Commedia dell’arte: From the Italian for “comedy of the professional actors,” a form of character-centered, improvisational comedy that was performed by professional, traveling groups of actors and that flourished in Europe from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Performances typically featured scenarios with stock characters and situations; incorporated a variety of forms of entertainment, including acrobatics, dance, music, pantomime, farce, and clowning or other buffoonery; and satirized or ridiculed events, institutions, and personalities of the day. Staging was often minimal, with heavy reliance instead on masks, traditional costumes, and simple props.
Commedia dell’arte developed in Italy in the sixteenth century as popular street theater; major Italian troupes included the Gelosi, Confidenti, and Uniti. As troupes traveled throughout Europe, commedia dell’arte gained immense popularity, especially in France, where it was called the comédie italienne. Though its origins are difficult to pinpoint, the genre is often traced to ancient Roman works such as comedies by Plautus and Terence. It was banned at numerous times and places in Europe when performances provoked the opposition of powerful figures (e.g., Louis XIV) and institutions (e.g., the Catholic Church).
Commedia dell’arte troupes developed and drew on a stable of basic characters and storylines for their performances, improvising much of the detail and dialogue with an eye to local events. Stock characters included figures such as Arlecchino (Harlequin), the illiterate servant of Pantalone, a rich but miserly merchant; il Capitano (the Captain), a braggart soldier; il Dottore (the Doctor), typically an aristocratic and rotund physician or lawyer; and the Inamorati, a pair of lovers. Stock situations included love intrigues such as a young couple outsmarting parents with the help of servants to attain wealth and happiness. Actors rehearsed oft-repeated scenarios in advance and learned elements such as lazzi (comic gags or routines) that could be applied to any play.
Commedia dell’arte had a substantial influence on European drama, including the plays of English playwright William Shakespeare and French playwright Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin). The genre also influenced English and French pantomime, puppet shows (Punch in “Punch and Judy” is based on the commedia character Pulcinella, a hunchback who chases after women), slapstick comedy, and vaudeville. Moreover, while commedia dell’arte had nearly died out by the nineteenth century, it subsequently experienced periods of revival and continues to be performed today. Commedia troupes in the United States include Commedia dell’Carte (Dallas), i Sebastiani (Boston), and Tutti Frutti Commedia (San Francisco).