By Everett Jaime

It's probably difficult for most Prescottonians to imagine life before Harkin's Theatre or Blockbuster.  But there was a time when kings still held masquerade balls, and entertainment, in the form of theatre and music, was reserved for the aristocracy.  For our unrestricted access to public arts, we owe many thanks to a little-remembered movement of actors in the mid-16th century called the Commedia dell'Arte.

Though its specific origins are uncertain, it is widely accepted that Commedia dell'Arte began in the streets of Italy.  Amidst the raucous day-to-day business of the local markets, small troupes of actors began appearing to entertain the people with ribald plays, acrobatics and witty repartee.  Unlike the typical one-man sideshows, like magicians and fire-eaters, the Commedia dell'Arte combined a variety of entertainment into one performance.  It was the original vaudevillian variety show.  Colorful costumes, raunchy humor and intellectual dialogue combined highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities, a winning combination for Renaissance audiences. 

Public entertainment would never be the same.  To see a group of actors performing a play that was charming, vulgar and cultured was irresistible.  Bringing theater to the street also provided actors with an unpredictable, informal environment that challenged their abilities and afforded them artistic liberties not available to stage actors.  Commedia dell'Arte was met with wide and enthusiastic support.  Actors became celebrities and the art form spread all over Europe, particularly into France and England. 

Far from the wealth and fame that Hollywood bestows upon its protégés, however, acting was not considered a respectable career during the Renaissance.  Commedia troupes relied on the generosity of their audience.  Their "hat pass" financed props and costumes and filled their bellies.  As for lodging, a bridge or tender patch of grass alongside their cart was sufficient.  Yet, one might argue, they were the first "professional" actors.  Actors who appeared in court and at the academies were dilettantes and hobbyists, and did not rely on their craft to support them financially.  By contrast, Commedia dell'Arte actors performed regularly and worked diligently to refine their craft. 

Like the Marx Brothers who might be at the races, the circus, or the opera, but whose essential characters never altered, each Commedia troupe consisted of a constellation of characters that remained the same regardless of the drama.  The most popular of these characters was Harlequin, a name that has since become associated with romance novels.  A complex mixture of laziness and industriousness, awkwardness and grace, Harlequin was known as a 'zanni', a Venetian word which was used in the 16th century as a generic name for servants, that has since evolved into the word 'zany' meaning dumb, humorous, madcap or wacky.  The zanni typically took no part in the development of the plot but helped to maintain the rhythm of the comedy as a whole. 

Characters such as Dottore (the doctor) or Pantalone (the merchant/father) were the straight men around whom the story revolved. 

But the Commedial stage was not reserved exclusively for men.  Important roles were assigned to the female counterparts as well, a practice not yet widely accepted at the time.  These actresses had sharp and malicious wit and were specialists in disguises, often changing several times in the course of a single act.  I imagine Lucille Ball and Lily Tomlin would have felt right at home in a Commedia cast. 

The improvisational nature of Commedia dell'Arte cast required of the actor a tremendous sensitivity to his fellow players and the ability to support the movement of the play by whatever means possible.  To this end, Commedia actors had a large stock of speeches, one-liners, sonnets, physical feats and other 'bits of business' that they could draw upon as the occasion arose. 

George Burns, Gracie Allen and the cast of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" were brilliant examples of Commedia-style interaction. 

For two centuries, Commedia dell'Arte thrived in Europe.  In that time, this now almost forgotten art form infected its audiences with joy and revolutionized theater as it was known.  The changes that it inspired have been integrated to such an extent that we are unaware from this distance of its influence.  Literary dramatists, directors, and comedians ranging from Shakespeare and Moltere to Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Marceau, have freely used its plots, characters, and comedic bits. 

Even the term 'slapstick', now used to describe most forms of physical comedy, is borrowed from Commedia dell'Arte.  Made from two long, flat pieces of wood, the slapstick produced a loud smacking noise designed to dramatize the action of one actor striking another. 

Though hot popcorn and a video with friends can cheaply satisfy the entertainment urge, what a treat it would be if one summer evening, on a busy street in a small town like downtown Prescott, a caravan of wandering bards came to call and for that short time we could be transported to a time when we still read by candlelight and the open-fire scents of fresh market produce filled the sunset air. 

Everett Jaime is a member of the Baul Theater Company, a Prescott-based theater troupe that performs in the Commedia dell'Arte style.