The Theatre in Italy in the 17th century
The Commedia dell'Arte
The Commedia dell'Arte

“ Comedy, or theatre, of art and savoir faire ” would be a good translation. This “ Arte ” that in Italian signifies “ art ” as well as “ profession ” encompasses all the facets of its comedians: professionals unusually gifted in the art of improvisation. The Commedia dell' Arte becomes popular in Italy in the second half of the 16th century as a theatre composed of professional people who are paid to perform and who, contrary to the Commedia sostenuta, do not play from a written text but solely from a sketch or “ script ”. Usually masked, they always embody the same characters with a quick and expressive style, interspersed by acrobatics and farces. Its origins are old.
The ancient theatre, and in particular the Atalanes, already included the buffoon comedies, popular parodies or political satires, staged by masked characters in unchanging, precise and characteristic roles. In the 16th century the Commedia sostenuta is the first to exhume these old forms and bring them up to date. Then Ruzzanti, a brilliant dramatist close to popular culture, gives an identity and a deeper dimension to these characters by endowing them with dialects from different Italian cities.
Subsequently, the Commedia dell' Arte takes over this inheritance and transforms it into professional business. Conscious that it must above all please a paying public, it chooses a decidedly amusing and lively format. From a sketch that is hung backstage it develops a system of improvisation around a defined number of characters perfectly recognisable by their speech and their physical features.
Each one, be it Harlequin, Pantalone, Punch, Scaramouch, the Doctor or the Captain, also symbolises an aspect of Italy with its shortcomings, exaggerations, and qualities. The actors who play these characters are always masked and do not normally change roles. The history of the Commedia dell' Arte will remember such a Harlequin or such a Scaramouch, behind which a man of genius charmed the public of many cities for many years.
The Commedia is peripatetic and travels the roads of Italy and Europe. The trestles, decors and costumes are transported in wagons and are erected in a square, in the middle of a market or in the private theatre of a palace. The troupes that succeed each other during two centuries are as much sought-after by the people as by princes and kings.
And yet, their language is impertinent, their stage business named lazzi is as much acrobatic as salacious and the plays place no restriction on freedom of speech. Besides, unmasked women are also present on stage and a certain licentiousness of manners is part of the show. In fact, this clever combination of playful spontaneity and rigorous professionalism is an astute invention that perfectly suits well the country and the circumstances that lead to its conception. Immoderate and colourful, it is the happy expression of the baroque, but under its frivolous and lecherous aspects, it nevertheless provides an adroit entertainment for the Italian people. It stages the starved valet or the shifty priest, reverses social roles as does the carnival, speaks all languages of a composite Italy withdrawn into regionalism and says through laughter what the church could otherwise reprove.
Besides, it escapes all censorship thanks to its famous sketches. These can be presented without risk to the authorities of the cities where it performs in the knowledge that it can speak of unwritten subjects in the course of its improvisation before the audience. This theatre, which mixes the marvellous, the farcical, vulgarity, laughter and also seriousness, conveys its stories and ideas from place to place, giving the individual the opportunity to adopt them and transform them in turn. Profoundly Italian, the Commedia dell' Arte nonetheless crosses all borders and adapts as well in Naples, Venice or Milan, as in Paris, Vienna, Madrid or London. The dynamic expression of an Italy considered distanced from Europe, it brings the country its most beautiful interlude and forges link between others.
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