Commedia dell'arte—meaning "comedy of the profession" or "comedy of art"—was first performed in sixteenth-century Italy by troupes of traveling players, and flourished as a dramatic art form throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It remains a popular art form in Italy still today. In commedia, the performers improvise their play from a skeletal "scenario"—basically, a chronological plot summary. The commedia set was originally a simple trestle-stage, which was easily portable by a company on tour, and adaptable to settings as varied as the royal court hall and the public square.
Cezanne's portrait titled Harlequin
The repertoire of conventional commedia stories were typically farcical comedies of sex, greed, jealousy, old age and status. The players, performing conventional roles, filled out the basic plot points with acrobatics, comic business and verbal mimicry. The performers were encouraged to study their characters and then improvise lines and actions rather than rely upon a word-for-word script. As commedia evolved, favorite characters became stock characters, and a handful of plot outlines (called scenarios) followed young lovers battling disapproving fathers and gullible masters taken by tricky servants.
Posted backstage, the scenario served as a reminder and a framework to support the actors' performances, providing the overall plot, the circumstances of the story, and its essential actions. The scenario also indicated at which points in the story a stock comic device, known as a "lazzo," should be incorporated.
Despite the implied anarchy of a piece filled with acrobatic moves, clown-like clothing and silly masks, commedia is a highly disciplined form of theater. In commedia, the male roles (with the exception of the hero) each dictated its own unique costume and half-mask, which would have been immediately recognized by their audiences. There is the young adventurous Captain, the hunchback Pulcinella, the old men Pantalone and the Doctor, the clown-like servant Arlecchino, and the only unmasked recurring male character, the lover and hero Inamorato. These characters often went by different names, but they represented distinct sects of society: archetypal satires of foolish old men, officers filled with false bravado, and devious servants out to trick their masters.
Female characters, unlike their male counterparts, only rarely wore masks, but they were nonetheless recognizable to the audience by clothing associated with their particular status. The Inamorata, the love interest of Inamorato, was typically was portrayed as an ignorant foil. Columbine, the Inamorata's servant, was smart and witty, and the love interest of Arlecchino. Other women, like the Cantarina and Ballerina, often took part, but their contribution to the story was primarily in singing, dance, and music-making.
Slapstick defines commedia. If the entertainment value of these conventional plots and characters was not to be diminished by repetition, the relentless physical energy and narrative drive of the actors became an essential characteristic of the art form. The "lazzi" technique was born from it: a "bit" of physical comedy, such as pantomime, acrobatics, juggling or wrestling, incorporated for a laugh—and just as likely to interrupt the story as to support it… A servant might be given an unwanted task and head offstage in somersaults, or a husband might hear of his wife's death as his food arrives and then gorges on it as he cries. The lazzi also helped the audience recognize a particular stock character.
Within the framework of improvisation, stock phrases and gestures were also relied upon for a laugh. The acrobatic Arlecchino, a servant distinguished by a cat-like mask and motley-colored clothing, performed the most beloved of these stock movements. Arlecchino is the precursor to our modern-day clown, and can claim credit for the word "slapstick," derived from the large stick he carried for effect (actually two sticks tied together so they made a loud noise when slapped against the ground). Through Arlecchino's antics, the shows became a celebration of life and the audience would often join in the singing and dancing at the play's conclusion.
Because commedia was alive and well during Shakespeare's time, he was greatly influenced by its style. Italian names are pervasive throughout his plays, and the similarities between his characters and plots are particularly evident in a farce like The Taming of the Shrew of The Comedy of Errors. In the first Folio text, an old and foolish suitor to Bianca is referred to as "Gremio a Pantelowne." The impact of commedia can also be seen in French pantomime, the English harlequinade, Moliere, and even today, in the work from artists like Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo.
The main characters of Commedia dell'arte:
Arlecchino (also called Harlequin or Trafaldino): an acrobatic servant in a cat-like mask and motley-colored clothing
Brighella: Arlecchino's crony, a cowardly villain who would do anything for money
Cantarina and Ballerina: women who sing, dance, and play music
Il Capitano (the Captain): the bold but cowardly professional soldier
Columbine: the Inamorata's servant—witty and smart, the love interest of Arlecchino. Often also the one who creates Arlecchino from her imagination
Il Dottore (the Doctor): the pompous and fraudulent doctor
Inamorato (the Lover, male): an eloquent and attractive man
Inamorata (the Lover, female): the male lover's interest, often ignorant and naïve
Pantalone: the wealthy, miserly Venetian merchant with a young wife or an adventurous daughter
Pedrolino: the ignorant young dreamer
Pulcinella: the humpback who chases away beautiful young women
Scarramuccia: the "Robin Hood" character
La Ruffiana: the old woman, either mother or a village gossip, who gets in the way of the inamorati
Zanni: male clowns of low social status
– Contributed by the CST Education Department