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Commedia dell'Arte: Crash Course


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This is basic material that we'll assume is the base of our knowledge before beginning the Commedia dell'Arte for the Modern Actor workshops, and is helpful for all other workshops.

No, there will not be a test.

Others: Please contact me before use, particularly in an educational setting.

Published in: Education

Commedia dell'Arte: Crash Course

  1. 1. A Crash Course Assembled by Kate Meehan
  2. 2. (Because nothing ever happens in a vacuum.*)  The advent of Commedia dell’Arte marks the rebirth of professional theatre on Western Stages.  Professional theatre requires a paying audience. Throughout the early middle ages, this meant that performances were restricted to the ruling classes, with common people only participating as an act of benevolence by their lords.  This also makes it very hard to be a professional actor if you’re fond of eating regularly. *Actually, a lot of totally awesome things happen in vacuums. That’s totally outside the scope of this document.
  3. 3. As the predominantly rural Early Middle Ages gave way to the increasingly urban High and Late Middle Ages, you wind up with a large number of urban tradespeople. In the urban areas, the barter system gave way to currency-based economies, allowing these tradespeople access to income. More importantly – DISPOSABLE income. With the help of clever merchants like the Medici, urban centers in Italy flourished as hubs of Mediterranean trade. Lookit how full up Italy is with cities!
  4. 4. That Italy was just crawling with cities is, in part, due to the fact that it had more or less an unbroken tradition of urban living, even after the fall of the Roman Empire. Plus it’s filled with natural trading ports. Also, check out Cordova and Palermo, which flourished under Muslim rule and torpedoed once those regimes were ousted. Fun fact.
  5. 5. The rise of the city means it’s increasingly important to have people who can read, write and do math just to keep things organized. The previous system of education, entirely under the purview of the church, made for sticky politics. In the 12th Century, a number of Teachers’ Guilds appeared to train students to fill the need for clerks. Three out of the five universities founded in the 12th Century were in Italy. These students learned arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The University of Bologna (1088) was the first, followed closely by the University of Oxford (1096)
  6. 6. Between 1310 and 1330, Europe experienced some of the worst weather in the entirety of the Middle Ages. Winters were severe, and the summers were cold and rainy, meaning farmers couldn’t evaporate sea salt to cure their meats, and straw and hay could not be cured for livestock. The story of Hansel and Gretel reflects a cultural memory of this period, when it’s faster to count periods of not-famine than to recount the times when food would’ve been scarce. The weather did not get better.
  7. 7. As the Little Ice Age took effect, Alpine glaciers claimed the most arable farm lands, including the Po Valley in Italy. Famine in those areas pushed rural people to flee to the cities in hope of food and work.
  8. 8. Italy was composed of over 20 City-States with tenuous relationships. None of them had standing armies,* so fighting was done by hired mercenaries (called Condottieri) that were often foreign (Spanish!). These mercenaries believed that dying wasn’t exactly in their best interest, and as soldiers for hire, their allegiance was not exactly guaranteed. Machievelli’s The Prince was written about one of these charming fellows, who bullied his way into the position of the Duke of Milan. One of his descendants kicked off the Italian Wars, which more or less made the first part of the 16th Century totally suck for all Italians. *Well, Venice had a navy. But that was for fighting Moorish pirates.
  9. 9. Inside these City-States was a fairly rigid class structure. Up top, cities were ruled by either one ruler elected by an elite group of noblemen (called the Doge in Venice and Genoa) or by a council of wealthy nobles. Merchants worked hard to marry daughters to noble families, and scrambled to climb the social ranks. Doge Council Merchants Artisans Servants Tradespeople generally worked for themselves in shops, and were members of guilds that placed strict rules on quality and price. Servants could be anyone from apprentices to hayseeds just in from the countryside.
  10. 10. In other European countries, dowries often took the form of land. In Italian city-states, where land was at premium, dowries were in cash. This meant that in large, Catholic families, having more than one daughter could spell financial ruin. Marrying below your station meant public humiliation. Convents required a dowry, but it was substantially less than the going rate. By 1580, 60% of noble women lived in convents. In Venice in particular, these forced nuns took their vows of celibacy very loosely. After awhile, the church could no longer turn a blind eye to the number of immaculate conceptions occurring in their convents. The Council of Trent (1563) imposed a cloister, prompting a huge number of escape attempts.
