the world and the progression of time. With Pagliacci, we don’t know when “the comedy is finished!”
Canio, the master of a traveling commedia dell’arte company, utters the work’s immortal, final line at the dramatic climax. As Pagliaccio the clown, he proclaims so after stabbing his wife and her paramour during a performance. Until just a few moments prior, the comedy’s audience thinks the clown’s wrath is purely theatrical. Leoncavallo has them recoil at Canio’s passion but if I were director, they’d applaud until the curtain fell, thinking the murders were part of the play. The tragedy’s audience would then have to choose between sympathizing with the insensitive masses just depicted on stage and withholding their adoration from the singers. As inartistic as that would be, it’s almost necessary at this point.
Time and again the villagers had seen Pagliaccio jealously interrogate the adulterous Columbina, who plans to elope with the smooth-talking Arlecchino. It turns out the clowns cannot keep their work and lives separate. Nedda, who plays Columbina, plans to elope with a villager named Silvio whom her husband Canio also murders. The comedy performed by the clowns in the final scene, then, is an almost perfect reproduction of their extra-theatrical lives as realized in act one.
Even the murder itself is a performance – a double performance – and appropriately, it takes place on a stage which rests on another stage for emphasis. One is struck by Canio’s appeals to “the right to act like every other man.” Even this crime of passion needs a justification. For Nedda, the show must go on; she tries to remind him of just who he is. Before the audience, which marvels at how moved it is, he replies “no, I am not Pagliaccio!” Rather, he’s the one who took the orphaned Nedda in from the streets. We learn that he generously became her husband, giving her the incredible life a clown. The viewers notify each other of their weeping. Canio doesn’t even ask that his tremendous affection be reciprocated: only that he be the sole proprietor of Nedda’s vagina. Is that really too much to ask? Now he will destroy her. “Bravo!” Being a clown, he is able to discern the true cause of this betrayal. By deduction, Nedda must be a “base harlot.” … the apparent spontaneity has not withstood our scrutiny and we have ruled out love as a motivating force. A genuine murder mystery!
* * *
But what would this ancient right be if it were not ordained by heaven? The name of the Creator is on Canio’s lips while he talks about slitting Nedda’s throat at the end of act one. Informed by the jealous clown Tonio, he surprised her with Silvio, the latter having escaped into the night before he could be identified. Canio invokes the Madonna or Virgin, demanding Nedda divulge her lover’s name. Nedda could not in good conscience say she’d just been entwined with the God of Isaac and Jacob.
While the clowns occupy the stage, the villagers, like us, are offstage – at church. It’s Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The wheat and tares worship in the House of God under the symbols of the Philosophic Work. The Gospel, realized by all its characters, indicates the secret violence we commit against ourselves, compelling us either to acknowledge it or become even more corrupt. Still, religion fails to satisfy man’s spiritual needs. Commedia dell’arte and opera, the secular arts, are evidently necessary. Clowns, singers and the orchestra meet the clergy half way, providing a fully booked program with simply no time to descend into hell.
Like Pagliacci, the Gospel transcends its medium. Perhaps no one has fully understood it yet. Despite their great clamor, the audience hardly appreciates its artistry and profundity. With the Christ problem dealt with and His one-and-done salvation in the bag, sacred means Caiaphas remains Caiaphas, Pilate remains Pilate, and the people choose Barabbas every chance they get while playing the rôle of true believer. The clergymen were the pharisees in costume all along and that’s just one more inversion than the exhausted good can wrap their heads around. Therefore, it was necessary to write Pagilacci. The maestro supplants the senile, spiritually lukewarm bishop, incapacitated by a heavily redacted dialogue with his fold. It’s Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and we are at the opera house. The walls have crumbled. Not one stone is left standing on another. Our Redeemer’s holy blood has poured into the world, permanently conjoining heaven and earth, sacred and profane, the alter and the stage!
