“North End Italian Feasts” is the grand finale in a series of 1990 skits from “My Corner of Boston” performed at the North End Union, produced by resident Rosaria DiFinzio. See all the scenes here.
Rosaria may not have realized it but when she wrote and produced these North End skits she was continuing an Italian tradition of street theater that dates back over five hundred years.
In the middle of the sixteenth century, a particularly Italian form of comedic theater called Commedia dell’Arte started and quickly became very popular throughout Europe. Each country modified it to its own tastes and culture and it still exists today in the Punch & Judy puppet shows seen in Covent Garden or Regent’s Park.
It’s difficult to translate Commedia dell’Arte into English but the comedy of improvisation or improvisational comedy come close. Wandering troupes of actors would set up an outdoor stage in a town square and use simple sets and props to tell humorous stories. The actors wore masks which were specific to their character and the audience would roar with laughter when their favorite stock character appeared.
Some of the characters were wealthy old men (Vecchi) who were always trying to cheat the servants or debauch the maids, young lovers (Innamorati) who were trying to tryst against the wishes of the Vecchi and servants (Zanni) who were clever and sly. Two popular servant characters were Arlequino, the harlequin, and Pulcinella, the hunchbacked clown. Whenever I was particularly fresh my grandmother, Nonna Colomba, would call me Pulcinella.
The sketches were formulaic and generally involved the sly servants outwitting the pompous, overbearing and wealthy Vecchi. In the end, the young lovers would kiss, the old men would be ridiculed and the servants would triumph. You can see why this would appeal to the Italian peasantry.
Rosaria’s comedies were very popular with North End audiences and I encouraged her to continue producing them. I even wrote a few sample sketches and sent them to her but her life followed a different path and they ended.
I always hoped that someone would resurrect these North End sketches but with a modern twist. Instead of the rich Vecchi we could have greedy real estate developers who try building inappropriate buildings that would ruin the neighborhood. Clever locals, Zanni, try stopping them by using cunning tricks and legal maneuverings. Clueless politicians, Pulcinella & Arlequino, try appeasing the neighbors and make everyone happy as long as their campaign chests are filled but in the end the lovers meet and everyone has a cappuccino on Hanover Street.
Don’t you love street theater?
If you missed the previous skits from Rosaria’s My Corner of Boston, see all the scenes here.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.