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Commedia dell’arte

Italian term for “theater of professional artists.” A theater form that emerged in northern Italy in the 15th century and spread throughout Europe. Commedia dell’arte relied on masked stock characters who improvised dialogue within a basic, often familiar plotline or story (such as the struggles of young lovers or marital infidelity). The commedias were performed by itinerant troupes of actors who could respond to contemporary events through extemporized commentary and impromptu asides. Stock characters developed specific attributes, props, costumes, and gestures; masks meant that dialect and movement rather than facial expression were important to their portrayal. Zanni (servants) for instance were subversive characters who stirred up trouble; the most famous of these is Harlequin, a gluttonous acrobat dressed in patchwork. Performances of commedias dwindled throughout the 18th century as more realistic forms of drama gained popularity. However, the influence of commedia dell’arte can be seen in theatrical forms such as pantomime, puppetry, and physical theatre.

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