Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Dating back to the 16th century, commedia dell’arte was a comedic theatrical form performed by travelling acting troupes. Everywhere and anywhere was their stage, from town squares to courts. The most accomplished troupes were even invited to showcase their theatrical skills at palaces and toured internationally – like rock stars on a world tour.
Though the art form has long since died out, many of its elements survive today in varied elements of writing, plotting, and characterization. In this article, I’ll take you through everything authors need to know about commedia dell’arte, and how its influence could improve your work.
Plot and story
Commedia stories were a balance of comedy, romance, and sometimes tragedy. They all followed roughly the same formula: the ‘innamorati’ (young lovers) are forced apart by ‘il vecchi’ (older men, usually fathers, guardians, or suitors) while the ‘zanni’ (servants) try and comically undermine the older men to help the lovers get together.
Established formulas like this would go on to become the basis for genres like situational comedy and romantic comedy, or ‘sit-coms’ and ‘rom-coms’. We’ve talked before about how established stories can be used to enhance new elements, giving the audience an easy entry and identifiable points of reference that let you play around with other elements of the tale.Simple stories can have their own unique hold on a reader.Click To Tweet
That’s the case here, but commedia dell’arte also shows that audiences have a near limitless appetite for simple stories about the trials of love. Often, you don’t need a complicated plot to tell an engaging story, especially when it’s about something truly relatable (by which I mean the difficulties of young love, not the scheming servants).
Actors in commedia performances represented ‘tipi fissi’ – fixed stereotypes, or ‘social types.’ These satirical send-ups of recognizable Italian ‘types’ became so popular that they became the template for many recognizable archetypes in 17th and 18th century theater across Europe.
Again, this was a way of simplifying the ingredients of the story and allowing the fun to get started right away. Clichés harm writers when they’re unintentional, but they can be deliberately employed to great effect – especially when you’re trying to create a group with chemistry.
Here are the main cast of stock characters typically found in commedia:
- ‘Arlecchino’ was the most well known character. He had the characteristics of a trickster; usually dressed in a cat’s mask, dark clothes, and armed with a wooden sword. He was witty, nimble, and naive.
- ‘Brighella’ was Arlecchino’s sidekick. He was a conniving but cowardly villain who was motivated by greed.
- ‘Pantalone’ was a caricature of the rich, Venetian merchant. He was rude and tightfisted, with a young wife or a rebellious daughter.
- ‘Pedrolino’ was a prototype for the modern clown – white-faced with his head stuck in the clouds.
- ‘Pulcinella’ was a mean, ugly bachelor who chased after young women. He can still be seen today in English Punch & Judy puppet shows.
- The ‘Inamorato’ (the lover) was one of the only characters not to wear a mask. He was an expert in the art of courtship – delivering long and beautiful monologues about love.
- The ‘Inamorata’ was the female counterpart to the Inamorato. Like him, she also didn’t wear a mask.
- ‘Columbina’ was the Inamorata’s female confidante and servant. Impish, witty, and endlessly curious, she was the template for characters like the Harlequin and Pierette.
- ‘La Ruffiana’ was an old crone, either an elderly mother or a town gossip, who would try to keep the lovers apart.
It may seem lazy to draw from a cast of pre-made characters when creating your own, but these ‘types’ are actually drawn in broad enough strokes to allow space for variation. Different commedia stories would similarly put their own spin on each one to satisfy audience expectation and stop things becoming stale. Caricatures like these are also easy to identify with, and most became universally recognizable.Authors can use clichés and stereotypes to quickly orientate their readers.Click To Tweet
Even though they’re simple, commedia stories also employ some surprisingly sophisticated plot devices. There are multiple antagonists, for instance – a fertile ground for conflict – and supporting characters to flesh out the primary cast and mix up perspective. The use of masks also shows how deliberate caricature can help sell a story – without their masks, the young lovers become more complex, and the audience is naturally more sympathetic to the characters with who they can empathize.
Masks and costumes
Costume was hugely important in commedia dell’arte. The audience was supposed to be able to identify which stock character each actor was representing the moment they stepped on stage.
Every character wore a leather mask, colored and styled to visually amplify their characteristics. The only characters that didn’t wear masks were the young lovers at the center of the story as they weren’t figures of fun; rather, they were perhaps more the ‘straight men’ to the others’ comedy. They were the characters that the audience were supposed to root for. Usually, these kinds of characters – even if they’re not romantic leads – will be the hero or protagonist in your story. They’ll be the reader’s conduit into the madness you’ve created, and should direct or mirror their reactions to anchor them in the story.
Though this is visual element, there’s still something authors can learn from commedia costuming. Obviously, you can still describe what your characters look like to your reader, and (if you imagine their introduction in your story as being the akin to them walking on stage in a commedia play) you should aim for the same instant recognition. This might mean describing a specific type, choosing a few choice signifiers to say a lot about a character in only a few words, or even deliberately under-describing them and letting the reader fill in the blanks.
