What Is Commedia dell'Arte?

A good place to start is with some of the confusions we came across during the tour of our first new play, ‘The Comedy of Babi Babbett’ (2002). We had feedback saying that people had thought – Therefore had decided not to come – that the performance would be in Italian, that it would be ‘highbrow and intellectual, therefore obscure’, that it was a puppet show, that it was for children, or that it was some sort of circus performance. In fact there are a few grains of truth in all of these things, but what sort of excuse is ‘a few grains of truth’ for not coming and having a good time?

It is true that Babi’s ancestors are Italian (and French), Mr Punch is his cousin (and Harlequin his father), children and adults have come to adore him over the years (as with Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp) and, of course, whole troupes of his uncles, aunts and second cousins have knocked each other about in circuses. What we do is not, however, about ancestors, but is contemporary theatre, is intended to make people laugh (mainly, but also cry sometimes), is intended for adults (some as young as three), generally doesn’t use puppets, and has as much slapstick as any circus act. In fact we literally use the battoccio, or slapstick, to create illusions. And it is in English (mainly).

It is true that Babi’s ancestors are Italian (and French), Mr Punch is his cousin (and Harlequin his father), children and adults have come to adore him over the years (as with Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp) and, of course, whole troupes of his uncles, aunts and second cousins have knocked each other about in circuses. What we do is not, however, about ancestors, but is contemporary theatre, is intended to make people laugh (mainly, but also cry sometimes), is intended for adults (some as young as three), generally doesn’t use puppets, and has as much slapstick as any circus act. In fact we literally use the battoccio, or slapstick, to create illusions. And it is in English (mainly).For those of you who think that commedia dell’arte is masked drama, only some of it was and we use (mainly) the bit of the tradition that wasn’t, so we use white faced Pierrot style make-up and brightly coloured costumes and what we call ‘wig-hats’ like in cartoons. (Look at the photos throughout this site.) In fact ‘cartoon-isation’ is a very important part of our style – that is, taking the essential features of everything and making them big and obvious. That’s what we do.

For those of you who think that commedia dell’arte is masked drama, only some of it was and we use (mainly) the bit of the tradition that wasn’t, so we use white faced Pierrot style make-up and brightly coloured costumes and what we call ‘wig-hats’ like in cartoons. (Look at the photos throughout this site.) In fact ‘cartoon-isation’ is a very important part of our style – that is, taking the essential features of everything and making them big and obvious. That’s what we do.

Brief history of the commedia dell’arte

The first commedia dell’arte troupes can be traced to Italy in the 1530’s. Well known things about them include: They were the first troupes of professional actors in Europe. They performed outdoors at first, but as they got commissions (like all sensible actors who need money to survive) they performed indoors as well in rich people’s houses and theatres.

Then when politicians and priests couldn’t get the jokes they crossed into France and eventually spread throughout Europe looking for people who would pay them to do what they did best, make people laugh. Two other important things: Some of them in every troupe wore leather masks – and they didn’t use written scripts; they improvised. There are two red herrings here, however, which have got most physical theatre actors I’ve come across sniffing ecstatically like dazed Tom cats. They are: that to do commedia dell’arte today you have to (1) wear leather masks and (2) improvise. Not true. I’ll come back to those contentious little points…