* * *
Something ominous hangs over Pagliacci. An unseen force drives every character’s actions. From the ceaseless, hollow chattering of the villagers, to the empty dialogue between Nedda and Silvio, to Canio’s double-murder, everything is done with a foreboding urgency. Even the intermezzo, the opera’s sole moment of respite, is spent getting ready for the performance. Following this, Tonio, dressed as Taddeo the servant-clown, beats a drum and ushers the audience into his comedy. As the show is about to begin, we hear a dramatic, fortississimo, late Romantic perfect cadence with blatting trombones, screaming trumpets, rolling timpani and villagers shouting “Silence!” as loud as they can.
Nedda would rather be in act one at this point, in Silvio’s arms. Only minutes ago were they singing “let us forget everything,” and “kiss me!” in a masterfully composed duet. But how could these two kiss while remembering anything about themselves at all? or without those swelling strings! Nedda forgets she’s a clown when she’s with Silvio. She forgets she’s a clown when he woos her as the lute-playing Arlecchino woos Columbina, captivated by the pigments applied to her face. Whatever negates the clownishness of this double clown surely originates with Silvio, who is merely a clown of the first order. Their farce could not succeed without the suspension of disbelief, that is, forcing oneself to accept the unreality of a drama in order to experience catharsis. By this point, our intuitions are confirmed and we understand what energizes Pagliacci’s driving action. There can never be a still moment lest a character realize just how sexually disturbed he or she is.
While Canio is at the tavern, Silvio begs Nedda to abandon her clown marriage and clown life. So great is his love for this clown, he doesn’t know what will become of him when she leaves for the next village. Nedda’s “flaming kiss … kindled such a fire in [his] blood!” It must be a torturous, despised condition, this burning. What is to be done? He knows Nedda’s fragmented person will yield to such stimuli if the magnitude of excitation can outweigh the reality of her clownhood plus her fear of Canio. Then this unbearable, lamentable fire of his can be quenched at last. Mention of flaming blood is a little more than Nedda can handle. The character she played only minutes ago, she who just said “quiet, Silvio. This is madness,” has been obliterated. So much work went into getting her to do what she really wanted! The clown is his. She says, “To you I give myself and you I take. You alone rule me: I am wholly yours.” But this is just another operatic line, actually; Canio will have them both.
Before Silvio arrives, Tonio must make his own advances on our prima donna, the only woman in the company. These are gluttonous like Silvio’s, albeit better formulated and more poetic. Nedda tells him to confess his love for her on the stage as Taddeo. Perhaps she couldn’t be kind to him without giving away everything. Now she’s insulted that this hideous creature would even attempt to have her. The very presence of a woman as great as her, biologically speaking, should invoke deep shame in this human tumor, this degenerate son of corruption. Why isn’t it working? Enraged, Tonio starts towards her but she lashes him with a whip and berates him.
“Snake that you are, go! Now that you have shown
what you are! Tonio the half-wit! Your soul is like
your body, filthy and deformed!”
He swears revenge by the Holy Virgin of the Assumption and exits as Silvio enters. What was considered an assault in one instant is, in the next, employed to inflate Nedda’s delusion of womanhood before her paramour. In this, she betrays her rottenness and her contempt for Silvio and all men. Silvio doesn’t notice.
Meanwhile, the half-wit is watching from the shadows. The clown must do something with his tremendous adoration so he goes to the tavern and alerts Canio to her infidelity. Silvio’s raging fire all but evaporates when Canio returns. As Silvio flees into the blackness, Nedda calls out after him, “until tonight, and I’ll be yours forever!” But first, she must play Columbina one last time. The comedy continues. Arlecchino comes with his lute while Pagliaccio is away and she gives a signal to indicate his absence. Then comes the despised Taddeo, scorn of all the villagers, his enormous pants bulging with lust. He comically exclaims, “if I should reveal my love to this shrew, this love mightier than mountains!” and begins his work. When Arlecchino returns and ousts him, he instantly accepts their love as legitimate and agrees to keep watch for them in a striking incongruence. It’s too good to be true; enter Pagliaccio the clown! As Arlecchino escapes through the window, Columbina calls out into the audience “until tonight, and I’ll be yours forever!” She probably thought that was clever. The repetition of this phrase is what pushes Canio over the edge.
