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Commedia dell'arte is a truly popular form of theatre - of the people, by the people, for
the people.
Commedia dell'arte is definitely an art form centred on people and their world.
Commedia del'Arte emerged in Tuscany around 1550, Although its origins are hazy due
to the illiteracy of its first performers and audience, it is believed to have stemmed from
the carnivals in Italy . Here it rose from the people from folk theatre, which used masks
and music, and from the charlatans using pretence as a means of earning money.
The form combined mime, improvised and scripted dialogue (often coarse), with
tumbling and acrobatics. Commedia del'Arte performances and techniques spread
throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, with offshoots in France, Spain
and England. The scenarios involved in Commedia arose from the thematic concerns the
form had. It was mainly concerned with examining the human condition via satire.
Therefore, the canovaccios were filled with driving themes such as food, drink, sex, love,
money and vengeance. The artists created the scenarios to fit into the peoples living
conditions as a safety valve. They could laugh at their situation on stage, making their
conditions a little more bearable. In this way, Commedia was designed by troupes, simply
the Italian public, for their audience and the people. A del'Arte company consisted of 10
or 12 strolling players. Each was assigned a stock part and had his standard costume and
established peculiarities. Stock characters came from the people in that they were often
satirizations of them.
Ill Dottore, an expert on everything who could talk unendingly, was a satirization of the
bolognese academics. Ill Capitano was a satirization of invaders of Italy, particularly the
Spanish army. Pulchinella is believed to have been derived directly from an interjecting
peasant whom the troupes found entertaining. Such characters as these were created
because the audience could relate to them and laugh. As the people changed, so too did
stock characters. More were added into the list of masks, and elements such as costume
changed to suit the society the play was directed at.
Performance features of the performances were directed straight to the people. The
amount of credit the audience gave the actors, determined the energy of the characters.
For example, if a crowd cheered Arlecchinos antics on, he would play this up by
continuing it for a longer period of time. Such was the improvising nature of commedia
Some of the stock characters would directly address the audience, especially Arlecchinos
or Harlequin which would allow further interest to evolve in the people watching.
Isabella would flirt with the audience, Ill Dottore would address them with "expert"
knowledge on anything, and fool them with tautologies, "he who is always wrong, is less
right than anyone else".# Ill Capitano would address them directly in an attempt to gain
praise from them. Other characters, such as Pedrolino, would play on the audience for
sympathy. The degree of response by the people watching towards the masks indicated
the action the troupe would continue to further their scenarios.
The characters or "masks," in spite of changes over the years, retained much of their
original flavour. Most important were the zanni, or servant types; Arlecchino, or
Harlequin, was the most famous. He spoke directly to the audience, He wore a cat-like
mask and motley coloured clothes and carried a bat or wooden sword, the ancestor of the
slapstick. He was an acrobat and a wit, childlike and amorous. His crony, Brighella, was
more roguish and sophisticated -- a cowardly villain who would do anything for money.
He also was the musician of the group. Pedrolino (or in France, Pierrot) was a whitefaced, moon-struck dreamer. Pagliaccio, the forerunner of today's clown, was closely
akin to Pedrolino. 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.
Pantalone or Pantaloon was a caricature of the Venetian merchant, rich and retired, mean
and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter. His costume was red. Il
Dottore (the doctor), his only friend, was a caricature of learning -- pompous and
fraudulent; he survives in the works of Molière. Dottore always wore the signature black
of the Renaissance university man. Il Capitano (the Captain) was a caricature of the
professional soldier -- bold, swaggering, and cowardly. The more agile Scarramuccia, or
Scaramouche, who dressed in black and carried a pointed sword, replaced him.
Scaramouche became the Robin Hood of his day. Plays also usually contained several
maids, called Zagne or Servette, each as clever as Scapino or Brighella.
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. Her servant, usually called Columbine, was the beloved of Harlequin. Witty,
bright, and given to intrigue. 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. None of the
women wore masks.
These characters all retained their general personalities through the years and evolved in
different countries. Shakespeare often used types of Commedia characters in his plays.
The minor actors were often almost as beloved as the leads. Just like the Punch and Judy
shows, the audience knew what to expect, although the actual circumstances in the play
would vary. However, the four main characters still remained to be like Pantalone,
Dottore, Harlequin and Brighella.
The masks themselves often reflected the Italian people, Their warts, apart from hiding
imperfections in the leather, alluded to the boils on the malnourished poor of Italy. In
similar ways, the costumes echoed the people. Zanni often wore loose white clothes made
of potatoes sacks, while the higher status masks wore fashionable garments, with lace
becoming seen as it became fashionable in Europe.
