The Commedia dell’arte

This post was written by Miss Eliza of Strange and Random Happenstance.1_Commedia

The reason I became a theatre major is primarily because so many classes were cross listed with art. I took set painting and design, lighting, props, drafting, costumes, makeup, I took so many hands-on crafting classes that one day it came as a shock to me that I was only a few classes away from getting a second degree. So I decided to bite the bullet and take those few classes that remained: history, writing, and acting. Of all these, acting was by far the one I dreaded the most, and I also got an injury during it because of a tennis ball. The history classes were actually quite fun, except for all those Greek plays, seriously, ugh. Basically the history classes were reading plays. Yep, all it was was reading! Occasionally we’d have to act out screens, my group might not have been the best actors, but we always had the best props, and yes, there were sheep, and no, I’m not joking. Aphra Behn to George Bernard Shaw, Aristophanes to Eugene O’Neill, we studied the texts and the greater movements these plays fit within. Therefore it should come as no surprise that we studied the Commedia dell’arte.

The Commedia dell’arte is interesting though in that it’s based on stock characters represented by their costumes while the story itself is conventional plots revolving around certain subjects from sex to jealousy with completely improvised dialogue. Commedia dell’arte was the Whose Line is it Anyway? of the day, to a certain extent. Seeing as there’s no script to read you are studying the costumes and the archetypes, which fascinated me. Especially the costumes! Yes, I adore costumes, seriously, what fan of historical fiction doesn’t? The thought of slipping into the clothes and becoming someone else, it’s so liberating. So not only was the Commedia dell’arte covered in just my theatrical history class, but in my costuming class as well. If I thought reading plays was fun, costuming was watching movies like Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett and talking about beadwork! Bliss! But, one thing is certain, if you haven’t had a little primer on the Commedia dell’arte, you might be a little lost with regards to the characters, and that’s what I’m here for!

Because the Commedia dell’arte is based on stock characters, you can pick and choose which stock characters to use in the production of a travelling troupe. This is why when Jaouen says he sees himself more as a Scaramouche then as Il Capitano, Cécile says that if he really wants to be that character it can be arranged. But let’s just look to those characters that make up the Commedia dell’Aruzzio.


Pantaloon (head of the Commedia dell’Aruzzio, no one knows his real name):
Pantalone is the metaphorical representation of money in the commedia world, having the look of a hunch-backed old man from protecting his money bag. Being based on currency and ego he is sinister and often inhumane in his treatment towards his fellow characters. Pantalone is presented either as a widower or bachelor; and despite his age, makes numerous unsuccessful passes at women. He regards intelligence highly but is the butt of every conceivable trick. He is usually the blustering father figure to one of the lovers, another stock character found in commedia, whom he strives to keep from their respective lover.


Innamorati, The Lovers: Leandro and Inamorata (gawky youth and Rose, the lover of powerful men):
These characters sole purpose is being in love with one another, and moreover with themselves; being young, very attractive, and elegant, wearing the finest silks and jewelry, as well as being some of the only unmasked characters. Despite facing many obstacles, the Lovers are always united by the end, usually because of the help of other characters because they are too stupid to figure out anything on their own. But they are more in love with love then in love with each other. Overly dramatic, they fret and pout, but are shy in the presence of their lover, needing the help of servants as a go-between, think Cyrano de Bergerac. They are also aware of the audience’s presence, adding to the audience participation and mutability of the Commedia dell’arte. They can have any of a variety of names, Leandro and Inamorata are just two of many options available.


Harlequin (the short, ferret-faced man):
The Harlequin is characterized by his chequered costume, this role being where the costume name comes from. While in essence a buffoon carrying a wooden sword or magic wand, his role is that of a light-hearted, nimble and astute servant, often acting to thwart the plans of his master. He spends much of his time pursuing his own love interest, Colombine, with wit and resourcefulness, while often competing with the sterner and melancholic Pierrot, Colombine’s husband. While Harlequin inherits his physical agility and his trickster qualities, as well as his name, from a mischievous “devil” character in medieval passion plays (here passion plays aren’t about romance, they’re about the bible and the life of Christ and might have sheep in them) he also embodies the prototype of the romantic hero. Therefore, he’s a bit of a Rake!


