What we know as 'Commedia dell'Arte' (comedy of the arts, or of the 'artistes') is believed to have begun in Italy, but itinerant bands of players would have travelled the whole of Europe, so it is difficult to be precise about its origins. However, they are frequently referred to as 'Italians' in surviving legislation against them.
Popular theatre had been in existence from the Classical era, and in Italy had an almost unbroken run. The ultra-conservative Catholic Church had attempted to stamp out such performances, preferring more political and religious topics. From the late 15th Century, as the Renaissance began to develop, more secular subjects became common. These consisted of entertainments of a more popular nature and were composed of both male and female performers.
The performers themselves were a motley crew, who besides being actors were also tumblers, jugglers, prostitutes, gigolos, thieves and other disreputable types. Besides their 'stage' performance, there would be other impromptu displays and distractions (essentially the Renaissance equivalent of both Disneyland and the Hell's Angels turning up in your local high street at the same time). They lived initially outside the law and various edicts were passed against their performing. Despite these edicts and prohibitions, they flourished. The performers mocked the establishment, political and religious personalities, and made great use of regional stereotypes. It isn't known whether they adjusted these stereotypes for foreign audiences; it is presumed that if they didn't, the performances would have lost some of their appeal.
The shows themselves were what we would call improvisation. There were no set scripts so each show would be unique. The frameworks were borrowed from classical sources, as well as popular folk tales. There was a finite number of stock scenes, situations and conclusions, which were bundled together to provide a coherent storyline.
Each performer would use many Lazzi (stock comedy routines or visual gags) into which he injected his own talents, quirks of behaviour and technique. Lazzi were chosen from a large common repertoire according to the character portrayed (such as the Lazzo of the Dottore accidentally taking his own medicine), and were often interpolated ad lib.
In time, there emerged an established cast of characters, which were recognisable across the bands. However, if performers were very popular, public demand dictated that the characters they portrayed would become more important to the story. This led to some diversity between the bands, as minor characters in one band could be major characters in another.
It should be noted that the performances themselves come to us second-hand and we can only guess at the style and mood in which they were originaly performed.
The stories were very fluid, which is hard to describe, but if you were to imagine a typical scenario it would be very akin to Romeo and Juliet played for laughs.
Characters were divided into three main classes; Vecchi, Inamorata, and Zanni. There were also outsiders who were primarily used to provide a distraction while costume and scene changes were executed. The settings of the various characters within each class were fluid and not always the same from one company to the next.
Essentially there would be two opposing families headed by their respective patriarchs, the Vecchi. The basis for the opposition could either be rivalry, as in Romeo and Juliet, or class-based, where one family was of slightly lower status than the other. Each family would have at least one 'child' destined to fall in love with one of the 'children' of the opposing family; these lovers were termed the Inamorata1.
Supporting these characters were the Zanni or servants. These could be either servants proper, or characters of similar status to the principles, but providing a supporting role. Using the Romeo and Juliet analogy, Mercutio and Tybalt would be Zanni, despite their social status.
The 'masters' of each household were, generally speaking, the following stock characters:
A rich merchant; a greedy and miserly figure. He either has a daughter of marriageable age, or is himself a widower. He is also portrayed as pompous, arrogant and lecherous, and very much in the fashion of the day, which was stretched to ridiculous extremes - enormous breeches2, slippers and over-large ruffs etc. Everything he portrays is bigger and better than anyone else's. His comedy facet is his attempt to impose his authority on other characters within the Commedia, which invariably fails.
Alternatively he can be portrayed as a penniless aristocrat, who is attempting to marry his heir or heiress into 'new money'.
Il Dottore or Gratiano ('The Doctor')
Il Dottore is either a doctor or lawyer etc; poorer than the merchant and driven by aspiration to riches. Other traits include deviousness and cunning, but without vision. It is his son, who will be the tool to attain this goal through his courting of (and the eventual dowry from) the daughter of the other Vecchi. An alternative scenario involves the marriage of a daughter to a much older Pantalone.
The Doctor is invariably a 'Renaissance man', university-educated and fond of providing advice even when he knows little about the subject involved. He is frequently portrayed as a 'cuckolded' husband.
The Inamorata ('The Lovers')
Characters for these two can vary. The usual scenario is for the male to be the Doctor's son and for the female to be Pantaloon's daughter. As stated before, a wedding between the two would seemingly benefit the Doctor through her dowry.
Invariably both of the lovers are in love with the idea of being in love, and not necessarily with each other. Some plot outlines involve the frustration of the Doctor as his child's attentions wander everywhere but where the Doctor wants it to go.
Other alternatives involve Pantalone kidnapping his daughter to prevent her meeting the Doctor's son. This is usually a sub-plot involving a particularly inept Zanni.
