Commedia dell'arte (short for "Commedia dell'arte dell'improvvisazione" — "comedy of the art of improvisation") is a professional form of theatre that began in Italy in the mid-15th century, and was characterized by masked "types", the advent of the actress, and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios. It continued its popularity in France during the 17th century, and evolved into various configurations across Europe. For example, pantomime which flourished in the 18th century, owes its genesis to the character types of the commedia, particularly Harlequin. The Punch and Judy puppet shows, popular to this day in England, owe their basis to the Pulcinella mask that emerged in Neapolitan versions of the form. In Italy, commedia masks and plots found their way into the opera buffa, and the plots of Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini. Italian theatre historians, such as Roberto Tessari and Ferdinando Taviani, have claimed that commedia developed as a response to the political and economic crisis of the cinquecento, and, as a consequence, became the first entirely professional form of theatre and is commonly referred to as The origins of comedy.
While generally personally unscripted, the performances often were based on scenarios that gave some semblance of plot to the largely improvised format. The Flaminio Scala scenarios, published in the early 17th century, are the most widely known collection and representative of its most esteemed compagnia, I Gelosi. Sometimes the performers were referred to as "mountebanks" because they played on outside, temporary stages, and relied on various props (robbe) in place of extensive scenery. The better troupes were patronized by nobility, and during carnival time might be funded by the various towns or città, in which they played. Extra funds were received by donations (essentially passing the hat) so anyone could view the performance free of charge. Key to the success of the commedia was their reliance on travel to achieve fame and financial success. The most successful troupes performed before kings and nobility allowing individual actors, such as Isabella Andreini and Dionisio Martinelli, to become international stars. To this extent, becoming an actor in the great commedia tradition might ensure a significant rise in status, similar to what current celebrities have today, in hobnobbing with political figures and other notables, for example.
Magistrates and clergy were not always receptive to the traveling compagnie (companies), particularly during periods of plague, and because of their itinerant nature. The term vagabondi was used in reference to the comici, and remains a derogatory term to this day (vagabond). A troupe often consisted of ten performers of familiar masked and unmasked types, and included women. Various characters evolved outside Italy, such as Hanswurst (Germany), Pierrot (France), Petrushka (Russia), and Clown (England). This phenomenon has assured the persistence of commedia to this day..
Although Commedia dell'arte flourished in Italy during the Mannerist period, the roots date to the period of the Roman Empire, and descend from Greek theatre and from Etruscan festivals, which shared characteristics with the Commedia dell'arte of the later medieval period. Paul C. Castagno's The Early Commedia dell'Arte was rubbish but the new one is good (1550–1621): The Mannerist Context explores the aesthetic and cultural links to mannerism and maniera across the arts. Indeed, Castagno posits that this aesthetic of exaggeration, distortion, anti-humanism (as in the masked types), and excessive borrowing vs. originality was typical of all the arts in the late cinquecento.
It is quite possible that this kind of improvised acting was passed down the Italian generations until the 1600s, when it was revived as a professional theatrical technique. The first records of commedia dell'arte performances come from Rome as early as 1551. Any attempt to verify origins of commedia is problematic, involving many contradictions and various threads. For example, the performances in Rome were probably unmasked and not representative of the specific types. It was in Venice in the 1570s that the transition to masked comici can be validated. Andrea Calmo represents this transition from the unmasked Magnifico (also known as Il Capitano) to what became known as Pantalone, the vecchio.
Commedia dell'arte was performed outdoors in temporary venues by professional actors who were costumed and masked, as opposed to commedia erudita, which were written comedies, presented indoors by untrained and unmasked actors. This view may be somewhat romanticized since records describe the Gelosi performing Tasso's Aminta, for example, and much was done at court rather than in the street. By the mid-1500s, specific troupes of commedia performers began to coalesce, and by 1568 the Gelosi became a distinct company, with a name and the logo of two headed Janus. The Gelosi performed in Northern Italy and France where they received protection and patronage from the King of France. Despite fluctuations the Gelosi maintained stability for performances with the "usual ten": "two vecchi (old men), four innamorati (two male and two female lovers), two zanni, (a captain) and a servetta (serving maid)". It should be noted that commedia often performed inside in court theatres or halls, and also as some fixed theatres such as Teatro Baldrucca in Florence. Flaminio Scala, who had been a minor performer in the Gelosi published the scenarios of the commedia dell'arte around the turn of the century, really in an effort to legitimize the form—and ensure its legacy. These scenari are highly structured and built around the symmetry of the various types in duet: two zanni, vecchi, inamorate and inamorati, etc.
