The term by which we now refer to this form of theatre (which means simply ‘professional comedy’) occurs very late in its history. It is first found in a play by Goldoni 1750, and it refers to the ‘masked comedy’, ‘improvised comedy’ or even simply ‘Italian comedy’ which had been in existence since the mid-sixteenth century. The fact that the genre had such a long life still has the effect of confusing popular perceptions of it. A revived interest in commedia dell'arte was taken by French scholars in the romantic period: this produced studies which rely too heavily on some codifications, and even on some inaccurate legends, stemming from what was believed and recorded by Louis Riccoboni and the eighteenth-century Comédie Italienne. To delineate what ‘Italian comedy’ had become by 1750 is of course crucial to tracing its effect on the ‘harlequinades’ of later theatre history. However, it is equally important to understand how, and even why, the arte first emerged; and Italian scholars of the late twentieth century have given us a clearer idea of what this genre originally was, concentrating most of all on what is seen as its formative golden age between approximately 1570 and 1630. The effect of these studies has been to correct some entrenched perceptions. First, we now know that the repertoire of arte performers was at least as much verbal as physical: their craft was a form of oral tradition, but it had a close symbiotic relationship with more respectable written culture. (Emphasis on mime and ballet may have developed in France, where the Italian dialogue was not so well understood and needed support.) Secondly, the fact that this was a popular form of theatre does not necessarily mean that it was subversive or anti-establishment: the more famous performers spent most of their time and energy competing for the rich prizes of princely and royal patronage, with a good dose of the conformism and sycophancy which that always implies. It is certainly true, on the other hand, that commedia dell'arte was an ‘actors' theatre’, in which the performers took ownership of their material and dispensed with the need for a dramatist. Moreover—a fact which has so far been under-stressed by scholars—the professional arte companies introduced the first actresses to Italy and then to Europe. This makes them ultimately responsible for the huge concentration on the female star, or diva, which has characterized Western performing arts ever since. (See women and performance.)
The precise origins of this particular form of professional theatre in Italy are not well documented: the earliest surviving company contract dates from 1545, and the earliest record of actresses appearing in public from 1548. By the 1560s there were already Italian touring companies with female stars; by the 1570s troupes were visiting England, France, and Spain; and in 1589, during the landmark festivities for a Florentine granduca wedding, the improvisations of the Gelosi company were given equal status with a scripted humanist commedia erudita. For a couple of generations, the most celebrated performers and troupes won patronage in Florence, Mantua, and Turin, and commercial audiences in Venice and throughout the peninsula: a military and economic crisis of 1630 is now seen as ending the most glorious period of the genre in Italy. After that the best performers tended to go to France, to the Comédie Italienne. By the eighteenth century, when Goldoni confronted professional theatre practice with his reforms, there were established Italian practitioners who (one deduces) were competent but whose material had got into a rut.
Although there may have been some input into commedia dell'arte from archetypes of folk narrative and drama (particularly, perhaps, when the mask of Pulcinella came up from Naples to join an essentially north Italian format), its most important inspiration was the plot material of recent upper-class commedia erudita, together with its narrative stereotypes. The categorized distribution of roles in a standard company is enough to make this clear. The ‘old men’ (Vecchi)—usually Pantalone and the Dottore—were the miserly, lustful or pedantic fathers whose intentions were frustrated by the Lovers (Innamorati), and by the latter-day scheming Plautine slaves (Servi), whose myriad names included Zani, Arlecchino, Brighella, Truffaldino, Pedrolino, and the female Franceschina and Colombina. A blustering but ultimate cowardly Capitano might be a free mover in the plot, usually a ‘blocking’ character like the old fathers, but sometimes allowed to be a lover. The solution to the intrigue was provided by a mixture of successful trickery and the discovery of lost family relationships. Every one of these elements—taken from Roman comedy and from medieval novellas—was first dramatized and made familiar in neoclassical comedy for courts and academies. The professionals simply stole them, fragmented them, turned them into a repertoire of permutable building blocks, and performed them in their own way. This involved three characteristics in particular: masks, multilingualism, and improvisation.
