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Commedia Dell'arte

COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE

COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE. Commedia dell'arte is a term applied to both the early Italian commercial theater in general and to a format institutionalized by sixteenth-century professional actors' improvisations on a three-act scenario. The scenarios were constructed from a repertoire of plot types and movable parts (theatergrams) drawn primarily from novellas and scripted "erudite" comedies, set in contemporary city squares and representing love stories complicated by mistakes, deceits, parental opposition, and family separations.

In addition to singing and dancing, the players could counterfeit regional dialects and double in several roles while specializing in one of them. A standard troupe would include two pairs of lovers speaking Tuscan; several masked characters, including the old Venetian merchant Pantalone, the Bolognese Doctor Gratiano, at least two zanies, such as Bergamask Arlecchino, Fritellino, or later Neapolitan Pulcinella, Scaramuccia, and their like; boastful captains with bellicose names, such as Rodomonte, Spavento, or Matamoros; and a couple of maidservants. Innkeepers, Germans, gypsies, Turks, magicians, peddlers, and other occasional roles were added according to plot.

The first documented actors' troupe-for-hire was formed in Padua in 1545; by 1560 companies included women, and in the early 1570s several were touring abroad. Among the constantly merging prominent troupes were the Gelosi, the Desiosi, the Fedeli, the Confidenti, and the Uniti, at different times featuring leading performers of the day, the Andreini and Martinelli families, Diana Ponti, Vittoria Piissimi, and Flaminio Scala.

The professional troupes and their improvising style influenced the development of Italian drama and established a symbiosis with literary drama: the actors also memorized and performed five-act erudite comedies, tragedies, and pastoral plays, from which they borrowed for scenarios on which to improvise. Sometimes they even wrote in this format, while many literary dramatists enlivened their own works by drawing upon the commedia dell'arte's stock types, theatricality, movement, stage business, and gags, both verbal and visual.

The most successful players gained high patronage in Italian and related European academic and court circles, often traveling to France, Spain, and England in the late sixteenth century. For nearly two hundred years thereafter the commedia dell'arte in various permutations was a vital theatrical force throughout Europe. Its presence in France from the 1570s on constituted a significant chapter in French theater history. Visits to the royal court in Paris were followed by the establishment of the Comédie-Italienne and, after its suppression in 1697, by a revival in 1716 by Luigi Riccoboni. The Italian companies influenced Molière (16221673) and eventually Marivaux (16881763), nurtured French versions of stock roles like Mezzetin, Scaramouche, or Scapin and Gallic additions, from Turlupin and Captain Fracasse to Pierrot and Pierrette, as well as leaving a memory in Watteau's painting.

Long sojourns in Madrid not only influenced Lope de Vega (15621635), but also made the commedia dell'arte a primary transmitter of Spanish drama to Italy through adaptations and translations of Calderón and other Golden Age dramatists. The connection with England has been harder to document, but scrutiny of Shakespeare's theatrical practice and associations reveals his savvy awareness of Italian theater technology in general and of the professional players in particular.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the first two creative generations of the commedia dell'arterepresented by Francesco, Isabella, and G. B. Andreini, P. M. Cecchini, and Niccolo Barbieriwere replaced by a less versatile, bureaucratized profession. The troupes, which employed an increasingly fixed repertoire of masks and farcical plots, became dependent on the market economy of theater-owners and impresarios. The popularity of the commedia dell'arte continued to grow, however, and its characters and style prospered everywhere, with especial brilliance in Naples and Venice, and were imitated by cultivated amateurs in private the-atricals.

In the course of the eighteenth century, the commedia dell'arte was widely perceived to have hardened into cliches and, despite the imaginative continuation of Carlo Gozzi, it declined as Carlo Goldoni's reforms moved the Italian theater toward realism.

By the nineteenth century the commedia dell'arte had become a vestigial element in opera and a subject for romanticizing scholarship.

See also Calderón de la Barca, PedroDrama: Italian ; Goldini, Carlo ; Humor ; Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) ; Opera ; Popular Culture ; Shakespeare, William ; Vega, Lope de .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Clubb, Louise George. Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time. New Haven, 1989.

Heck, Thomas F. Commedia dell'Arte: A Guide to the Primary and Secondary Literature. New York, 1988.

Henke, Robert. Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell'Arte. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Lea, Kathleen M. Italian Popular Comedy: A Study in the Commedia dell'Arte 15601620, with Special Reference to the English Stage. Oxford, 1934.

Molinari, Cesare, ed. La commedia dell'arte. Rome, 1999.

