The Prince of the Hundred Soups: V. Lee’s Comedy of Masks, by Sophie Geoffroy

Taste, entitlement and power in Vernon Lee’s Comedy of Masks cum Puppet-Show: The Prince of the Hundred Soups (1880)

By Sophie Geoffroy

Vernon Lee’s early, 1880 works (Tuscan Fairy Tales, The Prince of the Hundred Soups, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy) all testify to her interest in Italian folk-lore, popular culture and… carnivalesque laughter. The Prince of the Hundred Soups is a hybrid work based on several genres, popular and genteel : it is a cross between folk-tales, Commedia dell’ Arte (« Comedy of Masks »), puppet-shows, novella comedies, and fairy tales. Indeed, according to her preface, Vernon Lee merely adapted her « puppet show in narrative », i.e. she rewrote and fleshed out the MS outline[1] of a Comedy of Masks specially designed for puppets, dated 1838.[2] Its author, she says, was an excentric scholar she had known in Rome, one Theodor August Amadeus Wesendonk, universally called « Mangia Zucchero » (« Eat Sugar »), whose name and portrait irresistibly remind us of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The theoretic works as well as the plays of this great puppet master, she adds, helped her in the preparation of her scholarly Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy.

Yet, the Prince is a truly Leeian artefact : a Victorian, utopian, feminist, turn of the century fantastical piece. The aesthetic and philosophical decision of using puppets to perform a comedy of masks, i. e. of twice masked characters, and twice fixed forms, endows her text with a peculiarly efficient kind of humour (considering Bergson’s definition of laughter as provoked by “living creatures made to look like clockwork dolls”)[3] and also disquieting, fantastical overtones.

In order to try and unravel the various threads of this work, I shall be following two guide lines : the generic one (esp. the shifting relations between Commedia dell’Arte, puppet-show, fairy tale, comedy and turn of the century fantasy), supplemented by an analysis of the ideological significance of the structuring of the play –plot, subplot and characterization– upon the relations between the three polysemic key-concepts of taste, power and entitlement. Indeed, The Prince of the Hundred Soups can be seen as an ethnographer’s work, which, because of its ideological slant, forestalls at times Mikhail Bakhtine’s, René Girard’s, or even sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories.[4]

The Prince of the Hundred Soups as a Comedy of Masks

« Taste », in its literal sense, provides the backbone to the story of the haps and the mishaps of the « Prince », or more exactly the « Doge of the Serene Republic of Bobbio », whose entitlement and power are traditionally symbolized by his ritual eating of 100 plates of soup « during his 100 days’ tenure of office ». The literal association of taste (both as taste 1 and taste 2 : distinction), entitlement and power comes to a head on « the first day of the year one thousand six hundred and ninety five » when a « new », self-made, and therefore unentitled man, Pantalone, is surprisingly elected instead of the distinguished, supertitled, over-entitled Scappino Scappini, Count Brighella (Generalissimo of the Republic). Brighella immediately decides to overthrow his rival, and sets him two « tasks » (as folklorists say) : eating his 100 soups (challenging him: « we shall see whether thou wilt swallow thy hundredth soup ») and having the great prima donna Olimpia Fantastici sing for the citizens of Bobbio.

In the quest for titles and public recognition, the inherited birth-right of the oligarchy of privileged bluebloods is pitted against the acquired merits and worth of « lowborn upstarts ». Pantalone, the embodiment of the Plebeians and of their collective values (enthusiasm, dynamism, gratification of the senses) is thus opposed to Brighella, the lugubrious, heartless, cruel « embroidering conspirator » whose efforts at removing Pantalone from power betray his vision of democracy itself as a closed circuit (not to say a vicious circle) and of political representation as tautological. In the Serene Republic of Bobbio, the election is but another word for the selection of the already distinguished, the « elect », and the tautological mode of representation artfully contributes to the strengthening of the self-serving, autistic powers that be. But then, what or who does the Doge represent ? Who, then is the usurper ?

The narrative is structured like a comedy, complete with its exposition scene, peripetia, deus ex machina, denouement and its romantic subplot: just like Romeo and Juliet, the children of the two rival families, Giacinta and Leandro, are secretly in love with one other. They exchange messages, manage to meet, and thanks to Olimpia’s help, finally save Pantalone from the shame of being burnt (in effigy) at the stake, and marry.

But as a whole, the play is based on a Commedia outline (preface)  and Commedia actors and masks (see our annex) with a carnival plot, the key word of which is inversion. Everything is turned upside down or used in a roundabout way, e.g. cavaliers/horsemen marching past the citizens of Bobbio with their saddle on their shoulders…

Almost all of the rituals of the fool’s festival consist in the grotesque debasing of the various religious rites and symbols by transposing them onto the material and bodily level : piggishness and drunkenness, obscene gestures, etc…  (Bakhtine 83, my translation).

