Commedia dell’Arte misconceptions

Unfortunately most of the information found on the Internet about Commedia dell’Arte are not accurate and often misleading. As Lecturer and Tutor I often ask my pupils what they know about commedia and the answer is always the same: that commedia is an Italian form of theatre, masked, improvised and performed outdoor. This is what they are told in school and what they find on the Internet. But this is a very limited, superficial and inaccurate definition of commedia. It is fundamentally a misinterpretation. And it is a big misunderstanding to believe that today the term ‘improvisation’ has the same meaning that it had in the 16th and 17th century. I  recommend to read Scala (prologue to The Finto Marito, 1619) and Perrucci (Dell’Arte rappresentativa premeditata e all’improvviso, 1699) to have a better understanding of what improvisation meant for a troupe of commedianti.

Obviously Wikepedia is not the greatest source of information…but other more ‘respectable’ sources provide an equal – or even more – superficial definition of Commedia dell’Arte: the BBC (bitesize) is even more misleading!

Here a quote from te BBC’s website:

“Commedia dell’arte began in Italy in the 16th century. It was a popular form of street theatre based on improvised scenarios between stock characters. These characters were universal types of masters, servants and lovers. Commedia dell’arte is a very physical form as many of the characters wear masks so their facial expressions can’t be seen by the audience. ..”

This is  WRONG!

Commedia was performed outdoor and indoor; many characters were unmasked; many parts were written; dialogues, monologues and physical routines were rehearsed ove and over again to reach the level of perfection. And most importantly: commedia is not only comedy: commedia is both comic and tragic. It talks of death, starvation, illnesses, injustice, prevarication of power, violence as well as love!

Commedia dell’Arte had always been an evolving, organic and ‘alive’ phenomenon that developed throughout Europe for at least 300years (mid 16th till mid 18th century) through a constant process of transformation and adaptation in response to the changes of the society and culture that it stemmed from. Therefore it must be understood as an umbrella of forms of theatres, styles and ‘experiences’ – not as a ‘monolithic entity’.

Commedia dell’arte is a complex and heterogeneous theatrical phenomenon. The name Commedia dell’Arte was never utilised during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. It’s a late invention attributed to Carlo Goldoni who employed it to distinguish “from the scripted comedy.” The most frequent terms used to define commedia during its ‘Golden Age’ are: Commedia degli Zanni, all’ Improvvisa, a soggetto, delle maschere and mercenaria. Descriptive terms indicating its main characters (the Zanni), its style (improvised and masked) and its function: a mercenary art because performed by actors who made a living out of it.

Commedia is the result of a meeting between oral culture and literature, folk traditions and ancient drama, improvisation and structured scenarios, linear and episodic narrative, masked and unmasked characters, sublime poetry and obscenity. It is the result of the fruitful encounter between popular and high culture; between the medieval folk cultures of the marketplace with its jesters, clown, charlatans, fools, storytellers, charlatans and acrobats and the written culture of Courts and academia (Ancient Greek comedy, Plautus and Terence, Renaissance plays). Equally Commedia had a massive impact in the development of the written drama of the time. Some of the most illustrious testaments of its legacy are Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Moliere, Shakespeare and obviously Goldoni.

The whole corpus of dramatic literature until the nineteenth century is haunted by [Commedia dell’Arte]: Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Moliere, Marivaux, Beaumarchais, Goldoni…Wherever there are witty servants and domineering masters, young wives and old husbands, pompous pedants, thwarted lovers, or bragging soldiers, the Commedia is there in spirit and also very often in form. (S. Callow in Fava, 2007, Foreword, vii)

Tessari, Marotti and, for the first time in English, Henke’s work provides an insightful analysis of the mutual influences of high and low culture during the Baroque time (Henke, 2002; Tessari, 1969; 1981; Marotti, 1991) and the “contamination” ‘between literary and verbally transmitted materials’ (Jaffe-Berg, E., 2004).

On this light Commedia dell’Arte represents a fertile and exciting moment of ‘reconciliation’ between these opposite cultures. And indeed:

The conundrum in understanding Commedia dell’Arte is identifying the context from which one is approaching it. Look for the beautiful and the grotesque and you will find them. Look for masked actors and you will find them, or not. Look for street theatre or opera and you might find both. Look for improvisation or scripted text and you will find both. These apparently conflicting complexities coexist…(Crick, O. (2014) Introduction, p.2)

This exciting and revolutionary aspect of commedia makes it extremely relevant to any contemporary practitioners. In relation to my practice this means a theatre that integrates written text and improvisation, tragedy and comedy, linear and episodic narrative. In the work that I’ve been developing with my company over the last six years the notion of ‘reconciliation of opposites’ refers to both stylistic choices and themes/content.

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