Commedia Dell’ Arte: Background

In early Renaissance Italy, theatre was mainly happening privately, in the courts of the rich and the halls of the academies. By the mid-1500s, a new type of theatre for the masses had bloomed, known as the Commedia Dell’ Arte (which can be translated to “professional theatre”).

Even if you have never heard of Commedia before, you have definitely felt its influence. This makes sense, since it was the pervading form of entertainment in continental Europe for an entire two centuries! As we’ll see in later posts, many of the characters are familiar, and the pervading humor isn’t very different from The Three Stooges.

Italy was the center of Europe’s Renaissance, in part because of the vitality of its trade, but also because that was where the influence of Rome was most heavily felt. There, the arts blossomed, in part because of the ruling class status symbol of patronage for artists. It gave talented people time to develop and create artwork that otherwise, most people wouldn’t have the time for.

Commedia has two defining features: stock characters and improvisation.

The actors were both male and female, and for the most part wore easily-recognizable masks that showed their character’s personality. Not every troupe had exactly the same repertoire of parts, but audiences in different countries could recognize the most famous characters from their mask alone. This is familiar to us in the form of a family sitcom: we have the dull-witted husband, the controlling wife, and the smart-aleck kids, who entertain us with a new situation every week. Even if we’re watching a new show, the formula is basically the same.

When we talk about improvisation in Commedia, it’s important to understand that each actor played the same role for many years (often, their entire lives). Therefore, while it wasn’t scripted or planned in advance, the actors had time to tailor their lines based on favorable audience reaction. In addition to the main plot, there were “bits” planned in advance, known plurally as lazzi, which set the base for the individual scenes. (This will be discussed more in a later post.)

Another important feature of Commedia is the emphasis placed on acrobatics and other particular types of movement. Each character had a specific way of moving that was central to the role, and many of their trademarks involved athletic stunts and tumbles, in addition to stage combat. It would have looked very much like the work of Buster Keaton (made even better in this video by the addition of Queen):

Commedia Dell’ Arte’s roots are in the Roman theatre form known as Atellan Farce. Attelan Farce grew out of Greek theatre traditions, modified for a much, much less serious audience. It was obscene, improvisational, and featured stock characters, some that are obviously ancestors of Commedia characters.

The Commedia Dell’ Arte inspired a famous literary figure: Moliere. Moliere (which was his stage name) was a well-educated French playwright who wrote during the late 1600s. You may have heard of Don Juan? That was Moliere. His best talent was comedy, and he would pick-and-choose from Commedia scenarios to add to his work.

From a linguistics perspective, there is one aspect of Commedia that is particularly interesting: Gromalot. Since the actors traveled through a variety of countries that all spoke different languages, they came up with a creative solution to hurdle the language barrier: they used a nonsense language, which came to be known as Gromalot. Skilled actors understand how sounds contribute to meaning, and so do linguists (as we have seen from the famous “kiki” experiment). Therefore, an angry character might use harsh, guttural-sounding nonsense, and a jovial character’s speech might sound round and bubbly.

Here’s a video about Gromalot:

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