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Arlequin Costume

A letter to Katerina Cichrová from Per Edström regarding costume Nr. 300 in the costume wardrobe at the Chateau Theatre in Cesky Krumlov.

Dear Katerina,

It was very nice to have met you last year and thank you again for showing me those well-restored costumes, many of which were beautiful, many interesting and many most certainly quite unique. There was one costume in particular that caught my interest. It was a plain costume with sewn-on patches and marked 300 on the inside collar. In spite of what it says about costume Nr. 300 in the old inventories and in the new ones that you have made, I have my own ideas as to what manner of costume it is.

I am of the opinion that it was, from the beginning, a carnival outfit from the original folk carnivals and that the sewn-on patches reveal it to be a costume which is inside-out. In other words, I believe it to be a Harlekin costume, a Hellequin costume, an Erl König costume or a Hans Würst costume.

It is a costume that has its beginnings in the ritual world of the Indo-European carnival tradition’s portrayal of the Lord of the Underworld and his following of the dead, those who exist in time and space between where the old year ends and the new one begins, that is to say, the time where no time exists and anything at all can happen. This carnival pops up again and again throughout the history of our civilisation in the various guises of the Lord of the Underworld. One can trace the name of the ruler of the Underworld by mapping the carnival’s progress, from Shiva in India, to Dionysos in Greece, Osiris in Egypt, Bacchus and Mercurius in Rome to Lug and Oden here in the North. All these are portrayed in the Carneval by the man behind the Divine Mask.

And every time this happens the Gods, roused from their sleep by the gaiety of the carnival, continue afterwards to carouse on, though to a more innocent and less orgiastic degree. And every time this happens, they are finally captured by the state religion’s priests to be used by them before finally appearing, neutered, on the theatre stage. All bore, from the beginning, the phallic rod which is the symbol for fertility, the rod that gives life to the new year. And all the rods finally ended up in the props department of a theatre, in much the same way as does Harlekin’s or Hans Würst’s wooden sword. And in Cesky Krumlov’s Chateau Theatre lies the Rod of Mercurius, catalogued and safely locked-up.

The leader of the noisy crowd of living dead, who had risen up to take control over the world of the living, became, at every place the Carnival was performed, the very best actor from among those people who had gathered to carry out that which tradition demanded of them. It was he that had the quickest tongue and the most compelling charisma who was allowed to bear the rod. It was also he who was allowed to wear the inside-out cloak which showed that he came from the other world, the reverse world of the mirror image. But also the others who played this particular game, who could be so powerful as to be seemed as real both by those who participated and those who witnessed the wild pageant, wore their clothes inside-out, back to front, buttoned the wrong way, as they danced on with their shoes on the wrong feet.

Despite the attempts of governments and state religions to keep the masses quiet and subservient, aspects of the Carnival still live on, exploding into life at celebrations and festivals. To this date, the costumes are worn inside-out when the people of today continue the traditions of the carnival. On the cover picture to L'udové masky by Martin Slivka, published 1990 in Bratislava, the carnival musicians can be seen with their fur jackets and costumes worn inside-out!

Four hundred years ago, the world hadn’t been over-run by the textile industry with its cheap, machine-made clothes now worn by any and everybody, making a person just as respectable as any which king, gangster or politician one cares to choose.

Clothes were scarce four hundred years ago. The dead were only barely able to hang on to what they were wearing as they were laid in their graves with their clothes inside-out and their shoes on the wrong feet so that they might better be ready for the world they were now on their way to, the reversed world, the mirror world. That was why all manner of clothes were patched and repaired to as great a degree as possible. The outside of the clothes may have looked very fine indeed, while the insides of them consisted of the patches which held the decorative fronts together. An inside-out set of clothes could therefore be made up entirely of patches and thread.

When one wanted to show clearly that a costume was inside-out, such as at a carnival procession where one wanted to play the role of someone who had come from " the other side", one naturally chose an old garment with a lot of patches on the inside. The person who was to play the part of Ruler of the Underworld got was was probably the most extensively-patched costume of them all. When special carnival costumes were later manufactured, the sewn-on patches came to symbolize the fact that they were indeed inside-out.

The Lord of the Underworld was everywhere given the name which best suited the language spoken by the people who were performing and recreating the figures in the underworldly ancestral procession. In northern France it was HELE CHIEN, HERLICHINI (1091), HELLEQUIN (1150), and HERLEQUIN (1262). In the german-speaking parts of europe it was HELECHIEN and ERLKÖNIG, until he became so popular after popular farces of Lent-time about the fight between the Carnival and Lent, which came after the carnivals of that time, that he was simply given the name HANS WURST (1573).

When the french church, in an attempt to lure the heathen carnival into a christian trap where it could be tamed, started to interfere, HERLEQUIN, with his black mask and his wooden sword, became the one who in the minstral plays with thrusts and blows drove the damned through the steaming gates of hell and on to eternal agony. The one the priests called the devil himself presumably played the devil himself. Thus it was that the wild energy of the carnival was altered in a christian attempt to turn the whole thing into a biblical pageant. Herlequin was to make many a colourful entré before the play got to the start of the New Testament. It wasn’t really feasible for all those who lived and died before Christ to be christians so they all of them had to go to hell. When the old prophets closed their mouths after all their talk and died, the public were given their fair share of horrific happenings, exciting chases, loud music and fiery flames until Herlequin finally threw the great mouther in the fire and the next prophet could start on the next speech.

Thus did Herlequin, as far as the audience was concerned, become the most popular figure in the whole Bible, and without even having been mentioned there. Since then he has, as the devil, continued to be the priest’s favourite character, also without having been mentioned in the Bible.

The various interpreters of the role of Herlequin became more and more professional and, dressed in their patched costumes, started to perform in market-place farces in order to make ends meet during the periods between the religious festivals. It was in this way that a HERLEQUIN came to Paris with Agnan’s french theatrical troupe at the end of the 1570’s, playing amongst other places at the Hôtel de Bourgogne.

Parisians at that time had a language of their own and pronounced HER as HAR. Thus did the theatrical figure become HARLEQUIN. The italian Commedia dell arte troupe played in Paris at the same time and, seeing how HARLEQUIN’s popularity led to more money in the cash-box, introduced the character and his costumes into their own plots and plays. By the time of their return to Italy, the character had the name ARLECHINO (1584).

But Arlechino never became as popular in Italy as did Harlequin in France. In France people still knew that Harlequin, with his patched costume, was really someone who came from the Underworld and that it was because of this that he could say and do whatever he wanted to on stage.

Much the same thing as happened in France happened to Erlkönig in Germany who by way of church mystery plays and popular farces at Lent-time finally became known as Hans Würst.

But back to costume Nr. 300. Based upon all that I have just said - though without having made the proper academic and scientific references to footnotes and appendixes - it is my belief that one could write an exciting new chapter in the annals of theatre history if one was to look into just how the carnival character who bore costume Nr. 300 had gotten to the stage at the Chateau theatre in Cesky Krumlov and just what kind of a figure it was that he portrayed there.

Or is there a simpler explanation as to why costume Nr. 300 is hanging in the Chateau Theatre’s wardrobe? Perhaps there was a copy of Tristano Martinelli’s Compositions de Rhetorique on the shelves of the chateau library.

Maybe the person who made the costume was inspired by the Arlequin picture and designed the costume accordingly.

In much the same way that I made the costume to my first Arlequin performance in 1953.

I am sorry that I am not able to be there when you all meet in september, but you’re welcome to take this letter along with you and discuss what I have written with the other people there.


We must meet on another occasion! Kindest regards from yours PER

Värmdö, Sweden the 18th of August 1994.