Marketplaces in sixteenth-century Europe thronged with barkers and costermongers calling their wares and travelling shows where mountebanks staged miraculous recoveries amidst masks and music. Within this carnival atmosphere, improvised theatre naturally thrived as a popular pastime. Rude, funny and satirical, commedia dell’arte established itself across the piazzas of Italy from the 1530’s onwards.
The term arte signified that the comedy was performed by professional actors – who could sing, dance, mime, clown, juggle and tumble their way through the improvised shows. The players lampooned social stereotypes according to their status or regional origin. These evolved into the larger than life stock characters easily recognisable by audiences across a crowded market place. An actor would often play the same character for the whole of his or her working life.
Although the form began on the streets and was non-elitist, it was soon in high demand amongst the aristocracy in the court and theatres. Shakespeare and Moliere plundered the characters and plots for their own plays. Carlo Goldini’s A Servant of Two Masters, adapted from his own scenario, allegedly sounded the death knell for the improvised form. This has been adapted into the hugely successful play One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean. The style has had a lasting effect on popular entertainment; from vaudeville to pantomime and silent movies, from the Marx Brothers to Monty Python, Mr Punch and Mr Bean, all must tip their hat to the commedia dell’arte players.
Master and Servant
One of the central relationships to explore is that of master and servant. Ask for two volunteers to play the roles. Give a situation, such as the servant bringing the master items of clothing to try on. Allow the players to explore this for a while. Ask the class if the roles are clear. Try two other students, asking them to make the status gap between the characters larger and two more to show a smaller gap. Finally, ask another pair to play the situation, but to give the servant the higher status. What is important is that the roles continue to be delineated, while the servant must find subtle ways to undermine the master.
Lazzi (singular ‘lazzo’) were the pre-rehearsed comic routines which could be an integral part of the plot or simply impromptu gags slipped into a performance to liven it up. If the lazzi involved more than one character there might be a particular coded phrase which one of the actors would use to signal to the others. One of the most famous was the Lazzo of Nightfall where the actors used candles to indicate that it was night-time. This would give them the opportunity to bump into each other, climb ladders into the wrong house, mistake one another’s identities and so forth.
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Teaching Commedia dell’arte (12 years to adult)
Updated from an article originally written for Teaching Drama magazine, this PDF introduces the background to the Italian improvised theatre of the 16th to 17th centuries and shows how it still influences theatre and TV today. Activities suitable for Key Stages 3-5 and adults include: Status Gap, Master and Servant, Pantalone and Arlecchino, Character Body Parts, Throw Your Face, Grammelot and Canovaccio. A new page outlines examples of the lazzi (comic business) which Commedia dell’arte was famous for. Written by David Farmer.
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