What is Commedia dell’Arte? The Ultimate Guide
What is commedia dell’arte? Commedia dell’arte, translating as “comedy of the profession,” was a highly popular type of theatrical entertainment that blossomed in Italy between the 1500s and 1700s. However, this theatrical form did not only exist in Italy. It quickly spread to France where it became known as the Comédie-Italienne, while in Briton it metamorphized into a pantomime puppet play known as Punch-and-Judy, with one of the two characters, unsurprisingly, named punch and based off of one of the stock characters from the original commedia dell’arte setup.
Commedia dell’arte was highly inspirational to playwrights and different types of theater and entertainment of the day, such as playwrights Shakespeare and Molière, and the theater forms of opera and vaudeville. Interestingly, Commedia dell’arte’s influence has even reach our modern comedies, including TV sitcoms1. Commedia dell’arte is known for its unique style, often involving masks, high levels of improvising, and easily recognizable stock characters. These stock characters make the improvisation easier because each character is expected to act in a certain way. Beyond their behaviors, these characters are also recognizable by their costumes and the masks they wear. Although the costumes of the characters have somewhat changed over time, the typical characters of the art include the following.
What Is Commedia Dell’Arte?
- Old men (Vecchi) which include the very greedy Pantalone and the knowledgeable but pompous Dottore. Pantalone usually wears matching red pants, jacket, and mask paired with a black cape. The Dottore’s character was originally based off of the academic garb of Italian scholars at the time and wears all black with a long black cape, large hat, and a half mask with a big nose.
- Servants (Zanni), of which there are many, include Arlecchino, Pulcinella, Colombina, Pierro, and others. Arlecchino (or Harlequin) is a lighthearted character usually going against his master’s orders in order to pursue his lover Colombina. He is very dexterous and often performs all sorts of acrobatics. He wears a very colorful checkered costume contrasted with a black mask. Pulcinella wears baggy white clothes with a conical or floppy white hat along with a black mask. His character has two sides: he either pretends to be dumb despite being quite observant, or he acts as if he is the most intelligent person in the room despite being quite the opposite. His character was particularly popular in Naples where he was made into a puppet character. Colombina, Arlecchino’s lover, either is as colorful as her boyfriend or dressed in monochrome. She is the witty and flirty wife of Pierro, the famous sad clown. As for Pierro, he inspired modern mimes with his often silent acting. He wears a loose white costume with ridiculously large buttons, and often his face is painted white. He is known for being the most tragic of characters.
- Lovers (Innamorati) are hopelessly in love characters usually of the upper-class. These characters do not wear masks and their names vary somewhat. Their most important characteristics are that they are constantly overdramatic in everything that they do, highlighting how ridiculously in love they are. They are also selfish and rarely see out of their self-centered bubbles. Their costumes are very fine, usually modeled however a young aristocrat would dress for the time, and their movements are more elegant rather than comedic. These characters are often paired with Zanni characters.
- Captains (Capitani) are military characters dressed in military uniform. The captain is boastful, often talking at length of his military achievements in order to show off to others, but others are usually unimpressed. In reality, his character is cowardly and runs away from confrontation at every opportunity. His mask dons a ridiculously long Pinocchio-like nose. Interestingly, there is a female equivalent to the Capitan’s character known as “La Signora” who is know for her lively and violent temperament.
The origin of the commedia dell’arte has roots in Roman Atellan farce tradition which also had improvisation and masks to pair with comedy1. In the early days of the theater, female characters were played by men. In 1545, the first theater company ever was created by Ser Maphio and his performing theater group who all signed a document declaring that their group was a business1. Some years later in 1566, the first female professional actress arrived in the theater, Vincenza Armani, though it is believed women started entering the theater a bit earlier in the 1540s. The advent of female characters actually played by women allowed their characters to no longer wear masks (the men playing female characters wore odd-looking female masks, which thankfully were tossed away once real women could display their real female faces).
Groups of commedia dell’arte actors would travel and perform virtually anywhere, from indoor theaters to outdoor piazzas. These groups would consist of about 12 professional actors, and each actor typically specialized in a certain character. Unlike other forms of theater, there was no playwright to supply plays for these actors. Instead, there would be a manager of the group who would tell the group which theme and scenario to perform. Since these actors were masters of improvisation, they needed nothing more to create a grand spectacle.
- Wilson, M.R. (2010). “The History of Commedia dell’Arte.” Faction of Fools Theatre Company. Retrieved from https://www.factionoffools.org/whats-commedia.