The performers were always outside, where actors could "breath the fresh air of
intervention"#. This allowed access to many people and made commedia popular as a
result of its physical proximity to its audience.
Popularity also came about because of its irreverence and politically risqué nature. The
performances given to peasants were the most politically satirical, and this appealed to
the peasants because it allowed them to laugh at the upper class. Commedia was
additionally coarse and vulgar, a trait which appealed to many of the Italian peasantry.
Naturally, the vulgarity was toned down along with a degree of political satire for coert
performances. However, to the average person, commedia was often immature in its
slapstick and sexual references, as well as its scatological humour. This is seen in the
stock character Pulchinella, who's natural home was the stage. He, therefore, "farted and
belched" freely.#
From this collection of stock characters (and perhaps a dozen others), each Commedia
troupe was able to dramatize hundreds of plot ideas. Commedia actors also developed
individual comic routines, called Iazzi, which they could execute on demand, especially
when it was felt that a sudden laugh was needed. For instance, a Commedia performer
might pretend to trip and tumble into a pail of bath water during the exit sequence.
The universatility of this form derides from the ability it had to change and suit the
people it was directed at, whilst not compromising in its essentials such as masks,
improvisation, movement and acrobatics, stock characters, scenarios and lazzis.
The Commedia's popularity both within Italy and outside the country was extraordinary.
By the 1600s, the governments of Spain and France had attempted to censor and regulate
the theatre form. Eventually, the physical humour and character types of the Commedia
were incorporated in conventional European theatre. The traditions of the Commedia can
easily be detected in the comedies of the French dramatists Molière and Pierre Carlet de
Chamblain de Marivaux. Competing playwrights Carlo Gozzi and Carlo Goldoni
attempted to revive and reform the Commedia in Italy during the 18th century, but the
vulgar, improvised genre remained in the world of popular entertainment, where the
performers--not the playwrights or directors--retained creativity.
Commedia was for the people in the fact that it was a mirror to its society. It reflected
class systems and social problems such as the treatment of servant by master, propety
disputes and communication difficulties between generations of a family. The class
system was reflected in the wealth and status of its stock characters, such as the high
status of wealthy Pulchinella, and the low status of Arlecchino.
To perform, the commedia troupes roamed nomadically around the country in search of
carnivals and markets in which to act. They came to the people, or to the courts they were
playing in.
Commedia dell'arte is, by definition, by the people, as it is literally interpreted as "the
comedy of the arts", #owned by the performer. Average Italian families comprised these
troupes, making the connection between them and their public strong.
Subject matter in regards to thematic concerns was highly based on experiences of the
people, and of satirizing the events. For example, the plague, and figures, such as Spanish
invaders, made commedia a derivation of the people.
Commedia was certainly for the people, as the troupes played upon whatever they reacted
heavily to, and their techniques, such as movement and grummelot, ensured enjoyment
by all, even if they did not speak the dialect being used by the troupes. Commedia was
aimed at entertaining the Italian public with its techniques, codes, conventions and
themes included in their scenarios.
Performance And Literature In The Commedia Del"Arte
By Robert Henke. Published by - Cambridge University Press 2002
The Commedia Dell"Arte The Documentary History
By Keneth Richards and Laura Richards, Published by - Blackwell Publishers 1990
The World Of Harlequin, By Allardyce Nicoll, Published by Cambridge University Press
Commedia Dell"Arte An Actors Handbook, By John Rudlin, Published by Routledge
Masks Of The Commedia Dell"Arte, Antonio Fava with John Rudlin, Arts Archives,
Produced by The Arts Documentation Unit, Exeter 1993
(YSJ Video Archives)
Masks A Release Of Acting Resources Volume Three - The Italian Commedia " Please
Be Gentle, By David Griffiths, Published By - Harwood Academic Publishers imprint,
part of The Gordon and Breach Publishing Group 1998
commedia dell arte truly popular form theatre people people people commedia dell arte
definitely form centred their world commedia arte emerged tuscany around although
origins hazy illiteracy first performers audience believed have stemmed from carnivals
italy here rose from from folk theatre which used masks music charlatans using pretence
means earning money form combined mime improvised scripted dialogue often coarse
with tumbling acrobatics performances techniques spread throughout europe during
centuries with offshoots france spain england scenarios involved arose thematic concerns
mainly concerned with examining human condition satire therefore canovaccios were
filled driving themes such food drink love money vengeance artists created scenarios into
peoples living conditions safety valve they could laugh their situation stage making their
conditions little more bearable this designed troupes simply italian public audience
company consisted strolling players each assigned stock part standard costume
established peculiarities stock characters came that they were often satirizations them
dottore expert everything could talk unendingly satirization bolognese academics
