A Brief Introduction to Commedia dell'Arte

Dr Chiara D'Anna

"Gestures can be more powerful than words." - Flaminio Scala (1552 –1624)

Commedia dell’arte is a complex and heterogeneous theatrical phenomenon originated in Italy in the 16th century. It flourished throughout all Europe for centuries changing and adapting to the demands and taste of different audiences in different epochs. Often Commedia dell’Arte is described as a popular form of outdoor street theatre based on improvisation between masked stock characters.

This is partly true but not accurate. This definition is too superficial to explain the complexity of Commedia dell’Arte, its longevity and the massive impact it had on the development of European theatre. Commedia dell’Arte can be better defined as a ‘cultural phenomenon’: the result of an encounter between popular culture (oral tradition) and high culture (written tradition/literature); between midlevel folk cultures of the marketplace – i.e. jesters, clowns, buffoni, fools, storytellers, charlatans and acrobats – and the written culture of courts and academia – i.e. Ancient Greek comedy, Plautus, Terence and Renaissance plays. It is important to acknowledge that Commedia had a major impact on the written drama of the time too. Some of the most illustrious testaments of its legacy are plays by Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Moliere, Shakespeare and Goldoni.

Some of the major features and performative qualities of Commedia dell’Arte are:


  • Commedia can be performed both indoor and outdoor.
  • • Commedia has masked and unmasked characters.
  • • Commedia utilises linear and episodic narrative.
  • • Commedia is both written and improvised.
  • • Commedia integrates poetry and obscenity.


particularly relevant to contemporary performance:

The notion of Actor as Creator (= it’s an Actor’s Theatre)

● The ensemble/collaborative process

● The use of improvisation and playfulness

● The body as a medium of expression

● The exploration of the Grotesque and the Absurd

● The importance of the audience and audience interaction

● The mixing of codes, stylistic promiscuity, parody, satire and irony

● ‘Interdisciplinarity’: use of dance, mime, music and singing.