Commedia dell’Arte

Posted: June 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

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Improvisation, Physical Theater, and Stock Characters

In spite of its outwardly anarchic spirit, the commedia dell’arte was a highly disciplined art requiring both virtuosity and a strong sense of ensemble playing. The unique talent of commedia players was to improvise comedy around a pre–established scenario. Responding to each other, or to audience reaction, the actors made use of the lazzi (special rehearsed routines that could be inserted into the plays at convenient points to heighten the comedy), musical numbers, and impromptu dialogue to vary the happenings on stage.

Physical Theater
Masks forced actors to project their characters’ emotions through the body. Leaps, tumbles, stock gags (burle and lazzi), obscene gestures and slapstick antics were incorporated into their acts.

Stock Characters
The actors of the commedia represented fixed social types, tipi fissi, for example, foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado. Characters such as Pantalone, the miserly Venetian merchant; Dottore Gratiano, the pedant from Bologna; or Arlecchino, the mischievous servant from Bergamo, began as satires on Italian “types” and became the archetypes of many of the favorite characters of 17th– and 18th–century European theatre.

Arlecchino was the most famous. He was an acrobat and a wit, childlike and amorous. He wore a cat–like mask and motley colored clothes and carried a bat or wooden sword.

Brighella, Arlecchino’s crony, was more roguish and sophisticated, a cowardly villain who would do anything for money.

Il Capitano (the captain) was a caricature of the professional soldier—bold, swaggering, and cowardly.

Il Dottore (the doctor) was a caricature of learning—pompous and fraudulent.

Pantalone was a caricature of the Venetian merchant, rich and retired, mean and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter.

Pedrolino was a white–faced, moon–struck dreamer and the forerunner of today’s clown.
Pulcinella, as seen in the English Punch and Judy shows, was a dwarfish humpback with a crooked nose, the cruel bachelor who chased pretty girls.

Scarramuccia, dressed in black and carrying a pointed sword, was the Robin Hood of his day.
The handsome Inamorato (the lover) went by many names. He wore no mask and had to be eloquent in order to speak the love declamations.

The Inamorata was his female counterpart; Isabella Andreini was the most famous. Her servant, usually called Columbina, was the beloved of Harlequin. Witty, bright, and given to intrigue, she developed into such characters as Harlequine and Pierrette.

La Ruffiana was an old woman, either the mother or a village gossip, who thwarted the lovers.

Cantarina and Ballerina often took part in the comedy, but for the most part their job was to sing, dance, or play music.

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  1. forster matherly says:

    I love that each individual mask has a story behind it. There is not only so much aesthetic detail, but names, like Bravazzo, Dottore, and Pucinella, and back stories, like the guy who commits “dirty deeds” or the wise old man. I’m really happy these masks were preserved, as well as the stories.

    • Very encouraging too is that persons continue to study and performance this unique form of art. We might not see it on a regular basis, but it continues to exist. And we can draw upon it thanks to the thankless efforts the efforts of a select few.

  2. Kara B Szydlowski says:

    I did a really interesting study on Commedia dell’Arte for a drama class during spring semester. I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the stock characters at first. It seemed to me that there was no room for an actor or actress to develop a character with depth or complexity. My appreciation for this art form increased as I learned more about where the stock characters actually came from. I admire the actors and actresses who devote themselves to the continuation of this type of theatre, even when people don’t always acknowledge their work or disregard it as an archaic form of expression.

    • No, there is not much room for personal expression in Commedia dell’Arte. Nor, as you say, is there room for developing the depth and complexity of characters. The sort of complexity and development we most often associate with drama is a product of the Romantic era, whereas the kind of masques Vico has in mind is part of early-Enlightenment culture. This is not accidental but indeed an essential aspect of this form of theater. Commedia dell’Arte is all about snap judgments and hilarious results based on familiar scenarios, the sort of thing that would not be possible if characters were in any way mysterious and interpreting or predicting their actions required any sort of careful reflection. For this reason, it’s perhaps best not to consider these figures characters at all, but rather stock types, or caricatures.

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