Theatre in Italy in the 17th century
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
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
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.