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A History of Commedia dell’Arte

Traditional Commedia MaskCommedia dell’Arte (which translates as “theatre of the professional”) began in Italy in the early 16th Century and quickly spread throughout Europe, creating a lasting influence on Shakespeare, Molière, opera, vaudeville, contemporary musical theatre, sit-coms, and improv comedy. The legacy of Commedia includes the first incorporated (i.e. professional) theatre company, the first European actresses, and many of the themes and storylines still enjoyed by audiences today.

The style of Commedia is characterized by its use of masks, improvisation, physical comedy, and recognizable character types. According to the Maestro Antonio Fava, the famous character types can be divided into four main categories:
(1) The Servants or Zanni such as Arlecchino (Harlequin), Pulcinella (Punch), Colombina (Columbine), Scapino (Scapín), Brighella, Pedrolino, Pierrot, and the like;
(2) The Old Men or Vecchi such as the greedy Magnifico (Pantalone), the know-it-all professor (il Dottore), or the stuttering Tartaglia;
(3) The young Lovers or Innamorati with names such as Isabella, Flaminia, or Ortensia (for women) and Flavio, Orazio, Ortensio, or Leandro (for men).
(4) The boasting Captains or Capitani and their female equivalent, the vivacious and oftentimes violent La Signora.
Hundreds of character names exist, each the invention of a particular actor, but all of them can be viewed as a derivative or hybrid of these four major character types.

Traditional Commedia MaskCommedia’s origins have not been conclusively determined, and scholars have demonstrated a variety of possible factors in its development: the masked, improvised comedy of the Roman Atellan farce tradition; the mime theatre of the Byzantine world; the jugglers and traveling players of Medieval Europe; the market culture of early modern piazzas that featured performers, charlatans, and festivals; and Renaissance rediscoveries of Plautus and Terrence by theatre Academies and the commedia erudita tradition. Whatever its origins, by the 1520s, performers like Angelo Beolco (il Ruzzante) and early practitioners of the Zanni character type were entertaining audiences with a style that appears to be early Commedia. Some early references to this style include names like commedia all’improvissa (the improvised theatre) and commedia zannesca (the zanni-esque theatre).

Master-servant scenarios became somewhat more sophisticated as the Old Man character type emerged to boss the Zanni around. Early female servants (zagna, singular; zagne plural) were played in masks by male performers.

A major landmark in theatre history occurred in Padua, Italy, on February 25, 1545, when Ser Maphio’s troupe of performers signed a letter of incorporation establishing themselves as a “fraternal compagnia.” (The anniversary of this date is celebrated every Commedia dell’Arte Day.) This document is the oldest extant record of modern actors thinking of their work as a legitimate business. Other troupes of this era had similar endeavors, and the business of “show business” was born when artist-entrepreneurs began to create professional models for making a living in the theatre. This capitalistic innovation represents a departure from classical models of civically funded theatre or medieval models of amateur, pan-handling, or church-funded performances.

Another major landmark in theatre history was first confirmed in 1566 when a Commedia performer named Vincenza Armani became the first documented professional actress. (She took the stage in Mantua almost a full century before a professional actress appeared in London’s theatres.) Evidence exists as early as the 1540s that Commedia troupes began to create professional space for female performers, but the late 1560s and 1570s were the Age of the Actress. Isabella Andreini became one of the most famous and sought-after performers in all of Italy and France, and her contribution to Commedia dell’Arte is still seen in the most prevalent name for the leading female Lover: Isabella.

The advent of the actress occasioned a new character type: the male and female Lovers or Innamorati (innamorato, masculine; innamorata, feminine) who became the children of the Old Men. These additional characters allowed Commedia troupes to employ far more sophisticated dramaturgy and storylines, and the resultant tradition was dubbed “the Perfect Comedy” because of its balance of highbrow and lowbrow themes and its complicated plot twists centering on the thwarted dreams of young Lovers. The story of troubled young love became a hallmark of “the Italian Comedy” and is seen most famously in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. (But remember: If Shakespeare had actually been from Verona, Juliet would not have been played by a boy.)

The advent of the actress also establishes a new tradition of unmasked characters in the Commedia dramatis personae. Whereas female characters had previously been played by men wearing grotesque female masks, actresses performed without masks exposing their own authentic (and reportedly beautiful) female faces. The male Lovers, as their counterpoints, also performed unmasked, and additional unmasked characters came to include the servetta (French, soubrette), an unmasked female servant like the famous Colombina. The “infarinato” tradition (such as the character Pedrolino) was a male servant who played in white face (hence the term “infarinato,” meaning “floured.”) This white-faced comic servant is an ancestor to the white-faced clown of the circus tradition and the modern, white-faced pantomime.

