About our Comedy
With roots in ancient Greece, commedia dell’Arte is a form of theater developed in Italy during the Renaissance.
In traditional commedia, actors played “stock” characters, such as the aging lothario, the lazy but clever servant, or the love-torn lovers. These characters would then be thrust into scenarios and situations that were devised to create conflict and misunderstanding, all for maximum comedic effect.
In traditional commedia, all action was improvised, though over time scripted plays were written for the commedia style.
Masks were (and still are at Piccolo Theatre) an integral part of the performance’s aesthetic.
In A Chorus of Clowns, Midori Snyder traces the lineage of comedic theatre, from ancient traditions of the Greeks and Romans, through the development of commedia dell’Arte in the Renaissance, to the Marx Brothers of the 20th century. He writes,
"Inspired by the antics of the Marx Brothers, I decided to review the roots of clowning in the early Southern European history of theater clowns — not the circus clowns — but those masked characters who rose out of early pagan cults and then developed into secular, irreverent tricksters and mirrors of human behavior."
In The Commedia Dell’Arte: A Study in Italian Popular Comedy, Winifred Smith describes the main elements of commedia dell’Arte, and discusses how its creation was a distinctly Italian phonomenon, and why. He writes,
"No definition of the commedia dell'arte however summary would be complete without at least a glance at one of the fundamental perplexities connected with it: why… did Italian players alone develop [this] peculiar kind of comedy out of all the elements of farcical amusement… Improvisation, masked fools, acrobatic tricks, intrigue plots, satire and music are widespread in the sixteenth century theater, but only the Italians combined them all on outlines roughly resembling regular plays."
Ultimately, he believes that the reason was that “dramatists of great talent were rarer in Italy than elsewhere,” which accounts, at least in some degree, for the improvisational character of commedia.
The commedia dell’Arte from A Short History of the Drama by Martha Fletcher Bellinger describes some of the main elements of commedia. Most works of commedia revolve around
"disgraceful love intrigues, clever tricks to get money or outwit some simpleton… long-lost children stolen by the Turks, … plotting maids, bragging captains, aged fathers and wily widows. Each gentleman had his parasite, each woman her confidante. There was considerable diversity of incident, such as night scenes, in which the hero was mistaken for the villain; cases where father and son fall in love with the same girl; and risqué situations--the representation of fire, shipwreck, and the like which served as a pretext for allowing actresses to appear naked on the stage."
The author also explains the importance of comic relief to Renaissance theatre, as well as the important role that masks played in commedia; how a audience could tell which stock character an actor portrayed by the mask they wore.
British Panto, short for pantomime, incorporates elements of commedia dell’Arte.
Not to be confused with miming, British Panto incorporates elements such as singing, dancing, slapstick comedy, cross-dressing, current events, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo. It is a uniquely British institution.
Traditionally, Panto is found across the U.K. during the holiday season. The shows are aimed primarily at families, and are usually based upon a fairy tale or legend. Popular stories include Cinderella, Aladdin, Snow White, Jack & the Beanstalk, and Robin Hood.
British Panto Resources
Our Artistic Director, John Szostek, designed our Panto set as a life-size replica of a Victorian Toy Theatre.
British Toy Theatre Downloads: Make Your Own!
- Downloadable Toy Theater Kit: Make one yourself, then act out the included Cinderella script!
- Toy Theater Downloads