Written and Edited by Lindsay Price February, 2012
Our tour through theatre history continues with a look at commedia dell’arte. Background, characters, exercises and more!
“The scenario is no more than the fabric of scenes woven from a plot, which brief hints of the action, divided into acts and scenes, which are to be acted extemporaneously by the performers.”
~ Andrea Perrucci, dell'arte rappresentativa, premeditate ed all' improvviso
Commedia dell'arte is a improvised comedic theatre form that flourished in Italy in the 1500’s. The exact origins of Commedia are fuzzy and hard to pin down. There is not much documented previously to the 16th century. The term itself (Commedia dell’arte) wasn’t put to common use until the 18th century. It is generally acknowledged that the form solidified in Italy in the 1550’s and reached its peak in the 1650’s. Despite an opaque history, the elements that define Commedia are quite clear:
Commedia performers travelled in troupes from town to town and performed outside in town squares on makeshift stages. Actors relied on costumes and props rather than elaborate sets. Famous troupes began to emerge as the style evolved. The Gelosi (The Jealous) had their own coat of arms, and their motto was perfect for a Commedia troupe: Virtu, fama ed honor ne fer gelosi - “We are jealous of attaining virtue, fame, and honor."
“In size, the troupes averaged ten to twelve members; seven or eight men and three or four women. A typical troupe included two sets of lovers, a servant girl, a capitano, two zanni, and two old men...productions were supervised by the leader or most respected member of a troupe. It was the leader’s responsibility to explain the characters, clarify the action, enumerate the lazzi and acquire the properties needed.”
~ Oscar Brockett, History of the Theatre
One unique difference with Commedia dell’arte in comparison to previous theatre eras is that women performed their roles (instead of being played by men). The most famous Commedia actress was Isabella Andreini, a member of the Gelosi. She was known for playing the female lover character, the Inamorata. Her tour de force performance was called Pazzia d'Isabella (Isabella's madness). During the show, Isabella goes mad by speaking several languages, singing in French, and imitating all of the other characters, male and female. After her death, her name became synonymous with the Inamorata role.
It’s a misconception to think of Commedia improvisation as actors just making everything up on the spot. Yes, the lines of the play would have been improvised each time they performed, but the actors were also following well laid out scenarios, well defined lazzi (each actor would have had several lazzi in their arsenal) and specifically detailed characters. Many actors only played one or two characters in their lifetime (like Isbella Andreini above) so they would have years of practice to draw on as they “improvised.” Since Commedia troupes (often comprised of close family members) spent all their time together, they would have worked well together as they brought the plays to life.
There are a number of definitions of the phrase Commedia dell’arte:
battacio: Slap stick. Carried by Arlecchino.
battute: Set dialogue that always happens between two specific characters.
burla: Improvised comic bit or practical joke done by the servants, often involving 2 actors.
concetti: A set character speech, something that a certain character always says.
lazzi: A physical comic bit in the middle of the play unrelated to the plot. Each actor would have a number of lazzi in their repertoire. They were acrobatic, exaggerated, and often obscene.
innamorati: The lovers. These were unmasked characters. Males are innamorato, females are innamorata.
scenario: The outline of the play or scene.
stock characters: Commedia characters are set and never change from play to play. They follow the same set of personality quirks, gestures, movements, masks and costumes regardless of who plays them.
vecchio: The masters, usually old men.
zanni: The servants.
zibaldone: Reference book holding lazzi, concetti, battute, and stock phrases for a single character. Each actor had one.
“The characters have been compared to barnyard inhabitants. Hens, chicks, roosters, capons, ducks, peacocks - all the farmyard bipeds make us laugh, their walks absurd parodies of man's own gait. Pantalone, Arlecchino, Columbina, Smeraldina, Brighella, Capitano, Dottore and the others are not identified so much by the color and cut of their costumes as by the walk, the gesture, the manner in which each uses his "feathers" to express pride, joy, anger, and sorrow, alternately swelling and drooping, preening and ruffling, as he picks his way like a strutting fowl, ever vulnerable, across the stage before the appreciative eyes of the audience”
- Carlo Mazzone-Clementi with Jane Hill, The Drama Review
Commedia characters are not known for subtext or subtle back story. They are big, bold, and physically exaggerated. They know what they want, they say what they want and they go after what they want. But Commedia characters never get what they want. They never change, grow or develop in the course of a play. It’s an endless loop of heightened frustration, which is the heart of the comedy.
The characters are fixed types who fall into one of three categories:
The masters are usually foolish greedy old men, and the servants are hungry and mischievous. The young lovers are always in love. Most of the characters wear masks, but even those without masks (e.g. the Lovers) treat their personas as masks. In Commedia, the characteristics of a character (such as a walk, a pose, or gesture) are just like wearing a mask.
“Commedia makes the actor the most important element in the play since language is negligible and plot is simple.”
- Bari Rolfe, Commedia dell’arte: A Scene Study Book
As the characters remain the same regardless of the story they're involved in, you would be able to recognize a Commedia stock character in an instant by how they move, what they wear, and how they act.