The fourth character type is the Capitano, a boasting but fraudulent war hero, much like the miles gloriosus (“glorious solider”) character of Roman comedy. The Capitani are famous for their sonorous and bombastic names such as Capitán Sangre y Feugo, Capitán Escombombardón, and Capitano Spavento della Valle Inferno. (The last was created and performed by Isabella Andreini’s real-life husband, Francesco.)

Unlike their counterparts in England, who founded an industry on the reputation of key playwrights (Marlowe and Shakespeare, for example) and the success of their own purpose-built theatres (the Theatre, Curtain, Rose, and Globe, to name a few), Commedia dell’Arte players capitalized on the virtuosity of the performer as showcased in improvised performances that could be staged wherever necessity demanded. The depiction of Commedia dell’Arte as “street theatre” is a simplified myth, for the reality was that Commedia players performed wherever possible—but ideally indoors where it was easier to monitor ticket revenue and to control the various aspects of the performance. Undoubtedly, most companies frequently played on touring stages in piazzas, but the most famous companies enjoyed indoor bookings at public meeting halls (the stanze; stanza, singular) or by commission at court. In fact, the famous Teatro all’Antica in Sabbioneta was intended to house a resident Commedia troupe, a plan ultimately cut short by the death of the benefactor Duke Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna in 1591.
Commedia Scenario illustration
The traveling Commedia troupes consisted of 12 or so professional performers, each a specialist in his or her character. There were no playwrights or directors. The company manager (capocomico) would announce the title and theme of an evening’s performance, making a scenario or canovaccio available to the performers. Some 800 historical canovacci survive—most notably in the Scala scenarios published in Venice 1611 and in the recently published Casamarciano scenarios housed at the National Library of Naples. Most scenarios are approximately three pages long and describe the basic plot points of the story with character entrances and exits indicated. The dialogue was not scripted for comedies (though troupes might perform scripted tragedies or pastorals as part of their repertoire). Using the framework of the scenario, actors would collaborate together to improvise a unique performance at every show. The complicated story of intrigue, deception, despair, and ultimately (usually) happy ending was seasoned with a rich collection of lazzi (singular lazzo): polished jokes, bits, gags, feats of acrobatics, displays of skill, or comedic shtick that could be inserted into performances wherever the actors thought appropriate. Thus each performance was a showcase of, on the one hand, honed technique and carefully rehearsed physical comedy routines and, on the other hand, live, in–the–moment spontaneity.

Venice, Verona, Padua, Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence, Turin, Genova, Rome, and Naples were hot spots of Commedia dell'Arte during the mid-16th to early 17th Centuries. The more enterprising Commedia troupes also found audiences outside of Italy and experienced unparalleled success in trans-national touring. A Commedia troupe was granted permission to perform in London as early as 1566. Isabella and Francesco Andreini’s company i Gelosi (“The Zealous Ones”) first played the French court in 1571. By the early 1700s, Commedia troupes had entertained audiences across the continent and had been commissioned to play for Europe’s most distinguished monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth, Louis XIV, and Russia’s Empress Anna. By way of the British “panto” tradition, which flourished in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Commedia characters even found their way to New World stages. In the 1800s, fools named Harlequin, Columbine, Scaramouche, and Pantaloon frequently appeared in American clown routines, comic entr’actes, and even minstrel shows. A French innovation named Pierrot (a descendent of Pedrolino) became an icon of the early 20th Century since his evocative white face and silent gesture were so befitting to the early silent screen. (Watch the brilliant film Children of Paradise for a later depiction.)

It was not until 1750 that Commedia dell’Arte received its name. What was frequently known as “Improvised Theatre” or, outside of Italy, as “Italian Comedy” was finally dubbed “Professional Theatre” by Carlo Goldoni in his play Il teatro comico (The Comic Theatre). The name stuck and is a source of pride among Commedia practitioners today who see their tradition as founders of professional acting. Ironically, however, Goldoni, meant it as a term of disparagement—comparing the vulgar, hackneyed, pandering, and commercialized style of the “professional actors” with the more literary and noble style of commedia erudita. Goldoni brought about needed theatrical reform, and he established Italian national drama with his success as a playwright of hundreds of comedies, including The Servant of Two Masters. His reform, however, came at a price. He hired Venice’s best Commedia performers but required them to play without masks and to speak his written script rather than dialogue of their own invention. It has been argued that Carlo Goldoni “killed” Commedia.

With all due respect to Signor Goldoni, we believe Commedia dell’Arte is alive and well.