Invariably, the lovers are portrayed as fickle and feckless, and totally oblivious of the consequences of their actions. Shakespeare's lovers learn from their mistakes; Commedia lovers don't. They are invariably spoilt, vain, blinkered, and naïve.
The Zanni are the true characters of the Commedia3. They are the catalysts to the performance. Although there are a variety of characters, the ones outlined below are the ones which endured and remained popular. Popular presentations and demarcations of each character vary, so the character details are merely one version of each character's make-up.
Although typically pictured as servants, the Zanni could be family members, or characters outside of the families. Many Zanni became independent of the Commedia itself, and developed into primary characters in their own right.
The unnamed Zanni are seen as uncomplicated creatures, eager to serve, and possessing only the desire to fulfil their basic needs, which were sleep, food and sex. Zanni can sleep anywhere and at anytime4. Invariably most Zanni are portrayed as country bumpkin types, slow, plodding and unintelligent.
Female Zanni are the crowd pullers of the Commedia and as such they share a complicity with the audience and frequently interact with them. This interaction usually involves theatrically 'whispered' asides, and short speeches to the audience, just as in modern pantomime ('Oh no it isn't...'). Sometimes this interaction continues after the performance, as many actresses were also prostitutes. A skilled female Zanni would, however, convince every male in the audience that it was their 'lucky day', sometimes eliciting money without actually granting them their favours.
The most popular Zanni have names and are fairly common across troupes. Their characteristics vary, however, and one perception of Harlequin, for example, could be at variance with another interpretation. The profiles below are an amalgam of commonly perceived roles and characteristics.
The sharpest and wittiest of the Zanni, Harlequin can frequently be a main character in a Commedia plot, or have his own storyline as a diversion within the performance itself. The name Arlecchino is thought to be derived from the Italian for 'Little Devil'5. Normally Harlequin is accompanied by Pedrolino as either a fellow servant or companion, depending on the emphasis placed on Harlequin within the particular troupe.
Harlequin is also a satirist or mimic of his 'betters' and is frequently used to portray 'youthful' attitudes that many of the audience can identify with. Many troupes used Harlequin to satirise either characters from 'serious' plays or political figures. Like Franceschina, Harlequin speaks directly to the audience at times.
Harlequin is both hedonistic and insatiable, whatever his desires. He lives on his wits, but is either not particularly intelligent (not learning from his mistakes) or extremely intelligent and mischievous. He usually has some duty to perform, which he invariably neglects. A nimble and agile character, an acrobat normally plays Harlequin, who is also often portrayed as a thief, a womaniser and a good-natured rogue. He forms the head of the eternal triangle with Pedrolino and Columbina. Pedrolino loves Columbina, who in turn loves Harlequin. Harlequin either loves Columbina - but frequently strays - or merely lusts after her.
In some troupes, the Harlequin is the typical 'clown' or buffoon whose antics include 'slapstick' routines, visual comedy, 'pratfalls' and other simple comedic forms. In this role Harlequin is invariably hampered by some impediment, whether it is his inability to read and write, or his being a foreigner, depending on the scenario within the troupe. Many Commedia plots rely on Harlequin causing or making an error, which he then spends the entire performance putting to rights, with the inevitable misunderstandings and confusion in between. He uses his wits and agility to escape from the holes he has dug for himself.
Typically seen as the straight-man for Harlequin, this image cheapens the character of Pedrolino. Were the world as it should be, Pedrolino would be the 'lover'. Typically Pedrolino would be portrayed as the lowest of the low, either a street urchin, or the youngest son of the family. His clothes are made from sacking, hence his white face from the flour they have contained in the past. In many ways he is a male Cinderella without the fairy godmother. He is at one with nature, deep and spiritual. Sometimes Pedrolino is a mute and conveys his part through facial expressions and gestures alone; Pierrot's single teardrop is believed to be derived from this facet.
Good natured if lacking in intelligence, Pedrolino is constantly put down by the other characters, but never sinks for long. He draws sympathy from the audience, especially the few females there. Pedrolino loves Columbina with unparalleled devotion, but his love is unrequited. The only time Columbina bothers with him is to get him to tell her about Harlequin, or convey a message to him. Buttons from Cinderella, Baldrick from 'Blackadder' and Harpo Marx are all derived from the Pedrolino character.
Usually a maidservant of one of the Vecchi, or a companion to the female Amorata. Columbina's name means 'little dove'. She typically loves, or eventually falls for, Harlequin; she can see through him, but believes she can change him in time6. She is flirtatious, spirited yet sensitive, interfering and above all a gossip, nosy and an intriguer. She is essentially lazy and dreamy, but believes she is overworked and indispensable to her master or mistress. Like Franceschina she is promiscuous, but uses her wiles to get information or service, rather than for monetary gain; she draws the lines at actually 'delivering the goods' though.