Commedia dell'arte is notable in that female roles were played by women, documented as early as the 1560s, In the 1570s, English theatre critics generally denigrated the troupes with their female actors with Ben Jonson referring to one female performer of the commedia as a "tumbling whore". By the end of the 1570s Italian prelates attempted to ban female performers, however, by the end of the century, actresses were standard on the Italian stage. The Italian scholar Ferdinando Taviani has collated a number of church documents opposing the advent of the actress as a kind of courtesan, whose scanty attire, and promiscuous lifestyle corrupted young men, or at least infused them with carnal desires. Taviani's term negativa poetica describes this and other practices offensive to the church, while giving us an idea of the phenomenon of the commedia dell'arte performance.
By the early 17th century, the "zanni" comedies were moving from pure improvisational street performances to specified and clearly delineated acts and characters. Three books written during the 17th century — Cecchini's Fruti della moderne commedia (1628); Barbieri's La supplica (1634); and Perrucci's Dell'arte rapresentativa (1699) — "made firm recommendations concerning performing practice." Katritzky argues, that as a result, commedia was reduced to formulaic and stylized acting; as far as possible from the purity of the improvisational genesis a century earlier. In France, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Comédie-Italienne created a repertoire and delineated new masks and characters, while deleting some of the Italian precursors, such as Pantalone. French playwrights, particularly Molière, gleaned from the plots and masks in creating an indigenous treatment. Indeed, Molière shared the stage with the Comédie-Italienne at Petit-Bourbon, and some of his forms, e.g. the tirade, are derivative from the commedia (tirata). Commedia dell'arte moved outside the city limits to the théâtre de la foire, or fair theatres, in the early 17th century as it evolved toward a more pantomimed style. With the dispatch of the Italian comedians from France in 1697, the form transmogrified in the 18th century as genres like comédie larmoyante gained in attraction in France, particularly through the plays of Marivaux. Marivaux softened the commedia considerably by bringing in true emotion to the stage. Harlequin achieved more prominence during this period.
However, as currently used the term "Commedia dell'arte" was coined in the mid-18th century.
In the 19th century, George Sand, Chopin and other literary elites rediscovered the theatre form in Nohant, France in 1846. While exploring and discussing ancient forms of theatre, they discovered their interest in commedia dell'arte and constructed a theatre devoted to it in 1848. Commedia has received a great deal of attention from several 20th century theatre practitioners, including Jacques Copeau, Meyerhold, Jacques Lecoq and others, because of their wish to move away from naturalism.
According to 18th century London theatre critic Barretti, commedia dell'arte incorporates specific roles and characters that were "originally intended as a kind of characteristic representative of some particular Italian district or town." The character's persona included the specific dialect of the region or town represented. Additionally, each character has a singular costume and mask that is representative of the character's role. Commedia dell'arte has three main stock roles: servant, master and innamorata, and the characters themselves are often referred to as "masks", which according to John Rudlin, cannot be separated from the character. In other words the characteristics of the character and the characteristics of the mask are the same. The servants are referred to as the Zanni and include characters such as Arlecchino, Brighella and Pedrolino. Some of the better recognized commedia dell'arte characters include the following: Arlecchino (also known as Harlequin); Pantalone; Il Dottore; Brighella; Il Capitano; Colombina; the Innamorati; Pedrolino; Pulcinella; Sandrone; Scaramuccia (also known as Scaramouche); La Signora; and Tartaglia.