At the end of the first act, Canio resolved to perform the comedy anyway in his tragic aria Vesti la Giubba (Put on the Costume). To the gut-wrenching melody, he addresses his character saying, “laugh, Pagliaccio, at your shattered love and the sorrow that has rent your heart.” He fails to realize, however, that his heart was rent long ago and his love was shattered years before. The only thing rent this time was the veil of his ignorance and the only thing shattered, the illusion he constructed to repress these facts. Staring into the mirror, he applies the white pigment to his face and weeps. In a 1994 Metropolitan Opera rendition, Luciano Pavarotti’s eyes widen at this point, as if to express revelation. Nedda’s repetition may be the comedic parallel of this reflection, but perhaps due to other imbalances, such as Tonio’s transcending the rigid correspondence or the fact that Arlecchino is played by Beppe instead of Silvio, it has the effect of fusing Canio with Pagliaccio.
Again the double clown interrogates his wife, demanding to know the name of her lover. Having tasted relief, Nedda capitalizes on this rare instance in which her performance and intention actually align. Even still, everything is falling apart. “His name!” A childish but mysterious melody can be heard. Noticing the audience is alarmed, she pathetically says it was only their Arlecchino. It would be unheard of for Columbina to say such a thing in commedia dell’arte. “Or your life!” In an all-too-theatrical manner, Nedda now proclaims her love is stronger than Canio’s rage and that she will never reveal her lover’s name. Maestro Levine has Tonio place a stiletto in Canio’s hand, which clutches its hilt.
That morning, when the company first arrived, a villager made a lighthearted joke about Tonio forgoing the tavern to be alone with Nedda. This comment inspired Canio to state that life and the stage are two different things with uncharacteristic seriousness. When Pagliaccio discovers Columbina’s adultery, he said, comedic antics ensue, but if he, Canio, were to find Nedda with a lover, the story would end differently. To retain his honor, distinguish himself from Pagliaccio, and demarcate life and the stage, he must kill this “woman without shame” who knows “no law but of [her] senses.” No longer able to abet Canio in his delusion, she has outlived her purpose. But it is ironic that his crime can only consecrate the theater’s union with reality. Only finishing the comedy in character could preserve the partition!
He seizes Nedda and stabs her crying, “in your death spasm you’ll tell me!” Nedda calls for Silvio, who’s been fighting his way through the crowd. According to the libretto, Canio “turns like a beast, leaps on Silvio and stabs him.” His lifeless body slumps next to Nedda’s and the villagers shout “Gesummaria!” which is “Jesus and Mary!” Accompanied only by a soft timpani roll, a horrified Canio declares “the comedy is finished!” The orchestra recapitulates the descending melody from his aria while Tonio laughs with delight. Maestro Levine has Pavarotti carry Stratas back to the stage, which they left. He places her on the steps. It’s as though he’s offering a virgin to the Sphinx on the road to Thebes – the Sphinx which devours anyone who fails to solve her riddle. The curtain falls. The singers bask in our applause and bow.
* * *
In the prologue, Tonio told the audience Leoncavallo had ancient theater on his mind when he sent him forth as an ambassador to reality. Dressed as Taddeo, he tells us his purpose is not to reassure us of the falsity of what follows, as was apparently the custom in antiquity. Rather, he bids us continually remember that the actors are as human as we are. The composer’s only maxim: “the artist is a man, and he must write for men.”
“Mark well, therefore, our souls,
rather than the poor players’ garb
we wear, for we are men
of flesh and bone, like you, breathing
the same air of this orphan world!
This, then, is our design. Now give heed
to its unfolding.
(shouting towards the stage)
On with the show! Begin!”
