Commedia dell’arte is a theater form that had its roots in Italy. It began in the 16th century and continued to be popular until the 18th century. While this type of theater has no direct translation in English, it’s commonly referred to as “comedy of the profession,” or “comedy of improvisation,” considering that the words for the plays were usually made up and hardly ever written down.
Apart from improvised acting, other notable qualities of Commedia dell’arte are its utilization of commedia masks and the presence of significant characters. The theatrical plays were performed mostly in town squares instead of well-designed stages by a small troupe of professional actors who traveled to various places in Europe.
Setting and Props
The stage for commedia dell’arte is different from the theater set-up of today. It’s far from being flashy as it usually includes one market or street scene background. What it lacks on stage decoration, the plays make up in props. It’s common for actors to use various accessories to tell the story, such as food, weapons, and animals.
Characters and Masks
Love, money, and hunger are common themes in Commedia dell’arte. While plots may vary, some characters frequently appear in the stories, known as “stock characters.” The actors who portray the fixed characters wore Commedia masks, which forced actors to find other means to reveal the emotions of the roles they play.
Each of the masks is specifically designed to fit the temperament of the character. Some of the stock characters and their covers include the following:
- Arlecchino – This character is not only one of the most famous but is also one of the earliest ones used by the Commedia dell’arte. He is described as a person who is silly, absentminded, and always hungry. Arlecchino wears a mask with a short and full nose with catlike features, and a bump on his forehead.
- Brighella – This character is cunning, bossy, and will do anything for money. He can easily deceive the other characters as he is a master of exploiting weaknesses. Brighella wears an olive-green half mask with lustful eyes, long crooked nose, and a disheveled mustache.
- Il Capitano or The Captain – This character is a person who is deceitful, arrogant, and a showoff. His role usually involves bragging about his heroic war experiences. The mask of Il Capitano has a long and almost phallic-like nose.
- Il Dottore or The Doctor – This character portrays as one who likes to drink and eat chocolate. He is also fond of women and had been caught cheating on more than one occasion. Unlike the usual half masks, Il Dottore wears a one-third mask that covers the forehead and nose.
- Pantalone – This character depicts unparalleled greed and the role of money in the world. Pantalone wears a half-mask with prominent bony facial features, long crooked nose, shabby eyebrows, and beard.
- Pulcinella – This character depicts the social chameleon of society. He is a person who ensures that he gets the better end of every situation. Pulcinella’s mask is dark-colored and has a prominent nose.
There are modern plays that exist today, which were heavily influenced by the Commedia dell’arte. These plays still make use of different versions of the comic masks and stock scenarios and characters. This form of art also shaped the English harlequinade and French pantomime.