One of the great masks of Commedia dell'Arte, Pulcinella – from pulcino, chick and pollastrello, cockerel – is the most important zanni form the southern regions of Italy. Beyond being a great comic protagonist ever since his origin in the early seventeenth century, he is also the most important reference point for observing and understanding the historical survival of improvised comedy. While Commedia dell'Arte as an economic structure suddenly disappears after, or because of, the French Revolution, a victim of the people's hatred of the king and his minions, and therefore against the mask theatre so prized at the French court, Pulcinella holds on in Naples and other parts of the south, especially Calabria. He prevails precisely because he begins to argue political topics; he sides with the winners. But if Pulcinella ends badly in one sense, he triumphs in another. He enters as the only mask/character in the new bourgeois comedy of the nineteenth century and keeps himself warm in that new setting, giving up his great passions of the past – except in exceptional cases, such as that of Antonio Petito – to become a marginal figure who tosses in occasional witty observations from the side of the stage.
This great character, however, finds his outlet in popular festivals. In Calabria, the tradition of Pulcinella is decidedly freer and more articulated. Every festival has its Pulcinella, who acts as a solo actor, narrator, storyteller, entertainer, acrobat, magician, juggler, as well as functioning as a sort of overall director of the festival. Today, Pulcinella has perhaps too much history to be able to be described in a single way. Like Pirandello's famous character, he is one, nobody, and a hundred thousand. Whoever he may be, he is always the comic symbol of urgency of survival pure and simple. That's what makes him represent everyone; he couldn't make it on his own.