Wide view of Venice: Piazza San Marco - Riva degli Schiavoni

IMPROMPTU COMEDY: Commedia Acting Logic

Can I propose a risky statement? Here it comes!

The Commedia dell’Arte  can be considered a low-level cultural entertainment (if we compare it with the “classic theatre plays”) which we can see quite similar to the modern popular “novelas” so worldwide recognized as “simple entertainment”, entertainment for the masses.

… but unlike the novelas, the Commedia dell’Arte was mostly founded on the improvisation on stage, although some rigid rules applied: the “canovaccio”.

It would quite differ from the Shakespearean theatre of later times, along with all the rest.

Of course this might lead to some strict rules, necessary to do your work and make the public happy:

  • Comedians had to be good actors, in the end, or agreeable and funny enough to hit it with the public.
  • Dialogues had to be as simple as possible, especially having to take in consideration the fact of having to perform in front of a public which would sometimes speak a different language.
    There was not even a defined Italian Language at the time, each Region was speaking its own way.
    From this situation may quite frequently come out a dialogue which is a mix of Florentine, Roman, Venetian, Latin, French and more.
  • Characters had to be recognizable, and not too many! Not much money involved in the company’s earning perspectives.
    These characters would, in the end, more or less impersonate themselves, staying as much as possible in the stereotypes the public demonstrated to like.
    Nothing new, even modern improv theater actors work with these rules in mind.

Simple, traditional, popular plots:

  • Recognizable situations!
  • Man betraying his wife.
  • Rich guy taking advantage of the poor, ignorant, low-class individual.
  • Young guy getting into impossible love stories (usually ending well)
  • Poverty, need of food and of a good future (it really related to their public …)
  • Very poor guy that shows to be smarter than the rich one and wins in the end.
  • Cowardice of who is supposed to be brave and end up to showing he is the exact opposite.
  • Constant put-down of the potentially literate guy, like the Doctor, who would show in the end how clueless he is.
  • Some violence, but not too much, nobody really died on stage, in the end
  • As much foul dialogue as possible, keeping it a little above of what the Church may accept. Since the Roman Church accepted practically NOTHING in those times, the foul dialogue could be stretched to what the public liked, without the guards taking over".
  • Stage setup and structure had to be as simple as possible, for limited transportation possibilities / budget.
  • Somebody who sings or plays a simple instrument or maybe the only female in the company who shows her legs, some boobs or more, to entice the public, mostly men.

Let’s shake all these situations well, and we may have a Commedia dell’Arte cocktail ready!

Giuseppe Maria Mitelli: Ogni Cosa Qua Giu Passa e non Dura - etching
Giuseppe Maria Mitelli: Ogni Cosa Qua Giu Passa e non Dura
(Everything passes Down Here and does not last) - etching (1675-1700)

Non hà 'l goder felicità sicura;
Paride 'fà, mà tropò tardi intese,
che'l sereno d'Amor presto si oscura.

There is no way to enjoy a sure happiness;
Paride* tried but understood too late,
that serene Love gets dark very soon.

* Paride, Helen of Troy's lover

L'esser sciocco è Virtude à tempo e loco,
Bello è lo scherzo, se lo siegue 'l riso,
Mà che? non stima 'l Tempo e scherzo, e gioco.

To be foolish is a Virtue in some time and place,
Nice is the joke, if is followed by laughter,
But you know? Time is not valuing the joke and fun.

Or saggio, et or indotto è l'huom, che vive;
Cosi varia l'ingegno: e 'l Tempo eguale
A dotti, et ignoranti 'l fin prescrive.

Sometimes wise, and sometimes constrained is the man, in his life;
Such varies intelligence: and Time in the same way
To the learned and to the ignorant, prepares the end.

Che fà 'l Vecchio nel mondo! Al' Oro attende;
Quanto meglio faria mirar la fossa,
Se ciò, che s'hà dal suolo, al suol si rende.

What is the Old man doing in the world! Takes care of his Gold;
How better it would be to look for his grave,
For what you get from the ground, to the ground you have to give back.

Ò gran salto l'morir; salto mortale,
Che natura richied a Creso, et Hiro:
Ma'l salto è bel, se nel cader si sale.

It's a big jump to die; a mortal jump,
Which nature asks to Creso and Hiro*:
But it is a nice jump, if in falling down you ascend.

* The very rich King Creso and Ciro the Great were great enemies (around year 560 b.c.)

Morir conviene e Libitina involve
Con le Reggie i Tuguri; e chi si asside
Oggi in trono regal, dimani è polve.

To die is necessary and Libitina* is involved
With Royal Palaces and the Slums; and who sits
Today on a Regal Throne, tomorrow will be dust.

* Goddess of corpses and funerals

E mare il Mondo, e flutti hà sol di sdegno;
Mà non teme 'l rigor Tisi celeste;
E fermo tien l'Anchora sacra 'l legno.

And the sea and the World, there are only indignant waves;
But the celestial Consumption does not fear the severity;
And steady holds the sacred Anchor and the wooden rudder.

Pluto à se stesso 'l suo cadèr ramenta;
E affinche l'huomo, ou ei già fù, non vada,
Sferza le furie, e l'empie Branche avventa.

Pluto reminds himself of his falling;
And in order to avoid for man to go where he already went,
Whips the Furies, and the impious Gills rushes.



Tiene l'Eternità volere eterno:
Ha pene Eterne, Eterne gioie; e pari
Sono in Eternità Cielo, et Inferno.

Eternity holds an everlasting power:
There are Everlasting pains, Everlasting Joys; and the same
Are in Eternity, Heaven and Hell.

Copyright by Roberto Delpiano 1997-2024 - visit my website www.delpiano.com