The Commedia Dell'Arte

The commedia dell’arte, meaning ‘the comedy of the artists’ was a major form theatre and acting in Italy in the sixteenth century. Performances were improvisational comedies that were performed by troupes of professional actors that traveled the provinces of Italy and Europe. Performers were often from one family and the tradition of commedia was continued through the generations. Families of note included the Andreini and Gelosi groups.

The origins of Commedia may be attributed to the Atellan farce of Rome or the plays of Plautus or Terence or the sacred Sacra Rappresentazione of the Middle Ages but what is known is that it emerged from the traders and performers of the marketplaces and carnivals of Italy. During the period 1550 – 1650 approximately ten to twelve commedia troupes traveled the European continent.

An Overview of Commedia

  • Commedia was a comedy of intrigue that used stock characters, often masked and scenarios were largely improvisational. Performers perfected what is known as lazzi and burla (stage business including clever and slick dialogue and movement). Any memorised rhetoric used by the performers was known as concetti. The use of this stage business was intended to keep scenarios moving along briskly so that the audience remained engaged and interested.
  • Content of scenarios was often topical, satirical, political or romantic and were full of mimicry, trickery, disguise and intrigue.
  • Today, almost eight hundred scenarios still exist in outline form only. Although this form of theatre developed without any formal playwrights, it had an important influence on many playwrights to come in theatre history including Moliere and Shakespeare.

The Commedia Characters

  • A typical commedia troupe usually consisted of twelve performers, one who acted as leader. Usually there were seven or eight men and three or four women. Combined they formed what is known as ‘stock’ characters: two sets of lovers, a servant girl, a captain, two zanni (comic characters) and two old men. Performers always played the same characters and became so expert in the lazzi and burla that audiences immediately recognised the characters on stage.
  1. The lovers were usually portrayed as high status characters and dressed well. They did not wear masks but wore heavy make-up. They were often depressed or anxious because love often did not run smoothly in their lives.
  2. The masters claimed the highest status and most famous of these were:
  3. Pantalone - employer, father, controller, highest in status of the old men, he wore a red skullcap, red jacket, breeches and stockings or trousers, black ankle-length coat and yellow slippers. Pantalone wore a hooked nose mask with bushy eyebrows, a long pointy beard and sometimes moustache. Walked with a stoop always protecting his money which hung near his most ‘private’ parts.

    Il Dottore – the philosopher who knows everything there is to know (or at least thinks he does) was often father to one of the lovers. He wore a long black academic gown and cap, black beeches, stockings and shoes. His mask only covered his nose and forehead. He had red cheeks, bulbous nose and fluffy white eyebrows. He took little repetitive steps.

    Il Capitano – Capitano swaggers and boasts about his exploits but he is actually a coward. Traditionally he wore a uniform over a vest, a hat or helmet with a feather and boots. His mask was characterised by a large phallic nose. By his side, he carried a sword.

    Tartaglia – an official who was bald, pot-bellied and short sighted. He was characterised by his incessant stuttering. He wore a grey cap, a green and yellow striped tunic and cloak, white stockings and yellow or brown shoes. His ‘mask’ was traditionally large green or blue glasses that covered the top of his face. He waddled along led by his rather large stomach.

    Pulcinella – On the whole Punch was portrayed as a good humoured but egotistic, humped back magistrate or baker or spy. He had the lowest status of all the masters and sometimes, his lazzi could be quite obscene or distasteful. He wore long trousers, a long white shirt, a matching hat and a leather belt which held his stick and purse. His mask was usually black or brown with a long nose with wrinkles and a large wart on the forehead. He walked in a jerky fashion and had a discernible squawky voice.

  4. The Servants (The Zanni)

Arlecchino – the ‘catlike’ figure, agile and quick on his feet, Arlecchino, also known as Harlequin wore a diamond patched suit, a black beret or cap and carried a slapstick or clapper stick. His mask was also characterised by a wart on the forehead and often had catlike features.

Brighella – known as the head Zanni was often an innkeeper or shopkeeper. He had a grey mask, had round eyes, a hooked nose and a moustache. Other Zanni were Scaramuccia and Scapino.

(Reference: Crawford, J. Hurst, C. Lugering, M. & Wimmer, C. (2003). Acting in Person and in Style in Australia. Sydney: McGraw Hill.)





© Copyright Dr Tracey Sanders 2006