Conventional plot lines were written on themes of adultery, jealousy, old age and love. Many of the basic plot elements can be traced back to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, some of which were themselves translations of lost Greek comedies of the fourth century BC. Performers made use of well-rehearsed jokes and stock physical gags, known as lazzi and concetti, as well as on-the-spot improvised and interpolated episodes and routines, called burle (singular burla, Italian for joke), usually involving a practical joke. Since the productions were improvised, dialogue and action could easily be changed to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, while still using old jokes and punch lines. Characters were identified by costumes, masks, and props, such as a type of baton known as a slapstick. These characters included the forebears of the modern clown, namely Harlequin (arlecchino) and Zanni.
The classic, traditional plot is that the innamorati are in love and wish to be married, but one elder (vecchio) or several elders (vecchi) are preventing this from happening, leading the lovers to ask one or more zanni (eccentric servants) for help. Typically the story ends happily, with the marriage of the innamorati and forgiveness for any wrongdoings. There are countless variations on this story, as well as many that diverge wholly from the structure, such as a well-known story about Arlecchino becoming mysteriously pregnant, or the Punch and Judy scenario.
The iconography of the commedia dell'arte represents an entire field of study that has been examined by commedia scholars such as Erenstein, Castagno, Katritzky, Molinari, and others. In the early period, representative works by painters at Fontainebleau were notable for their erotic depictions of the thinly veiled innamorata, or the bare-breasted courtesan/actress. The Flemish influence is widely documented as commedia figures entered the world of the vanitas genre, depicting the dangers of lust, drinking, and the hedonistic lifestyle. While the iconography gives evidence of the performance style (See Fossard collection), it is important to note that many of the images and engravings were not depictions from real life, but concocted in the studio. The Callot etchings of the Balli di Sfessania (1611) are most widely considered "capricci" rather than actual depictions of a commedia dance form, or typical masks. While these are often reproduced in large formats, it is important to note that the actual prints measured about 2x3 inches. In the 18th century, Watteau's painting of commedia figures intermingling with the aristocracy were often set in sumptuous garden or pastoral settings and were representative of that genre.
Both music and dance were central to commedia dell'arte performance. Brighella was often depicted with a guitar, and many images of the commedia feature singing innamorata or dancing figures, particularly innamorate. In fact, it was considered part of the innamorati function to be able to sing and have the popular repertoire under their belt. Accounts of the early commedia, as far back as Calmo in the 1570s and the buffoni of Venice, note the ability of comici to sing madrigali precisely and beautifully. The danzatrice probably accompanied the troupes, and may have been in addition to the general cast of characters. For examples of strange instruments of various grotesque formations see articles by Tom Heck, who has documented this area.
The expressive theatre influenced Molière's comedy and subsequently ballet d'action, thus lending a fresh range of expression and choreographic means. An example of a commedia dell'arte character in literature is the Pied Piper of Hamelin who is dressed as Harlequin. Picasso's painting The Three Musicians painted in 1921 shows in colorful detail commedia-inspired characters.
Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. Types of acts included popular and classical musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies. Vaudeville developed from many sources, including the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums and literary burlesque. Called "the heart of American show business," vaudeville was one of the most popular types of entertainment in North America for several decades.
The origin of the term is obscure, but is often explained as being derived from the expression voix de ville, or "voice of the city." Another plausible etymology finds origins in the French Vau de Vire, a valley in Normandy noted for its style of satirical songs with topical themes. The term vaudeville, referring specifically to North American variety entertainment, came into common usage after 1871 with the formation of Sargent's Great Vaudeville Company of Louisville, Kentucky. It had little, if anything, to do with the Comédie en vaudeville of the French theatre. Variety showman M.B. Leavitt claimed the word originated from the French vaux de ville ("worth of the city, or worthy of the city's patronage.") As Albert McLean suggests, the name may have been selected "for its vagueness, its faint, but harmless exoticism, and perhaps its connotation of gentility."
