Commedia dell’arte, a form of rehearsed improvised comedy, is a popular component of drama education programs at high schools and universities partly because it has clear acting techniques, simple staging and hilarious plots lines.
– Commedia dell’arte English translation: comedy of the artists (or professionals).
– Pronunciation: co-MAY-dee-ah del AR-tay.
– Formal performances began in Italy in the mid-1500s, soon spreading to France and Spain (where they were very popular) and other parts of Europe.
– Eventually died out about two hundred years later in the mid-1700s.
– Most popular period was 1550 to 1650.
– Some scholars argue the Commedia can be traced back to the Atellan farces of Roman times.
– Most notable for its mix of masked and unmasked characters, plus the fact that women were acting on the Commedia stage well before they were allowed to act in England (Charles II, Restoration, 1660).
With few exceptions, all characters of the Commedia dell’arte belonged to one of three categories: masters, lovers, servants.
– Masters: adults, landowners, merchants, businessmen etc.
– Most popular masters were Pantalone, Dottore, Capitano.
– Lovers: young attractive ladies, handsome effeminate men.
– Servants (zanni, pl.): typically young, most often male, witty (sometimes stupid), physical.
– Most popular and recognisable servant was Arlecchino (Harlequin).
All characters were:
– “stock” qualities (conventional, repeated, anticipated, unchanged)
– Commedia characters did not develop or learn from previous mistakes.
– All Commedia characters are referred to as “masks”, meaning “character type”, which includes the actual mask (if worn).
– As a general rule, characters who were lovers were unmasked.
– Even unmasked characters were referred to as “masks”.
– Male master and servant characters were masked.
Plot and Structure
– Scripts consisted only of scene descriptions, known as scenarios.
– Dialogue, while rehearsed, was improvised and could differ from one performance to another.
– Plots were often risque and bawdy.
– About 800 Commedia scenarios survive today.
– Initially performances occurred outdoors: in the streets, at market places and fairs.
– Performances moved indoors when public theatres began to be built in the 1700
– Often very fast dialogue.
– Physical comedy (precursor to modern physical theatre style).
– Adequate projection essential, due to outdoor performances and surrounding noise.
– Comedic qualities such as singing, dancing, acrobatics, tumbling etc.
– Slapstick an essential ingredient, particularly for servant characters.
– Exaggerated gestures, arm and leg movements.
– Fast-paced action.
– Exemplary comic timing.
– Many individual characters have specific acting techniques unique to their character.
– Normally consisted of twelve performers.
– Run by themselves, with a head actor / company manager (Capocomico)
– Actors were full-time professionals.
– Actors normally played the same Commedia character for their entire career.
– Most prominent was the Gelosi troupe (1570-1604).
Brockett, Oscar, The Essential Theatre.
Brockett, Oscar, The History of the Theatre.
Brockett, Oscar, The Theatre: An Introduction.
Crawford, Jerry, Acting: in Person and In Style.
Rudlin, John., Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook.