Commedia dell’arte – Definition & Detailed Explanation – Acting Glossary Terms

I. What is Commedia dell’arte?

Commedia dell’arte is a form of Italian theatre that emerged in the 16th century and became popular throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The term “commedia dell’arte” translates to “comedy of the profession” or “comedy of the guild” in Italian. It is characterized by its use of stock characters, improvisation, and masks.

One of the defining features of Commedia dell’arte is its use of stock characters, each of which represents a specific social or professional type. These characters wear masks and costumes that help to identify them and distinguish their personalities. The performances are often based on a basic plot outline, with the actors improvising much of the dialogue and action.

Commedia dell’arte was performed by itinerant troupes of actors who traveled from town to town, performing in marketplaces, courtyards, and other public spaces. The performances were often bawdy and raucous, with a focus on physical comedy, wordplay, and satire. The actors would often interact with the audience, incorporating their reactions into the performance.

II. What are the Stock Characters in Commedia dell’arte?

Commedia dell’arte features a set of stock characters that appear in almost every performance. These characters are archetypal figures that represent different social classes and professions. Some of the most well-known stock characters include:

– Pantalone: a wealthy merchant who is often portrayed as greedy, lecherous, and foolish.
– Harlequin: a mischievous servant who wears a colorful costume and mask. Harlequin is known for his acrobatic skills and quick wit.
– Columbina: a clever and resourceful servant who often outsmarts her masters. Columbina is usually in love with Harlequin.
– Il Dottore: a pompous and arrogant doctor or lawyer who is easily fooled by the other characters.
– Pulcinella: a hunchbacked servant who is known for his physical comedy and slapstick humor.

These stock characters are instantly recognizable to audiences and provide a framework for the actors to build their performances around. Each character has specific traits, mannerisms, and relationships with the other characters, creating a rich tapestry of comedic possibilities.

III. What is the Improvisational Nature of Commedia dell’arte?

One of the key elements of Commedia dell’arte is its improvisational nature. While the performances are based on a basic plot outline, much of the dialogue and action is improvised by the actors. This improvisation allows the actors to respond to the audience, incorporate current events or local references, and keep the performances fresh and spontaneous.

The actors in Commedia dell’arte are skilled in the art of improvisation, able to think on their feet and create witty dialogue on the spot. This improvisational style of performance requires quick thinking, sharp timing, and a strong rapport between the actors. It also allows for a sense of unpredictability and excitement in the performances, keeping both the actors and the audience engaged.

IV. What are the Masks and Costumes in Commedia dell’arte?

Masks and costumes play a crucial role in Commedia dell’arte, helping to define the stock characters and enhance the physical comedy of the performances. Each stock character has a distinctive mask and costume that reflects their personality and social status.

The masks used in Commedia dell’arte are often made of leather and feature exaggerated facial expressions, such as large noses, bulging eyes, or wide grins. These masks help to amplify the emotions and intentions of the characters, making their actions more visible and exaggerated for the audience.

The costumes in Commedia dell’arte are also highly stylized, with bright colors, bold patterns, and exaggerated silhouettes. The costumes help to distinguish the characters from one another and emphasize their personalities and social roles. For example, Pantalone might wear a richly embroidered coat and a large hat, while Harlequin might wear a patchwork costume and a pointed hat with bells.

V. What is the Influence of Commedia dell’arte on Modern Acting Techniques?

Commedia dell’arte has had a significant influence on modern acting techniques, particularly in the areas of physical comedy, improvisation, and character development. The use of masks and costumes in Commedia dell’arte has inspired contemporary actors to explore the physicality of their performances and experiment with different ways of expressing emotion and intention.

The improvisational nature of Commedia dell’arte has also had a lasting impact on modern acting, encouraging actors to be more spontaneous, responsive, and creative in their work. Improvisation exercises and techniques derived from Commedia dell’arte are commonly used in acting classes and workshops to help actors develop their skills and build their confidence on stage.

The stock characters of Commedia dell’arte have become archetypes that continue to resonate with audiences today. Many of the character types and comedic situations found in Commedia dell’arte have been adapted and reimagined in modern plays, films, and television shows, demonstrating the enduring appeal and relevance of this theatrical tradition.

VI. What are Some Famous Commedia dell’arte Plays and Characters?

Some of the most famous Commedia dell’arte plays and characters include:

– “The Servant of Two Masters” by Carlo Goldoni, featuring the clever servant Arlecchino (Harlequin) and his attempts to serve two masters at once.
– “The Doctor in Spite of Himself” by Molière, inspired by the Commedia dell’arte character Il Dottore and his humorous misadventures.
– “The Liar” by Pierre Corneille, a comedy of mistaken identities and romantic entanglements that draws on the stock characters of Commedia dell’arte.

These plays and characters have been adapted and reinterpreted by countless artists over the centuries, demonstrating the enduring popularity and influence of Commedia dell’arte on the world of theatre and performance.