COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE is the common name for a type of theater, fully called commedia dell'arte all'improvviso ('comedy through the art of improvisation.') In the days when literacy was rare and books even rarer, actors often had to rely on improvisation and concoct a show on the spot. The commedia dell'arte evolved as a way to create a winning piece every time, following a relatively set structure and utilizing stock characters which the actors could specialize in playing. It is often said to have begun in Italy during the renaissance, but there is much evidence suggesting the commedia dell'arte to be a lot older, with origins in the Ancient Greek and Roman theaters. According to Wikipedia: "While generally personally unscripted, the performances often were based on scenarios that gave some semblance of plot to the largely improvised format. The Flaminio Scala scenarios, published in the early 17th century, are the most widely known collection and representative of its most esteemed compagnia, I Gelosi. Sometimes the performers were referred to as "mountebanks" because they played on outside, temporary stages, and relied on various props (robbe) in place of extensive scenery. The better troupes were patronized by nobility, and during carnival time might be funded by the various towns or cities, in which they played. Extra funds were received by donations (essentially passing the hat) so anyone could view the performance free of charge. Key to the success of the commedia was their reliance on travel to achieve fame and financial success. The most successful troupes performed before kings and nobility allowing individual actors, such as Isabella Andreini and Dionisio Martinelli, to become international stars. To this extent, becoming an actor in the great commedia tradition might ensure a significant rise in status, similar to what current celebrities have today."
The success of this semi-improvised acting method caused it to spread beyond the realm of illiterate street actors, and many scripted plays were modeled on the characters and techniques of the commedia dell'arte; even ballet, opera and other high-class entertainments were not immune to its influence. It also evolved into other forms such as pantomime and puppet shows -- the famous Punch and Judy Show, for example, utilizes commedia dell'arte characters such as Punch (Pullicinella), The Doctor and Scaramouche. Its influence was such that many traditions in Western storytelling -- the zany, bumbling sidekick; the pointless love story added to any book, movie or script to make it more interesting -- have their origins with the commedia dell'arte.
The currently used the term "Commedia dell'arte" was coined in the mid-18th century. While Commedia dell'arte was at its peak in Italy during the Mannerist period, the origins probably date to the time of the Roman Empire, and descend from Greek theater and from Etruscan festivals, which shared traits with the Commedia dell'arte of the later medieval period. It is possible that this kind of improvised acting was passed down the generations in Italy until the 17th century, when it was revived as a professional theatrical technique. Paul C. Castagno's The Early Commedia dell'Arte (1550–1621): The Mannerist Context looks at the aesthetic and cultural ties to mannerism and maniera throughout the arts. Castagno even posits that this aesthetic of exaggeration, distortion, anti-humanism (as in the masked types), and excessive borrowing vs. originality was typical of all the arts in the late cinquecento.
The first recorded information of commedia dell'arte performances come from Rome around the year 1551. Any attempt to verify origins of commedia is problematic, involving many contradictions and various threads. For example, the performances in Rome were probably unmasked and not representative of the specific stock characters. It was in Venice in the 1570s that the transition to masked comici can be validated. Andrea Calmo represents this transition from the unmasked Il Magnifico to what became known as Pantalone, the vecchio.
Commedia dell'arte plays were performed outdoors in temporary venues by professional actors who were costumed and masked, as opposed to commedia erudita, which were written comedies, presented indoors by untrained and unmasked actors. This view may be somewhat romanticized since records describe the troupe of the Gelosi performing Tasso's Aminta, for example, and much was done at court rather than in the street. By the middle of the 16th century, individual troupes of commedia performers began to coalesce, and by 1568 the Gelosi, with a name and the logo of two headed god Janus, became a distinct company. The Gelosi performed in Northern Italy and France where they received protection and patronage from the King of France. Despite some variations, the Gelosi maintained stability for performances with the "usual ten": "two vecchi (old men), four innamorati (two male and two female lovers), two zanni, (a captain) and a servetta (serving maid)". It should be noted that commedia dell'arte plays were frequently played inside in court theaters or halls, and also as some fixed theaters such as Teatro Baldrucca in Florence. Flaminio Scala, who had been a minor performer in the Gelosi, published the groups scenari of the commedia dell'arte around the turn of the century, really in an effort to legitimize the form—and ensure its legacy. These scenari are highly structured and built around the symmetry of the various types in duet: two zanni, vecchi, inamorate and inamorati, etc.
