A Theatre for the People: The Commedia Troupe and Renaissance Italy

The lives of commedia dell’arte performers were not easy. Though they took pride in their work, they were in the same social position as vagabonds, jugglers, and itinerant travelers. They had to petition city leaders for the chance to perform for their citizens, and being turned down was not unusual. Although some Italian provinces were more tolerant of performers than others, the performers had to resist the authority of church leaders, who often saw theatrical trickery as a kind of magic or witchcraft. A well-placed sermon could turn local populations against the troupes. Any stability the performers found depended on the support of wealthy patrons, who, like today, were sometimes difficult to find.

Each commedia troupe, then, became an isolated world. Typically consisting of 10-12 performers, each troupe member earned a roughly equal share of the profits, though a leader or manager usually supervised all activities and rehearsals and decided which scenarios to perform. Often the troupes were family affairs: actors married within the company (the commedia was one of the few Renaissance theatre forms where women could perform), and children grew up with the players and inherited the roles played by their parents. In their lifetimes, these children would travel vast distances, traversing much of France, Spain, and other parts of Europe where the commedia was popular and the Italian troupes trucked their wares. The form was particularly fashionable in France, where Moliére based many of his plays on commedia styles, and Pierrot, a French commedia character, remained a cultural icon into the early 20th century.

Despite its performers’ marginalized status, the commedia dell’arte had a niche to fill in early modern Italy. In the 16th century, a newly revitalized secular drama based on classical forms was emerging. Elaborate spectacles were being performed with perspective scenery, light-design technology, stage machinery, and proscenium arches, while classical comedies and tragedies by Seneca, Plautus, and Terence were being performed across the Italian kingdoms. But the spectacles were reserved for the courts and the aristocratic elites, and the classical plays were found only in universities. The commedia dell’arte, which translated means “plays produced by professionals” (to separate it from the commedia erudite performed in academic institutions) filled a necessary third position: as the popular theatre. The commedia was the only theatrical form that a common Italian farmer or lower-class worker might get to see, making it, in its own small way, a democratizing force. In these highly stratified societies, commedia dell’arte held the distinction of truly being a theatre for the people.

– Jason Fitzgerald

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