The ritual celebrations (which I have analysed elsewhere)[5] punctuating the Doge’s fate fall into two categories  (priggishness vs piggishness !): we have official pageants meant to exhibit the social and political hierarchies and inequalities, described by Lee like Baroque events ; and on the other hand popular feasts based on carnivalesque inversion, subversive disruption and universal merriment.

Carnivalesque inversion also prevails as far as the Doge is concerned : a Jester turned into a Prince by the people of Bobbio, Pantalone is then turned into a martyr by the very same people.[6] His sudden triumph, then gradual downfall , is effected through a series of reversals, resulting in his destitution, trial, burning at the stake, all hinting at his real function : not the head of the state, but indeed a scapegoat. A scapegoat which, according to René Girard’s definition, exactly as in the system of the Roman Saturnalia, being initially (and legally) made all powerful by the people, raised to an almost sacred elevated position, is quickly ridiculed by everyone (Giacinta, Olimpia, Senators, Brighella)  and subjected to a process of marginalization : his elevated position is indeed that of the victim on the altar of sacrifice. Pantalone becomes the « public enemy of the State », is accused of being a traitor, a thief… Driven to distraction (chapter 7), dressed like a fool,[7] Pantalone loses his self-esteem, has nightmares in which even Olimpia has the upper hand, in a word, grows mad.

To make things worse, Brighella having frightened the ducal cook into accepting to make the ducal soup unpalatable, Pantalone, the plump descendant of sausage makers, and powerful head of the state, starves in his own palace, just like a beggar.

The child-like « task » of eating his soup transforms the merry Italian tradition of the banquet with its libertinage de table into a rite of passage for Pantalone. A prisoner in his own palace, all his meals being closely watched by peeping valets, Pantalone is paralysed by etiquette and his eagerness to conform to it, since class distinction is based on this. Instead of the triumphant, libertine and libertarian symposion he had expected, what he gets is a sad though hilarious passion, a grotesque parody of the Last Supper and of its liturgy.

… the new Doge was thinking only of his soup and of the way he ought to take it. He would have gulped it down all at once, but restrained himself, and tried to eat it gravely, sedately, as if he had eaten nothing else all his life long. But he felt the forty pairs of senatorial eyes upon him, and his hand trembled; he took up too much soup in his spoon and spilled some of it over his lace ruffle; then, all crimson with shame, he took so little that he carried the spoon almost empty to his lips; his face more deeply suffused, the veins of his forehead distended, he looked into his plate, hoping to see its embossed bottom; but no bottom was visible as yet. He spooned away convulsively at it; at last the long-desired embossed work became visible; he sighed and regained courage. At last he had got to the last spoonful. Victory! He had eaten the first of his hundred soups! He rose from table radiant. He was now really the Doge! (The Prince ch. 4)

The soup-eating being both a strategic issue and status symbol, Pantalone’s inability to take–in the ducal soup is seen as a metonymy of his lack of power –power defined as in-take : which is the basis of a dire indictement of politicians’ ways: « One must be entitled, first, to eat the ducal soups ; and in its turn the soup eating ceremony reinforces this entitlement. » (Alice. Mussard) Class-conscious Pantalone influenced by the Victorian, indeed Calvinistic, equation of pleasure (defined as a vulgar, meretricious gratification of the senses) and taste, distinction (defined as decorous, refined, gloomy, indeed sacrificial), is acutely aware of the discrepancy between his own nouveau riche tastes and preferences –his bright, gilded, soft and comfortable home—and the gloomy sobriety of the corridors of power with their hard, oak furniture. Convinced that his inability to swallow this soup betrays his coarse origins and his plebeian palate, he decides that this flaw must remain a secret. In order not to starve, the Doge Pantalone decides to smuggle in his food from the outside world, in violation of the sacred laws of Bobbio.

Food, and its taste, is also the key element in the « characterization » of the cast of stock characters, types:  the couple Pantalone vs Brighella is here physically in keeping with a number of other similar couples handed down by folklore which traditionally opposes lean people to plump people (viz. Don Quixote – Sancho Pança). Tyrannical, deceitful Brighella is as skinny as the Knight of the Sad Countenance, while pot-bellied, round-faced, jovial Pantalone is a « direct descendant of the paunchy demons of fertility », and owes as much to popular culture as Rabelais’s «Gaster » (the god whose belly the Gastrolatres adore),[8] or Rabelais’s own sources : the famous medieval « Quarrel of the Fat against the Thin »[9] and « The Battle of Lent against Eat-Meat »,[10] whose soldiers are sausages, etc.

