AFYP In the Know: Theater History--Commedia dell'Arte

Have you heard of Commedia dell'Arte?  This style of theater is less well-known, but was an important influence for Shakespeare, Moliere, vaudeville, improv, and more!  Commedia dell'arte began in Italy in the 16th century and is heavily based in physical comedy.  It's true title is "Commedia dell'arte all'improvviso" which roughly translates to "comedy of the profession/craft of improvisation".  Commedia was performed by professional actors called "comici".  It is believed to be the first entirely-professional form of theater.

Commedia troupes, made up of about 12 actors, traveled all around to perform their plays.  The location would change, sometimes outside, sometimes inside, so rather than relying on scenery, Commedia troupes began using lots of props, masks, and recognizable costumes.  Commedia plays featured several actors in masks and the stories were often made up of the same character tropes, or "stock characters".  These professional actors trained to perfect a specific role or mask.  The fixed social types of characters allowed audiences to be familiar with the story structure.  These types included: foolish old men, bragging officers, mischievous servants, and youths in love.  

Commedia characters can be classified into four basic groups:

  • Zanni (the servants)
  • Vecchi (the masters/elders, usually old men)
  • the Capitani (the middle- to high-class, boastful characters, often actual captains)
  • Innamorati (the young pair who are in love.  The obstacles to their being together are typically the plot of the play)

Female characters are rarely found among the Vecchi, but can be a part of the Zanni or Capitani, and make up one half of the Innamorati.  Women in commedia usually do not where masks.  Male Innamorati are not masked, but male Vecchi, Zanni, and Capitani are masked (with certain exceptions who wear facepaint instead).

A commedia script was usually about 3 pages long, and only included the basic plot and when characters should enter or exit.  So the troupe would improvise the actual dialogue, in order to move all the way through the plot.  The general plot of a commedia play is as follows:  The Vecchi characters boss around the Zanni characters.  The Innamorati are the children of the Vecchi and they are in love, but are prevented from being together.  Usually this is because of the Vecchi's plans, most often marrying off the Innamorata to another Vecchi.  The Capitani comes in and complicate things.  The Zanni characters thwart everyone's plans, whether on purpose or by accident, and--usually--the Innamorati succeed in being together in the end.

A few fun facts about Commedia: 

-This was the first time that women acted onstage!  The first documented performance by a female actress was in 1566 when Vincenza Armani performed, but there is evidence that women were performing in Commedia shows as early as the 1540s.

-The colorful, patterned clothes of Arlecchino and the white-painted face of Pierrot were big influences for modern-day clowns.  Arlecchino wass often seen in clothes patterned with diamonds, and the term "Harlequin" is influenced by his name.

Check out the chart below for a quick lesson on commedia's most common characters.