Commedia • Beginning during the Renaissance and lasting into the eighteenth century, traveling troupes performed the commedia dell' arte, the Italian comedy. The company's ten or more actors each developed a specific type of character, such as the Captain, two old men (Pantaloon and the Doctor), the Zanni (valet-buffoons). Since all wore masks, their roles were eventually called masks. Along with these comic characters were the lovers. Female parts were originally played by men, but later played by females.
Commedia • The actors had specific comic business (lazzi) that they developed. Before going on-stage, actors would agree on a basic plot and a general idea of how it should be performed. The improvised performances were never subtle; the humor was often bawdy and coarse.
Commedia • Starting in Italy, troupes moved into all of Europe, influencing theatre in Spain, Holland, Germany, Austria, England, and especially, France. A series of engravings from the eighteenth century offer this typical "bare-bones" scenario:
Commedia – Example Play • As the curtain rises, Harlequin is ill. The Doctor and his servant try to determine what is wrong. The Doctor, after much enticing, gives Harlequin a shot on his backside with a huge syringe. Harlequin is found to be pregnant and delivers three babies, one of which survives. Harlequin nurses and mothers the baby. He teaches the child to walk. Harlequin complains to the Doctor regarding the problems of rearing a child. The child is whipped by Harlequin. The play ends with Harlequin teaching the child to read. Throughout the play, Harlequin is made fun of by his friends.
Characters – Harlequin & Mezzetino • HARLEQUIN (Arlechino), at center, is perhaps the best known commedia character. He is a comic servant who is lazy but energetic, stupid but clever, insolent, clownish, and ribald. He is shown leaping into the air, dancing, walking on stilts, tumbling, making love to an Inamorata, striking a pose, or playing extravagant tricks. Harlequin's pants and jacket are covered with patches. Only later did these patches become blue, red, and green triangles joined with yellow braid. Eventually these became diamonds. To his hat is attached a fox tail characterizing him as "the butt of ridicule." He wears a black half-mask and black chin-piece. • MEZZETINO (Metzetin), at right, is similar to the servants Scapino and Brighella. He is a singer, musician, and ready dancer. He can be both a deceived and deceiving husband, sometimes betraying the master by accepting bribes, other times serving
Characters – Pantalooni & Doctor • PANTALOON, center, is a comic old merchant from Venice. He is always old, sometimes a rich miser, sometimes a poor man, sometimes a bachelor, sometimes a father of a family. If he is rich, he is a slave to his money. If he is married, his wife is usually young, often deceiving him. He loves to give advice. Often he is the recipient of blows from his servant. He is always duped by someone. Pantaloon's costume consists of long red hose, a lose black cape, Turkish slippers, and a red woolen hat. His mask is brown with a prominent hooked nose, and occasionally, with round glasses. He has a gray mustache and a long white beard. • THE DOCTOR is a member of every academy, although his pronouncements are usually in tortured Latin or Greek. His children and servants make fun of him. He is a good friend of Pantaloon. Like his friend, he is old, an "eternal gas-bag" and miserly. His costume reflects the time period and change as fashion changes. Here he wears a black felt hat, jacket, short trousers, and wide soft ruff about his neck. His black or flesh-colored mask covers his nose and forehead. His cheeks are smeared with red.
Characters – The Love & The Captain • THE LOVER, at center, whether called Leandro, Flavio, Lelio, Ottavio, is always charming, dapper, and sometimes a bit ridiculous. His sole purpose in the script is to be in love. He must be young, good looking, courteous and gallant. The lover wore no mask. His costume is always in the style of the period. • THE BRAGGART CAPTAIN, at right, has a tradition which can be traced back to Greek comedy. He is bold and swaggering. He struts around in a splendid uniform, pursues the ladies, and often runs from battle. Our example is Giangurgolo (Big Mouth). He is a thief, avoids the police, has a dangerous temper, and loves to bully people smaller than himself. He claims he is a nobleman but usually isn't.
Characters – The Inamorata • The Inamorata was a role originally played by men in France and England, due to the "lewdness and adultery" associated with the women's roles. There were limited women's characters: the female lover (the Inamorata), called variously Isabelle, Columbine, or Zerbinette • courtesans or bawds • servant-girls or a nurse • The clothing was generally that of the period, with the Inamorata and the courtesans wearing the richest garments. Instead of a mask, women wore a little black velvet loup to protect their beauty. These loups were worn both in the theatre and on the street