The language of the marketplace


A street vendor starts to call out his products in the square. The peddler in the booth beside him starts to yell out his products even louder in order to be heard and get anything sold. It works well. A third peddler joins the choir of shouting sellers.
This was, in the renaissance and the medieval ages, what Bachtin calls the language of the marketplace. It was a highly refined language where every guild had its own melody and rhythm to promote their products.
In Paris this noisy, swashbuckling language had its own name: “Cris de Paris”, the screams from Paris. It also gave birth to a play: “Farce de cris de Paris” and a seventeen century painting called Cris de Paris” by Abraham Boss showing street vendors.

In this loud, even if primitive, media noise, which literally bombards every thinkable costumer with oral advertising in different rhythms and melodies, one peddler understands that he has to do something extra to attract customers to his booth. This is when he starts to entertain his costumers, who now slowly becomes his audience. Others follows. Someone starts telling funny stories, someone else starts to sing songs, and another one hires jesters, while someone starts juggling their sausages.


The squares and markets at the time there had an unofficial character and a freedom that gave the common man the right to express themselves more free that in the official world (in church, with superiors, at the power). The square had its own lingo, filled with profanity and curses, comical insults and praises. The language of the square was also always doubtful, “they praise when they curse and they curse when they praise”, and one of them are always ready to transcend into the other.
As an example of the language of the marketplace we can see Panurge by Rabelais when he curses all the humdrums that criticizes the wine of the joyous truth and urinates in the barrel:

”Therefore back with you, you hypocrites! Out and watch the sheep, you herding dogs! Get out from here with all devils! Hey! Are you still here? I abstain my part of Papimania if I catch you. Zowie! Forward, chaps, forward! Are they leaving? May they never be able to shit without the help of a real whipping, always pee just after a profound beating, never feel an erotic reaction then after a bastinado.”Callot07

The everyday and the artistic genres of the marketplace was often so tight knitted together that it was hard to see what was spontaneous scenes and what was organized performances.

See also:
Acting style in Commedia dell’Arte
Vulgar Comedy
Commedia dell’Arte-lecture

Filed in 2 Vulgar Comedy, The Roots | 4 Comments



The onomatopoetic, language mimicking, voice illustrating, sound that Dario Fo calls Grammelot was born in France when the Commedia dell’Arte actors where antagonized by the church in Italy during the counterreformation. They turned to Europe instead, but not only to overcome the censorship. They also were also seeking new markets.

Many of the Commedia dell’Arte actors knew other languages, but everyone who has tried to improvise in another language – even if they are quite good at it – knows that it takes quite a long time to reach the level and speed and to get the associative ability to be totally free in the new language.
Here is a text from Ottonelli from 1655 about when Zan Ganassa came to Spain about 100 years earlier:

…in the year 1644 I Florence I heard from a Florentine, a highly intelligent man and very knowledgeable on Spain, that about the year 1610, finding himself in Seville, he heard from certain of his friends, elderly men and eye-witnesses, that the Italian actor Ganazza, who was very diverting in his witticisms, went went there with a company of Italian players andn began to act I our [improvised]style. Although he and all his other colleagues were not fully and perfectly understood, nonetheless by virtue of the little that was understood he succeeded in making audiences laugha great deal and earning much money in those cities, while the Spaniards learned from his example to make comedis in their own way, which they had not done previously. All this I take to be true, and belive that just as Ganazza sought toprovide utility and pleasure with his delightful witticism and by performance free of all obscenity, so the Spaniards learned from him to make refined rather than obscene plays.


It was Jauques Copeau and his Vieux Colombier who first picked up the term Grammelot in the beginning of the twentieth century. But it is Dario Fo who made it his trademark today.

Grammelot is an onomatopoetic, make-up-language that we create with the aid of gestures, rhythm, timbre, melody and sounds as if it was a real language with real words. There is no overall way how to use Grammelot. Each actor has to use his intuition. It differs from gibberish in that it often mimics another language in sounds, melody, and rhythm and so on and that it also allows a word here and there from another language. Dario Fo says that he uses about 10 % real words.
But we can also create our own words. Then we have to make them, either onomatopoetically or logical, understandable or/and present them at an early stage in a play. The advantage of using self-made words is that they are understood internationally.


