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|This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: |
|Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 153-7. |

THE title, Commedia dell'arte ("Comedy of Art" or "Comedy of the profession"), means unwritten or improvised drama, and implies rather to themanner of performance than to the subject matter of the play. This peculiar species had a long life in Italy, probably of about four hundred years (from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century); but it flourished especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of course in actual practice the play was not, in any sense, the result of the moment's inspiration. The subject was chosen, thecharacters conceived and named, their relations to one another determined, and the situations clearly outlined, all beforehand. The material was divided into acts and scenes, with a prologue. The situations were made clear, together with the turn of action and the outcome of each scene. When this general outline (called also scenario or canvas) was satisfactorily filled out there was left anopportunity for actors to heighten, vary, and embellish their parts as their genius might suggest. The necessity for smoothness, constant surprise, clearness, and wit called forth histrionic abilities which had been unknown to the medieval stage. "The actors had to find the proper words to make the tears flow or the laughter ring; they had to catch the sallies of their fellow-actors on the wing, andreturn them with prompt repartee. The dialogue must go like a merry game of ball or spirited sword-play, with ease and without a pause." [1] Such parts required actors able to make a serious study of their parts; actors who took pride in their achievements, and were willing to accept the discipline which all professional art demands. These comedians changed forever the standards of acting. The bestof them stamped their parts with individuality, freshness and brilliance, and gave value to pieces which, often enough, were otherwise worthless. The Commedia dell'arte introduced the professional actor into Europe.
Like the court comedies of Ariosto and Machiavelli, the Commedia dell'arte was concerned mostly with disgraceful love intrigues, clever tricks toget money or outwit some simpleton. There were the same long-lost children stolen by the Turks, the same plotting maids, bragging captains, aged fathers and wily widows. Each gentleman had his parasite, each woman her confidante. There was considerable diversity of incident, such as night scenes, in which the hero was mistaken for the villain; cases where father and son fall in love with the samegirl; and risqué situations--the representation of fire, shipwreck, and the like which served as a pretext for allowing actresses to appear naked on the stage.
An important part of every play, given always to the most expert and popular actors, were the humorous interruptions, called lazzi, which often had nothing to do with the play itself. It might be clever pantomimic acting,acrobatic feats, juggling, or wrestling. For example, three characters meet at a cook shop, where they hear of an accident which has befallen the wife of one of them. While they express their dismay at the affliction, they fall to eating greedily from a huge dish of macaroni; and as they eat, tears stream down their faces. Or again, a servant, disgusted at an order his master has given him, delayscarrying it out until he has turned a complete somersault. One famous actor could execute this trick having a full glass of wine in his hand, without spilling a drop. Another was able, in his eighty-third year, to box the ear of a fellow servant with his foot. Elaborate imitations of women taking off their stays, false hair, and crinolines were always acceptable, together with many pantomimic...
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