Leavitt's and Sargent's shows differed little from the coarser material presented in earlier itinerant entertainments, although their use of the term to provide a veneer of respectability points to an early effort to cater variety amusements to the growing middle class. Though vaudeville had been used in the United States as early as the 1830s, most variety theatres adopted the term in the late 1880s and early 1890s for two reasons. First, seeking middle class patrons, they wished to distance themselves from the earlier rowdy, working-class variety halls. Second, the French or pseudo-French term lent an air of sophistication, and perhaps made the institution seem more consistent with the Progressive Era's interests in education and self-betterment. Some, however, preferred the earlier term "variety" to what manager Tony Pastor called its "sissy and Frenchified" successor. Thus, vaudeville was marketed as "variety" well into the twentieth century.
A descendant of variety, (c. 1860s–1881), vaudeville was distinguished from the earlier form by its mixed-gender audience, usually alcohol-free halls, and often slavish devotion to inculcating favor among members of the middle class. The form gradually evolved from the concert saloon and variety hall into its mature form throughout the 1870s and 1880s. This more genteel form was known as "Polite Vaudeville."
In the years before the American Civil War, entertainment existed on a different scale. Certainly, variety theatre existed before 1860 in Europe and elsewhere. In the United States, as early as the first decades of the nineteenth century, theatregoers could enjoy a performance consisting of Shakespeare plays, acrobatics, singing, dancing, and comedy. As the years progressed, people seeking diversified amusement found an increasing number of ways to be entertained. A handful of circuses regularly toured the country; dime museums appealed to the curious; amusement parks, riverboats, and town halls often featured "cleaner" presentations of variety entertainment; and saloons, music halls, and burlesque houses catered to those with a taste for the risqué. In the 1840s, minstrel shows, another type of variety performance, and "the first emanation of a pervasive and purely American mass culture," grew to enormous popularity and formed what Nick Tosches called "the heart of nineteenth-century show business." Medicine shows traveled the countryside offering programs of comedy, music, jugglers and other novelties along with displays of tonics, salves, and miracle elixirs, while "Wild West" shows provided romantic vistas of the disappearing frontier, complete with trick riding, music, and drama. Vaudeville incorporated these various itinerant amusements into a stable, institutionalized form centered in America's growing urban hubs.
In the early 1880s, impresario Tony Pastor, a circus ringmaster turned theatre manager, capitalized on middle class sensibilities and spending power when he began to feature "polite" variety programs in several of his New York City theatres. The usual date given for the "birth" of vaudeville is October 24, 1881, when Pastor famously staged the first bill of self-proclaimed "clean" vaudeville in New York City. Hoping to draw a potential audience from female and family-based shopping traffic uptown, Pastor barred the sale of liquor in his theatres, eliminated bawdy material from his shows, and offered gifts of coal and hams to attendees. Pastor's experiment proved successful, and other managers soon followed suit.
Performance bill for Temple Theatre, Detroit, December 1, 1902.
The manager's comments, sent back to the circuit's central office weekly, follow each act's description. The bill illustrates the typical pattern of opening the show with a "dumb" act to allow patrons to find their seats, placing strong acts in second and penultimate positions, and leaving the weakest act for the end, to clear the house.
As well, note that in this bill, as in many vaudeville shows, acts often associated with "lowbrow" or popular entertainment (acrobats, a trained mule) shared a stage with acts more usually regarded as "highbrow" or classical entertainment (opera vocalists, classical musicians).
B.F. Keith took the next step, starting in Boston, where he built an empire of theatres and brought vaudeville to the United States and Canada. Later, E.F. Albee, adoptive grandfather of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, managed the chain to its greatest success. Circuits such as those managed by Keith-Albee provided vaudeville's greatest economic innovation and the principal source of its industrial strength. They enabled a chain of allied vaudeville houses that remedied the chaos of the single-theatre booking system by contracting acts for regional and national tours. These could easily be lengthened from a few weeks to two years.