Louise George Clubb

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commedia dell'arte

commedia dell'arte (kōm-mā´dēä dĕl-lär´tā), popular form of comedy employing improvised dialogue and masked characters that flourished in Italy from the 16th to the 18th cent.

Characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte

The characters or "masks," in spite of changes over the years, retained much of their original flavor. Most important were the zanni, or servant types; Arlecchino, or Harlequin, was the most famous. He was an acrobat and a wit, childlike and amorous. He wore a catlike mask and motley colored clothes and carried a bat or wooden sword, the ancestor of the slapstick. His crony, Brighella, was more roguish and sophisticated, a cowardly villain who would do anything for money. Figaro and Molière's Scapin are descendants of this type. Pedrolino was a white-faced, moon-struck dreamer; the French Pierrot is his descendant. Pagliaccio, the forerunner of today's clown, was closely akin to Pedrolino.

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. Pantalone or Pantaloon was a caricature of the Venetian merchant, rich and retired, mean and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter. Il Dottore (the doctor), his only friend, was a caricature of learning—pompous and fraudulent; he survives in the works of Molière. Il Capitano (the captain) was a caricature of the professional soldier—bold, swaggering, and cowardly. He was replaced by the more agile Scarramuccia or Scaramouche, who, 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 Columbine, 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. None of the women wore masks.

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 comédie-italienne was established in Paris in 1661. The commedia dell'arte survived the early 18th cent. only by means of its vast influence on written dramatic forms.

Bibliography

See K. M. Lea, The Italian Popular Comedy (2 vol., 1934, repr. 1962); W. Smith, Commedia Dell'arte (rev. ed. 1964); P. L. Duchartre, The Italian Comedy (tr. 1928, repr. 1965); A. Nicoll, The World of Harlequin: A Critical Study of the Commedia dell'Arte (1987).

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commedia dell'arte

commedia dell'arte

A form of improvisational theater that originated in Renaissance Italy, and that entertained outdoor audiences with a familiar cast of colorful, dramatic and comic characters. Commedia dell'arte was performed by itinerate troupes of players, each of whom specialized in a particular character. The plots were familiar to actors as well as audiences and usually involved the misadventures of two lovers who were continually frustrated in their desire for marriage and respectability. The plays, known as canovacci, were frequently interrupted by music, dancing, magic acts, juggling, and acrobatics. The characters and plot devices endured in many later forms of art, from serious opera to pantomime and Punch and Judy puppet shows.

The characters and plot of commedia dell'art often revolve around the Innamorati or Lovers, whose romance sparks much of the plot. Arlecchino (Harlequin) is a crafty and untrustworthy servant, who is constantly scheming to take advantage of the other characters. A pair of noisy sticks that he carries around the set gave rise to the expression slapstick, meaning rough physical comedy. Brighella, a servant or innkeeper, is free with advice to the lovers of the play, and is also skilled at the arts of magic and fortunetelling. Il Capitano represents authority, a man with an impressive and courageous front who is in fact a cowardly incompetent. Il Dottore, the doctor, makes a show of his scientific knowledge, but like Il Capitano he always suffers a comeuppance at the end of the play. The rich miser, Pantalone, acts the aristocrat, and wears an impressive suit of clothes as well as a prominent money belt. He lords it over the other characters but is quite fearful of losing his money as well as his position. Zanni, a slow and stupid servant, is a buffoon who would rather sleep than work and who has few redeeming qualities.

The characters of commedia dell'arte had particular clothing, gestures, speech, and movement. Their masks evoked their inner characters as well, with Pantalone sporting the long hooked nose of a miser and Zunni the simple unadorned white robes of a servant. Some actors gained international renown for their skill at portraying stock characters and improvising dialogue, and the most prestigious commedia troupes were invited to royal and aristocratic courts for command performances. The plays were not high drama or serious theater, but rather popular entertainment that drew laughs with bawdy repartee and noisy pratfalls. During the Renaissance it spread to northern Europe, where the characters were adapted to local tastes. Commedia dell'arte troupes roamed until the tradition began to die out in the eighteenth century.

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commedia dellarte

commedia dell'arte Style of Italian comedy, popular from the mid-16th to late-18th century, which spread throughout Europe. Professional players performed on street stages or at court functions. Plays were comic, often coarse, and crudely improvised on briefly outlined scenarios. Commedia produced several (now standard) masked characters: Harlequin (clown), Capitano (braggart soldier), Pantalone (deceived father or cuckolded husband), Colombina (maid) and Inamorato (lover).

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commedia dell'arte

commedia dell'arte an improvised kind of popular comedy in Italian theatres in the 16th–18th centuries, based on stock characters. Actors adapted their comic dialogue and action according to a few basic plots (commonly love intrigues) and to topical issues.

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