Drama Assessment – Commedia dell’Arte This term during our drama lessons we have been exploring and learning about Commedia dell’Arte, a comical and slapstick style of theatre that first became popular in Italy during the 16th century. I had never heard of Commedia before we began studying it in class, so my first impressions were that it was extremely over the top and exaggerated! At the start of the topic I didn’t think that I would enjoy it very much as, because of the use of stock characters, I felt that there would be little room for creativity and making the performances original and inventive.
However I was proved wrong and I learnt that although all the characters are the same, everyone interprets them differently so I enjoyed watching other groups portray the likes of Il Dottore and Columbina in ways that I would never have thought of. Commedia first came about in 16th century Italy and was performed on temporary stages in city streets and market places. The troupes of actors performed for all social classes, and as their plays mostly took place outside, were accessible to all.
Using skilful and strangely understandable mime and grummelot, stereotypical stock characters, masks with exaggerated features, over the top physical movements and improvised dialogue, Commedia actors were accepted and enjoyed wherever they went. As the style grew in popularity, it spread to Europe and has influenced every other theatre style. Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers are direct descendants of Commedia, using mime and slapstick. Commedia has gone on to influence sitcoms (you have the bosses, the workers, the stupid one etc) and even Shakespeare, especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Merchant of Venice.
The over the top style shows in modern pantomimes, with the loud and bubbly portrayal of characters. There are different stock characters that represent the different stereotypes in society. One of the most famous is Arlecchino, who is of the zanni (servant) status, usually serving Pantalone, but also frequently Il Capitano, or Il Dottore. He was very agile and a skilled acrobat, however he has often been described as absent minded. Arlecchino was always hungry but had no money, and there is an story saying that his costume covered in mismatching diamond shapes was made from off cuts of old mardi gras outfits of his richer friends.
He carries a wooden slapstick disguised as a bat or sword and wears a cat-like mask to suit is agile movements. The mask also often has a wart on his low forehead and he is ragged, yet sleek. Continuously in a lowered position (especially in the presence of characters higher up than himself), Arlecchino walks with his hands on his hips and thumbs in his belt. Despite his curved back from carrying heavy bags and chairs, he has acute energy throughout his body. He walks similarly to other zanni, but in a much more balletic and supple way.
One of the main things that separates Arlecchino from your standard zanni is that he has the intelligence and creativity to hatch cunning plans, although they rarely unfold how he would like. He is often described as being “quick in body but slow in mind”. His character is essential in creating interesting complications in the plot of the entire performance, as his failed schemes mess things up for others. Arlecchino is often used as a messenger, but likes to add his own thoughts and opinions to the messages.
A bit of a ladies’ man, he is often the lover of Columbina… Although she is also classed as a zanni, Columbina is better dressed than male servants since she is a lady’s maid. She apron with a dress underneath. Usually, her colourful skirts fell just below her knee and the neckline of her bodice low and frilled, reflecting her flirty character. She is dressed similarly to her mistress with the addition of the apron, unless she is with Arlecchino in which cases she wears the diamond pattern to match his.
Columbina sometimes wears a mask that just covers her eyes, but she is also commonly seen wearing heavy eye makeup instead. She is considered to be very attractive, and carries a tambourine to shoo unwanted admirers away. Because of her corset, Columbina’s waist is tiny but her hips are very wide in comparison. She sit on one hip when she stands (one leg bent, the other straight) and leans forward to show off her cleavage. She flicks her legs when she walks, making the zanni walk grander. Due to her keen and active brain, she can hold her own in most troublesome situations.
She is often seen as the only rational person out of all the Commedia stock characters. She eats well and has nice clothes as well as being able to read and write. The main difference between Columbina and Arlecchino is that he thinks on his feet, whereas she uses her brain and thinks things through. Like Il Capitano she can appear onstage alone, and sometimes even performs the prologue. As well as being a class of servants, Zanni is also the name of the character that sits right at the bottom of the Commedia hierarchy.
His costume is a simple, white, baggy garment originally made from flour sacks. Zanni is a bit of a slacker and always bent over and hunched. His vision is poor as is his hearing which results in him being extremely clumsy. The movements Zanni makes are always urgent and his voice is rough. As in all Commedia characters, the length of his nose indicates how stupid he is and his head bobbles like a chicken when he walks. My favourite lesson was the mime & grummelot one. Grummelot is a series of gibberish sounds that actors use instead of dialogue.
When done properly it allows the audience to understand what is going on between the characters even though no words are being said due to the tone of voice and exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. My partner and I improvised a scene between Zanni and Il Dottore. The person playing Zanni had a hunched posture and low centre of gravity and Il Dottore was on a higher level to show his social status. The plot consisted of a drunken Dottore ordering Zanni to move a plank using a slurring tone and swaying around to show his drunkenness.
Zanni would keep hitting Il Dottore over the head with the plank due to his poor sight and urgent movements. In the end, Il Dottore got angry with Zanni because he had run out of drink, so he storms off, tripping over the plank that he made Zanni move. I could improve by being louder and more exaggerated on stage. I have learnt all about Commedia and it tells us that people at this time enjoyed humorous plays. Studying drama is important for empathising, confidence and self awareness.