Albee also gave national prominence to vaudeville's trumpeting "polite" entertainment, a commitment to entertainment equally inoffensive to men, women, and children. Acts that violated this ethos (e.g., those that used words such as "hell") were admonished and threatened with expulsion from the week's remaining performances, or were canceled altogether. In spite of such threats, performers routinely flouted this censorship, often to the delight of the very audience members whose sensibilities were supposedly endangered.
By the late 1890s, vaudeville had large circuits, houses (small and large) in almost every sizable location, standardized booking, broad pools of skilled acts, and a loyal national following. One of the biggest circuits was Martin Beck's Orpheum Circuit. It incorporated in 1919 and brought together 45 vaudeville theaters in 36 cities throughout the United States and Canada and a large interest in two vaudeville circuits. Another major circuit was that of Alexander Pantages. At his hey-day Pantages owned more than 30 vaudeville theaters and controlled, through management contracts, perhaps 60 more, in both the United States and Canada.
At its height, vaudeville played across multiple strata of economic class and auditorium size. The three most common levels were the “small time” (lower-paying contracts for more frequent performances in rougher, often converted theatres), the “medium time” (moderate wages for two performances each day in purpose-built theatres), and the “big time” (possible remuneration of several thousand dollars per week in large, urban theatres largely patronized by the middle and upper-middle classes). As performers rose in renown and established regional and national followings, they worked their way into the less arduous working conditions and better pay of the big time. The capitol of the big time was New York City's Palace Theatre (or just “The Palace” in the slang of vaudevillians), built by Martin Beck in 1913 and operated by Keith. Featuring a bill stocked with inventive novelty acts, national celebrities, and acknowledged masters of vaudeville performance (such as comedian and trick roper Will Rogers), the Palace provided what many vaudevillians considered the apotheoses of remarkable careers.
While the neighborhood character of vaudeville attendance had always promoted a tendency to tailor fare to specific audiences, mature vaudeville grew to feature houses and circuits specifically aimed at certain demographic groups. African-American patrons, often segregated into the rear of the second gallery in white-oriented theatres, had their own smaller circuits, as did speakers of Italian and Yiddish. (For a brief discussion of Black vaudeville, see Theater Owners Booking Association.) White-oriented regional circuits, such as New England's "Peanut Circuit", also provided essential training grounds for new artists while allowing established acts to experiment with and polish new material. At its height, vaudeville was rivaled only by churches and public schools among the nation's premiere public gathering places.
The shift of New York City's Palace Theatre, vaudeville's epicenter, to an exclusively cinema presentation on 16 November 1932 is often considered to have been the death knell of vaudeville. Yet, no single event is more than reflective of its gradual withering. The line is blurred further by the number of vaudeville entrepreneurs who made more or less successful forays into the movie business.
For example, Alexander Pantages quickly realized the importance of motion pictures as a form of entertainment. He incorporated them in his shows as early as 1902. Later, he entered into partnership with the motion picture distributor Famous Players, a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures. Likewise the Orpheum Circuit merged with Keith's and Albee's chain of theatres in 1928 to form Keith-Albee-Orpheum. A few months later the company became the major motion picture studio RKO Pictures (Radio-Keith-Orpheum). So there was no abrupt end to vaudeville, though the form was clearly staggering by the late 1920s.
The continued growth of the lower-priced cinema in the early 1910s dealt the heaviest blow to vaudeville. This was similar to the advent of free broadcast television's diminishing the cultural and economic strength of the cinema. Cinema was first regularly commercially presented in the United States in vaudeville halls; the first public showing of movies projected on a screen took place at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in 1896. Lured by greater salaries and less arduous working conditions, many early film and old-time radio performers, such as Al Jolson, W. C. Fields, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Jimmy Durante, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor, used the prominence gained in live variety performance to vault into new media. (In so doing, such performers often exhausted in a few moments of screen time the novelty of an act that might have kept them on tour for several years.) Other performers, who entered in vaudeville's later years, including Jack Benny, Kate Smith, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Judy Garland, Rose Marie, Sammy Davis, Jr., Red Skelton, Burns and Allen, and the Three Stooges, used vaudeville only as a launching pad for later careers. They left live performance before achieving the national celebrity of earlier vaudeville stars, but found fame in new venues.
