13 January 2010

Humor: Commedia Dell Arte

By Anna C. Bowling

Barring time travel, how many of us can claim to have seen performances of sixteenth century Italian theater? Show of hands, please? Hm, I don't think that number is right. How many have seen the US or UK versions of Whose Line is It Anyway? Ah, more. UK friends, how about traditional pantomimes or a Punch and Judy show? More there, as well. How about Matt Groenig's cartoon series, Futurama? Thought so.

Wait a minute, what does Futurama have to do with sixteenth century Italian theater? I'll share the exact connection a bit later, but many traditions and stock characters found in the comedy that entertains us today was equally entertaining half a millennium ago.

Commedia Dell Arte, which can be translated as "comedy of craft" or "artist's comedy" originated as a form of professional theater in sixteenth century Italy. As we can recognize favorite characters today through images of their distinctive costumes audiences of the time could identify the players by the costumes and masks particular to the character. Though an audience member might not see the same troupe twice, as the players traveled, the characters stayed the same, and actors improvised from suggestions given by each particular audience.

The roster of characters could vary from locale to locale, but usually could be divided into: Inamorati, male and female lovers; vecchi, the older people, often parents of the lovers; and the zanni, who were servants or commoners, and from whom we get the word "zany." Other names used in commedia are still well known today: Rafael Sabatini's classic novel, Scaramouche, gets its title from the boastful swashbuckling character, and singers who perform the Queen song, "Bohemian Rhapsody" invoke Scaramouche as well. (It has yet to be determined if he will do the fandango.)

Arlecchino gives us Harlequin, which brings to mind not only a Renaissance clown and distinctive diamond pattern, but the largest publisher of romantic fiction in the world. Iconic as well are the images of Pierrot, the sad, white-faced clown whose tear-streaked face tops a huge white ruff. Then, as now, Isabella was a very popular choice for the name of the female lover. The absent-minded professor, crotchety miser and bumbling official all have their histories in commedia as well.

The usual plot of a commedia performance often revolved around the lovers wishing to marry but being kept apart by the machinations of one or more of their elders, until with the help of cunning servants, the obstacle is removed. This may sound familiar to readers of romance novels today. Of course, exactly how any of the above might come about would vary according to actors, audience, local political or religious climate. Working from a basic framework with characters needed to fill certain roles, one can imagine that provided enough variations that the same play was seldom performed twice unless the actors worked from a script. Actors frequently performed outside, with elaborate masks and costumes making up for the lack of setting or props. There was no fee to see the performances, and actors passed the hat afterward to collect what the audience could pay.

By the seventeenth century, commedia troupes began to work from scripts and the style became stricter and less improvisational, moving from outdoor performances to inside more traditional theaters. As time progressed and other forms of theater came into vogue, commedia took a back seat to more modern entertainments but true classics never die. In the nineteenth century, the likes of George Sand and Frederic Chopin constructed a theater for performances of commedia in France. Interest in the form revived through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. True romance is, indeed timeless.

What about the Futurama connection? Visit the Commedia Dell Arte entry at TvTropes.Org and scroll down to the Western Animation section.

What commedia characters can you find in modern television, movies or books?