A Brief History of...

Commedia dell'arte  

This colorful and extremely theatrical art form is based on the interaction of traditional stock characters in improvised scenarios that facilitate a comic plot to arrive at a humorous climax. Commedia dell'arte (comedy of artists) originated in streets and market places of the early Italian Renaissance, although it's roots can be traced as far back as far as Ancient Greek and Roman Theatre. These Italian street performers, donning masks with exaggerated comic features to draw additional attention to themselves and complement their physical and acrobatic skills, eventually teamed up in troupes of actors often with a traveling stages to firmly establish commedia as a genre in it's own right by the mid-1500's.
These "commedia troupes" performed for and were accessible to all social classes. Language was no barrier, with their skillful mime, stereotyped stock characters, traditional lazzi's (signature stunts, gags and pranks), masks, broad physical gestures, improvised dialogue and clowning they became widely accepted wherever they traveled.In later years, the tradition spread all over Europe, eventually adopting a major French influence where many of the scenarios were scripted into commedia-style plays. The style and formula of commedia is now surviving well into the late 20th century and beyond continuing the tradition as an artistic institution where gifted actors create some of the most memorable, historic physical characters the theatre has ever seen. It is from the Commedia world where such characters as Arlechinno (Harlequin), Columbina, Pulcinella (Punch), The Doctor, The Captain and Pantalone emerged to reign in theatre for centuries.
Actors, writers, composers, painters and artists of all kinds have been inspired by the work of commedia; some most obvious influences are by the work of Elizabethan dramatists, Moliere, Callot, Watteau, Cezanne, Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, Early 20th Century Vaudeville, Rowan Atkinson, Mel Brookes, and even the characters and scenarios of the T.V. show, Seinfeld.
If you are interested in learning more about this challenging form of theatre, here are a few books listed below that we recommend to use in your research.  You can order these books from your local bookstore, or find them online at you know of any other resources and links, please E-mail them to our creator, producer and webmaster at

Commedia dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook by John Rudlin.  Routledge 1994

Commedia dell'arte: A Scene-Study Book by Bari Rolfe.  Personabooks 1977

The Italian Comedy by Pierre Louis Ducharte.  Dover Publications, inc.  1966

Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia dell'Arte by Mel Gordon.  Performing Arts Journal Publications  1983

Scenarios of the Commedia dell'Arte:  Flaminio Scala's Il Teatro Delle Favole Rappresentative translated by Henry F. Salerno Limelight Editions  1996

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