What is Commedia dell'Arte?
Commedia dell’Arte is a unique and stylised theatrical tradition that was born in Italy (Venice) in the 16th Century. Commedia dell’Arte is a combination of the following:
In this form of theatre, actors would devise a performance by improvising the dialogue and action around a canovaccio or scenario.
Commedia dell’Arte was innovative and ahead of its time for the 16th Century. For example the term, dell’Arte, loosely translates to ‘professional’. This meant that commedia troupes were profitable businesses and actors were recognised and respected as professionals. Commedia was also revolutionary for inventing the concept of the actress. It was the first theatre tradition that allowed and encouraged women to perform on stage, like pioneering actresses, Vincenza Armani and Isabella Andreini. Who became the first celebrity actors of the era!
Social and political satire was a major element of commedia. It was the foundation and inspiration for the stock characters and scenarios. Although commedia is hundreds of years old the concept of satire is still current. Audiences are delighted by impersonations of character types that exist in our society, hence the popularity of brilliant modern day commedia like, ‘Kath and Kim’ or ‘Family Guy’ or ‘The Simpsons’. The exaggerated, larger-than-life characters are similar to the exaggerated grotesque quality of the masks used in commedia.
The stock characters from the Commedia dell’Arte may have been re-invented in our modern day comedies but they are still easily identified and relevant. For example Pantalone (or Il Magnifico) is the archetypal rich, stingy old man. Here we can easily associate, Pantalone, with Mr Burns from ‘The Simpsons’.
The masks in commedia can be inspired by animals or a natural element (fire, air, earth or water) that reflects the character’s traits or idiosyncrasies. The actor then embodies these qualities in their development of the character. For example, Arlecchino’s physicality and attitude reflect his mask, a cross between a cat and a monkey!
* Grommelot  is a convention of Commedia dell’Arte that derives from the French word grommeler, which means to grumble or mumble. In our show, Pantalone’s Inn, there are a few examples of grommelot. Il Dottore speaks his own version of the Latin language. Sometimes, by chance, he manages to get it right. Il Capitano (who is Flaviano pretending to be Spanish) speaks made-up Spanish by adding an ‘s’ to the end of some recognisable Italian words.
The Stock Characters (Tipi Fissi)
In Commedia dell’Arte there are usually four types of stock characters (or tipi fissi). Most of the characters are usually masked with the exception of The Lovers and the female servant Colombina.
Zanni 1 (A servant, sidekick type)
Zanni 2 (Arlecchino, Brighella, Pulcinella, more evolved than Zanni 1)
Colombina (A female servant)
Pantalone (An old man, wealthy, frugal and licentious)
Il Dottore (An academic from the University of Bologna. A know-all who is not necessarily intelligent)
Il Capitano (A narcissistic Spanish militant)
The Lovers (Usually aristocrats and high status characters)