  11. 11. With noble women being shipped off in large numbers, noble men needed socially acceptable ways to deal with certain… urges. This gave rise to a powerful courtesan culture, with Cortigiane Oneste (Honest Courtesans) becoming one of Venice’s most fashionable exports. By the mid 16th century, Venice was publishing directories of their most famous courtesans to distribute to visiting nobility and wealthy merchants. These women were expected to sing, play instruments, dance, speak multiple languages, write poetry and understand politics. As independent women with personal income, wit and political clout, many of them turned to the developing Commedia dell’Arte, leading troupes and using their extensive international client base to expand their fame.
  12. 12. Excellent question. Very intelligent, famous old dudes are still arguing over this.
  13. 13. Tied in with the ancient rituals of social inversions like the Feast of Fools, Carnivale has a tradition of mask-wearing and the elevation of chaos and revelry. Mattaccino, the egg thrower, is the oldest mask of the Venetian Carnival, first recorded in 1268. Some believe that the three primary characters targeted in Carnivale revelries: the man in charge, the fool, and the courtesan, evolved into the Commedia stock characters.
  14. 14. Others believe that it naturally evolved in the crowded markets of the piazza. As the markets were flooded with rural immigrants frantic to sell their handicrafts, more was needed to stand out from your competition. A basket weaver, say, began to tell jokes to attract a crowd. A fishmonger brought his brother to do backflips. Soon, they realized that the play was the commodity, and eschewed their handiwork. (It’s more than likely a combination of the two, but we will probably never know. )
  15. 15. Traditionally, Commedia productions are improvised around a loose scenario, which was literally a list of plot points pinned to the scene. The performers played one stock characters almost exclusively, trading roles only if they had grown too old for their former role.* The improvisation appeared more polished because the performers had some pre-rehearsed tricks up their sleeves: Lazzi (singular lazzo) are bits of physical comedic business. Concetti (singular concetto) are generic character-based monologues. *Usually Pantalone is played by the youngest actor, both to add more levity and because his movement is hard to pull off with a bad back.
  16. 16. Commedia is also a masked performance style, with masks that evolved over time to represent character types. It relies heavily on broad, precise physicality that is ideal for performances outdoors or in large theatres. Plays tend toward the melodramatic, with mistaken identities, star-crossed lovers, cross dressing, disguises, and misunderstandings forming the cornerstones of their plot devices.
  17. 17. All that backstory you were wondering why I included? A lot of it comes into play here.
  18. 18. Doge Nobles Merchants Artisans Servants Peasants Remember this handy chart? In the beginning, most shows primarily involved two characters – Magnifico and Zanni,* representing the Doge and the Peasants. These shows were hilarious to everyone in the middle social tiers, but not so much to the Doge. Turns out, punishment for having a smart mouth in the Renaissance is less fun than depicted at modern Renaissance Faires. * Magnifico is a Venetian honorific, usually reserved for its top echelon. Zanni is a derivative of Gianni, a popular name out in the Lombardi and Venetian countryside. These names are literally what the very rich and the very poor would have called themselves.
  19. 19. The revised plan focused on the merchants (especially the old ones, because old people smell weird), the servants (as they could be protagonists!) and the peasants. These characters were broken into two categories that are important for our purposes: The Vecchi: the old men with money and power.* The Zanni: the servants *But not too much power. We don’t want anyone to get in trouble here. Merchants Servants Peasants In reality, most of the people in the piazze were tradespeople and the occasional servant. It made more sense to make fun of the people that your paying audience wants to see satirized.
  20. 20. Pantalone is without question the most famous of the Vecchi. Pantalone is an exceedingly old merchant. Many plots revolve around people trying to take Pantalone’s money, Pantalone trying to marry a very young woman, or Pantalone trying to marry off his daughter (or keep his daughter from marrying for love). His comedic business involves jokes about his extreme old age, lack of virility, and senility. Historically, he represented the love-hate relationship with those money lending jerks like the Medici.
  21. 21. Dottore is often Pantalone’s counterpart. Plots often include the two of them trying to get the upper hand over each other, or trying to arrange or prevent a marriage between their children. He’s a stuffy intellectual, and likes to prattle on about things he probably doesn’t know anything about. He is not usually a medical doctor, though he would probably attempt to perform surgery if he had the opportunity. He also likes to offer quotes in Latin, though he likely doesn’t actually speak it. Historically, Dottore represents all those folks being churned out of the universities, and the bureaucrats and insufferable middle managers they all eventually become.
