Commedia dell'Arte is a theatrical style with origins in Renaissance Italy. The style lasted for more than two centuries, before it declined in the 18th century and was replaced by more formalized theatre. The first performances were put on by charlatans, Italian market place merchants selling their goods in the plazas. They would stand on benches and call out their wares, while masked jugglers and acrobats leaped about. After this a play would follow.

Began around Tuscany in 1550, but obviously based on the ancient comedies of Rome (by writers like Plautus) interpreted through bands of touring actors. A nonliterary form, it depended not on writers but on improvised dialogue in standard scenarios and well-rehearsed lazzi (comic routines). The shows contained stock character types such as Pantalone, the ineffective patriarch, Dottore, the educated busybody, Arlechinno, the clever servant-- each with a distinctive costume and half-mask. The stories usually centered on themes of sex, greed, and status, and the improvisation allowed plenty of room for references to topical events and local persons.

By the 17th century, the form had spread across Europe. The work of playwrights like Moliere, Ben Jonson, and Lope de Bega reflect the influence of the commedia. The stock characters and topical references continued to evolve into forms such as Punch and Judy shows, vaudeville and sitcoms.

"Commedia dell'arte" literally means "comedy of the professional players". It can be linked to a dramatic tradition of Ancient Rome , the Atellan farce, which dated back to before the expansion of the Roman Empire and the resulting influx of the Classical Greek Theatre. Like commedia performances, the Atellan farce was composed of improv comedy skits featuring stock characters performed by masked actors.

Commedia dell'arte became popular throughout Europe in the 16th century C.E. It was performed by itinerant troupes, with a single exception; one commedia troupe was attached to Louis XIV, "the Sun King", during part of his reign, and had a home in Paris. The practical value of itinerancy and improvised dialogue was that commedia players were able to sneak in political satire occasionally, poking fun at various personages that they would never have been able to get away with poking fun at had the troupe had any sort of script that authority figures could examine and censor, or any vested interest in a single town.

Commedia troupes were composed of both actors and actresses, and were about ten to twelve in number. The plots usually centered on a pair of lovers, the Innamorato and his Innamorata, who did not wear masks. (Sometimes, there was a second pair of these figures as well.) These lovers were invariably young and attractive. They were surrounded by a cast composed of the Capitano, a military man who talked big but was actually a coward; the Pantalone, an elderly man who was something of a dupe and frequently schemed after the Innamorata; the Dottore, a friend of the Pantalone who was always a pedant and occasionally an actual doctor; and the Zanni characters (from which we derive the word "zany"), who played a variety of comedic roles, most frequently those of a group of sly servants. The Arlecchino, or Harlequin, is the most famous example of a Zanni role. The reason that Arlecchino became so well known is that he was made the protagonist of a wide selection of English afterpiece plays produced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries C.E. (The afterpiece was a sort of sketch that followed the main dramatic performance at this point in the history of English drama. Frequently, this sketch involved Harlequin encountering a famous figure from Greek mythology.)

These stock characters were easily identified by their masks and costumes. The Capitano had a sword and a cape, the Pantalone and Dottore wore stockings, breeches, and slippers, and the Arlecchino wore a patched costume that was later refined into the now-famous interlocking diamond pattern. The Arlecchino also had a prop which distinguished him: the slapstick, the purpose of which should be self-evident. From this prop, we derive the modern term "slapstick comedy", and this should give the reader some idea of the level of sophistication involved in the humor of commedia dell'arte.

Chief source for this writeup: The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama, 3rd Edition.

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