THE COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE |This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: | |Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 153-7. | THE title, Commedia dell’arte (« Comedy of Art » or « Comedy of the profession »), means unwritten or improvised drama, and implies rather to the manner of performance than to the subject matter of the play. This peculiar species had a long life in Italy, probably of about four hundred years (from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century); but it flourished especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Of course in actual practice the play was not, in any sense, the result of the moment’s inspiration. The subject was chosen, the characters conceived and named, their relations to one another determined, and the situations clearly outlined, all beforehand. The material was divided into acts and scenes, with a prologue. The situations were made clear, together with the turn of action and the outcome of each scene. When this general outline (called also scenario or canvas) was satisfactorily filled out there was left an opportunity for actors to heighten, vary, and embellish their parts as their genius might suggest.
The necessity for smoothness, constant surprise, clearness, and wit called forth histrionic abilities which had been unknown to the medieval stage. « The actors had to find the proper words to make the tears flow or the laughter ring; they had to catch the sallies of their fellow-actors on the wing, and return them with prompt repartee. The dialogue must go like a merry game of ball or spirited sword-play, with ease and without a pause. »  Such parts required actors able to make a serious study of their parts; actors who took pride in their achievements, and were willing to accept the discipline which all professional art demands.
These comedians changed forever the standards of acting. The best of them stamped their parts with individuality, freshness and brilliance, and gave value to pieces which, often enough, were otherwise worthless. The Commedia dell’arte introduced the professional actor into Europe. SUBJECTS OF THE COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE Like the court comedies of Ariosto and Machiavelli, the Commedia dell’arte was concerned mostly with disgraceful love intrigues, clever tricks to get money or outwit some simpleton. There were the same long-lost children stolen by the Turks, the same plotting maids, bragging captains, aged fathers and wily widows.
Each gentleman had his parasite, each woman her confidante. There was considerable diversity of incident, such as night scenes, in which the hero was mistaken for the villain; cases where father and son fall in love with the same girl; and risque situations–the representation of fire, shipwreck, and the like which served as a pretext for allowing actresses to appear naked on the stage. COMIC RELIEF An important part of every play, given always to the most expert and popular actors, were the humorous interruptions, called lazzi, which often had nothing to do with the play itself.
It might be clever pantomimic acting, acrobatic feats, juggling, or wrestling. For example, three characters meet at a cook shop, where they hear of an accident which has befallen the wife of one of them. While they express their dismay at the affliction, they fall to eating greedily from a huge dish of macaroni; and as they eat, tears stream down their faces. Or again, a servant, disgusted at an order his master has given him, delays carrying it out until he has turned a complete somersault. One famous actor could execute this trick having a full glass of wine in his hand, without spilling a drop.
Another was able, in his eighty-third year, to box the ear of a fellow servant with his foot. Elaborate imitations of women taking off their stays, false hair, and crinolines were always acceptable, together with many pantomimic diversions of a less innocent character. These are examples of the lazzi of the Commedia dell’arte. THE MASKS In the course of the development of the Commedia dell’arte, there grew up certain traditions which held fast for many years. The rascally servant, the old man, the lady’s maid, and the like–stock characters which appeared in every play–always wore a conventional dress, with masks.
In general these masks may be classed under four or five groups: Pantalone and the Doctor, both old men; the Captain, a young man of adventure; the valet or jester, usually called Zanni; the hunchback Punchinello; and another old man, somewhat different from the first two. Pantalone was usually a shop-keeper from Vienna, somewhat stupid, fond of food and of pretty women, talkative, gullible, full of temper, the butt of all the jokes–some of them very indecent–yet forgiving in the end. His business was to get deceived by his young wife, or his son, or his servant.
The second old man, the Doctor, filled the part of a lawyer, an astrologer, or perhaps a philosopher from Bologna. Sometimes he represented an absent-minded pedant, quoting latin at inappropriate times, and enormously conceited. The bragging Captain, a boasting, swashbuckling officer, often Spanish, dressed-to-kill in cape, feathered hat, high boots, with sword in belt, was always a prime favorite. He told extraordinary tales about how he beat a whole army of Turks and carried off the beard of the Sultain, but when there was a hint of real danger he was the first to run away.
He made love to the none-too-innocent servant maid, and got trashed by her Harlequin lover. This character, of course, is none other than the Miles Gloriosus of Plautus, called in Italy Il Capitano Spavento della Valle Inferno, or simply Spavento. In time he gained a choice variety of bombastic names in different countries: Capitano Metamoros, Capitaine Fracasse, Captain Horribilicribilifax, Ralph Roister Doister, and Bobadil. Zanni, the scoundrelly valet or jester, resembled the Greek slave of the Middle and New Comedy. Most plays contained several valets: one each for the Doctor, Pantalone, and the primo amoroso.
