Commedia dell’Arte. Italian “Comedy of Art”. Background. Commedia was a designation given to professional comedy troupes to separate their work from that of amateur performances given at the courts and academies.
Commedia dell’Arte Italian “Comedy of Art”
Background Commedia was a designation given to professional comedy troupes to separate their work from that of amateur performances given at the courts and academies. Commedia dell’artewas the standard comedy, commedia all’improvisowas improvised comedy, and commedia a soggettowas developed from a plot, theme, or subject.
History Farce: A light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, exaggerated characters, and often slapstick elements are used for humorous effect. Commedia is first referenced in the mid-sixteenth century although the exact origin of it is debated. The general consensus is that is arose from the tradition of farce that became prevalent in the middle ages. Whether it tied back to the Roman farce or some other form is not clear.
Method Commedia dell’arte is principally a performance of improvisation with several stock characters. There were basic plot outlines the actors agreed to before the performance began and then they would improvise their dialogue and action rather than have a written script. Each actor always played the same character, which had specific physical and personality attributes as well as a recognizable costume.
Composition There were specific comic bits, called lazzi(or lazzo for the singular), that were incorporated into each production. Often scenes were constructed around lazzi and they may even be written in as part of the plot. In addition, there was a specific rhymed couplet used for the end of each scene that was memorized by the correct character as part of their dialogue. Plays included comedies, melodramas, romances, and the occasional drama. The comedies about love and intrigue were the most popular by far.
Performance Commedia dell’arte troupes would keep notes of lines or lazzi that worked the best and would pass their traditions on to new troupe members. This led to continuity of performances done under that troupe name. Even as spontaneous as each performance was, troupes were concerned with keeping a standard.
Characters While each troupe used the same stock characters they gave them different names to keep their individuality. These characters include the unmasked roles of the young lovers and possibly an older man who tries to come between them,and the masked roles of the masters and servants who were all exaggerated in some form.
Lovers The young lovers were “normal;” they were always attractive and fashionably dressed but could be either witty and educated or naïve and ignorant. Troupes generally had two pairs of lovers so that differences between the types could be emphasized, and because the young male was generally thwarted by an older man who wants the young female for himself.
Capitano Masked Role – Master A braggart and a coward who gets discredited at some point. His costume adds to his over-compensating attitude by having bright colors, a feathered headdress, a sword, and a cape, making him look impressive but not necessarily appealing. The name of his character is likewise over-the-top, generally longer and more difficult to pronounce, possibly becoming a lazzo in itself.
Pantalone Master Character He is a middle-aged or elderly merchant who was fond of proverbs and tried to act like a young man to court one of the young women. He could be the older man who tries to come between the lovers. His costume included a tight red vest, red breeches and stockings with a long black coat and brimless hat. He had a specific mask, his nose was always exaggerated in size, protruding from his face several inches and curving downward to create a hook. He also generally had a beard.
Dottore Dottore is the last “master” character. He wears academic regalia to signify his great intelligence, but he is often tricked because he is gullible. Dottoreand Pantalone are both friends and rivals, though Dottore is always married and very jealous.
Servants There are generally at least two servants, one witty and the other dull, but there maybe up to four. They provide much of the comedy as they keep the plots moving by either helping or thwarting their masters’ plans. The masked servant characters were generally male but there was occasionally a female servant who served the young female lover, was mistress of the inn, a wife, or was the love interest of an older man. The female servant characters often had their own plots to work out as they tried to make one of the male servants fall in love with them.
Harlequin Harlequin was the most popular and recognizable servant character. He was both cunning and stupid, an accomplished acrobat who was often in the middle of any physical comedy in the show. He was dressed often like a jester with either patches or a pattern of red, blue, and green diamonds. He had a simple black mask and carried a slapstick (wood that has been split so that the top and bottom layers hit against each other to make a loud noise that exaggerates the strength of the blow) in order to beat the other servant characters, or occasionally the masters.
Truffaldino & Brighella Truffaldino is closely related to Harlequin in his role in physical comedy and intrigue, but he is often the brunt of the joke or cruel turn of events rather than the mastermind. Brighella is a frequent companion of Harlequin. He is cruel and has a cynical wit. His costume is darker in color and generally has green accents. His mask has a hooked nose that is only slightly larger than usual but very skinny to create a sly look.
Pulcinello Pulcinello had a varied function and personality. He could be a servant or an inn- keeper or merchant. He could be foolish or shrewd, a villain or love-struck, and either witty or dull. His physical features are more exaggerated than any other character: an enormous hooked nose and a humpback that are contrasted by a long pointed cap.
Troupes Troupes also created their own characters or made multiple variations of these common stock characters to suit the needs of each show. There were generally ten to twelve members with seven or eight men and three or four women. This included the two sets of lovers, a female servant, two male servants, a Capitano, Pantalone, and Dottore. Each troupe had a leader who took on production responsibilities that would be similar to directing because he or she defined the relationships of the characters, decided on the lazzi to be used, and gathered the props as needed. Whether or not actual rehearsals took place, the leader was responsible for making sure roles were clear and accurate.
Performances The troupes mostly traveled to keep a large enough audience and they would split both expenses and profits. Each new location required the granting of permission to perform before they could rent a hall or set up in an open space. They performed with or without scenery, relying on their presentation to clarify popularity was in Italy and France. The tradition had reached its height by 1650 and began to decline after that. By 1775, commedia dell’arte was no longer a common theatrical form and troupes had mostly disbanded or changed styles.
Legacy Shakespeare utilized conventions of Commedia dell’arte in many comedies, especially in his use of “the fool,” young lover plots & subplots, and servants who support or foil the love story. Ballet and opera were influenced by lazzis and characters of Commedia. Commedia dell’arte continues to be performed by modern enthusiasts.