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 (1622–1673) and eventually Marivaux (1688–1763), 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 (1562–1635), 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'arte—represented by Francesco, Isabella, and G. B. Andreini, P. M. Cecchini, and Niccolo Barbieri—were 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 .
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 1560–1620, with Special Reference to the English Stage. Oxford, 1934.
Molinari, Cesare, ed. La commedia dell'arte. Rome, 1999.
Louise George Clubb
Commedia dell'arte is a term that came into use after the Renaissance to describe a type of theatrical entertainment that began in Italy in the mid-1500s. It was best known for its improvised, or unscripted, performances. The shows employed familiar characters and situations, often involving acrobatics and slapstick comedy.
The earliest written evidence of commedia dell'arte is a contract signed by eight men at Padua, Italy, in 1545. The signers agreed to travel together and earn money by performing comedies. By the 1560s, commedia dell'arte performers, or comici, were setting up stages in city squares and collecting money from passersby. At the same time, more prosperous and organized troupes appeared with popular leading ladies. These troupes, such as the Gelosi and the Accesi, performed before elite* audiences. In addition to improvising comedies, they also performed scripted pieces. In 1589 the Gelosi company performed at the wedding of a member of the Medici family. An account of the show describes the female star playing a scene as a madwoman, raving in Spanish, Greek, French, and Italian to mimic the characters played by her fellow actors. She also sang French songs in honor of the bride, who was French.
Commedia dell'arte performances were three acts long, shorter than the five acts that were customary for serious drama at the time. The plots changed constantly but usually revolved around a core of standard or stock characters. Actors often specialized in performing specific roles. For example, every company included female servants and a pair of young lovers who spoke in poetic language. Other important characters included a doctor, a wealthy and pompous gentleman named Pantalone (sometimes called Pantaloon), and clowns. These characters usually wore masks or other accessories on their faces. To accommodate the many minor parts, such as innkeepers, peasants, policemen, magicians, and gypsies, actors often played more than one character. Music and dance were also essential to commedia dell'arte. The comici sang, danced, and played instruments.
As acting was not a respected profession, the comici lived on the margins of society. Hungry for any material they could sell onstage, they often borrowed stories from other comedies. Common plots included conflicts within families and love affairs aided by clever servants, all ending happily in marriages and family reunions. Many educated writers looked down upon improvised comedies because the plots were often stolen and the material tended to be obscene. However, some literary playwrights learned from the comici how to enliven their plays with variety, physical action, and fuller roles for women.
In the late 1500s the comici began touring abroad. They went to France, Spain, England, and as far east as Poland. Commedia dell'arte was popular with French audiences, creating an image of Italian comedy that later influenced the style of the famous French actor and playwright Molière. By the late 1600s, however, commedia dell'arte had become somewhat mechanical and routine. A more realistic form of comedy replaced it for some time. Scholars rediscovered commedia dell'arte in the 1800s, and performers revived it in the 1900s.
- * elite
privileged group; upper class
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.