Commedia dell'arte is notable in that female roles were genuinely played by women, documented as early as the 1560s. In the 1570s, theater critics from England generally denigrated the troupes with their female actresses, with English poet and author Ben Jonson referring to one female performer of the commedia as a "tumbling whore". By the closure of the 1570s, Italian prelates made efforts to ban female performers; and yet, by the end of the century, actresses were standard on the Italian stage. The Italian scholar Ferdinando Taviani has collated a number of church documents opposing the advent of the actress as a kind of courtesan, whose scanty attire and promiscuous lifestyle corrupted young men, or at least infused them with carnal desires. Taviani's term negativa poetica describes this and other practices offensive to the church, while giving us an idea of the phenomenon of the commedia dell'arte performance.
The "zanni" comedies were moving from pure improvisational street performances, by the beginning of the 17th century, to particular and strictly delineated acts and characters. Three books written during the 17th century — Barbieri's La supplica (1634); Perrucci's Dell'arte rapresentativa (1699); and Cecchini's Fruti della moderne commedia (1628); — "made firm recommendations concerning performing practice." It's argued that commedia, as a result, was reduced to formulaic and stylized acting; as far as possible from the purity of the improvisational genesis a century earlier. In France, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Comédie-Italienne theater in France created a repertoire and delineated new masks and characters, while deleting some of the Italian precursors, such as Pantalone. Commedia dell'arte moved outside the city limits to the théâtre de la foire, or fair theatres, in the early 17th century as it evolved toward a more pantomimed style. With the removal of the Italian comedians from France in 1697, the form transmogrified in the 18th century as genres like comédie larmoyante gained in attraction in France, particularly through the plays of Marivaux. Marivaux softened the commedia considerably by bringing in true emotion to the stage. Harlequin achieved more prominence during this period.
In the 19th century, George Sand, Chopin and other literary elites rediscovered the theatre form in Nohant, France in 1846. While exploring and discussing ancient forms of theatre, they discovered their interest in commedia dell'arte and constructed a theatre devoted to it in 1848. Commedia dell'arte has received a great deal of attention from several 20th century theatre practitioners, including Jacques Copeau, Meyerhold, Jacques Lecoq and others, because of their wish to move away from naturalism.
The most classic and traditional plots and stories of the commedia dell'arte are those in which the innamorati are in love and wish to be married, but a vecchio or several vecchi are preventing this from happening, leading the lovers to ask one or more zanni (eccentric servants) for help. Typically the story ends happily, with the marriage of the innamorati and all around forgiveness for any wrongdoings. There are countless variations on this story, as well as many that diverge wholly from the structure, such as a well-known story about Arlecchino becoming mysteriously pregnant, or the Punch and Judy scenario.
Traditional plot lines were written on themes of adultery, jealousy, old age and love. Many of the standard plot elements can be followed back to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, some of which were translations themselves of lost Greek comedies of the fourth century BC. However, it is more probable that the comici used contemporary novella, or, traditional sources as well, and drew from current events and local news of the day. Not every scenario was comic, for there were some mixed forms and even tragedies. Shakespeare's "The Tempest" is drawn from a popular scenario in the Scala collection, his Polonius ("Hamlet") is drawn from Pantalone, and his clowns bear homage to the zanni. Comici performed written comedies at court. Song and dance were widely used, and a number of innamorata were skilled madrigalists, a song form that uses chromatics and close harmonies. Audiences came to see the performers, not the play, as the literature took a back seat. Performers made use of well-rehearsed jokes and stock physical gags, known as lazzi and concetti, as well as on-the-spot improvised and interpolated episodes and routines, called burle (singular burla, Italian for joke), usually involving a practical joke. Since the productions were improvised, dialogue and action could easily be changed to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, while still using old jokes and punch lines. Characters were identified by costumes, masks, and props, such as a type of baton known as a slapstick. These characters included the forebears of the modern clown, namely Harlequin (Arlecchino) and Zanni.