What is Commedia dell’ Arte?

Did You Know?

  • February 25th is Commedia dell’Arte Day. On this day, in 1545, the first Commedia dell’Arte troupe registered themselves as an official business and acting became a legitimate profession.
  • Women were first introduced to the stage in around 1566 by Commedia dell’Arte troupe Il Gelosi. The first documented appearance of a woman on stage was by actress Vincenza Armani.
  • Shakespeare took direct inspiration from Commedia dell’Arte for many of his comedies, such as The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s Fools are based on the Zanni character type and his romantic leads were inspired by Commedia’s Innamorati (Lovers).
  • The term ‘slapstick’ comedy derives from the wooden bat used by Arlecchino in scenes of mock violence, known in Italian as a batocci or in English as a slapstick.
  • Mr Punch the puppet started life in around 1545 in Naples as the bully, Pulchinella
  • From around 1770 to 1900, Harlequin (Arlecchino) was the star of the English Harlequinade, which later evolved into Pantomime.

What is Commedia dell’Arte?

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Commedia dell’Arte is an Italian Renaissance form that uses half masks covering eyes, nose and top lip leaving the mouth free to talk.  Commedia started on the streets in the 16th Century and grew to become one of the most enduring and influential theatre styles in the world.

marx brothers

Its influence spans from Shakespeare and Moliere, to vaudeville and Chaplin and right up to the present day. Every classic comedy that has stood the test of time is indebted to Commedia dell’Arte for hilarious, comic character types and physical slapstick and tomfoolery.

“The most popular entertainments of the first part of the 20th century… seem closely related to the Commedia. Indeed it is hard to conjure images of the Commedia without seeing Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Bert Lahr, The Marx Brothers…or Laurel and Hardy” 

Mel Gordon, Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia dell’Arte

Commedia duo

In the beginning, Commedia dell’Arte was a past-time for members of local Guilds – groups of tradesmen who came together after work to make some entertainment through amateur dramatics. Commonly performed in the market square or as part of a carnival, Commedia took place on the streets wherever passers-by would watch. Initially, the stage was just a marked out patch of ground, but soon it developed into a raised platform so that the actors could be seen above the crowds and their voices heard.

Limited scenery, long nose masks, a few props, acrobatics and music were features of this early form, initially known as Commedia di Zanni. As the name suggests, this type of performance only featured Zanni characters: an archetypal fool whose thought process was simplistic and governed by physical and carnal needs. For the character of Zanni, the actor wore a mask with a long and often deformed nose (the longer the nose, the more dim-witted the character). The comedy of these early plays relied on crude and often violent humour between the Zanni. Although this form was partially successful, the comedy was limited and the actors realised that the narrative needed to progress if it was to maintain audience appeal.

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Il Magnifico character was introduced to mirror the wealthy, powerful landowners of the time, presenting the ideal countermask to Zanni: the poor peasants who worked the land or were in servitude. The most notable Magnifico type was the Venetian form, Pantalone, based on the miserly merchants seen on the docks in Venice who traded gold. Pantalone’s mask bears a hook nose, wrinkled lines and pursed lips and is typically played as an old, arthritic man who wrings his hands and protects his purse at all costs.

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The next characters to emerge were il Dottore and il Capitano based on two other recognisable character types who were commonly seen amongst the crowds in market towns of Renaissance Italy. Il Dottore (The Doctor) was a quack; a charlatan who pedaled his wares to passers by proffering ‘cure-alls’, potions or ointments. He is a self-proclaimed expert in any subject he so chooses, be it warts or the universe, depending on what the storyline requires. Capitano is a stranger from out of town, usually a military man who boasts of battles and victories. This character is one that derives directly from Roman plays where The Braggard was a familiar fop who told tall stories and arrogantly strutted about the stage. In Commedia dell’Arte, il Capitano is a show-off who loves the sound of his own voice but a coward when faced with danger or confrontation.

Longships Tour 14-6-11 Stroud Valley5

A key moment in theatrical history took place in the 1560’s when women entered the stage. Until this point all characters were played by men but it was a famous troupe, il Gelosi, which began a revolution in theatre by introducing an actress, unmasked, as an Innamorati: a Lover. Women on stage caused a sensation with shock and gossip, attracting voyeurs as well as considerable criticism, but the result was a surge in popularity for Commedia dell’Arte and the era of the Prima Donna began. The female Lover was soon paired with an unmasked male Lover. These characters appeared as the children of the Old Men: il vecchi (Magnico and Dottore) and enabled storylines to take on new depth and complexity.

“Wherever there are witty servants and domineering masters, young wives and old husbands, pompous pedants, thwarted lovers or bragging soldiers, the Commedia is there in spirit and also very often form” 

Simon Callow, preface of The Comic Mask in the Commedia dell’Arte by A. Fava

Commedia actors moved from the streets, being invited to perform in courts and palaces and before long, were performing in theatres being built for the purpose of professional stage shows. Very few theatres had been built since Roman times but in 1588, the architect Vincenzo Scamozzi began building Teatro all’Antica in Sabbioneta, Northern Italy as an indoor playing space for Commedia. It is the first theatre in modern times that was conceived from the start as theatre building, without adapting a pre-existing building and still stands today as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The plays themselves were always improvised around a loose storyline (canovaccio), using physical theatre, simple humour and stock narratives. Actors traditionally performed without scripts, relying on a running order to decide the narrative flow and they became famous for their outstanding skills in improvisation. It was essential that each actor knew their given character inside out and could fully embody them no matter what situation they were thrown into. Each character has a distinct repertoire of moves and stances to be learnt together with stock comic business that could be relied on to help the improvisation flow. It is easy to see the immense value of training in this form for any actor today.

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The 17th century was the Golden Era for Commedia dell’Arte as Italian comics dominated the European stage and the star system was born, firmly establishing acting as a legitimate trade. Commedia began to be replicated in cities across Europe, becoming particularly popular in France in the court of Louis XIV where it became the Comédie-Italienne. Arlecchino became Arlequin, Columbina became the balletic Columbine and the narratives became darker as Pedrolino transformed into the murderous, moon-gazing character Pierrot. In England, Harlequin, Columbine and Pantaloon became the central characters of the Harlequinade (the forerunner of Vaudeville and later, Pantomime). The influence of Commedia dell’Arte can be traced throughout the history of comedy; the wonderfully colourful, archetypal characters have been spotted on both stage and screen for the past four centuries.