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.
- The performers write the dialog, which means that they have to
have the wit and imagination of a playwright.
- Since it's improvised, there are no "cues" and the
timing requirements are ever so much greater than in regular theater.
- Since it's comedy, the timing requirements are unforgiving. An
actor can be semi-tragic, and people will still feel; if the actor is
semi-funny, no one will laugh at all.
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,
Commedia, despite being an Italian art form, has had a great influence
on English. Let's start off with a few of the basics:
- The word "pants" comes from Pantalone (via pantaloons,
the type of dress that Pantalone wore on stage; before Commedia they
were called Venetian breeches).
- The word "zany" comes from, you guessed it, the two
zanni. This should give you a good idea of how they act on stage.
- Harlequin is the French version of Arlecchino.
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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