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Commedia dell'arteCommedia dell'arte, (Italian, meaning "comedy of professional artists") was a form of improvisational theater which began in the 16th century and was popular from then until the 18th century, although it is still performed today. Traveling teams of players would set up an outdoor stage and provide amusement in the form of juggling, acrobatics, and, more typically, humorous plays based on a repertoire of established characters with a rough storyline, called Canovaccio.
(Troupes occasionally would perform directly from the back of their traveling wagon, but this is more typical of Carro di Tespi, a sort of travelling theatre that dates back to antiquity.)
The performances were improvised around preordained situations, adultery, jealousy, old age, love. The dialogue and action could easily be made topical and adjusted to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, mixed with ancient jokes and punchlines. Characters were identified by costume, masks, and even props, such as the slapstick.
Thus, the commedia dell'arte, with its stock situations and characters and improvised dialogue, has shown the way to many other forms of drama, from pantomime and Punch and Judy - which features debased forms of the commedia characters (see below) - to the modern animated cartoon, situation comedy, and even professional wrestling. The characters and tropes of the Commedia have also been used in modern novels, from sword and sorcery to literary works, notably by Michael Moorcock in his Jerry Cornelius stories that culminate with the Guardian prize-winning The Condition of Muzak.
Commedia dell'arte in its turn was influenced by the tradition of Roman comedy.
Male commedia dell'arte characters were depicted by actors wearing masks representing regions or towns. The female characters, however, were usually not masked. In fact, the roles were often played by males in women's clothing and wigs, in travesti, as it is called.
In some cases, the characters were also traditionally considered as respectively representing some Italian regions or main towns. Often they are still now symbolic of the related town. Following is a list of the original Italian characters, with other English or French names, or descendant characters (in parentheses), and the towns/regions to which they are eventually associated:
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