All were variations of the type of which Pierrot and Harlequin are the most celebrated. They were generally indolent and knavish, sometimes cunning and cruel; always stupid in their own way, first deceiving others and then being duped themselves. Alll made love to the servants, and often imitated the love scenes of their masters in ridiculous parody. Punchinello was a hunchback with a long crimson nose, dressed in a dark cloak and wearing a three-cornered cap. He too was a great rascal, but dry and less talkative than Pantalone.
All these characters had costumes, stock gestures and stage business which could be reckoned upon to create a laugh and put the audience in tune for the knavery that was to follow. In course of time there crystallized about each mask an entire code or repertory of phrases, exclamations, curses, exits, epigrammatic sayings and soliloquies appropriate to the role, which could be memorized and made to fill in the blank when the actor’s wit could find nothing better. The primo amoroso, the female lover, and the maid servant were not masked, though they were thoroughly conventionalized.
The male lover was a perfumed scapegrace; while the girl, rarely will individualized, stood simply as the helpless or ignorant foil for the intrigue. The hero became known as Flavio, Leandro or Valerio; the woman as Isabella, Lucinda, Leonora or Ardelia; while the maid servant was generally Columbine. The importance of these typical stage characters, which enjoyed at least four centuries of popularity on the European boards, lies in the influence which they exerted upon the superior dramatists of a later time.
Already one can catch a breath of the Shakespearean comedies in the names of the heroes; and one can see that Moliere, both as actor and author, learned much from this branch of Italian art. Its influence passed through Holberg into Denmark, where it became a powerful factor in shaping the romantic drama of a later age. More on Commedia dell’Arte What is Commedia dell’Arte? Commedia dell’Arte is a type of comedy developed in 16th and 17th century Italy, characterized by improvised text based on plot outlines (scenarios). It differed from commedia erudita which were comedies with written, rather than improvised, dialogue from the same period.
Commedia dell’Arte featured stock characters, some of whom wore distinctive masks. Literally, it means comedy (Commedia) of the professional guilds or artists (dell’Arte). Its popularity in Renaissance Europe can be attributed to the talents and special skills of the actors who were acrobats, dancers, musicians, orators, quick wits, and improvisors possessing thorough insights into politics and human nature. The populace loved the stock characters and their antics, much the way contemporary audiences love the Marx Brothers’ movies or TV sit-coms with stock characters like « Gilligan’s Island » and « Friends ».
Where was it performed? Most Commedia troupes performed outdoors in city and town piazzas on stages they brought with them in horse-drawn carts, along with their equipment, props, costumes, curtains, and ladders. The stages were usually built high (up to 2 meters), allowing spectators an unobstructed view of the action, and giving actors a storage area and change room underneath. Some of the better Commedia troupes performed in Renaissance theatres such as Palladio’s theatre in Vicenza or the Petit Bourbon in France. Why is Commedia dell’Arte important?
In all periods of Western culture since the Renaissance, Commedia dell’Arte has been a conscious or subconscious presence. Using sexually challenging language and physical comedy, Commedia pokes fun at elements of society’s respectable values by means of exaggerated styles and insightful character traits. The stock characters of Arlecchino (Harlequin), Colombina, il Dottore, il Capitano, il Magnifico (Pantalone), and Pulchinella can be found in music, visual arts, dance, and theatre as themselves or as inspiration for specific characters. Commedia dell’Arte | |[pic] | Part 1: Theatrical Buffoonery Through 500 Years Commedia dell’Arte, also known as « Italian comedy, » was a humorous theatrical presentation performed by professional players who traveled in troupes throughout Italy in the 16th century. Performances took place on temporary stages, mostly on city streets, but occasionally even in court venues.
The better troupes—notably Gelosi, Confidenti, and Fedeli—performed in palaces and became internationally famous once they traveled abroad. Music, dance, witty dialogue, and all kinds of chicanery contributed to the comic effects. Subsequently the art form spread throughout Europe, with many of its elements persisting into present-day theater. Given the vast number of Italian dialects, how would a touring company make itself understood? Apparently, there was no attempt made to change the performance’s dialect from region to region.