Let us note here the savoury onomastic code in the names of these folkloric figures : Pantalone Busdrago coming from Bos (beef) Draconis, Hans Wurst (whom W A Mozart loved), Pikkelhering, Mangia Zucchero, Maschecroûte-le-glouton (Lyon Carnival), Jack Pudding (GB), Jean Potage (France), Macaroni (Italy), some of them deriving from Rabelais’s Gargantua, Engolevent, Happe Mousch, Maschefoin (Bakhtine 341) ; Bouillonsec, Potageanart, Souppimars, Soufflemboyau, Riflandouille, Tailleboudin (some of the cooks in Rabelais’s Quart Livre).

The paramount importance of culinary terms and of food is a typical Carnival trait : Carnival, which « springs from fertility ritual » (Salingar 92) glorifies appetite, or, indeed, appetites : food, drink, sex. Hence, « the insistent jokes about food, sex, excrement and death » (Salingar 92), i.e. about matter, and about the body as matter. Vernon Lee, though, is here tellingly torn apart between her own passion for food, to which her letters home testify, a passion that may have oriented her towards the adaptation of this particular Rabelais-like outline by Wesendonk, and her own Victorian censorship, so that sex is utterly absent. Unless we consider sausage-making as a covert albeit gross allusion to it (just like Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy!). Indeed, didn’t Bakhtine insist on the equation of « tripe and guts” with “the belly, the entrails, the maternal breast, life »?[11] Entrails/guts/bowels/womb/depths are linked, and thus tie together, in a literally grotesque way, life (food, digestion, life) and death (the slaughtering of the cattle, murder).

All those are recurring elements in folklore and in Commedia dell’Arte plays, and indeed grew into codes and conventions. Vernon Lee was aware of these conventions :

in the old Italian comedy (and in the puppet-show also), there exist a certain number of fixed types, comic and serious, invariably dressing and feeling and speaking in the same way, and rendered interesting only by being placed in continually new positions. Thus… the silly, duped, good-natured papa, the noodle of the piece, is always Pantalone, dressed in red and black Venetian robes ; the plotting old villain is always Brighella, sometimes called Scappino (whence Molière’s “Fourberies de Scapin”), and invariably dressed in black ; the stupid and roguish servant, the sly clown, is the acrobat Harlequin in his stripes ; the bully is the red-nosed Scaramuccia ; the young lady is Giacinta, Rosaura, or Clelia ; the lover, in full splendour of feathers and ribbons, Lelio, Valerio, or, as in “The Prince of the Hundred Soups,” Leandro ; finally, the waiting-maid is Harlequin’s sweetheart , Colombina. These types are almost invariable, and the whole ingenuity of the play consists in bringing their various pecularities into new, unexpected, and comical combinations. (Vernon Lee, Preface to The Prince of the Hundred Soups).

She was also aware of the traditional reliance on typicality and the improvisation based on outlines and the insistance on gestures, voices, and the codes of pre-verbal or non-verbal communication.

The Mask actors were … scarcely actors at all : they were fantastic realities… ; they necessarily and from their essential nature felt, acted, and spoke in a consistent and characteristic way. The consequence was evident : no parts were written for them, they were placed opposite each other, and the meeting of Pantaloon and Brighella, of Harlequin and the Doctor, of Pulcinella and Scaramuccia, produced, by the automatic movement of the characters, an action and a dialogue ever new and ever natural. (Vernon Lee, Studies 237)

In the Prince, they all tend to expose the weakness and the passivity of the male characters : alternately deprived of their powers of initiative, they are staged like mere puppets in one another’s hands. The hero himself, Leandro, is « an inanimate puppet only brought to life by other people’s strength » (Alice Mussard). In Chapter 7 (the climax), Vernon Lee goes as far as having Pantalone order his servants « not to execute my orders » : at that point, even he has become a pitiful puppet in Brighella’s hands.

