The History and Art of Commedia Dell’Arte

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The Commedia Dell’Arte is a form of live theatre rich in history. The name translates into Theatre of the Professional in English and dates all the way back to Italy in the 16th century. In fact, Commedia is renowned for being the first incorporated theatre company to start touring Europe. The novelty of the concept of this live theatre is to use period style costumes along with various masks to convey a story through improvisation and satire. Although the origins of Commedia Dell’Arte aren’t clear, some historians have linked some of its factors to the mask-wearing improvised theater in ancient Rome, the mime theatre in Byzantine and the juggling of medieval times. Whatever the origins may be Commedia has now gained a cultural influence all its own.

The Symbolism of Masks in Commedia

One of the key components to this form of live theatre is the commedia masks. The mask plays an actual part in the overall production by conveying the emotion of the character in that particular act of the play. Masks were also used to convey to the audience the actual intellect of each character. The mask was also used so that at one time men could play both the male and female roles since when Commedia first came into existence that was the case, but as time went on women were allowed to join this form of theatre as well. 

The Costumes and Characters of Commedia

Like the masks, the costumes also play a key part in the Commedia. These will reflect the type of character that is being conveyed on the stage as well. The costumes are usually period pieces and each one is quite distinctive reflecting a different character that is renowned for being part of the Commedia. Some of the most notable characters are:

The Harlequin: Perhaps the most notable character in the Commedia. This one is usually a servant of another character who seems to want to undermine his master’s authority. The Harlequin is also a romantic as he tends to always want to chase after another character known as the Columbian who usually comes across as an innocent servant girl. The Harlequins are usually checkered. The mask has one color on one side along with another color on the other. 

Pierrot: The opposite of the Harlequin this character is the sad clown of the production. The character is usually portrayed as heartbroken over losing his love to the more flamboyant Harlequin. His costume is usually puffy, with frills, and is white. The mask of this character is also white adding to the overall feeling of him being a shell of his former self.

These are just a few examples of the various characters portrayed in the Commedia Dell’Arte. 

Throughout the year’s different variations on the Commedia have been done, including ones where female leads don’t wear a mask. One form of the production was done with all the actors not wearing a mask but only makeup, this one was a failure and some thought that the Commedia might die because of it. But the Commedia rebounded and continues to this day as a form of live theatre that has left its mark in this entertainment genre.