  22. 22. Before we say a single word on these characters, it’s important to clear up some seriously overtaught misconceptions. The famous Zanni people talk about? Arlecchino? Truffaldino? Those are names used by famous, long dead actors, not technically stock characters (with one exception – we’ll get to that). In talking about the Zanni, it’s always important to remember your audience – people shopping in the market. Do not mess with that lady’s copper urn. She might cut you.
  23. 23. The First Zanni are those that have been in the game the longest. They are clever, occasionally crafty, and streetwise. Characters of this sort run the gamut of generic inn keeper to charismatic highwayman. Often he totes around a musical instrument, because he’s found it to work wonders with the ladies. His names include Brighella, Mezzatin, and Scapino.
  24. 24. The Second Zanni has arrived from the sticks, and is incapable of living anywhere but in the moment. He is a slave to his stomach and his sleep cycles, both of which are inconvenient. He is often a servant to Pantalone, and is incapable of disloyalty. He is earnest, eager, and stupid. Most famously, he is called Arlecchino, though he is named Truffaldino in many published works, including Servant of Two Masters. He carries the bottaccio, or slap stick. Here’s a thing, and this is important: He carries the stick that people use to beat him.
  25. 25. That exception mentioned earlier? This is him. Pulcinella is the Second Zanni from Naples. He is played as either stupid feigning clever or clever feigning stupid, but at all counts his good nature conceals a particular fatalism that tends toward the brutal. He is best described as a bit of a mule – tethered generally to the soil, considered to be stubborn, stupid and obstinate, but completely capable of his own survival. He too carries a stick, but he uses his to “cancel debts.”
  26. 26. First Zanni Dubbed the Soubrette by the French, she is usually the only rational person in the entire show. She is shrewd, clever, and warm hearted, and often serves the female lover. Females performed on Commedia stages nearly from the beginning, though their names are far more ambiguous than some of the male characters, and are often interchangeable. It’s more important to consider their character types and not worry too much about what they’re called. Second Zanni It has not been proven that the Second Female Zanni was born with her ankles behind her head, but it hasn’t been disproven either. She is not clever, and uses her She’s often called Columbina, but has also gone by Smerildina, Arlecchina, and several others. sexuality as a tool, when she has her wits about her. She also goes by Smerildina and Arlecchina.
  27. 27. In most Commedia troupes there are two pairs of lovers: “High Lovers,” who are older and are the epitome of Renaissance refinement, and “Low Lovers,” who are young idiots more in love with the idea of being in love than with the objects of their attention. Some of Commedia’s most famous performers have been female lovers, including Vittoria Pisimi and Isabella Andreini. It is presumed both women were Cortegiane Oneste, and they were famous for their exquisite wit, beauty, refinement, and their ability to improvise in a half-dozen languages. If there is a maypole around which a Commedia plot revolves, the Lovers are it.
  28. 28. Capitano isn’t exactly a Vecchi, though he may stand in for one on occasion. He’s also not a Zanni, though he’s often ridiculous. Capitano represents those Condottieri we mentioned earlier – he can either be dangerous and violent or a pompous coward, but either way, when he’s involved his presence is significant.
  29. 29. It’s hard to overestimate the influence of Commedia dell’Arte on western theatrical tradition. The English Privy Council notes payment to a company of Italian players as early as 1550, a Commedia troupe travelled with Queen Elizabeth I on her summer travels, and Shakespeare’s comedies openly mimic Commedia dell’Arte tropes. The troupe Zan Ganassa took up residence in Madrid in 1582, and Cortesi followed soon after. The philosophical elements of the High Lovers complemented Spanish sensibilities, providing framework for the Spanish Golden Age. I Gelosi was a favorite of King Henri III, and they took up residence there for a time. Later, when Louis XIV decided to censor the commedia troupes, they discovered that the Royal Upholsterer’s son was a somewhat mediocre Commedia player out in Lyons. They hired him to write censorable Commedia-style performances. His name was Moliere. More? Here’s a big old map that I made, which follows a handful of troupes:
  30. 30. Now, Commedia lives on like some sort of crazed performance zombie. In Europe, there is a nearly unbroken tradition of Commedia dell’Arte performance, particularly in and around Naples. The ensemble work and physicality inherent in the Commedia actor-troupe inspired Jacques Copeau, Antonin Artaud, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski and others. The term “slapstick comedy” directly refers to the bottaccio carried by the First Zanni. Mask work is still considered one of the most effect training tools for getting actors to quit thinking that their audiences are telepathic.