Elizabethan: Commedia dell'arte


Stadtansicht mit Wanderbühne. Von Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde (Bildarchitektur) und Job Adriaensz. 1689. Wikimedia commons.

One of the secondary characters in my Francis Bacon series, Catalina Luna, used to be an actress in the commedia dell’arte in Italy. I describe her thus in The Widows Guild: “Catalina had originated somewhere in Spain, the daughter of a gypsy chieftain. She had run away in Italy with a troupe of commedia dell’arte performers, where she met an English actor and followed him to London. He died, somehow leaving her in the care of Trumpet’s Uncle Welbeck, who had sent her on to serve his favorite niece. At least that’s the story she told.”

Naturally, I tried to do my homework on this multi-facted minor character. I read a book about gypsies in spain, or at least up through the turn of the seventeenth century (see Pym, below.) Alas, the author was obliged to report that little was known about these fascinating people, other than the occasional mention in legal records. It’s not fair to characterize a people by those of their members who happen to get arrested, so I have to let vague impressions from the cultural ether characterize Catalina’s early years. Luckily, they’re long past and she doesn’t get that much page time.

It’s a miracle!

In olden days, medieval-theatermeaning between the fall of the Roman empire and the Reformation, the English enjoyed their dramatic performances al fresco. (Except for persons wealthy enough to have masques performed in their great halls, of course.) Troupes of actors travelled from town to town, setting up stages where they could, and working through their repertoire. Christopher Marlowe certainly saw such performances in Canterbury. Shakespeare might have seen a few.

The Wikipedia article refers to the four M’s of medieval theater: mummersmummers, mystery plays, morality plays, and miracle plays. I think of mummers more as townspeople dressed in funny costumes parading, dancing, and pranking through the town on special holidays, but they also gave short mimed performances of events of local importance. The illustration on the left shows St George slaying the Dragon in a 2015 production by the St Albans Mummers. (I think I’m confusing mummers and morris dancers.)

Mystery, morality, and miracle plays are obviously drawn from the Bible and Christian traditions. Miracle and mystery plays are stories like Adam and Eve being exiled from Paradise and the fall of Lucifer from Heaven. The terms seem to be nearly interchangeable; doubtless specialists would disagree. “Morality plays are a type of allegory in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt him to choose a Godly life over one of evil.”

That allegory part is important for the development of commedia dell’arte, as we shall see.

Less mystery, more morality



So here comes the Reformation. First, all this mystery stuff smacks of popery and Romish magic. The authorities discouraged traditional street theater; and when we say, ‘discouraged,’ we mean, ‘ran the performers out on rails and/or arrested them.’

Morality plays of a sort continued in the masques performed at court, like the ones Francis Bacon wrote. These characters were types, rather than individuals, like the Hermit or the Old Knight, or Beauty or Wisdom.

These characters tended to speak pompously on didactic themes, at least, when Francis Bacon wrote their lines. (I can’t find an example easily at the moment, although I have at least part of a masque he wrote somewhere. Later.) I can give you this tidbit from his essay about masques: “Let the scenes abound with light, specially coloured and varied: and let the maskers, … have some motions upon the scene itself before it coming down; for it draws the eye strangely, and makes it with great pleasure to desire to see that it cannot perfectly discern.”

Street theater also suffered from the competition that arose in the sixteenth century. The newly sophisticated nobility, especially the Tudor monarchs who were educated by humanists, loved witty, well-crafted theatrical performances. They supported the development of a professional theater culture, in which plays written by brilliant playwrights were performed by professional actors in purpose-built theaters. So England didn’t enjoy the flowering of commedia dell’arte. That was for the south.

Less mystery, more farts


La Fenice

Disney is not wrong: butt jokes are universal and endlessly funny. Jokes about farting and pooping and performing non-missionary-position sexual acts are staples of commedia dell’arte. Or at least that’s what I’ve seen, performed by the brilliant Texas commedia troupe, La Fenice. They are so much fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! You will laugh and laugh. They turn butt jokes into fine art. They perform in Austin and Alpine and sometimes other places. If you ever get a chance to see them, GO!

Commedia dell’arte isn’t only about farts and fornication, of course. Scholars, like the ones who wrote the Wikipedia article, will tell you that “commedia was a response to the political and economic crisis of the 16th century.” 

The essence of commedia is improvisation, even though the performers were professionals. Stock characters evolved: Harlequin, Pantaleone, Colombina, Scaramouche, Il Dottore, and others. They represented foolish old men, ambitious young men, wily women, silly girls, corrupt professionals, etc. The actors would have some broad general play, like a story about a rich man who can’t decide which of his unsatisfactory dependents should inherit his fortune when he dies, and improvise all sorts of delightful foolishness within the loose bounds of that story.

For me, the important part was that improvisational skill. That makes Catalina the perfect servant for my chaos character, Lady Alice. 


Pym, Richard J. 2007. The Gypsies of Early Modern Spain, 1425-1783. New York : Palgrave Macmillan.

Wikipedia: Commedia dell’arte.

Wikipedia: Medieval theater.

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