I’ve studied and taught Commedia dell’Arte for many years. I fell in love with it over two decades ago. I left it behind, and almost forgot it for a while, but I found myself going back to it without purposely wanting to do so. Sometimes Commedia emerged while I was working on my theatre pieces or my teaching practice, unexpectedly, or at other times someone pulled me or pushed me towards it. A colleague and fellow artist even convinced me to make a proposal for a PhD which got accepted. I then embarked on a 4 years practice-as-research PhD on the legacy of Commedia dell’Arte in post-dramatic theatre. That in less fancy (not-academic) terms means how the principles of Commedia strongly inform devised contemporary theatre today.

I think I can literally use the expression ‘falling in love’. Because when you fall in love it seems that you cannot ever get enough of that person or thing you love so much. And when you start getting deeper and deeper in the relationship you realise there is so much more, so many nuances and unexpected surprises and… changes. We change, the outside world changes and so do our relationships. And so my relationship with Commedia dell’Arte continues to evolve. The more I study, practice, or teach it, the more I feel I’m just scratching the surface.

Last summer, I was reading yet another book on Commedia on a ferry to Corsica. My brother-in-law asked me with a surprised look on his face (understandably so…it’s a holiday after all!): could there be more to read about Commedia? “Surely,” he said, “you must have read everything that’s been written about it?” The answer is both yes and no. Yes, to the first question, there is much more written on it. And no to the second. I definitely haven’t read everything ever written on it. Paradoxically, or I should say, ironically, there is a lot of material written about this “not-written” form of theatre.

But what is Commedia dell’Arte? You may ask. Only a small number of people have heard of it. Certainly, an even smaller number of people would be geeking out about it on a ferry to Corsica during their summer vacation! It’s a “niche” topic, one may say!

And most importantly: why should we talk, let alone write, about it? Such an old and outmoded form of theatre. Passé, one may say!

In this article, I will offer just a brief overview on Commedia dell’Arte: I’ll, define its main features and outline some of the reasons why I believe it is still relevant today. It won’t be about the Masks and Companies of Commedia dell’Arte; these are big topics that will be investigated in future articles.

What is Commedia dell’Arte? (short answer)

Commedia dell’Arte is a form of theatre that originated in Italy in the mid-16th century. It flourished throughout all of Europe for centuries, adapting to the demands and changing tastes of different audiences in different countries.

Often Commedia dell’Arte is described as a popular form of outdoor street theatre based on improvisation between masked stock characters. This is partly true but not completely accurate.

Commedia can be performed both indoor and outdoor. Some characters are masked others are unmasked. Improvisation is a very important aspect of Commedia…but the written text is equally important.

Although it is true that in Commedia there aren’t written plays, this does not mean that the actors would jump on stage improvising the whole piece! They worked with structure in the form of a scenario for each performance, a very detailed plot line, structured in three acts with a prologue and an epilogue. Entrances, exits, and actions were all set and rehearsed. They would also take inspiration from poetry, plays, and any other written material to develop their own dialogues and monologues. They would employ their improvisational and creative skills to transform this material. They would use parody, irony, and humour in their integration of other written sources. Dialogues and monologues were fixed or semi-fixed using the same “formulas” for different scenarios. Repetition and motifs were used a lot – as in any other form of comedy, for example, clown, farce, or stand-up comedy.

They improvised on stage during the performance, this is true. Commedia performers, i.e. the commedianti, were incredibly skilled improvisers but they weren’t improvising on the spot on anything… they were relying on a rich repertoire of rehearsed material. In other words, they had their tricks-of-the-trade to pull out of the hat at exactly the right moment in the performance. It’s also important to remember that the notion of the 4th wall didn’t exist then in this context. The conceptual barrier or imaginary wall at the front of the stage separating spectators and performers was not there. It’s a much later invention! The actors and audiences of Commedia dell’Arte were interacting. And those interactions opened even more opportunities for improvisation on stage.

Personally, I believe Commedia is performed with an audience, not for an audience.