Yet, one often wonders who manipulates whom, who pulls the strings : a question which is all the more relevant since this play was meant to be a puppet show ! Do we have masks performing a puppet show or do we have puppets acting out a Commedia dell’Arte ? Masked actors imitating puppets ? Puppets imitating masked actors ? Vernon Lee artfully exploits the confusion; in her puppet show are exhibited the connections between real power and secrets, power and occult plots. Let us not forget that the French technical word for the person who controls a puppet’s strings is « l’ensecrètement »…

A « puppet-show in narrative »

Puppets, manikins, models, statues and dolls figure prominently in the Vernon Lee corpus. They have a seminal role in her fantastical tales,[12] and in her theoretic works.[13] In her Preface to The Prince of the Hundred Soups, she defines herself as a follower of German pre-Romantic and Romantic authors of Fantasiesstücke (texts in between the fantastical and the grotesque) like Schlegel, Jean-Paul (Richter), Tieck, and of course E. T. A. Hoffmann, whose interest in puppets –the epitome of passivity and alienation– reflected their existentialist concerns.[14] Vernon Lee’s preface also mentions famous predecessors or contemporaneous writers like George Sand and her son, Maurice, who staged puppet shows at Nohant. Other nineteenth century attempts at either analysing or creating puppet shows should be mentioned here : L. Duranty,[15]  Maeterlinck’s melodramas for puppets,[16] L’Eve future by Villiers de L’Isle Adam, Büchner’s Leonce and Lena (1836), or, later on, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896).

But among the foreign travellers to Italy who were enthusiastic about the puppet shows they had attended in Milan, Turin, Genoa or Rome, like Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Stendhal, William Wetmore Story, Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine, Paul Valéry, very few, unlike Vernon Lee, were aware that puppet-shows are an Italian tradition, dating from the late seventeenth century-early eighteenth century, and at its peak in the second half of the nineteenth century, when its high quality musical dramas entertained aristocratic and popular audiences. There were no less than some 40000 puppets then in Italy.

The repertoire of the nineteenth century puppet-shows which Vernon Lee saw derived from a long, twofold tradition :

1. the first one is both ancient and popular, consisting in the adaptation of Commedia dell’Arte, farces, robbers’ stories, or saints’ lives, preferably performed by glove puppets, the « burattini », the most popular character being Pulcinella. The outlines are carnivalesque Commedia dell’Arte plots extolling material values (“le bas corporel”) such as food (taste in its first meaning).

2. the other line is genteel, based on the « heroic model », consisting in the adaptation of heroic, pastoral and even classic plays, and usually performed by string puppets.

The « Pupi’s opera » (« L’opéra des Pupi”) of Southern Italy (comical improvisations based on epic outlines derived from episodes taken from the legendary prose cycle of Charlemagne, L’Histoire des Paladins de France by Giusto Lodico, published from 1858, 1860 onwards)[17] may have been one source of inspiration for Wesendonk/Vernon Lee : the Doge’s soup eating is said to be « a habit dating from the time of Charlemagne » (p. 1). The name of the inn where Olimpia takes refuge, the « Sword of Orlando »,[18] is another example. The Chanson de Roland was also part and parcel of the Sicilian folklore until the nineteenth century.

Another source of inspiration for Lee/Wesendonk may have been the wealthy Venitian Abbato Labbia, who, in the eighteenth century, staged melodramas specially written for puppets whose parts were said and sung by famous singers : e.g. Metastasio adapted his Dido abbandonata for Labbia’s puppet theatre.

The following extract from the Prince shows Vernon Lee’s indebtedness to those pastoral performances:

After that the curtain of a little theatre erected in the palace court was raised, and there came forward sundry nymphs in striped satin petticoats and pink silk stockings, with crooks in their hands, and wreaths on their heads, and sundry ancient heroes, in blonde wigs, plumed morions and scandal, who performed a pastoral in music, singing the praises of a mysterious shepherd, Glaucus, the richest and wisest shepherd of Arcadia, the beloved of the Gods, whom every one understood to be Pantalone Busdrago ; the whole to the accompaniment of excellent symphonies of harpsichords, viols, lutes, and flutes (The Prince of the Hundred Soups, ch. 2).

By the 1850’s, these puppet-shows rivalled with flesh and bone actors, their repertoire being by then identical :[19] Goldoni, Shakespeare’s novella comedies (e.g. Romeo and Juliet), Molière’s comedies (the two lovers Leandro and Giacinta ; play within a play (ch. 9 and 12) ; Leandro’s tragic dilemma in chapter 12 (not unlike Corneille’s Rodrigue in Le Cid). The final coup de théâtre and revelation follow the example set by Molière:

Some critics go so far as to assert … that wherever in Molière there is complicated action and comic movement we may trace the influence of the Italian comedy. Thus the Commedia dell’Arte, which has perhaps afforded suggestions to Shakespeare and to Lope de Vega … produced the comedy of Molière by offering a definite artistic mould in which to cast all the heterogenous comic elements which had existed chaotically in the old French fabliaux, nouvelles, and farces. (Vernon Lee, Studies 240)

Mozart’s, Rossini’s, Verdi’s or Wagner’s operas are lileky models, too, just like vaudevilles, gothic novels (The Bleeding Nun adapted from Lewis’s The Monk), and sensation novels (The Wandering Jew).