Old Venetian Merchant. Rich and greedy miser. Obsessed with money. Always after women and thinks he’s good at it. Gullible and often tricked.
Costume: Red pants and top with a flowing black cloak. Has a money bag.
Mask: Long pointed nose. Often has a moustache and bushy eyebrows.
Movement: Leads with the forehead and has a hunched back with bent knees. Fluttery hands, which he tries to contain by clasping them behind his back. Always bent over trying to keep his money safe!
Servant, poor, always wanting money, always hungry. Carries a bat/slapstick. Stupid and smart at the same time. Doesn’t want to work but eager to please.
Costume: Tight fitting patchwork colourful costume.
Mask: Black mask. Small eyes. Catlike face.
Movement: Low status. Very acrobatic and quick. Leads with his knees and is very active, always on the move, never moving in a straight line. Think monkey.
The young lovers. (Innamorato & Innamorata) These characters are very much in love with love. They love each other, they love themselves. They carry mirrors so that they can look at themselves as often as possible. They act completely over the top in their infatuations like Soap Opera characters. They have no notion of the consequences of their actions, nor are they all that bright. They’re totally focused on the notion of love. Common female names are Isabella and Valentina. Common male names are Flavio, Leandro and Ottavio. They don’t wear masks, but do wear makeup. They are always young and attractive.
Costume: Think Italian Renaissance Princes and Princesses. They are covered head to toe, perhaps excessively, in the best fashions and finery.
Movement: High status. Whatever they do, it’s melodramatic and over the top. They glide instead of walk. They show pride in their appearance, and in how much they love themselves.
Servant. Name means Little Dove. A female version of Arlecchino - quick wit, vain, never in love. Often a servant to Isabella, an Innamorata. Usually the smartest character on stage.
Mask: Sometimes she wears a mask and sometimes not. If she does, it’s a small one that only covers the eyes.
Costume: Often dressed in similar colours to Arlecchino. Cap and apron. Dressed as a lady’s maid.
Movement: Though she’s a servant, and therefore low status, her movements correspond to her strong, quick-witted character. She stands with a hip cocked to the side, hands on hips. She moves with quick strong steps.
Not often a real doctor, more likely a professor, a lawyer, philosopher. Often spouting knowledge at the most inopportune time. His diagnosis of any situation is always wrong and makes no sense. Never stops talking and what he talks is nonsense. Know it all, but knows nothing. Fat.
Costume: Dressed in black academic garb. Black jacket (think graduation gown), black skullcap and a mortarboard.
Mask: Only covers the forehead and the nose with the actor’s cheeks bare. Round nose.
Movement: Focus on Il Dottore’s large size - it affects his movement. It’s all about the body. The weight is in the heels and the movement is slow. Think of a pig.
The tough servant. Arrogant, violent, womanizer. No morals. Liar. Always on the pursuit for food. Ready for a fight. Ready for trouble.
Costume: dressed as a servant, wears a white costume. Carries a dagger.
Mask: A green half mask.
Movement: Focus on the fact that he’s ready for a fight. Think of a big cat like a cheetah or a panther.
It seems that Il Capitano is a man's man, a soldier, a warrior who brags about his exploits. But in fact, he just talks a big game. He has many war stories from conquests in Spain at the ready but really he’s a coward and a scaredy cat.
Costume: He wears the trappings of traditional military garb. He also carries a sword, but never draws it.
Mask: Long pointy nose.
Movement: Seems like a high status character. Walks like a stereotypical hero - big movements, chest puffed out, shoulders square, marching steps, stands at attention. But then when he’s scared he immediately reverts to a low status character.
Origin of name Punch from Punch and Judy. Melancholy. Hates all others and always works alone. Mostly a servant but can be a master as well.
Costume: Dresses in white floppy clothes with a big floppy hat. Carries a stick.
Mask: Black mask with a hook nose not unlike a bird beak. Pulcino in Italian means chick (as in bird).
Movement: Walks and talks like a bird. Squawking and pecking. Stays hunched and close to the ground, except when he explodes out.
Based on the above descriptions of the characters, write down modern equivalents. For example, Bart Simpson is a modern Arlecchio - quick but not that smart, a mischievous trickster. Who would be the modern versions of Pantelone? Il Capitano? The lovers? Columbina?
To enhance their performance, each actor would have a collection of stock words and phrases for their character: a concetti. Il Dottore, for example, might have a couple of Latin phrases that make no sense, or a list of facts about a certain obscure subject. The Lovers would certainly havelovepoetry in their collection. For each of the following characters, come up with an example of a stock phrase or phrases that character would say.
Each character has movement elements listed above. Based on how they move create a silent physical piece involving an entrance, an action and an exit. Based on the specific movements, poses, and gestures, the audience should be able to determine which Commedia character you portray.
“Commedia needs lost souls (of both sexes) as well as honest ones. In it the refined is defined by contact with the unrefined, and the indelicate becomes delectable as a relief from the delicate.”
- Olly Crick and John Rudin, Commedia dell'arte: A Handbook for Troupes
One of the reasons Commedia actors were able to improvise with ease is that there weren’t a lot of different themes to draw from. It boils down to love, money, and food in their most exaggerated forms. The motivation for any Commedia character is to go to the ends of the earth to obtain one of the three. And since Commedia characters are a mix of high status and low status characters, you can be sure any story involves a clash between them. Since the dialogue was improvised it was also easy to add current events and local scandals to the story.
