Commedia dell Arte
Commedia dell Arte is Italian for ‘Play of Professional Artists' and was performed as such but in streets or market squares where it would attract viewers. The style was to become known as slapstick, after one of the props that were used.
Over the years, Commedia has changed many times but certain elements remain constant throughout the entire length of its popularity including the stock characters and the lazzi or comic staged business.
Commedia dell Arte was a popular form of theatre developed in Italy as a form of street theatre. Its popularity lasted from the 1500s through to the mid 1700s during which time, it spread through out Europe.
As the style spread, it also picked up different influences from each of the countries and their current situation. This was an indirect form of influence as Commedia was performed by roaming family troops (most of the time) and this caused it to change at a staggered rate, with different troops adopting different changes.
The stock characters were separated into three groups. There were those with money (the masters), those without money (the servants) and the lovers. The friction between each group resulted in a lot of the physical and bold comedy found in Commedia. There are two Master characters in Androcles and the Lion - Pantalone and The Captain who are typical of stock characters in Commedia dell'arte plays. There is a constant power struggle between masters and their servants, usually with the master being made a fool of, whether they realise it or not.
The servants were known as zanni, from which, the word ‘zany' is derived. Much of the comedy with in Commedia dell'arte comes from the actions of these characters. The zanni were the workers and as such, showed signs of a life of hard work. There is only one servant in this play - Androcles. He is a hard working servant who was kidnapped from the island where he used to live and sold as a slave to Pantalone. He is driven by his love for freedom. When he is not working for Pantalone he is busy doing favours for Isabella, such as assisting in her courtship with Lelio. He gets in a lot of trouble through out the play, trying to do what he thinks in morally right.
Arlecchino or Androcles
In Androcles and the Lion, the character of Androcles is the stock character of Arlecchino, as they share many of the same attributes. Arlecchino is the head zanni but is still only a servant. Much of the humour comes from his plans and schemes. The character is a lot like a cat and this is portrayed through his mask. The features of the mask show many cat-like qualities as do the actions of the character. Arlecchino is also led by his nose, meaning that his head turns first and then the rest of the body follows after.
Pantalone is the old man, who hoards all of his money. Being one of the masters, he is able to control the zanni, with the promise of money, even though he very rarely pays them. Pantalone is portrayed as a turkey or some similar bird - because of the way he walks, bent over and neck sticking out like a turkey. This was often played upon as it allowed for lots of jokes and tricks to be played on him. His mask was shaped with a big nose that looked a lot like a beak and long bushy eyebrows to give the character the illusion of age.
The mighty Captain was the greatest warrior in the known world and also the greatest womaniser ever known, or so he says. This character is like a peacock, strutting around and talking about his achievements but if anything happens, he will be the first to flee. His mask often has a long nose used to make him seem manlier. He was often seen on profile with a pelvic thrust forward and nose pointing into the air at 45 degrees, while also pointing in the same direction with his sword or slapstick. This poise was generally used when explaining what his achievements are and what he will do.
The lovers were the only characters that were not masked as their beauty was natural, applied only with makeup. They were often the centre of the other characters' interests as they were
easily manipulated, being only concerned with their love for each other and not caring about anything else. One interesting feature about the lovers is that they never touched, even in the
most passionate moment. They would come very close to each other, in dramatic poses but wouldn't touch, as though if they did it would destroy anything that had happened.
Isabella is a young woman who lives with her greedy uncle who, after finding out she intends to marrier her lover has her guarded by The Captain. She is driven by her love for Lelio, her
sweetheart. She is a nice girl who does not need money as her uncle does, and she can be clever, as seen when she hatches a plan with Androcles to escape from her uncle. Lelio is a
young handsome man and the lover of Isabella. He is a neighbour of Pantalone and is driven by his love for Isabella. When he goes to her uncle to ask for her hand in marriage, initially
Pantalone agrees, until Lelio's asks for Isabelle's dowry.
This is the comic staged business which is physical and often about tripping on banana-skins or pouring hot coffee on someone. These are most often performed by the Zanni when they are procrastinating. Lazzi are used to make the audience laugh, and they look like a short comic sketch for one of the characters or a large group of them, relying on slapstick humour or acrobatic feats.
Masks were used in Commedia dell Arte to firstly help identify the characters. As Commedia was performed by different travelling companies, this meant that they each would have different costumes, yet the masks would retain much of the information that was needed to know who was who. The second purpose of the mask was to limit the view of the actors, making them snake their head from side to side to see what was going on. The characters all had characteristics that governed the way they moved and this would directly affect the way they did things on the stage.
Arlecchino wears a belt and a slapstick. You might have heard of ‘slapstick comedy', which is named after this prop. A slapstick is made out of two thin strips of wood separated at the handle by a half an inch or so. When the slapstick hits an object, the two strips of wood slap against each other making a loud sound, without hurting the person being hit.
One by one the students step behind a screen. When they are ready, they come out and try to make, without speaking, the audience laugh. This should only take a minute for each student and they should be encouraged to try different things. This will develop a particular style of lazzi for the students.
Walk across the room
Students are all lined up along one wall and asked to walk across the room one by one, making their walk as unique as possible. This is another way of making lazzi as children with try to out do each other and the walks will become bigger and better.
Split the group into six smaller groups making sure to put people with others who they would not usually choose to work with. Then assign one of the characters from the play to each of these groups. The groups now are given a brief period of time to form the character as a group and come before the ‘Emperor' (group leader) to state their case, as is inferred in Act II of the play. It is the Emperor's job to decide who the prize will go to (the group that works best together to make the assigned character using all group members). This does not have to be the ‘best' character but rather how well the group worded as a team to achieve the same outcome.