The influence of Carlo Gozzi’s, Tieck’s, ETA Hoffmann’s fantasy and of Perrault’s fairy tale archetypes is also extremely important in this play entitled, aptly enough, the « prince » (why not the « Doge » ?). I contend that in the Prince of the Hundred Soups, Leandro’s evolution is a classic quest for identity or initiation, and Pantalone’s struggle against Brighella as the envious witch casting a spell (we shall see…) in order to compensate for the titles he lacks and to legitimate the initial displacement of power, enacted as it is through unmistakeable rites of passage, all these are fairy tale items.

The way in which the victimized Jester-made-King finally turns into a trickster-hero is also reminiscent of fairy tales. The trickster’s deceit and cunning bring about the revenge of the weaker ones (tellingly, male characters like Leandro) over the stronger ones (the inheritors) and the ultimate and unexpected triumph of truth, freedom, art and love.

In the Prince of the Hundred Soups, although no precision is given, we have a mixed cast of lowly, truculent, plebeian, Commedia characters (glove puppets) and string puppets for the more genteel ones  (goldonian, or fairy tale characters). This distinction corresponds to the distinction between the four masks and the two unmasked lovers, which is traditional in the Commedia dell’Arte. Such coexistence, or co-presence fits quite literally Meyerhold’s definition of the grotesque as a genre which refuses to abide by any « either… or » distinction ; the grotesque unrelentingly exaggerates and thrives on contradictions, showing that life is both vulgar AND elevated, both popular and genteel.

Yet, any account of the play leaving aside Vernon Lee’s own idiosyncratic work on the traditional aspects would be incomplete and inaccurate.

Vernon Lee’s fantastical, feminist, utopian text : laughter in misery, food for thought, and lyrical women

Writing as she does in the nineteenth century, Vernon Lee transforms and alters the double tradition that I have traced, which results in the dual aspect of her work: a fantasy, fairy tale aspect on the one hand, and a weird, uncanny, fantastical, disquieting aspect, on the other hand. The witches’ robes and pseudo sorcerer’s formulae used by Brighella and Scaramuccia to frighten the page Truffaldino in chapter 3 may be traditional devices in fairy tales. Yet, the occult satanic rituals involving black magic, the Devil and even the famous wizard Master Curtio (Curtius, Mme Tussaud’s mentor, is also present in « The Doll »), are reminiscent of decadent Black Mass and secret brotherhoods’ rites.

He [Truffaldino] was in the presence of that mysterious council whose name might never be whispered, which all knew to exist, but whose existence was too awful to be avowed. Truffaldino‘s teeth chattered at the recollection of the vague stories of men founded drowned in the river, or hanged to trees, or stabbed in their beds, with the terrible initials of the council upon their corpses. (Vernon Lee, The Prince of the Hundred Soups, ch. 3)

Truffaldino accordingly swoons away during the ritual, which is a topos in fantastical literature. The repetitions, the mechanical gestures, the artificial voices of those puppets-cum-masks offer a literally inhuman, dehumanized, distorted vision of the world : aren’t these wooden dolls or manikins, and those leather masks, caricatures ? Caricatures which uncannily blur the limits between the real/the artificial, truth/lies, life/its mimesis, overdetermine the grotesque, and endow it, at times, with unbearable lucidity.

Such lucidity mostly serves a feminist, nineteenth century vision. Indeed, there is one unmistakeably Leeian, and distinctly utopian, character who evidences this : Olimpia Fantastici. Taking the place of the traditional boring but sensible and influencial Dottore (absent from the cast), Olimpia is a heroine in the best tradition –that of Boccacio, taken up by Shakespeare in his novella comedies— I mean the tradition that considers woman neither as solely a despicable though admirable womb, nor as a despicable though much admired sinner, but as puppet-master and artist.

Olimpia is indeed a capricious femme fatale (complete with the whip in her hand), redolent of Circe (she confesses to changing men into asses), of shrewd Fairy Morgana. This « eccentric siren » nevertheless plays the role of the fairy god-mother, or benevolent dea-ex-machina, and brings about the happy reunion of the star crossed lovers, Leandro and Giacinta. She also obtains Pantalone’s final lawful recognition by the people of Bobbio as charismatic leader for life (!).

