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The Idea of Commedia in the Twentieth Century

  • Michael Anderson


The truth of Shaw's dictum that ‘those who can, do, and those who can't, teach’, is questioned by the history of commedia dell'arte in the twentieth century, in which research, practice and teaching are inextricably bound together. The significance of commedia's influence on the modern stage lies precisely in the fact that the nature of commedia cannot be defined objectively but is mediated through research and stage practice. We have to deal, therefore, not so much with commedia itself as with an ‘idea’ of commedia, a phrase I have borrowed from Kenneth Richards and Laura Richards.



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1. The Commedia dell'Aite: A Documentary History (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 302. This article is far from comprehensive and attempts to define only some aspects of the idea of commedia as it developed over a century of practice and experimentation. It takes no account of the influence of commedia in Italy, Germany or in Austria (for which see Wolgast, Karin, ‘Die Commedia dell'arte im Wiener Drama der Jahrhundertwende’, Orbis Litteramm 44 (1989), pp. 283311). For a more recent investigation into the creative processes of commedia see Fitzpatrick, Tim, The Relationship of Oral and Literate Performance Processes in the Commedia dell'Aite: Beyond the Improvisation/Memorisation Divide (Lewiston and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995). The article in its present form owes much to the helpful suggestions of M. A. Katritzky;- any deficiencies that remain must be laid at my door.

2. Although the line between scripted and unscripted performance of comedy is proving increasingly difficult to draw, as both Cesare Molinari and Richard Andrews indicated at The Commedia dell'arte: Actors and Artists conference at the Wimbledon School of Art, May 1996.

3. Sand, Maurice (Maurice Dudevant), Masques et bouffons: Comédie Italienne, with a preface by Sand, George (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 2 Vols., 1860). [English translation: The History of the Harlequinade (London: Martin Seeker, 1915); omits the preface and the Avant-propos, where Sand describes his experiments in improvisation, and includes only 16 of Sand's 50 plates.)

4. Sand, , p. 15.

5. Sand, , p. 17.

6. See, for instance, Rudlin, John's useful Commedia dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook (London: Routledge, 1994).

7. See Green, Martin and Swan, John, The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia dell'Arte and the Modern Imagination (New York: Macmillan, 1986).

8. See for instance the bibliography in Taviani, Ferdinando and Schino, Mirella, Il Segreto della Commedia dell'Arte: La memoria delle compagnie italiane del XVI, XVII e XVIII secolo (Florence: La Casa Usher, 1982).

9. The Commedia dell'Arte: A Study in Italian Popular Comedy (New York: Columbia University, 1912).

10. Quoted from Fisher, James, ‘Commedia Iconography in the Theatrical Art of Edward Gordon Craig’, in Cairns, Christopher, ed., The Commedia dell'Arte from the Renaissance to Dario Fo (Lewiston, Queenston & Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989), p. 245.

11. ‘Arlecchino is immortal and Columbina can never die.’ Craig, Gordon, ‘Critics Criticised’, The Mask, Vol. 2, (10 1912), p. 182 (James Fisher, p. 249).

12. ‘The Commedia dell'arte Ascending’, The Mask, Vol. 2 (October 1912), p. 104 (Fisher, James, p. 249]).

13. See note 7.

14. First published in Russian in 1914–17 (St. Petersburg), completion of the work being held up by the outbreak of the Great War; Miklashevski moved to Paris in 1925 and published a French translation (with some sections expanded and a greater selection of illustrative material), under the pseudonym Constant Mic, : La Commedia dell'Arte, ou le théâtre des comédiens italiens des XVIe, XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Schiffrin, aux éditions de la Pléiade, 1927). For an Italian translation from the Russian, with a study of the author and his relationship to the Russian theatre, see Miklashevski, Konstantin, La Commedia dell'arte o il teatro dei commedianti italiani nei secoli XVI, XVII e XVIII, con un saggio di Carlo Solivetti (Venice: Marsilio, 1981). My quotations are from the French edition.

