Commedia dell'Arte

Since 1992, I have been a member of I Sebastiani, a commedia dell'arte troupe that has 8 to 12 performances a year, mostly within the Society for Creative Anachronism.

What is Commedia dell'Arte? It is a form of improvisational comedy, which began in Italy during the 16th century and spread out from there. The performers (not actors) have a scenario in outline form. A professional (i.e., doing it for a living) troupe would have a week or so to improvise an entire performance from stage directions like "Pedrolino and Oratio enter and do something funny" or, our own personal favorite, "Everyone comes on stage and everything is resolved happily".

To clear up a few misconceptions about commedia: since it's improvised and comedy, people seem to think it's easy. Actually, these two features make it by far the hardest form of Western theater.

Characters are stock, but usually include:

Pantalone is a merchant of Venice (of whom we'll have more to say later). He's rich, he's greedy, and he's miserly.
Gratiano is a pedant, usually a lawyer. Because Pantalone and Gratiano are old male characters, they are referred to as the "vecchi", which is Italian for old male characters.
Pedrolino and Arlecchino
These are the servants of the old men. Collectively they are known as zanni.

In addition, most plays include amarosi (the lovers), Capitano (a blustering Spanish Captain who's afraid of his own shadow), villains, and others.

Commedia, despite being an Italian art form, has had a great influence on English. Let's start off with a few of the basics:

Now for the big influences. I'll just explicitly mention one, from Scenarios of the Commedia dell'Arte, a translation of Flaminio la Scala's collection of scenario (published in 1611) (taken from the argument, or introduction to the play): There lived in Florence two gentlemen called Pantalone and Gratiano. They were of old and noble families, and bore a long hatred for each other ... Oratio [Pantalone's son] had fallen in love with Isabella, daughter of his enemy [Gratiano] ... [Isabella] took, with the help of a physician, a potion which would put her into a death-like sleep ... Recognize it? Sure. Except while Shakespeare turned it into a tragedy, this was actually the setup for a comedy. In point of fact, many of Shakespeare's plays (Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Tempest to name two) share so many points of similarity with commedia scenarios that it seems pretty likely that Shakespeare had to have seen them, or at least known about them.

So, think you can be a commedia dell'arte performer? Try this scenario on for size.

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