Tonio is truly a mysterious character. While all others are constrained by tragic fate, only he can transcend the theater. He alone can directly communicate with the audience and deviate from his comedic rôle. While Canio and Silvio depend on Nedda to buttress their flimsy illusions of manhood, Tonio is free from this reliance. And what he destroyed was so infirm, his work cannot properly be called destruction. All he did was reveal the truth.
As Taddeo, his compliance with Columbina and Arlecchino is wholly absurd. Only in the comedy does his immense hatred disappear without a trace. In the tragedy, then, Tonio’s resources can be put toward his own agenda while others are exhausted from maintaining illusions. Though he’s the one pulling the strings, Nedda, Silvio and Canio are too consumed by their own affairs to realize it. Like the birds that inspired Nedda’s hysterical rant, they “obey only the secret force that drives them on and on.” Tonio also obeys this force, but with less resistance. His equally gluttonous intentions aren’t veiled by hesitant questioning as Silvio’s are. He expresses his hatred for Nedda authentically whereas Silvio and Canio, initially, must conceal it. By his design, pretensions are shed and stored energies are released. In a cosmic bargain which everyone refuses to understand, truth vests in him the power to destroy all those who are even more contorted and dishonest than he is.
Like king Laius, whose attempt to defy fate guarantees the fulfillment of the oracular prophecy, Canio is pulled ever deeper into clownhood by his struggle to escape the stage. His delusions concerning love and honor further estrange his wife, realizing their comedy. They also deprive him of the deep, biological spontaneity which is antithetical to costumes, scripts, tropes and all performances. Only by accepting his inauthenticity, his clownhood, that he is Pagliaccio, could he begin to reverse his path of degeneration. Only the truth could have prevented him from becoming a beast. This is the tragic or consoling message of Pagliacci: there’s one world, our lives are our work and every single thing counts.
Why is it so easy to destroy? Because nothing yet has been built. Only on sand and in floodplains have we built thus far. We abhor bedrock, firm ground and the head of the corner. Far from the tragic drama of counterfeit love, there is a country of verdant hills and bubbling springs in whose water the essence of life is diffused. And there is a force that vanquishes all corruption. It vanquishes the corruption Tonio represents as easily as he ruins Nedda’s farce. Our homeland lies far to the east. Between it and us stands Tonio. To the west, there is only desolation.
You said well, clown. You are the prologue. And if we’ve seen, as you said we would, “men love as in real life they love,” Tonio the half-wit, then we would forswear our own species and denounce them as clowns. Men and women, I’ve been forced to conclude, have not been allowed to exist on earth yet. The clowns kill them while they are still small children. They kill in the name of anything and everything, but most of all, to avoid realizing what they are. And clowns, I promise you we will discover every last subhuman game you play: your antics, which we could never invent ourselves – those which I’ve detected so late in my life, having always given you the benefit of the doubt. Religion and art endeavored to expose your perversion. You swallowed them and were immunized – for a price. Now comes Science whereby we can at last unveil your clownish secret, and if like Oedipus our inquiry leads us to an intolerable truth, and we perish of it, then the gods will sanctify our graves. I say this to Tonio but in part to all clowns – to Il Dottore, Pantalone, the innamorati, and the zanni – to Pagliaccio, Arlecchino and Columbina: your comedy is nearly over. Now comes Science, which is protected and controlled by the Sphinx.
* * *
It was a great pain to digest this magistery, clownish as I am. Having seen it, I could not rest until I finished this. Ruggero Leoncavallo must have possessed the finest sensibilities, profound insight concerning the living organism, and above all, the hatred of falsehood and hypocrisy. I don’t know what horrible incident he bore witness to, but I extend my deepest gratitude to him. He revisited his suffering and created this masterpiece which must have saved so many from tragedy. Needless to say, he was also a virtuostic composer and librettist. Of his eleven operas, ten operettas and two symphonic poems, only Pagliacci is widely performed today.