Indeed, unlike Lee’s likely model, Hoffmann’s Olympia (= an automaton), the opera singer Olimpia Fantastici embodies the ultimate form of transcending, therefore unquestionable, legitimate power : more than the power of « taste » or « distinction », the power of beauty, the power of art… The final national reconciliation is reached through an epiphany of Art, after the people (and not solely the elect and the elite) of Bobbio have expressed their vital, universal appetite for art, for spiritual, emotional food (even though Olimpia’s song might be considered as yet another form of oral pleasure !). The people accordingly succeed in getting Olimpia to sing where the officials have failed.

This definitely betrays Vernon Lee’s utopian bend. Which will be confirmed in later life by her actions in favour of British female workers. More aptly still, the following vibrant passage from her Studies testifies to her awareness of the political dimension of the Italian Comedy of Masks :

Laughter in misery, such was the origin of the revived Comedy of Masks ; buffooneries to drown the recollection of ignominy, merriment to hide seditious sorrow, local satire to hide national satire, dialect to save Italian. … crushed and mangled as a whole, the country maintained its vitality in its fragments : fragments too insignificant, too heterogeneous to create suspicion, living on separate and unnoticed until at length permitted to reunite ; and the Comedy of Masks, the jumble of Bergamascs and Sicilians, of Neapolitans and Bolognese, the Babel of dialects the most dissimilar, is the product and the expression of this provincial life ever tending towards forbidden national unity. (Vernon Lee, Studies 235)

Last but not least, let us not forget that Olimpia’s power is, typically, the power of the human voice. This strong, domineering woman with her magic, hypnotic voice is one of the earliest prototypes in Vernon Lee’s series of androgynous singers, Zaffirino’s ancestor. Even if she, like all puppets, acts in playback (like, for that matter, Olympia, and, more strikingly still, Farinelli or Zaffirino or Rinaldi in Lee’s fantastical texts : their voice is merely imagined issuing from the musici’s painted mouths !). We know that puppet masters used a small instrument (called a « pratique » in French), which they put in their mouths to alter their voices, so that the puppet did have a voice –a specifically human feature—which yet did not sound like any particular human voice:[20] the voice, so traditional societies thought, of the dead.[21]


The paradoxical generic instability of this mixture of different heavily codified genres endows Vernon Lee’s utopian play with a flamboyantly grotesque and subversive dimension : her nineteenth century feminist « parodic travestying » of the conventions of fairy tale, Commedia dell’Arte and puppet-shows brings to light the –generally occult—basis of political life and social order: the trinity formed by the concepts of taste, entitlement and power.

But, unlike those puppet masters who were disliked and persecuted by Cromwell, Calvin and others, and who protected themselves against charges of witchcraft and sacrilege by improvising, Lee could use the two Victorian convenient labels « meant for children » and « fantasy » to write and publish her Prince of the Hundred Soups. This explains why, although the Studies leave us in no doubt as to her degree of awareness concerning the political dimension of her play, she wryly dedicated it to a “grown up simpleton as desultory and capricious as myself.”


1. Dramatis Personae

I. The four masks

« Pantalone, Brighella, Harlequin, and the Doctor, were called the four masks ; they were the most popular, the most typical, the most universally known and the longest of life. » (Vernon Lee, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, p. 236).

1 Pantalone Busdrago I, Doge of Bobbio

« Old men were typified in Pantalone dei Bisognosi the Venetian merchant, wearing the obsolete costume, –the scarlet stockings, black robe, and long-tailed hood, of the burgher of a mediaeval commonwealth » (Studies 235)

He expresses himself in his Venetian dialect. In The Prince of the Hundred Soups, Pantalone, the descendent of a sausage maker, is close to the German « Hanswurst » (« John Sausage »), derived from Pulcinella/Punch.

2 Scappino Scappini, Count of Brighella, « Generalissimo Scappino Brighella ».

usually characterized as a cunning, deceitful servant. Vernon Lee turns him into the most powerful man or wizard of Bobbio ; confined within his ivory tower where he indulges in his hobby (embroidery) from which he casts his spells (« we shall see whether thou wilt swallow thy hundredth soup »).

