Commedia dell’arte is a form of bawdy, mischievous, absurdist theatre, originating in Italy in the 16th century. The plays are performed by stock characters, from the villainous to the angelic, wearing masks covering the top half of the face. You can experience commedia dell’arte every summer in Strathcona Park, along the Rideau River, when Odyssey Theatre performs under the stars.
You can also experience commedia dell’arte in novel form with the latest book, The Rising Tide, by Ottawa author Mark Frutkin. This is a bawdy, mischievous, absurdist story set in 18th century Venice, the author’s favourite city since the 1960s when he attended university in Rome and spent considerable time backpacking around Europe.
Venice is known as The City of Masks because of the commedia dell’arte style masks everyone in the city wears during Carnival. And so, in The Rising Tide, a high-profile heresy trial is conducted before the king-like Doge and the Vatican’s cruel Inquisitor with a room full of spectators wearing Carnival masks. These scenes simply cry out to be performed on a stage like that of Odyssey Theatre.
This is not Frutkin’s first commedia del’arte style novel. Most famously, he wrote Fabrizio’s Return, which won the Trillium Prize for being the best English-language book published in Ontario in 2006. That bawdy, mischievous, absurdist book focussed on an enchanted violin in 17th century Cremona, Italy and the many larger-than-life characters affected by the instrument.
The Rising Tide begins when, on an island near Venice, Rodolfo the hermit is seen perpetually wandering around with a man’s skeleton on his back. The local priest starts the rumour that this is a harbinger of the second coming. To complicate matters, a wolf on this same island is seen scampering about wearing a priest’s cassock and, in Venice itself, the beautiful courtesan Francesca reveals a rather erotic form of stigmata and then makes the claim that, having serviced hundreds of Venetian men, she remains a virgin. Surely, some Venetians believe, Francesca is a sign of the second coming of the Virgin Mary. This all becomes fodder for the prosecutorial Inquisitor intent on burning Rodolfo and Francesa at the stake for supposed blasphemies.
The first half of the novel is a little rough and scattered as the author introduces us to the characters and their backstories. The second half, however, sails gloriously as Rodolfo is brought to trial and matches wits with the increasingly frustrated Inquisitor. Rodolfo is something of a philosopher, who maintains that all beliefs are true, simply because they are all stories. So, who is to say what is right and what is wrong?
The title of the novel, The Rising Tide, is taken from the title of a collection of erotic poems anonymously crafted by a tavern-keeper and surreptitiously published by a former priest, Michele, who is pressured into becoming Rodolfo’s court room advocate. The Inquisitor is dying to unmask the poet and the publisher because they would undoubtedly be fine specimens for other burnings at the stake.
There is a cartoon-like quality to the characters and their adventures. And this is as it should be in commedia del’arte. Don’t expect any novel lessons. But do be delighted at the way the story lampoons the mores of all hypocritical authority figures, especially those in the Catholic church of the day.
Frutkin has written more than Italian historical romps among his 13 books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry since coming to Canada in 1970 as an American draft evader and settling into a rural, rustic cabin with some like-minded hippie friends near Wolf Lake in West Quebec. He lived there for nine years with no electricity or running water and sometimes no car, necessitating a four-kilometre walk during 40-below weather to Wolf Lake to pick up a meagre $30 pay packet from the municipality for the occasional clearing of brush along roads that were generally undriveable through the muck of spring and snow of winter. After nine years he moved into Ottawa to begin a more conventional life as an author and creative writing teacher.
Past fiction includes the most recent fantasy novel, A Message for the Emperor, Atmospheres Apollinaire, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, and The Lion of Venice. Non-fiction works include a memoir about living at Wolf Lake, Erratic North: A Vietnam Draft Resister’s Life in the Canadian Bush and another memoir about European backpacking called Walking Backwards (Grand Tours, Minor Visitations, Miraculous Journeys and a Few Good Meals).
A Rising Tide (Porcupine’s Quill) will be launched June 24, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Pressed Café, 750 Gladstone Ave.