Il Capitano ('The Captain')
Despite conveying a heroic image and 'machismo', the Captain is a liar, coward and braggart. Originally he was a satire on the many professional soldiers found wandering Italy during the 16th Century. He tells tales of his service, invariably showing himself as the hero of the story. Whenever he is called on to show his mettle however, some ingenious excuse or event occurs or is fabricated to prevent him from actually acting or drawing his sword. He possesses intelligence and cunning and can turn almost any situation to his advantage.
The Captain is the most attention-grabbing Zanni: he is constantly showing off and playing to the audience. The eventual end to the show, however, is his exposure as a fraud. Comic effects of the Captain would be to have him afraid of his own shadow, or a mouse, etc. Every act the Captain performs is fraudulent, and every word he utters is a lie.
Unlike the rest of the Zanni, he is an outsider, but other Zanni can be found in his service. A typical scenario outline could have a band of soldiers with the Captain as their head, and containing an Amorata and his companions, ie Harlequin and Pedrolino. Brighella and Pulcinello in turn would oppose them. The setting would be a town where the other characters lived. In this role he would perhaps replace the Doctor as a Vecchi.
Typically the most 'normal' character in the Commedia, Franceschina watches the actions of the other characters unfold around her. Her purpose is to link with the audience, narrate the storyline, and provide explanations to what is happening, hinting at what is to come. The most promiscuous Zanni, she frequently leans down to talk to the crowd displaying her 'charms' in order to attract the mostly male audience. One of the plot threads sometimes involves Pantalone lavishing his attention on her, and Franceschina has to get as much out of him as she can before rejecting him7.
Typically portrayed as hunch-backed, ugly and occasionally fat, Punch is a nasty piece of work; he is a vicious thug, thief and woman-beater. He has innumerable children whom he invariably mistreats too. A variant shows him as loyal to his children only. Lacking intelligence, but possessing a low cunning, Pulcinello is used to perform the evil deeds his masters occasionally require.
Brighella ('Scaramouche' or 'Scapino')
The purpose of Scaramouche is to goad others into action. He schemes and plots to gain some financial advantage out of playing one character off against the other. Invariably he has some position that enables him to do this, such as a minor merchant, or sergeant to Il Capitano, etc. In many ways he is Harlequin's evil twin, character-wise. Always looking for an easy mark, crude, rude and argumentative, he also delights in making jokes at the expense of others.
The End of the Commedia
The Commedia grew and flourished throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries. Many troupes settled within France, where it became known as the Comedié Italiénne. During this time, the names of the characters were developed into the French names. By the end of the 17th Century the Commedia began to lose its originality, many of the plots became commonplace, and the verbal comedy began to be replaced by visual comedy.
One of the features of the Commedia had been its satirisation of current events, and this also began to fade as players failed to adapt their roles to meet new trends in society, becoming antiquated and stale. Some characters merged with others to produce a simplified Commedia form, Columbina and Franceschina merged, as did Il Capitano and Brighella in the form of Scaramouche.
In England, Harlequin became a character in his own right, and usually got a scene of his own; the 'Harlequinade' within a pantomime. Pulcinella became a puppet character within the stylised 'Punch and Judy' shows.
Commedia survives in a simplified form in certain places, and resurrections are frequently attempted and are relatively successful, but how much these compare with the original style and content of the original is anyone's guess. Despite this, the form has survived in some other way, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton all carried on the traditions established by the Commedia. Modern films also retain many of the elements that would be familiar to Commedia goers, for example, Anchors Aweigh (MGM 1945) the musical starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, was a typical Commedia scenario featuring Inamorata and Zanni in a convoluted plot.
The appeal of Commedia in its time was due to its originality and non-conformity, it was a unique and risqué entertainment. It has little space in a world where there is a multitude of entertainment options, and modern recreation can never capture the spontaneity and originality of this form. Many troupes call themselves 'Commedia Players' but they can only capture a small amount of the feeling of the true form, and attempt to convey its meaning to an audience that has seen it all before, whether it be musical comedy, Only Fools and Horses8, Fresh Prince of Bel-air, or The Simpsons.
There are innumerable web pages devoted to the Commedia, and each has its own slant on the characteristics of certain elements.
The following books were consulted during the writing of this entry:
Commedia dell'Arte: A Handbook For Actors by John Rudlin
Commedia dell'Arte: A Resource Book For Troupes by John Rudlin and Olly Crick
Studies in the Commedia dell'Arte Eds: David J George and Christopher J Gossip
The World of Harlequin by Allardyce Nicholl