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Theatre History (Part 1)

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Origins   ::   Greek   ::   Roman & Medieval   ::   Commedia Dell 'Arte   ::   Activities

Commedia Dell 'Arte

A fancy name for a fancy kind of theatre. In fact, the name means "artful comedy." Perhaps they were trying to convince people of the Renaissance that comedy could actually be artful.

Imagine: you are going downtown in the late 17th century (the 1600s) in Italy or France, and you see a poster on the side of a building advertizing a Commedia troupe. In fact, they are playing right now! You decide, what the heck, I've got an hour, so you go to the town square and find the square filled with people. Two wagons have pulled to one side of the square, side by side. The rear one has what looks like a small building or tent with a curtain draped in front of it. On the closer wagon can be seen some masked actors in exaggerated costumes prancing about. Look how funny they are as they fall down, beat each other up, and generally look silly. You can tell right off what kinds of characters they are.

There is the Doctor, trying to look wise; he only looks that way, for you can readily see that he is stupid and prideful.

And see—there is the Captain, bragging about how brave he is; betcha that deep inside he is a coward!

Now comes an old man; in this play he looks greedy (he is also looking at the beautiful girl with lecherous eyes...).
Oh good, out come the servants now. Though you've never heard of the Three Stooges, these servants look and act like just like them. One in particular is very clever and acrobatic, that must be Harlequin—see the patches all over his clothes?

These characters are all familiar because they are stock characters , or characters that are immediately recognizeable and used in many different plays.

As you watch further, you enjoy the dirty jokes, and especially the crude jokes about the mayor of the town and other prominent people. They must have done their homework to know all of that. You also enjoy the way the actors freeze momentarily and pose in a defined, funny position. This really keeps things clear and exaggerated. Harlequin takes out a pig paddle and smacks one of the other servants, who are called the Zanni. It lets out a big SLAP! That must be a slapstick, you decide.

As the actors keep playing, you notice that they cannot be speaking from a script. This is improvisational theatre. You also can see that there are defined moments that seem well rehearsed—and are extremely funny. These must be the lazzi you've heard so much about: little comic bits that the actors try to squeeze into the loose plot.

Suddenly you are whooshed through time and space and now you are in a movie theatre. Look! There's Charlie Chaplin! He acts just like those Commedia actors! Look at the way he moves—almost dancelike, though a little goofy. He "poses" once in a while too.

When the movie's over, another film pops onto the screen. Lucky day! It's Bugs Bunny! He acts like the Commedia actors, too!

Wow! Surrounded by Commedia actors. Perhaps, you think, comedy can be artful...

Take a look at how Bugs Bunny (and other cartoon characters) and Charlie Chaplin act, and you'll get a pretty good notion of the ways in which Commedia actors acted. Though Bugs and Chaplin did not usually act out the same stock characters that the Commedia actors did, they still capture the essence of funny, acrobatic acting that define the Commedia style.

Check out these other entertaining Commedia websites:

Commedia Dell 'Arte (follow all the links for cool pictures)

La Commedia Dell 'Arte (follow links of characters on the left)

However, most lazzi were not scripted in this fashion, rather, they were simply short paragraph descriptions of funny bits of action. Here is an example of my very own "Lazzi of the Shoe":

"A guy is trying to get his shoe on, but it doesn't want to go on. He struggles, wiggling and wriggling to get a better angle. He rolls around on the floor and pulls and pulls on the shoe. It just won't go on. In desperation, he finally looks inside the shoe. He makes a face of resignation as he pulls out a pair of socks. And then a shirt. And then a frog. And then a rabbit. He finally throws the shoe in the garbage and walks off with only one shoe on."

See? You're rolling in the aisles! Please keep your lazzi G-Rated, though it is significant to point out that that Commedia troupes' lazzi were often NOT G-Rated, like, for example, the "Lazzi of the Enema" or the "Lazzi of the corset."

Have fun! Show us your true comic spirit!

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 07). Theatre History (Part 1). Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License