Shakespeare and sad clowns
The most direct influence commedia dell’arte had was on the work of Shakespeare, and some of its elements became standard across all forms of comedic literature. Its influence is especially strong in Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, and As You Like It.
Most profound, perhaps, is the influence of commedia on the tragicomedy form that Shakespeare mastered. “Although Romeo and Juliet is of course a famous tragedy… it was very influenced by the Italian tragicomedy,” Professor Robert Henke explains. “Its sad ending turns on a single moment. In fact, some scholars have even wondered if Romeo and Juliet was itself once a tragicomedy that was later revised to a tragic end. Certainly, theatre companies in the day performed different versions of the story with happy and sad endings… All that has to happen is the letter has to get to Romeo from the Friar explaining what’s going on. If the letter gets to Romeo just a little bit sooner, it is a serious play, but it is a tragicomedy; it ends happily.”Comedy and tragedy are never far apart – understand their connection to write both better.Click To Tweet
This illustrates how thin the line can be between tragedy and comedy, something of which commedia was deftly aware. The ‘sad clown’ archetype – the personification of this duality – can actually be traced directly back to it.
Put on your costume, powder your face.
The people pay, and they want to laugh.
And if Harlequin shall steal your Columbina,
laugh, clown, so the crowd will cheer!
Turn your distress and tears into jest,
your pain and sobbing into a funny face – Ah!
At your broken love!
Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!
– Ruggero Leoncavallo, Vesti la Guibba from Pagliacchi
The ‘sad clown’ uses comedy to mask or alleviate their sorrows. This makes them hugely sympathetic; we love characters that can make us laugh even as we empathize with their suffering. Today, characters like Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister and Marvel’s Deadpool prove how much we continue to find ‘sad clowns’ endearing and compelling. Even if the duality between humor and suffering isn’t represented in one character, it’s still something you can and should explore in your writing.
Lasting influence on comedy writing
The impact of the theatrical form on writing is just as important as its impact on comedic performance. Commedia was as much driven by language – puns, wordplay, double entendre, ‘grammalot’ (‘nonsense’ talk) etc. – as it was by physical gags. “The comedian produces laughter as the sauce to his skillful (sic) speeches; the stupid buffoon makes it the be-all and end-all of his display,” Niccolo Barbieri, an early commedia performer, observed. Even the standard formula for telling a joke – set-up, reinforcement, and then reversal – is rooted in commedia dell’arte.
Shakespeare’s appropriation of commedia’s stock characters and plot structure has remained at the root of comedy writing to this day. Most modern situational comedies revolve around a pair of lovers and the supporting characters around them who try and keep them apart – pompous but flawed ‘masters’ or zany and conniving ‘servants’. These roles are old, but if something beguiled audiences of any time period, it can usually be imported to the present day; the narratives that humans enjoy haven’t changed that much, after all.
For example, the rich and greedy merchant (‘Pantalone’) character type is represented today by characters like Frank Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with the rest of the gang representing the scheming and foolish ‘zanni’. More specifically, Dennis (the cunning but childish trickster) fits the ‘Arlecchino’ type; Charlie (the clownish dreamer) fits the ‘Pedrolino’ type; Mac (Dennis’ sidekick) fits the ‘Brighella’ type; and Dee (who the others insist is ugly and desperate) probably best fits the ‘Pulcinella’ type best.
Whether it’s conscious or not, this dynamic works, setting up varied stories and interactions that an audience wants to see. It’s in this way that commedia dell’arte can be mined for effective tools by the modern author.
The legacy of commedia dell’arte
The physicality of commedia dell’arte – slapstick comedy and improvisational techniques – traveled through comedy history by way of cinematic clowns like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, right through to today: Saturday Night Live bears striking resemblance to a troupe of commedia actors, using a mixture of scripted and ad-libbed lines to bring out each performer’s best. This is something to consider when writing with a partner, or as part of a community – a simple, agreed-upon foundation often leaves space for everyone to give their best.When writing with others, sometimes freedom to create trumps total discipline.Click To Tweet
But, thanks in part to its use of stock characters, the formatting of its jokes, and the way it employs familiar story set-ups, commedia dell’arte also helped standardize comedy writing. Sit-com, rom-com, and black comedy (tragicomedy) genres can all be traced back to commedia. While you should be able to offer your own fresh take on the classics, don’t be afraid to make use of these pre-packaged, familiar characters and formulas to understand and meet your readers’ expectations. It’s what they’re there for, and they’re more reliable than you may think.
Have some thoughts on the history of commedia, or the nature of tragicomedy? Let me know in the comments. Or, more great advice, check out Your Book Is Crying Out For A Volta – Here’s How To Deliver and How To Create New Stories By Adapting Famous Books.