What relevance does the commedia dell’Arte have for the modern actor? Illustrate your essay with specific examples.
The decline of the commedia dell'Arte was due to a variety of
factors.' States the online Encyclopedia Britannica; 'Eventually
the physical comedy came to dominate the performance and, as the
comic business became routine, it lost its vitality' ( Encyclopedia
Britannica. Date unknown. Date accessed 30/05/07). At first glance
it may seem that a theatrical form finding its origins in 15th
Century Italy may, indeed, find itself redundant in modern drama.
However, I would argue that Commedia dell'Arte has not declined and
is very much alive within, and wholly relevant to the modern acting
Literally, commedia dell'Arte translates as 'Comedy of the
professional guilds' (Judith Chaffee.Date unknown. Date accessed:
30/05/07) and as Giacomo Oreglia claims, it may also be defined as
revolutionary theatre, in a broad sense:
Because of its gift of imposing itself universally. It was the
creation of the professional actor and actress. (Oreglia.
Commedia dell'Arte improvviso, as it was also known used a
detailed plot outline with exits and entrances noted, however,
improvisation was a key factor in their performances. 'Each actor
rarely took more than one kind of part.' Winifred Smith notes, 'If
he were young, handsome and sentimental he was cast for first or
second lover and memorised Petrarchan laments and rhapsodies.'
(Smith. 1964. Pg4) So despite delivering off-the-cuff one line
jokes and reacting to their surroundings, the actors were always
prepared for the role they were undertaking thus their remarks
would always be relevant to the plot and their character. The task
of the Commedia dell'Arte was to produce theatre with well-known
stock characters and plot in a manner which was refreshing and new,
therefore all improvisation was momentary and to vary the business;
but this can be, as Evert Sprinchorn warns, 'a very serious
undertaking, unless actors have worked together a long time and
know each others strengths and weaknesses.' (Sprinchorn.1968. Pg
Xi) The spontaneity of the Italian troupes led the English
dramatist Thomas Kyd to recall at the end of the sixteenth
The Italian tragedians were so sharp of wit/That in one hour of
meditation/They would perform everything in action. (Spinchorn.
1968. Pg. Xxi)
Indeed, when regarding some of the most popular characters on
television and theatre today, we can see that this remains.
Successful comic actor Rik Mayall, for example, played the role of
Alan B'Stard for television in the 1980's, acting the part of a
slimy Conservative MP. He has recently resurrected this character
as a Labour MP, and translated the role for the stage. The plot has
been altered and yet the character remains just as he always was,
Rik Mayall continues to act the familiar Alan B'Stard an audience
recognises- although this may also be a comment on politicians as
well as the relevance of Commedia dell'Atre. The New
Statesman is also a good example of the staying power of
political satire and Judith Chaffee observes that, 'Commedia pokes
fun at elements of society's respectable values by means of
exaggerated styles and insightful character traits.'
(www.commedia-dell-arte. Date unknown. 30/05/07) Rik Mayall's nasal
intonation, constant hair slicking and image checking would seem to
be a theatrical style taken directly from the Commedia
Unpicking the stitches of 'respectability' gave, and continues to
give power to the theatre and finally manages to do what theatre
consciously or not is able to do-comment upon and alter
The vigorous defence of their dignity and the aggressive and
unusual popular appeal exploded Into a bitter and corrosive satire
which contributed greatly, if not completely consciously, to the
breaking down of barriers between the classes. (Oreglia.1968.
As our modern day society continues to battle with power
struggles between countries, political parties and individuals, it
is notable that the theatre and therefore the actors are required
for the same purposes and super objectives in society itself.
Ultimately, the Italian commedia dell'Arte actors were masters of
their trade and are able to show the power of theatre. They reveal
the skill required to act in the moment whilst also reacting to
immediate surroundings and public consciousness. Commedia dell'Arte
illuminates the profession of acting as a powerful form of human
expression which, as I have hoped to prove, is as relevant now as
it was then.