Commedia del Arte

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Commedia del'Arte (Commedia dell'Arte in Italian, "Artistic Comedy") was a form of improvisational theater which began in the 16th century and was most popular from then until the 18th century, although it is still performed and enjoyed today. Traveling teams of players would set up an outdoor stage and provide amusement in the form of juggling, acrobatics, and humorous plays based on a repertoire of established characters. Often they would perform directly from the back of their traveling wagon. Their performances, because they were improvised, were usually topical and were adjusted to satire current events or regional tastes.

Commedia del'Arte was influenced by the tradition of Roman comedy

The troupe of players depicted in William Shakespeare's Hamlet were probably Commedia del'Arte players.

Male Commedia del'Arte stock characters were depicted by actors wearing masks. The female characters, however, were usually not masked. They included (in the original Italian, other English or French names, or descendant characters in parentheses):

  • Arlecchino (Harlequin), an acrobat and clown, he carried a baton which he used to bash other characters, leading to the modern term "slapstick", he wore a cat mask
  • Brighella (Figaro, Moliere's Scapin), a money grubbing villain, a partner of Arlecchino
  • Columbine (the Servant, Harlequine, Pierrette), maidservant to Inamorata and lover of Arlecchino, usually involved in intrigue
  • Il Capitano (the Captain), boastful he-man soldier, but a coward underneath
  • Il Dottore (the Doctor), Pantalone's friend, and a quack
  • Inamorata (the Lover), the "leading woman", who wore no mask
  • Inamorato (the Lover), the "leading man", who wore no mask
  • Pagliaccio (the Clown), a forerunner of today's clowns
  • Pantalone (Pantaloon), a rich and miserly merchant
  • Pedrolino (Pierrot), a dreamer, white mask
  • Pulcinella (he and Arlecchino were the foundation of Punch in the English variation Punch and Judy), a hunchback who chases women
  • La Ruffiana (old woman), usually a mother or gossipy townswoman who intrudes into the lives of the Lovers
  • Scarramuchia (Scaramouche), a roguish adventurer and swordsman who replaced Il Capitano in later troupes

Modern pantomime was also born out of the Commedia del'Arte tradition.