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Physical Theatre: Commedia dell’Arte

Four Centuries-Old Mother of Many Art and Theatre Forms

Traditional Punch & Judy - chazzvid
A visual performance art form from late 16th century Italy still resonates today, as it gave birth to separate but linked genres that speak universally to audiences.

Since Greek/Roman times two traditions of theatre in Europe developed – the written and memorised, and the spontaneously improvised. Sometimes one would dominate, then the other. Occasionally they would converge. Plays are still written and performed by actors who have learned their lines. Spontaneous improvisation of the travelling troubadour lives on in circus clowning, English pantomime and Punch & Judy.

Stock Characters On Stage

The Commedia dell’Arte (which means art, skill or craft of comedy or the masked comedy) used stock (stereotypical) characters to tell well-honed tales. It relied on physical theatre, mime with some words, presented often in-the-round, using informal performance spaces.

  • Harlequin, or Arlecchino was extremely agile, the master of disguise, he would mimic everybody he came in contact with.
  • Pulchinella, moved like a rather demented hunchback cockerel with a beaked nose, and was empty-headed and violent without morals.
  • Columbina was usually the pretty servant girl, a happy-go-lucky joker, often keen on matters to do with sex.
  • Pantalone was aged, greedy, trying to hide his age and his endless lust for the women; in short, a dirty, mean, old man.
  • Pierrot was often a servant, a sad, silent type, a dreamer who was capable of sudden and acrobatic movement.
  • Isabella was graceful, classy and pure, usually lusted over by the men in the pieces.
  • There was also often a Doctor or Professor, a boring old know-all.

Circus Clowning Tradition

There is a line between the greedy, dirty old man and the cunning servant in simple plot terms. This, linked with the attraction of the beautiful girl to all, is the base ingredient for many clowning set-ups. The clown wants something (money, food, the girl or to make a fool of the authority figure). The funny gag is what he does to achieve his goal.

Zanni means a low-status servant who talked directly to the audience, often winking and including them in what humiliation was about to be inflicted on the Doctor or Pantalone. It became our word zany, meaning a little off-the wall, whacky.

Circus itself grew more out of the Greek and Roman amphitheatres and later complete circles of tiered seating to enjoy a mass spectacle, like war on the ground or at sea. However, the clowning element came straight out of the Commedia: simple tricks, large mime and gesture.

Punch and Judy

The knockabout, amoral violence of Pulchinella lead directly to the puppet called Punch, that was once part of the British seaside tradition. He sits in a cast of other characters, all derived from the notion of stock characters playing a straight-forward part in a narrative of familiar humour.

That he escapes justice by hanging the hangman through a trick, links to the clown who gets away with tormenting a pompous superior. However, that the story of the baby, the crocodile, the Chinaman and the sausages nowadays gets past the guardians of child safety, obesity, racial offence, domestic violence and disrespect for authority and is shown to young children, is perhaps something to ponder over.

Punch is a trickster, in the line of the medieval Lord of Misrule, while Judy his wife is a mix of the female characters, but grown older with the cares of motherhood and a selfish husband. He in turn has no respect for her, and would have been an amusing butt of humour in previous generations.

English Pantomimes Attract Audiences

The origins of panto go back to the Elizabethan masques, or colourful, masked dances and musical pageants. Later the influence of the comic Commedia dell’Arte was apparent in the now stock characters of the Dame, the idiots/fools and other clown-like figures who make fun of the central baddie, or evil character, aided by the often simple young hero.

Most of the routines, plot lines, jokes and characters have nowadays become stereotyped, which is what attracts audiences around the country to theatres every winter season. They like to know what to expect and join in with shouting, punchlines and songs, as moved by the atmosphere.

Pantomime, like other art forms, constantly updates itself with what is happening in the world, making fun of different aspects of life. But that’s the same for all the comedies – from stand-up to circus, sit-coms to satire. It’s what keeps it fresh, and alive and profitable.

First published at Suite 101, 16 March 2010.

Photo: Traditional Punch & Judy – chazzvid

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3 Responses to "Physical Theatre: Commedia dell’Arte"

  1. […] a good airing in melodrama andcommedia dell’Arte, villains plotted against the hero/heroine or the innocent victim, and are usually the main […]

  2. […] commedia dell’Arte originating in the 15th-17th centuries in Italy relied exclusively on physicality and acrobatics […]