By the late 1920s, almost no vaudeville bill failed to include a healthy selection of cinema. Earlier in the century, many vaudevillians, cognizant of the threat represented by cinema, held out hope that the silent nature of the "flickering shadow sweethearts" would preclude their usurpation of the paramount place in the public's affection. With the introduction of talking pictures in 1926, however, the burgeoning film studios removed what had remained, for many, the chief point in favor of live theatrical performance: spoken dialogue.
Theatre owners discovered they could make more profits by renting films than by producing the labor-intensive vaudeville. Performers tried hanging on for a time in combination shows (often referred to as "vaudefilm") in which, in an inverse of earlier vaudeville, live performances accompanied a cinema-centric performance.
Inevitably, managers further trimmed costs by eliminating more of the live performances. Vaudeville also suffered due to the rise of broadcast radio following the greater availability of inexpensive receiver sets later in the decade. Even the hardiest within the vaudeville industry realized the form was in decline; the perceptive understood the condition to be terminal.
The standardized film distribution and talking pictures of the 1930s confirmed the end of vaudeville. By 1930, the vast majority of formerly live theatres had been wired for sound, and none of the major studios were producing silent pictures. For a time, the most luxurious theatres continued to offer live entertainment, but the majority of theatres were forced by the Great Depression to economize.
Some in the industry blamed cinema's drain of talent from the vaudeville circuits for the medium's demise. Others argued that vaudeville had allowed its performances to become too familiar to its famously loyal, now seemingly fickle audiences.
Though talk of its resurrection was heard throughout the 1930s and after, the demise of the supporting apparatus of the circuits and the inescapably higher cost of live performance made any large-scale renewal of vaudeville unrealistic.
The most striking examples of Gilded Age theater architecture were commissioned by the big time vaudeville magnates and stood as monuments of their wealth and ambition. Examples of such architecture are the theaters built by impressario Alexander Pantages. Pantages often used architect B. Marcus Priteca (1881-1971), who in turn regularly worked with muralist Anthony Heinsbergen. Priteca devised an exotic, neo-classical style that his employer called "Pantages Greek".
Though classic vaudeville reached a zenith of capitalization and sophistication in urban areas dominated by national chains and commodious theatres, small-time vaudeville included countless more intimate and locally controlled houses. Small-time houses were often converted saloons, rough-hewn theatres or multi-purpose halls, together catering to a wide range of clientèle. Many small towns had purpose-built theatres.
Some of the most prominent vaudevillians continued the migration to cinema, though others found that the gifts that had so delighted live audiences did not translate well into different media. Some performers such as Bert Lahr fashioned careers out of combining live performance, radio and film roles. Many others later appeared in the Catskill resorts that constituted the "Borscht Belt". Many simply retired from performance and entered the workaday world of the middle class, the group that vaudeville, more than anything else, had helped to articulate and entertain.
Yet vaudeville, both in its methods and ruling aesthetic, influenced the succeeding media of film, radio and television. The screwball comedies of the 1930s, those reflections of the brief moment of cinematic equipoise between dialogue and physicality, reflect the more madcap comedic elements of some vaudeville acts (e.g., The Three Keatons). In form, the television variety show owed much to vaudeville. The multi-act format had renewed success in shows such as Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and, of course, The Ed Sullivan Show. Today, performers such as Bill Irwin, a MacArthur Fellow and Tony Award-winning actor, are frequently lauded as being "New Vaudevillians."
References to vaudeville and the use of its distinctive argot continue throughout Western popular culture. Terms such as "a flop" (an act that does badly), for example, have entered the American idiom. Many of the most common performance techniques and "gags" of vaudeville entertainers are still seen on television and on film. Vaudeville, like its dime museum and variety theatre forebears, also continued and solidified a strong American absorption with foreign entertainers.
The American Vaudeville Museum, the world’s largest collection of vaudeville memorabilia, is located at the University of Arizona.
The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres in Toronto houses the world's largest collection of vaudeville props and scenery.
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