I recently read a description of Commedia scenarios as “earthy,” which is a rather lovely way of saying Commedia can be downright obscene. True Commedia is not for the faint of heart! Many of the characters don’t pursue love per se, they seek out sex or adultery. Pantalone is often portrayed as a letch. The best way to describe the stories is that there is always someone who lusts after something: lusts after a person, after gold, after food. To keep that image in your mind is going to go a long way to finding the right tone in performance.
Flaminio Scala, a Commedia actor from the 16th century published a collection of 50 scenarios called Il Teatro Delle Favole Rappresentative. Some of his scenario titles are: The Pranks of Isabella, The Old Twins, The Hunt, Flavio Betrayed, The Jealous Old Man, The Desperate Doctor, The Mirror, The Just Punishment, and The Fake Servants.
Come up with stories that would go with the above Flaminio Scala titles.
The three main themes for Commedia are love, money and food in the extreme. In groups come up with a modern scene that explores one of these themes. Also include characters in clashing status groups. Example: A boss scratches a winning lottery ticket, and a lowly clerk goes to the extreme to get that ticket from his boss.
Lazzi (or Lazzo in the singular) are practised and predetermined comic bits. They could either be performed individually or in groups. Each actor has a repertoire of Lazzi at their disposal. Lazzi don’t connect to the plot or move the story forward. Their purpose is to make the audience laugh.
Come up with a routine for one of following lazzi. Remember the job of the lazzi is to make the audience laugh, so that is your job as well. The characters have been keep general, so make sure you choose a specific stock character to play.
Hunger: The character is so hungry that they decide to start eating their shoes, clothes, anything they can get their hands on.
Favourite Food: A character lusts after their favourite food, almost like they are courting it.
Bad Breath: A servant convinces their master the only way to stop his bad breath is to remove his teeth.
The Brave General: A character talks a big talk, and then shows his true cowardly colours when a mouse crosses his path.
Flirt: A character keeps flirting with another but keeps running into walls, tripping, and falling.
Mad Love: A character is so in love with another, they go mad.
The Surgery: A doctor performs surgery with disastrous results.
Flatulence: A character has a bout of uncontrollable farts.
Lost Money: A character has hidden a large sum of coins, and forgotten where they are.
The Flea: A character attempts to catch a flea with much acrobatics.
Snatching Food: Just as two of the inamorata are about to eat something, the food gets snatched away
Defend: A young woman is offended and demands a man to defend her honour.
There are very few existing scripts for Commedia plays, as they were never written down. The one that many point to is The Servant of Two Masters, written in 1743 by Carlo Goldoni,an Italian playwright.
We have our own Commedia script, The Scarlet Heart written by Allison Williams. A hungry, greedy crew lust after a huge gem. Of course, there’s not one competent thief in the bunch and even though Pantelone owns the gem, he’s not doing a great job of keeping it safe.
Here are five lazzi from The Scarlet Heart. In groups put these lazzi into action! For all of these, keep the stock characteristics of the particular characters in mind. For example, just because Arlecchino “seriously” courts Columbina, does his character traits allow him to be “serious?”
The Commedia actor is a physical actor. The personality of each character is ground in the pose, the gesture, and the movement. Bigger is better, but what that really means is that the characters want something so much that they must move in an exaggerated fashion to get it. The want is connected to the movement.
Allison Williams wrote the following when I asked her, “What should actors strive for in a Commedia performance?”
Use these exercises to improve your skill and understanding of how to perform Commedia.
As a group, decide on which body parts the different characters lead with depending on their personalities. What do masters lead with? Servants? Then everyone performs an entrance/action/exit piece focusing on the body part lead. Those watching should be able to guess.
Perform a scene where the characters are animals. Do the dialogue in grunts, moos, squawks, and neighs! Then repeat the scene with the characters acting as their human selves while keeping the physical nature of their animal. Relate the animals to the characteristics of stock characters - Brighella is often seen as a rat or a snake. Arlecchino is seen as a cat or monkey.
In pairs, students create a mime in which one gives a present to the other. The key is to make the reaction to the present as exaggerated as possible. Do it twice, once with a positive reaction, and once with a negative reaction.
In pairs, create a scene on any topic. But one of the characters desperately wants the money he/she knows the other has in his/her pocket. How do they get it?
In pairs, create a scene on any topic. But one of the characters is devastatingly hungry throughout the scene. How does that impact the conversation, what the character does to find food, and what the other character wants in the scene?
In pairs, create a scene on any topic. But one of the characters desperately wants the other to help them get the attention of a third. In a second scene, a character wants the attention of another, who is ignoring them. What does the first character do to get what they want?
In pairs, students create a scene which shows the status differences between master and servants. The most important part of the scene should be the physical differences: gestures, poses, movements.
A group scene where there is a character from each category (zanni, vechhi, inamorati) in the same scene each possessing one of the wants. (love, hunger, greed)