One old genre of theater i am absolutely fascinated with is the old Italian and French Commedia Dell’arte, where travelling theater troupes went town to town performing improvisational comedy plays before the crowds.
Instead of the written comedies of the Greek and Roman tradition (which in any case were frowned on by the Church), by the mid 1500s the Italians developed a very popular form of “quick and dirty” street theater that required no scripts, could speak to almost any political situations, could be suited to whatever social issues were prevalent in any town and was a consistant runaway hit with a crowd. Hell, they even had women on stage actually playing women.
Here’s how it worked. A troupe would be made up of about 12 actors. There are a number of stock characters, say 15 or so which can be drawn from, and a few who will ALWAYS be used.
For instance, Arlecchino (which in French became Harlequin and is where the name comes from) was often the protagonist with which the crowd would sympathize. He is witty, acrobatic, childlike and amorous. (Indeed, he is the Tarot Fool. The tarot tradition and commedia dell’arte are highly connected. Both use archetypal characters which are mixed and matched with each other and the situation or story allowed to developed and play out. But i get ahead of myself.)
A few other characters include
- Brighella, Arlecchino’s crony, was more roguish and sophisticated, a cowardly villain who would do anything for money.
- Il Capitano (the captain) was a caricature of the professional soldier—bold, swaggering, and cowardly.
- Il Dottore (the doctor) was a caricature of learning—pompous and fraudulent.
- Pantalone was a caricature of the Venetian merchant, rich and retired, mean and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter.
So, you have a bunch of stock characters, each with very specific traits, masks, costumes and personality types who the audience knows and instantly recognizes. Whenever a troupe rolls into town, the characters are already known. It’s like not having a TV to watch Happy Days, but every few weeks a troupe comes into the town center and puts up an episode for you. It doesn’t matter who it is, Fonzie is always Fonzie, Richie always Richie.. etc.
The troupe also has a playbook of say, 30 to 100 something situations, which they would piece together to form the play. (“Okay, so after 34, 13, 2, we’ll go to 23 where Mr. Roper overhears Jack trying to fix Chrissy’s … say this time clock, but mistakes it for them having sex”)
Some of these scenarios were standards, which everyone knew and loved. Think of all the sit coms or Warner Bros cartoons you watched as a child. Same thing applies, there were always some basic situations that would always come up and play out no matter what the actual show was.
Thus a troupe would roll into town, take stock of its character and current events and in minutes piece together a performance that could lampoon it. For every scandal or political event there is a stock character that will be clear and series of situation that the audience will read into. After that they just simply improvise. You know the situation and the one that will follow it, you know the character types so you can just wing it and let the antics ensue. Put Fonzie, Richie, Ralph, Potsy, Arnold and Officer Kirk together in a room (and let’s say Officer Kirk wants to close down Arnold’s), and you can pretty much wing how it all plays out.
It should be noted that Commedie Dell’arte performances are comedies and they are very physical comedies. You know, zany antics, lots of acrobatics, and good spattering of low brow humor. Performers had to be very nimble and much of the humor, particularly by the Italians, was visual based (think I Love Lucy).
This genre was a huge hit in Europe, particularly Italy and France for a couple hundred years, from the 1500s to the 1700s. By the 1700s in France the genre morphed into a more sentimental comedy, (Comedie Larmoyante) with more parts of the play designed to evoke tears and heartache (tonight, don’t miss a Very Special Episode Of…).
It is from this French variation that we get our modern day sit coms. Yes, i’m serious. Characters began learning important moral lessons at the end, there’s shenanigans in the middle but all resolves well enough. Fun, intended for the masses, little comedy, little tragedy, and of course, unlike the high dramas and tragedies of high theater with nobility and persons of importance, these feature the dilemmas or ordinary people. Or in other words, situation comedie.
Last note, the pics you see are of the Commedia Dell’arte figurines made by a master porcelain workshop, Nymphenburg along with 16 hand picked designers. They are indeed tasty and for more viewing can be found here