3. Arlecchino, Brighella’s bravo

« By the middle of the sixteenth century […] the two ideal classes of servants, the hypocritical rogue and the gluttonous sly simpleton, were represented respectively by Brighella, dressed in the loose-striped shirt and linen cap of the artisans of the sixteenth century ; and by Arlecchino, wearing tight-fitting hose and jerkin of motley stripes and patches, suggestive of the grotesque dress of the youths in Signorelli and Carpaccio’s paintings. Both Brighella and Arlecchino came to be associated with the town of Bergamo, the Lombard dialect of which, wholly distinct from the Venetian of Pantalone, they continued to the last to employ. These two servants, the arch buffoons of the play, were called the two Zanni, perhaps in reminiscence of the Sanniones of Antiquity . … Harlequin in especial never lost his antique character of mime, –dancing, playing tricks, and performing gymnastic feats in the midst of his parts. » (Studies 235-6)

4. The Doctor 

« To these three were added the Doctor, sometimes called Doctor Graziano or Doctor Balanzon, the typical man of learning : dressed as a jurist, with an immense wine-stain on one cheek : always a Bolognese, always blustering and pedantic, oscillating between a knave and a fool, holding forth in maccaronian Latin. » (Studies 236)

Olimpia Fantastici plays The Doctor’s role.

II. « A quartet of Neapolitan buffoons »

« Opposite this quartet of North Italians arose another quartet of Neapolitan buffoons : Pulcinella,… ; Scaramuccia,; Tartaglia,;Coviello;–these Southern masks being more violent, more savage, more indecently antique, than the Northern, and perhaps more restricted  to their own provinces »( Studies 236).

1. Pulcinella

« Pulcinella, the ancient Maccus, the modern Punch or Polichinelle, with immense nose and double hump, dressed in white, a terrible sort of comic Bluebeard or Nero » (Studies 236): here, the role of hunchback is held by Truffaldino, the « Gobbo » (Ottavio Zanni’s cook).

2. Scaramuccia

« the bully and intriguer Scaramuccia, dressed in black, the archetype of the military adventurer ». (Studies 236).

3. Tartaglia

« the simpleton and stammerer Tartaglia » (Studies 236). Here : absent

4. Coviello

« the long, dancing, fiddling, singing vagabond Coviello » (Studies 236). Here absent, but Olimpia is undeniably endowed with some of his features.

III. « Regular actors and actresses »

« To these masks—half actors, half acrobats, half jesters—were added regular actors and actresses, speaking Tuscan and probably improvising but little, the pair of lovers borrowed with but slight alteration from the written comedy and retaining its pseudo-antique names : Lelio, Leandro, Orazio, and Florindo ; Lavinia, Flamminia, Ortensia, Giacinta or Rosaura, dapper figures with no comic work to do, but necessary for the action of the play » (Studies 236).

1. Colombina (Olimpia’s maid)

2. Lady Giacinta (Busdrago) : a disdainful, charismatic, superior woman who belittles her lover Leandro (another Leeian « New Woman »).

3. Leandro (Scappini Brighella) : Giacinta’s lover ; fragile, submissive, caught in the horns of a dilemma (ch 10); romantic and sensitive. Giacinta and Leandro = Romeo and Juliet. 


Bergson, Henri. Le Rire, essai sur la signification du comique, Paris : Alcan, 1900.

Lee, Vernon. The Prince of the Hundred Soups ; a Puppet Show in Narrative, 1880. London : T. Fisher Unwin, 1883.

Lee, Vernon. Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy. 1880. New York : da Capo Press, 1978.

Bakhtine, Mikhaïl. L’œuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen-Age et sous la Renaissance. Paris : Gallimard, « Tel », 1970.

Corvin, Michel. Lire la comédie, Paris : Dunod, 1994.

Bourdieu, Pierre. La distinction, critique sociale du jugement. Paris : Minuit, « Le sens commun », 1979.

Salingar, Leo. Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy. Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Babuder, Bruna and Eliana Treccani, Maschere : la storia « segreta ». Verona : Demetra, 2000.

Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie. « Celebrations in the Texts of Vernon Lee : the Disruption of the Carnivalesque », Alizés/Trade Winds n° 13, « Celebrations and Other Essays », Jan. 1997, 157-176.

Girard, René. La violence et le sacré. Paris : Grasset, 1972.

Fournel Paul, ed.. Les Marionnettes. Préface d’Antoine Vitez. Paris : Bordas, 1982.

[1] « their [Beolco (1540s) and his imitator Calmo’s] successors were obliged to leave half of the dialogue to be extemporized, and in a very few years the written part of the plays was reduced to a mere skeleton plan of the action divided into scenes, which was hung-up in the green-rooms for the instruction of the actors, who filled up the outlines according to the whim of the moment. Thence it is that nothing has come down to us of the Comedy of Masks of the late 16th and 17th centuries save a volume published about 1610 by the actor Flamminio Scala, containing fifty outlines of comedies in narrative form … threadbare tales of scurrilous intrigue, which are to the Comedy of Masks like the shapeless scaffoldings which remain after some wonderful exhibition of fireworks…. » Studies 238

[2] « I have translated (abridging here and there where the love of typicality produced a certain monotony) and am now editing “The Prince of the Hundred Soups.” V. Lee’s preface.

