18th and 19th Century Theatre


The students will experiment with the innovations of 17th, 18th, and 19th century theatre by creating their own commedia dell’arte piece.


Materials Needed

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Related Documents

• Commedia Vocabulary and Characters   Lesson8.VocabularyandCharacters


Lesson Directions


Anticipatory Set/Hook

Watch a small biography on William Shakespeare. What new things did you learn from it? What insights did you have into Shakespeare’s life?



Instruction: We have looked at Shakespeare and Marlow and Jonson and Racine and Moliere. We have covered what was going on during the 16th and 17th centuries France and England. In this next session, as we move into the next 2 centuries, we will see how theatre changed and was influenced by Italy and the Americas.


The History of Theatre in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries is one of the increasing commercialization of the art, accompanied by technological innovations, the introduction of serious critical review, expansion of the subject matters portrayed to include ordinary people, and an emphasis on more natural forms of acting. Theatre, which had been dominated by the Church for centuries, and then by the tastes of monarchs for more than 200 years, became accessible to merchants, industrialists, the bourgeoise and then the masses. In this section we give a brief sketch of the development of theatre during the last three centuries.


The Eighteenth Century
Theatre in England during the 18th Century was dominated by an actor of genius, David Garrick (1717-1779), who was also a manager and playwright. Garrick emphasized a more natural form of speaking and acting that mimicked life. His performances had a tremendous impact on the art of acting, from which ultimately grew movements such as realism and naturalism. Garrick finally banished the audience from the stage, which shrunk to behind the proscenium where the actors now performed among the furnishings, scenery and stage settings.
Plays now dealt with ordinary people as characters, such as in She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1734), and The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan. This was the result of the influence of such philosophers as Voltaire and the growing desire for freedom among a populace, both in Europe and North America, which was, with advances in technology, beginning to find the time and means for leisurely occupations such as patronizing commercial theatre. It was also in the 18th Century that commercial theatre began to make its appearance in the colonies of North America.


Most of the theatre that we see in the 18th century in America were English plays, usually using English actors and English staging techniques. We will see as we merge into the 19th century the ways that American theatre started to develop. But we see the emergence and domination of the Italian theatre more readily.


Modeling: We see the influences of commedia in theatre and film today. Clip from A Mighty Wind.


Checking for Understanding: Beginning during the Renaissance and lasting into the eighteenth century, traveling troupes performed the commedia dell’ arte, the Italian comedy. Starting in Italy, troupes moved into all of Europe, influencing theatre in Spain, Holland, Germany, Austria, England, and especially, France. The company’s ten or more actors each developed a specific type of character, such as the Captain, two old men (Pantaloon and the Doctor), the Zanni (valet-buffoons). Since all wore masks, their roles were eventually called masks. Along with these comic characters were the lovers. Female parts were originally played by men, but later played by females.
The actors had specific comic business (lazzi) that they developed. Before going on-stage, actors would agree on a basic plot and a general idea of how it should be performed. The improvised performances were never subtle; the humor was often bawdy and coarse.


Transition: So, where else do we see commedia developing today? We have specific characters, comedy, comedic business, improvisation and performance. Live TV like SNL or Mad TV used to follow this until they established scripts and cue cards. Many comedians still follow this. An example story from Comedia can be found here:


As the curtain rises, Harlequin is ill. The Doctor and his servant try to determine what is wrong. The Doctor, after much enticing, gives Harlequin a shot on his backside with a huge syringe. Harlequin is found to be pregnant and delivers three babies, one of which survives. Harlequin nurses and mothers the baby. He teaches the child to walk. Harlequin complains to the Doctor regarding the problems of rearing a child. The child is whipped by Harlequin. The play ends with Harlequin teaching the child to read. Throughout the play, Harlequin is made fun of by his friends.


Characters of the Commedia Dell’Arte
The characters or masks in spite of changes over the years, retained much of their original flavor.
Arlecchino, or Harlequin
Most important character in commedia dell’arte is the zanni, or servant types. He was an acrobat and a wit, childlike and amorous. He wore a catlike mask and motley colored clothes and carried a bat or wooden sword, the ancestor of the slapstick.
The Zanni’s crony. Was more roguish and sophisticated, a cowardly villain who would do anything for money. Figaro and Moliere’s Scapin are descendants of this type.
Was a white-faced, moon-struck dreamer; the French Pierrot is his descendant.
The forerunner of today’s clown, was closely akin to Pedrolino.
Was a dwarfish humpback with a crooked nose, the cruel bachelor who chased pretty girls.
Pantalone or Pantaloon
Was a caricature of the Venetian merchant, rich and retired, mean and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter.
Il Dottore (the doctor)
Pantolone’s only friend, was a caricature of learning; pompous and fraudulent; he survives in the works of Moliere.
Il Capitano (the captain)
Was a caricature of the professional soldier; bold, swaggering, and cowardly. He was replaced by the more agile Scarramuccia or Scaramouche, who, dressed in black and carrying a pointed sword, was the Robin Hood of his day.
Inamorato (the lover)
Handsome. Went by many names. He wore no mask and had to be eloquent in order to speak the love declamations.
The Inamorata
Was his female counterpart; Isabella Andreini was the most famous.
Her servant, usually called Columbine,
Was the beloved of Harlequin. Witty, bright, and given to intrigue, she developed into such characters as Harlequine and Pierrette.
La Ruffiana
Was an old woman, either the mother or a village gossip, who thwarted the lovers. Cantarina and Ballerina
Often took part in the comedy, but for the most part their job was to sing, dance, or play music. None of the women wore masks.


Guided Practice: So, if we were to put together our own commedia dell’ arte piece, what would we need to do? Establish characters, have a basic story line, make sure it’s funny and involves all the characters, create masks, and rehearse.
Put the students into 2 groups, have them choose a character and a team captain. Have the groups come up with a story line, on paper to be turned in. They will need time to rehearse and will be performing these on Friday.


Independent Practice: The students will need the rest of the class period to write and rehearse their pieces. The instructor will walk about and observe them.



Closure and Assessment: Remember, you are performing your commedia pieces on Friday and you will be passing off your Shakespearean monologue on Wednesday. Bring materials to make a mask and an idea of the props and costume pieces you will need.


Author’s Notes

commercialization of art
David Garrick (1717-1779)
She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1734)
The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan
Commedia Dell’Arte