Jokes on Wheels: All About Commedia Dell’Arte

Aside from a few esoteric performances, most of them in acting conservatories or in parts of Italy, hardly anyone has seen a true commedia dell’arte show in the flesh. This unique comedic form, derived from Roman comic styles and hugely popular in 16th and 17th century Europe, has all but disappeared from the current theatrical landscape. A simple act of imagination, however, might convey the experience of attending a live commedia performance during the form’s heyday.

Imagine one of the many situational comedies popular on television in the 1980s and ‘90s. Say, for example, “Friends.” Part of the comedy of these shows is built on characters who are predictable types rather than well-rounded psychological figures. To line up the “Friends” cast, roughly, there is the “dumb one” (Joey), the “snarky one” (Chandler), the “nerdy one” (Ross), the “neurotic one” (Monica), the “beautiful one” (Rachel), and the “out-of-touch hippie one” (Phoebe). For eight years, audiences could tune in every week to enjoy the latest madcap adventures of their favorite stock characters. Now imagine yourself in Renaissance Italy, where there is, obviously, no television. But every now and then a crude-looking, ragtag group of traveling actors rolls into town, bearing costumes, rough sets, a portable stage, and masks portraying characters like the dumb one, the beautiful one, the snarky one, etc.

They arrive on a street corner and announce that they will perform a play, for a small fee, later that evening. They won’t stay long — the constant need for new sources of income, plus the common disapproval of the city authorities, means they rarely settle in one place — and they’re probably not the same group of actors as the last troupe that passed through town. They can be guaranteed, though, to play stock characters. Chances are, it’s worth the visit.

Commedia characters had names like Arleccino, Pulcinella, Pedrolino, and Pantalone — names that indicated their defining characteristics (Pulcinella’s full name was Pulcinella Cetrulo: “The stupid day-old chicken”) as well as regional affiliations [see right]. Some were lovers, some were servants, some were old and crotchety parents. There were no lengthy story arcs that tied scenarios together, so each “episode” had to stand alone. Although the plots tended to focus on matters of love and sex, often with young lovers overcoming their fathers’ objections to their union, the comedy was often bawdy and extremely physical (perhaps a better comparison here would be “The Three Stooges”). Actors often had to perform elaborate acrobatics. To keep their physical violence funny they used a long paddle that made a loud whacking sound when shaken — they called it a “slapstick.”

The defining principle of commedia performance was improvisation. Contemporary improvisational theatre from Paul Sills’ Second City to television’s “Saturday Night Live” are all many descendents in a very long family tree from commedia dell’arte. Rather than performing scripted plays, commedia troupes memorized a basic outline of the story’s action (called a scenario) and made up the rest as they went along, relying on their knowledge of the roles and confidence in their masks, along with an implicit trust in the rest of the company, to keep the show as fresh and funny as possible. When things seemed to lag, they might carry out one of many lazzi, or rehearsed bits or stage business (not unlike what comics today might call a “gag”).

The actors in The Miracle at Naples will have their own chance to test their commedia skills in rehearsal: early in the play, David Grimm has left them the barest of stage directions: “They perform a lazzi.” It will be up to the performers to discover the funniest comic bits and then, in performance, to repeat them so that they seem fresh every night. You’ll know if it worked: the measure of their success, like that of all commedia dell’arte performers, will be how hard you laugh.

– Jason Fitzgerald


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