Even when a local company performed, much of the dialogue would not have been understood. Regardless of region, il Capitano would have spoken in Spanish, il Dottore in Bolognese, and l’Arlecchino in utter gibberish. The focus was placed on physical business rather than on spoken text. Influence The impact of commedia dell’arte on European drama can be seen in French pantomime and the English harlequinade. The ensemble companies generally performed in Italy, although a company called the comedie–italienne was established in Paris in 1661.
The commedia dell’arte survived the early 18th century only by means of its vast influence on written dramatic forms. Props There were no elaborate sets in commedia. Staging, for example, was minimalistic—rarely anything more than one market or street scene—and the stages were frequently temporary outdoor structures. Instead, great use was made of props including animals, food, furniture, watering devices, and weapons. The character Arlecchino bore two sticks tied together, which made a great noise on impact. This gave birth to the word « slapstick. » Part 2: Improvisation, Physical Theater, and Stock Characters Improvisation
In spite of its outwardly anarchic spirit, the commedia dell’arte was a highly disciplined art requiring both virtuosity and a strong sense of ensemble playing. The unique talent of commedia players was to improvise comedy around a pre–established scenario. Responding to each other, or to audience reaction, the actors made use of the lazzi (special rehearsed routines that could be inserted into the plays at convenient points to heighten the comedy), musical numbers, and impromptu dialogue to vary the happenings on stage. Physical Theater Masks forced actors to project their characters’ emotions through the body.
Leaps, tumbles, stock gags (burle and lazzi), obscene gestures and slapstick antics were incorporated into their acts. Stock Characters The actors of the commedia represented fixed social types, tipi fissi, for example, foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado. Characters such as Pantalone, the miserly Venetian merchant; Dottore Gratiano, the pedant from Bologna; or Arlecchino, the mischievous servant from Bergamo, began as satires on Italian « types » and became the archetypes of many of the favorite characters of 17th– and 18th–century European theatre. Arlecchino was the most famous. He was an acrobat and a wit, childlike and amorous. He wore a cat–like mask and motley colored clothes and carried a bat or wooden sword. ? Brighella, Arlecchino’s crony, was more roguish and sophisticated, a cowardly villain who would do anything for money. ? Il Capitano (the captain) was a caricature of the professional soldier—bold, swaggering, and cowardly. ? Il Dottore (the doctor) was a caricature of learning—pompous and fraudulent. Pantalone was a caricature of the Venetian merchant, rich and retired, mean and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter. ? Pedrolino was a white–faced, moon–struck dreamer and the forerunner of today’s clown. ? Pulcinella, as seen in the English Punch and Judy shows, was a dwarfish humpback with a crooked nose, the cruel bachelor who chased pretty girls. ? Scarramuccia, dressed in black and carrying a pointed sword, was the Robin Hood of his day. ? The handsome Inamorato (the lover) went by many names.
He wore no mask and had to be eloquent in order to speak the love declamations. ? The Inamorata was his female counterpart; Isabella Andreini was the most famous. Her servant, usually called Columbina, was the beloved of Harlequin. Witty, bright, and given to intrigue, she developed into such characters as Harlequine and Pierrette. ? La Ruffiana was an old woman, either the mother or a village gossip, who thwarted the lovers. ? Cantarina and Ballerina often took part in the comedy, but for the most part their job was to sing, dance, or play music.
There were many other minor characters, some of which were associated with a particular region of Italy such as Peppe Nappa (Sicily), Gianduia (Turin), Stenterello (Tuscany), Rugantino (Rome), and Meneghino (Milan). Part 3: Costumes, Masks, Music Costumes The audience was able to pick up from each character’s dress the type of person he was representing. For elaboration, loose–fitting garments alternated with very tight, and jarring color contrasts opposed monochrome outfits. Except for the inamorato, males would identify themselves with character-specific costumes and half masks.
The zanni (precursor to clown) Arlecchino, for example, would be immediately recognizable because of his black mask and patchwork costume. While the inamorato and the female characters wore neither masks nor costumes unique to that personage, certain information could still be derived from their clothing. Audiences knew what members of the various social classes typically wore, and also expected certain colors to represent certain emotional states. Regardless of where they toured, commedia dell’arte conventions were recognized and adhered to.
Masks All the fixed character types, the figures of fun or satire, wore colored leather masks. Their opposites, usually pairs of young lovers around whom the stories revolved, had no need for such devices. Today in Italy handcrafted theater masks are still created in the ancient tradition of carnacialesca. Music The inclusion of music and dance into commedia performance required that all actors have these skills. Frequently at the end of a piece even the audience joined into the merry–making.