The Commedia dell'Arte was improvised theater based on well-known characters and stories and played by traveling Italian troupes.
What is Commedia dell'Arte?
Commedia dell'Arte literaly means artistic comedy or commonly known as comedy of artists. This is stage arts often with ten or more actors. The roles were based on characters of servants and masters.
The Commedia was built on stock characters that would be recognizable pretty much any where you would see a performance, which carrys over into today. This is why it was not neccesary for the actors to know the language or dialect of the region you were performing in. Some of these characters are a captain or soldier, foolish old men such as a merchant and a doctor, a villian, also a ladies man, as well servants, and of course the fair maidens often played by men early on until women were accepted into roles.
Before going on-stage, talented actors would agree on a pre-established scenario and a general idea of how it should be performed. The rest of the comedy is improvised with the actors responding to each other and to the audience reaction. The actors used lazzi (rehearsed routines that can be inserted at any time to enhance the comedy). One of the characteristics of the Commedia is that the actors wore masks with exagerated comic features, (with the exception of Pierrot), and the actors were very acrobatic and also talented at improvisation, making things up as they went along for a comedic result.
Troupes performed outdoors in villages and towns during warmer seasons and as the Commedia matured they began performing in theaters and halls during colder seasons. They brought their stages, props, and costumes etc. in horse drawn carts. Most of their stages were constructed in such a way as to give a great view for all the spectators and also allowing room for costume changes in a makeshift dressing room and doubling as storage underneath the stage. The essential back drops were canvas with houses and streets painted on.
Commedia dell'Arte History
Commedia has roots that can be traced as far back as Ancient Greek and Roman theater but specificaly the Commedia dell'Arte began on the streets and in the market places during the Itallian Renaissance period. Having been firmly established by the mid-1500's and popular through the 1800's with some troupes still performing today.
With the fact that there was a great number of Italian dialects there was not an attempt to change the performance from region to region. The Commedia relied on artistic and acrobatic flair, made good use of masks and had stock characters that would be easily recognized. The focus would be on the physical acting rather than on verbal text.
While the Commedia began in Italy it's popularity grew as troupes moved throughout Europe, influencing theatre in France, Spain, Holland, Germany, Austria, and England,
Commedia dell'Arte Characters
All of the stock characters in Commedia dell'Arte can be identified as one of three types: Master, Servant and Lovers (Innamorati). The 'master' characters include Pantalone, & Dottore.
The 'servants,' often referred to as the Zanni, include Arlecchino, Brighella, and Pedrolino.
The four 'lovers,' which include two couples, are Flavio, Lelio, Isabella, and Vittoria. While the lovers might have other names, these are most common.
Find out more about the individual characters here:
In summary the Commedia dell'Arte has left an indelible imprint on our society today. Much of clowning, acting and improv as we know it has came out of this. We strive to give an accurate portrayal of this art form but as is usual with the art of clowning and performing arts in general, it is a history of creativity, evolution and constant change. Many of the characters we have outlined here have evolved from their original form, some have been fased out and some will come back again to grace the scene at some future point in time. We welcome your feedback and input as well as clarification if we have missed the mark somewhere. You are valuable to us as visitors and we want this to be a website in which you can make a contribution. As always thank you.
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