Despite the importance and richness of the written erudite theater, Italy’s most enduring and glorious contribution to the history of drama remains unquestionably the unwritten theater of the streets and marketplaces, the commedia dell’arte , which had its greatest success from 1560 to 1650.
Unlike the written erudite theater of poets and men of letters, which depended heavily on the patronage of courts and academies and was often brought to the stage by refined dilettanti and courtiers, the chief characteristics of the commedia dell’arte were improvisation, a brash and energetic acting style that feigned spontaneity, sudden gags and bawdy jokes known as lazzi, and stock characters, usually masked and immediately recognizable by their garb, played by professional actors.
Although not written, the plays had completely developed plots or scenarios known as canovacci, and each actor, usually specializing in a given role or mask, was expected to “improvise” a dialogue or speech, according to a precise situation or scene called for in the plot, by relying on his experience and on a repertoire of set expressions, proverbs, witticisms, jokes, and brilliant conceits. Often the actors would adroitly adjust their performance to satisfy the mood and temperament of the audience, or introduce lazzi of particular significance to a particular time or place.
From the era that commedia dell’arte thrived, well over one thousand canovacci have survived, the most important being those...
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