The use of facial half-masks by certain of the stereotypes (Vecchi and Servi, but not Innamorati and not always Capitani) may have helped to dictate an energetic and more visual performing style among the parti ridicole (comic roles); and physical comedy, with mime and gesture, clearly helped the genre to be exportable. Even more important, however, is the very concept of a ‘mask’—whether actually masked or not—as a permanent theatrical or fictional figure which the genre could constantly reuse, and which acquired a life of its own. In Italy the masks were identified not only by their costume, but by their language—underlining the fact that this was verbal, as well as visual, comedy. Pantalone had to speak Venetian, the Dottore Bolognese, and the servants a Lombard dialect indicating up-country Bergamo, the homeland of the original Zanni. (The initially French mask of Harlequin became linguistically assimilated to the other male servants.) A Capitano was usually Spanish; whereas the Innamorati always spoke high-flown literary Tuscan, thus making an important connection with the elitist cultural background from which this material had sprung. Later masks such as Tartaglia and Pulcinella brought in southern Italian dialects. Multilingualism was a feature which inevitably faded when performers went abroad; but within Italy it persisted through to Goldoni's time. Rather than supplying social realism it rapidly became self-referential, providing an instantly recognizable comic badge for each relevant mask. Initially, the confrontation between Pantalone and Zani had alluded to a north Italian social reality. Later, Pantalone, Arlecchino, Pierrot, and Columbine (in all languages) had become the people's foolish but indestructible heroes, taking on the fixed imaginative role since usurped by characters from animated cartoon film. The stories in which they participated often had a cartoon-like implausibility.
The most obvious feature of all, however, was the practice of improvising on an outline scenario instead of memorizing a written script. This may have been passed down from a first generation of illiterate actors; though its permanent adoption is likely to have been commercially motivated, since it vastly increased the number of apparently different items which a company could offer. The same fragments of material could be recycled in endless permutations, and both performers and companies could retain control of their own repertoire. At all events, the technique won amazement and admiration, and became the defining characteristic of ‘Italian comedy’. It is important nowadays to register that it had little to do with the improvisation practised by modern actors and drama students. Rather than a free use of the performer's imagination, aiming at innovation and stretching the creative faculties, it involved the memorization and redeployment of a huge amount of repertoire material. Actors specialized in a single mask, for which they ‘learned their part’ over a whole career, constantly accumulating in their commonplace books (zibaldoni, or libri generici) collections of jokes, speeches (comic or serious), and verbal routines in whatever language or dialect was appropriate. Much of this material was taken from written sources, just as the plots to which it contributed were cannibalized and permutated from written plays. Thus the majority of the material delivered in oral performance—details of which, by definition, scholars can never entirely recover—is likely to have been memorized in advance, in snippets and fragments, like the routine of a modern stand-up comedian. Naturally each single entertainment was leavened every time by genuine ad libs, by acknowledgements of the particular place and occasion, and (in the audience's eyes) by an increase in the element of danger which always underlies live performance. But if this was theatrical acrobatics, it was performed with a safety-net: actors always knew where they were going, within a brief gag or within the plot as a whole. They were guided and constrained by constant mental and physical rehearsal, and by the directions of the scenario which told them what had to happen, and what had to be mentioned, in each scene. Preconceived lazzi, on a large scale or small, might figure as self-contained digressions, but also as components which actually advanced the plot. Comparisons have since been offered with the improvisation of jazz musicians, conditioned both by the structure of the song being performed and by immersion in a particular musical style.
All these defining characteristics could have existed for an all-male profession: the historic introduction of female performers was a gratuitous addition, whose acceptance by society remains something of a mystery when one considers the formidable prejudices involved. Women who displayed themselves were assumed to be sexually immoral. It is probable, though not provable, that the earliest actresses were in fact high-class courtesans, who in any case learned a range of verbal accomplishments to entertain clients in their salons, including improvisation both of verse and of music. The rise of the actress may be inseparable from that of the operatic prima donna. The virtuously married Isabella Andreini worked hard to dispel the prejudice that she, at least, was a ‘public woman’; and the emergence of theatrical family dynasties, similar to those in other artisan trades or arti, did modify the image. However, assumptions about sexual freedom continued in perception and in practice, and in the Papal States female performers of any kind were banned well into the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, their use spread from Italy to the rest of Europe, with England holding out until after the Restoration.
Since the ‘texts’ of commedia dell'arte were indeed oral rather than written, their detailed content and tone remains very much a matter for speculation. Some seventeenth-century playscripts from both France and Italy, including those of Molière, offer some clues as to how the ‘modular’ structures of improvised dialogue, and the stock material of monologues by individual masks, influenced subsequent comic dramatists who wanted to produce an analogous effect. Scenarios which have survived show that the emphasis of improvised theatre was indeed on comedy, in the hard-edged unsentimental style of commedia erudita, leaving tragedy and pastoral more often to fully composed scripts. However, the plots of many comedies tend also to draw on the emotionally charged and picaresque formats of mixed genres such as tragicomedy: this leaves us in some permanent doubt as to how far, and how often, some roles—in particular those of the Innamorati—were played for pathos rather than for laughs. In the end the form must always be seen as existing in a state of permanent overlap, not only between genres, but also between itself and any written theatrical format which had a proven audience appeal. Goldoni's term commedia dell'arte, with its reference to a trade guild, implies a ‘professional’ theatre which therefore also had always to remain ‘commercial’. See also early modern period in Europe; acting/actor.
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