[3] My translation from Bergson’s famous definition of laughter as triggered off by « une mécanique plaquée sur du vivant ».

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction, critique sociale du jugement. Paris : Minuit, « Le sens commun », 1979. See the chapter on « Titres et quartiers de noblesse ».

[5] Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux, « Celebrations in the texts of Vernon Lee : the Disruption of the Carnivalesque », in Alizés/Trade Winds, « Celebrations, CAPES & Other Essays », N° 13, January 1997, pp. 157-175.

[6] « Dans ce système le roi est le bouffon, élu par l’ensemble du peuple, tourné en dérision par ce même peuple, injurié, battu lorsque son règne s’achève… Si l’on avait commencé par donner au bouffon les parures du roi, à présent que son règne est terminé, on le déguise, on le « travestit » en lui faisant enfiler l’habit du bouffon… les injures le dépouillent de ses parures et de son masque : les injures et les coups détrônent le souverain » (Bakhtine 199).

[7] With colours in keeping with the nineteenth century system of correspondences prevailing in puppet shows, a system based on Goethe’s Treatise on Colours.

[8] Gaster’s belly is more than the actual, physical stomach of any living creature. It symbolizes the material wants of the human community as a whole. See Bakhtine 299.

[9] See the Dispute des Gras et des Maigres and Brueghel’s pictures, cited by Bakhtine 296.

[10] See the thirteenth century poem quoted by Bakhtine : « La Bataille de Carême et de Mange-Viande ».

[11] « les tripes, les boyaux sont le ventre, les entrailles, le sein maternel, la vie. » (my translation, from Bakhtine 165).

[12] See « The Doll », and « Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child »…

[13] See « The Economic Parasitism of Women » in Gospels of Anarchy, for instance.

[14] « C’est un objet qui joue, animé par un ‘support’ humain. Et son jeu figure, symbolise, raille, exorcise l’activité des hommes. Le fait que la marionnette soit passive et manipulée, alors que l’acteur, étymologiquement, agit, est la clé des deux aventures opposées qui l’ont affectée. Tantôt elle est dévalorisée, au point de fournir une métaphore de l’impuissance, de « l’aliénation » humaine : l’Europe baroque et romantique voit volontiers l’homme comme une marionnette dont Dieu, le Destin ou d’autres forces « tirent les ficelles ». … A l’opposé, pourtant, le fait que la marionnette se trouve passive entre les mains de son créateur donne toute la liberté créatrice à celui-ci. » In « De la poupée aux formes animées », Les marionnettes 83.

[15] « J’ai donc osé composer un théâtre écrit de marionnettes, tentative sans précédent en Europe, et je livre cette tentative à la méditation et à la critique des esprits naïfs et savants. // En effet, jusqu’ici, toute la tradition des marionnettes est orale. Quand une pièce est écrite c’est une exception. Elle est jouée avec la plus grande liberté à l’égard du texte. » (L. Duranty, Théâtre des Marionnettes, Introduction, Paris 1880, quoted in Les Marionnettes 108).

[16]  Tintagiles’s DeathAleddin and Palomides.

[17] According to Bakhtine, those episodes were performed successively for months on end, and scrupulously followed their source.

[18] « Dans Orlandino de Folengo, … on trouve une description parfaitement carnavalesque du tournoi de Charlemagne : les chevaliers enfourchent des ânes, des mules et des vaches, en guise de boucliers ils portent des corbeilles, en guise de casques des ustensiles de cuisine : seaux, marmites, casseroles. » (Bakhtine 211).

[19] The more able actors sometimes performed both in their own right then as puppet masters in the second half of the show.

[20] « Dans le théâtre des marionnettes traditionnelles, les montreurs recouraient à la ‘pratique’, petit instrument qu’on se met dans la bouche et qui déforme les sons de la voix, comme si la marionnette, animée et inanimée à la fois, pouvait avoir une voix –signe de l’humain—mais une voix altérée. La voix de Polichinelle, déformée par la‘pratique’, constitue un caractère essentiel du personnage et signifie aussi son appartenance au règne des morts. » R. de Simone, A. Rossi, Carnevale si chiamava Vincenzo, Rome, 1977 quoted in Les Marionnettes, p. 108.

[21]« La voix prêtée aux marionnettes acquiert une signification presque rituelle, liée à la conjuration et à l’évocation des morts. » R. de Simone, A. Rossi, Carnevale si chiamava Vincenzo, Rome, 1977 quoted in Les Marionnettes, p. 108.

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