A Brief Introduction to Commedia Dell'Arte
Commedia Dell'Arte, with its first documented performance taking place in Italy in 1545, was characterized largely by its use of stock characters and masks, as well as improvised dialogue based around particular situations that troupes set forth to perform. This genre of theatre translates to "comedy of professional players", referring to the new development of professional theatre in Italy. This form of street theatre quickly gained popularity throughout Europe, flourishing for about 200 years. Street performers soon gathered with troupes in order to establish Commedia Dell'Arte as a genre in its own right. Troupe names were based upon the emerging academic and scientific societies of the times. Some of the earliest troupes included "the Gelosi (“the zealous”), the Uniti (“the Union”), and the Confidenti (“the Confident”).
Staging was extremely minimalistic, as it was the actors that brought the scenarios to life. The scenes normally took place outdoors in public squares, using very little props and backdrops, though as the art form developed, rich donors donated to the troupes and allowed them to perform in their homes.
Productions were normally supervised by the the actor that was most respected in the troupe, and he made sure that those involved understood what was expected of themselves. Despite having a leader, many of the actors had a say in numerous decisions made. As opposed to previous forms of theatre, women performed roles meant for women, a huge milestone of the time. Towards the end of the 16th century, troupes were traveling all throughout Europe, in countries such as Spain, France, and England. Troupes traveled with everything they needed for a performance. Commedia Dell'Arte is often referred to as the actor's theatre, as those who participated in this particular form were writers, editors, and performers of their own work. Actors worked from a basic outline, requiring an great understanding of structure and the arch of the pieces being performed. They normally played the same character throughout their career. Though based heavily in improvisation, scenarios were published in the 17th century by Flaminio Scala, providing the first collection of Commedia Dell'Arte that served as inspiration to numerous playwrights. The Servant of Two Masters, written by Carlo Goldini in 1743, is one of the few existing scripts of Commedia Dell'Arte. The influence of Commedia Dell'Arte was immense, with elements appearing in Shakespeare's work, restoration theatre, the work of the Chaplin brothers in silent films, as well as many of today's sitcoms and comedies.
Masks of Commedia Dell'Arte were largely exaggerated, playing upon a large array of human emotions. They often depicted the personality of the character the actor embodied, and forced the actor to use his body, as the face was covered up. The use of masks was not an entirely new idea, as some of the earliest forms of theatre utilized masks in performance. Masks were usually made of leather and were mostly phased out towards the end of Commedia Dell'Arte's popularity.
Much of the subject matter of Commedia Dell'Arte can be traced back to the Roman comedies of Terence Plautus, though current events and local news eventually played a big role in its performances. Though largely comedic, there were sometimes elements of tragedy as well as an abundance of melodramatic themes in various performances. Many performances revolved around sex, love, old age, and jealously. The traditional performance included two lovers who wished to be married, with an elder preventing this from taking place. The lovers then ask the servants for help, and the performance would end with the marriage and forgiveness for any and all wrongdoing.
The characters of Commedia Dell'Arte each had specific mannerisms and represented various people throughout European society. Each character had his own lazzi, a set of jokes or gags that they could draw from in any given situation. For example, Pantalone could have a comic heart attack whilst his servants attempted to revive him and Arlecchino might try to swat a fly away but seriously injure himself in the process. The best artists had dozens of lazzi that they could play with throughout the duration of a performance. Though troupes had their own individual sets of stock characters, the basic outlines of the character usually remained the same. Despite the fact that the creations of these stock characters are almost 500 years old, their archetypes live on in everyday television and theatre.
Key Characters of Commedia Dell'Arte
Il Capitano-a boastful and fraudulent war hero; often tells stories of the victories throughout his life but is easily frightened or surprised
Pantalone-greedy and naive, a lecherous old man
Il Dottore-an old man who proves time and time again to be an obstacle to the young lovers; a sort of know it all who usually knows very little
Arlecchino-also known as Harlequin; poor but witty, known for his agile body-- became a prototype for clowns and fools--childlike, but usually wins out in the end
Brighella-one of the original comic servants, a liar and successful schemer; his loyalty could be easily bought
Columbina-lady's maid, witty and graceful; usually the smartest character
Innomorati-the lovers; known by various names & some of the only characters to go without a mask
La Ruffiana-an older woman, normally the town gossip
Pulcinella-often carries around macaroni and a wooden spoon, melancholic as well as a dreamer; represents what culture could be
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