Commedia dell’Arte is for me the result of an encounter between popular culture (oral tradition) and high culture (written tradition/literature), between medieval folk cultures of the marketplace – i.e. jesters, clowns, buffoni, fools, storytellers, charlatans, and acrobats – and the written culture of courts and academia – i.e. Ancient Greek comedy, Plautus, Terence, and Renaissance plays. It is important to acknowledge that Commedia had a major impact on the written drama of the time too. Some of the most illustrious testaments of its legacy are plays by Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Moliere, Shakespeare, and Goldoni, of course.

For reasons such as these, I prefer to define Commedia dell’Arte as a ‘cultural phenomenon’ rather than a style of theatre or performance genre.

What Does The Name: Commedia dell’Arte Mean?

Commedia means a comedy. So far not a big deal! But what about “dell’Arte”?

The name Commedia dell’Arte was not used during the 16th and 17th centuries. This name is a late invention attributed to Carlo Goldoni who employed it to distinguish masked and improvised comedy from scripted comedy. The most frequent terms used to define Commedia during its ‘Golden Age’:

  • Commedia degli Zanni descriptive term referring to some of its characters, the Zanni;

  • Commedia all’ Improvvisa descriptive term referring to its style, improvised.

  • Commedia delle maschere descriptive term referring to its features, masked.

  • Commedia mercenaria descriptive term referring to its function, to provide an income …therefore a ‘mercenary art’ sold for a profit!

  • Outside Italy, it was also known as Commedia all’Italiana (Italian comedy).

So what about “dell’Arte”?

The word Arte stands for ‘association of professionals' - like a guild or union. ‘Arti e Mestieri’ was indeed the name given to guilds of professionals at that time. Where Arte stands for craft/knowledge, and Mestiere for the profession.

The term “Commedia dell’Arte” therefore means ‘comedy performed by professionals’ to distinguish it from theatre performed by courtly amateurs. (I guess, they didn’t have much to do at court, they needed some hobbies to take a break from the usual partying, hunting and eating exotic food).

The Commedia dell’Arte performative qualities that make it relevant to the contemporary devised theatre are…

Firstly, the notion of the Actor as the Creator. Commedia is an Actor’s Theatre. Actors are the engine and the fuel of the creative process. Actors invent characters and situations. Actors attract the audience with their craft, talent, and wit.

Secondly, the creative process is collaborative. The ensemble of actors brings their own skills, creativity and experience. The scenarios emerge through improvisation and playful exchanges between actors. Indeed, improvisation and playfulness are two fundamental aspects of devised theatre today.

Thirdly, Commedia dell’Arte is an example of what we would today label as ‘Physical Theatre.’The body as a medium of expression is a fundamental feature of Commedia. Postures, gestures, and actions express characters’ needs and wants, their status, and their emotions. Each part of the body can be expressive from the tip of the head to the tip of the toes. This includes the voice… the most essential part of our physical being and expression! Sounds and voices are rooted in the physicality of each character.

Fourth, is the importance of the audience and audience interaction. As mentioned earlier in this article, the notion of 4th wall did not exist. In a Commedia performance, everything is directed to and shared with the audience. Every gaze, action, and line. An important technique called colpo di maschera is the foundation of this approach to acting. it can be translated as ‘clocking’.

And so it goes on. Further fundamental aspects of Commedia dell’Arte are extremely relevant to contemporary performance: stylistic promiscuity and ‘Interdisciplinarity’.

Commedia integrates dance, mime, music, and singing. The commedianti were not only extremely versatile actors able to perform grotesque comedy as well as tragedy. The troupes had an array of talents that included great mime, acrobats, dancers, musicians, and singers.

There is a lot more to say about the legacy and relevance of Commedia dell’Arte in contemporary theatre. One of the most revolutionary aspects of Commedia is, for instance, the presence of women onstage. But such an important topic requires more time ‘ i.e. an article on its own! I hope that this overview of Commedia will trigger more curiosity or questions. And perhaps my future articles will answer those questions. Having said that, I’m fully aware that many of you, like my brother-in-law, might find it weird to choose to read about Commedia dell’Arte during the Summer holidays on a ferry to Corsica!