15. For recent studies which discuss the influence of corn-media dell'arte on Russian theatre see Green and Swan; Solivetti (contains a valuable survey); Braun, Edward, Meyerhold: A Revolution in Theatre (London: Methuen, 1995); Clayton, J. Douglas, Pierrot in Petrograd: Commedia dell'arte/Balagan in Twentieth-Century Russian Theatre and Drama (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994); Leach, Robert, Vsevolod Meyerhold (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) and Revolutionary Theatre (London and New York: Routledge, 1994); Picon-Vallin, Béatrice, Meyerhold, Les voies de la création théâtrale 17 (Paris: CNRS, 1990); Kelly, Catriona, Petrushka: The Russian Carnival Puppet Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Meyerhold's interest in the practice of commedia is well documented in these sources; the experience of directing, and playing Pierrot, in Alexander Blok's Balaganchik (The Fairground Booth) was the most important single influence on the development of that interest. The German influence upon Russian experimentation in commedia is traced in Clayton, J. Douglas, ‘From Gozzi to Hoffmann: German Sources for commedia dell'arte in Russian Avant-Garde Theatre’, in Pietropaolo, Domenico, ed., The Science of Buffoonery: Theory and History of the Commedia dell'Arte, University of Toronto Italian Studies 3 (Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions, 1989), pp. 117–33.

16. Mic, , p. 14.

17. Mic, , p. 66–7.

18. Leach, , p. 75.

19. Mic, , p. 151.

20. See Benedetti, Jean, Stanislavski: An Introduction (London: Methuen, 1982), pp. 31–2.

21. Benedetti, , p. 10.

22. Leach, , pp. 47ff.

23. Taviani, Ferdinando, ‘Commedia dell'arte (Influenza della)’, in Attisani, Antonio, ed., Enciclopedia del teatro del '900 (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1980), p. 399.

24. Copeau, Jacques, Registres III: Les Registres du Vieux-Colombier, Première Partie (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), pp. 360–1. Quoted in translation in Rudlin, John, Jacques Copeau (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 92; Cf. also Rudlin, , 1994, p. 177.

25. From ‘Un essai de rénovation dramatique’ (1913), in Copeau, Jacques, Registres I: Appels (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), p. 28; see Rudlin, , 1986, p. 9.

26. Copeau, , Registres III, p. 325; Rudlin, , p. 96.

27. Copeau, ibid.

28. The relationship between commedia dell'arte and the work of Ruzante is now seen as far more tenuous and complex. On the rediscovery of Ruzante in France, see Ferguson, Ronnie, Angelo Beolco (Ruzante), The Veteran (Parlamen-to de Ruzante) and Weasel (Bilora), translated with an introduction, notes and bibliography (New York: Peter Lang, 1995).

29. Ibid., p. viii.

30. Registres III, p. 339. It was not until 1925 that the first full-length study of the dramatist since the Renaissance was published by Mortier, Alfred, Ruzzante (1502–1542): Un dramaturge populaire de la Renaissance italienne (Paris: J. Peyronnet et Cie, 1925). A second volume containing the plays in French translation appeared in 1926.

31. Copeau, , p. 325; see Rudlin, , 1984, p. 99.

32. Copeau, , p. 323; see Rudlin, , p. 99.

33. Saint-Denis, Michel, Training for the Theatre (New York & London: Theatre Arts Books/Heinemann, 1982), pp. 26–7.

34. Ibid., p. 33.

35. See above, n. 19.

36. Wardle, Irving, The Theatres of George Devine (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978), pp. 199200; see also fohnstone, Keith, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979).

37. Taviani, , 1980, p. 397.

38. Quoted (in her translation) from Lorch, Jennifer, ‘Pirandello, Commedia dell'arte and Improvisation’ in Cairns, ed., The Commedia dell'arte, p. 298; see also Taviani, , 1980, p. 399.

39. Benedetti, , p. 35.

40. See, for instance, Gordon, Mel, The Stanislavsky Technique: Russia (New York: Applause, 1987) pp. 206ff; Benedetti, Jean, Stanislavski: A Biography (London: Methuen, 1988).

41. See note 36.

The Idea of Commedia in the Twentieth Century

  • Michael Anderson


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