Columbine (Cécile, aka, the only one in the troupe in “the know” whose onstage character mirrors this):
Columbine is a comedic maidservant playing the tricky slave type. She is married to Pierrot, who is oddly missing from the Commedia dell’Aruzzio, all while being Harlequin’s mistress. Her costume is a ragged and patched dress, appropriate to a hired servant, but occasionally she is in motley to mirror Harlequin. She’s often the only functionally intelligent character onstage, able to aid the lovers, carry on an affair and thwart the unwanted advances of Pantalone, who she often hits with a tambourine.


Ruffiana (Laura’s assumed character, after the troupe’s Ruffiana “stayed behind” with Capitano):
Ruffiana is the older female of the cast, therefore being categorized as the shrewish matron or witch. She has a shady past and quite possibly used to be a prostitute. As a character she is associated with the older antagonistic male characters, Pantalone and Capitano, who are referred to as the vecchi. Ruffiana is most often romantically involved with Pantalone, though his love may easily be unrequited if it suits the plot.


Capitano (Jaouen’s assumed character):
Capitano is an outsider, who often talks at length about made up conquests of both the militaristic and carnal nature in attempts to impress others, i.e. a blowhard and a pompous ass as well as a coward when not overcome by the fury of his passion. He is also extremely opportunistic and greedy. Handily for Jaouen, he wears glasses, although used to compensate for his poor vision, Capitano will insist that it is so the brilliant or fierce glint in his handsome eyes will not outshine the sun. Dressed in military regalia, with his sword at his side, if he were to ever work up enough nerve to draw it the comedy would ensue as it is usually too long to draw easily or too heavy or wobbly to wield properly.


Scaramouche (who Jaouen sees himself as):
Is a combination of the characteristics of Capitano and a servant. Scaramouche entertains the audience by his “grimaces and affected language”. Scaramouche can be clever or stupid, as the actor sees fit to portray him. Jaouen probably wishes to play the character just so Lauren can reference the book by Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche, which helped to inspire The Orchid Affair and was about a young lawyer during the French Revolution who ends up in the Commedia dell’arte! A coincidence? I think not!

12 thoughts on “The Commedia dell’arte

  1. Very interesting and enjoyable post, Miss Eliza! I probably read before that Scaramouche inspired The Orchid Affair, but if so i didn’t appreciate the genius of Lauren.

  2. Thank you for this very informative post. I had only vague ideas about Commedia dell’arte. I can see that elements of the plots are still popular today. We may change the details, but human nature stays the same.

  3. Thank you for this!!! I know some of the tradition of the theatre – especially with Scapine, but I didn’t know the ins and outs of the characters. I do find it fascinating that while Laura played a role for most of her life, she struggled with it on stage.

  4. How fun to learn more about this type of theatre. I have a great love for all things Broadway and modern theatre but will admit to knowing next to nothing about the Commedia dell’arte. I think the Columbine character would be fun to play! Thanks for this great post Miss Eliza!

    • Oh I agree, Columbine would be fun to play! I had a paper doll of her when I was little that I just loved, as seen by how many times I had to tape her back together.

  5. Thank you for the review! Even though I am also a theater graduate, a refresher was very useful. I’m sure there are readers who thought “the Commedia delwhat-a??” I think this is the perfect answer for them!

  6. I wonder if Laura’s struggles to act on the stage come from the fact that acting is very much of a survival skill for her? She’s adaptable enough (also a good skill when teaching) to take on any part handed to her in real life but having to consciously think through taking on another role is a very different matter. This also just popped into my head- does Laura connect acting on stage with the art produced by her parents? I wonder if, at some level, she genuinely believes that she cannot produce art and this serves as an unconscious inhibitor for her.

    And thank you, Eliza, for the descriptions of all the different Commedia dell’arte characters- I was familiar with some of them but not all.

    • Oh, I think she very much connects acting with her parents, they made her take lessons after all! Laura’s acting is very much a survival skill and I think only available to her when needed.

      Also, you’re welcome! And this is by no means all the characters! They are many many more, I just covered the ones that were necessary for Orchid Affair 😉

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