capitano satirization invaders italy particularly spanish army pulchinella believed have
been derived directly interjecting peasant whom troupes found entertaining such
characters these were created because audience could relate them laugh changed stock
characters more added into list masks elements such costume changed suit society play
directed performance features performances directed straight amount credit gave actors
determined energy example crowd cheered arlecchinos antics would play this continuing
longer period time improvising nature conventions some would directly address
especially arlecchinos harlequin which would allow further interest evolve watching
isabella flirt dottore address them expert knowledge anything fool tautologies always
wrong less right than anyone else capitano address directly attempt gain praise other
pedrolino play sympathy degree response watching towards masks indicated action
troupe continue further scenarios spite changes over years retained much original flavour
most important zanni servant types arlecchino harlequin most famous spoke wore like
mask motley coloured clothes carried wooden sword ancestor slapstick acrobat childlike
amorous crony brighella more roguish sophisticated cowardly villain anything money
also musician group pedrolino france pierrot white faced moon struck dreamer pagliaccio
forerunner today clown closely akin pedrolino pulcinella seen english punch judy shows
dwarfish humpback crooked nose cruel bachelor chased pretty girls pantalone pantaloon
caricature venetian merchant rich retired mean miserly young wife adventurous daughter
costume dottore doctor only friend caricature learning pompous fraudulent survives
works moli always wore signature black renaissance university capitano captain
caricature professional soldier bold swaggering cowardly agile scarramuccia
scaramouche dressed black carried pointed sword replaced scaramouche became robin
hood plays also usually contained several maids called zagne servette each clever scapino
brighella handsome inamorato lover went many names wore mask eloquent order speak
love declamations inamorata female counterpart servant usually called columbine
beloved harlequin witty bright given intrigue ruffiana woman either mother village gossip
thwarted lovers cantarina ballerina often took part comedy most part sing dance music
none women these retained general personalities through years evolved different
countries shakespeare used types plays minor actors almost beloved leads just like punch
judy shows knew what expect although actual circumstances vary however four main still
remained like pantalone brighella themselves reflected italian warts apart hiding
imperfections leather alluded boils malnourished poor italy similar ways costumes
echoed zanni loose white clothes made potatoes sacks while higher status fashionable
garments lace becoming seen became fashionable europe performers always outside
where actors breath fresh intervention this allowed access many made popular result
physical proximity popularity also came about because irreverence politically risqu
nature performances given peasants politically satirical appealed peasants because
allowed laugh upper class additionally coarse vulgar trait which appealed many italian
peasantry naturally vulgarity toned down along degree political satire coert however
average person immature slapstick sexual references well scatological humour seen
character pulchinella natural home stage therefore farted belched freely collection
perhaps dozen others each troupe able dramatize hundreds plot ideas developed
individual comic routines called iazzi they execute demand especially when felt that
sudden needed instance performer might pretend trip tumble into pail bath water during
exit sequence universatility derides ability change suit directed whilst compromising
essentials improvisation movement acrobatics lazzis popularity both within outside
country extraordinary governments spain france attempted censor regulate theatre
eventually physical humour character types incorporated conventional european
traditions easily detected comedies french dramatists moli pierre carlet chamblain
marivaux competing playwrights carlo gozzi carlo goldoni attempted revive reform
during century vulgar improvised genre remained world popular entertainment where
performers playwrights directors retained creativity fact that mirror society reflected class
systems social problems treatment servant master propety disputes communication
difficulties between generations family class system reflected wealth status high status
wealthy pulchinella arlecchino perform troupes roamed nomadically around country
search carnivals markets came courts playing dell definition literally interpreted comedy
arts owned performer average families comprised these making connection between
public strong subject matter regards thematic concerns highly based experiences
satirizing events example plague figures spanish invaders made derivation certainly
played upon whatever reacted heavily techniques movement grummelot ensured
enjoyment even speak dialect being used aimed entertaining public techniques codes
conventions themes included bibliography performance literature robert henke published
cambridge university press documentary history keneth richards laura richards published
blackwell publishers world allardyce nicoll published cambridge university press
handbook john rudlin routledge antonio fava john rudlin arts archives produced arts
documentation unit exeter video archives release acting resources volume three please
gentle david griffiths harwood academic publishers imprint gordon breach publishing
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