Grammelot and gibberish has also been to great help when it comes to improvisations. It helps the body to start moving and the voice to start communicating instead of using the words. (See Size and visual narrating.)The words have a nasty way to set off the brain and demand an intellectual process, which decelerates the bodily and vocal reactions of the actor. In that way it blocks the free expression of the actor when he is trying to be smart instead of being expressive.

Back to Acting style in Commedia dell’Arte

Filed in 1 Commedia dell'Arte, 2 Vulgar Comedy, Acting style | Comment Now

A Servetta’s prolog

Here is a prolog by a Servetta from Domenico Brunis, from 1621, in my translation from Swedish. This might be one of the most used prologs today. It is one of the few saved prologs that are dramatic and can be used as a theatrical exercise.

Oh yes! I will get angry. It is true that I am a servant,but that doesn’t make me a slave. Isn’t it enough that I serve your meals, cut your wood, get your water from the well, go to market, iron your shirts, starch your collars, sew you clothes…. What more do you want me to do? Read the prolog? Ha, not over my seventh husbands dead body!
Oh, my ladies and gentlemen, my misfortune made me servants to these comedians, who made me believe their lives were garnished with pleasures, spiced with flavors, glanced with indulgence. They said that I’ll soon be rich. But all their glorious promises turned out to be baloney.
But let us speak – let us speak about the happy comedian’s joyous life. Rain, ice, snow stubborn horses, broken wagons, impudent porters, presumptuous coachmen and other similar delights that incessantly are following the happy comedian.
Enough dear gentlemen! It makes me puke! Oh, God! Just listen: in the morning Signora shouts at me ‘Hey Ricciolina, give me what I need to study Fiametta, the role of the lover’. Pantalone insists that I fetch Calmo’s letters. Capitano wants the Bravure by Capitano Spavento. Zanni ask for the witty verses of Bertaldo, Fugalozio and the hour of rest. Gratiano needs Sentense dell’ Erborente and Novissima Poliantea, while Francescina wants La Celestina to be vulgar. Innamorato asks after the works of Plato, at the same time they ask for this and they ask for that and they be damned all of them! And now they want me to do the prolog!
Great! I don’t wanna to do it and I not gonna do it! Dear ladies and gentlemen I am going back in. If they scream, if they beat me, I beg you to take them away from me.
And if he who helps me ever would need a maid I would always serve him faithfully. Farewell dear gentlemen.”

See also:
Performance structure in Commedia dell’Arte
Micke’s videos
Laughter, Humor and Comedy

Filed in 1 Commedia dell'Arte, Examples | Comment Now

The roots to all western popular comedy


I see Commedia dell’Arte as the roots to all western popular comedy. There are naturally roots to Commedia dell’Arte as well, but if we see it as the first professional form of theatre in Europe and if we consider that we must start somewhere in time, Commedia dell’Arte is a good starting point for all western popular comedy. It is also the first international theatre phenomena.
When I talk about “popular comedy” I mean Vulgar comedy. I rather consider the Thespis version played to the all people from a cart on the street then the official Greek comedy that excluded women, slaves and foreigners and was a literary genre.


The old Commedia dell’Arte groups is said to be the first professional actor troupes in Europe and what use to be the date said of the birth of Commedia dell’Arte is taken from the first professional contract among actors that we have fund in Europe.
Naturally there were other professional theatre groups before Commedia dell’Arte. There have always been professional actors around, but we know very little written about them. Often they were jugglers, charlatani, storytellers or acrobats as well.
The major part of comedy before Commedia dell’Arte was played by amateurs, politicians in Greece, slaves in Rome and so on…


Another reason to speak of Commedia dell’Arte as the roots to all western popular comedy is the influence it has on popular comedy today. It is so much jokes, scenes, attitudes and ideas of today’s comedy we can trace back to Commedia dell’Arte. Even though Vulgar comedy has roots way back before the official theatre it is not really documented before Commedia dell’Arte. Everyone in the business like Shakespeare, Chaplin, Marx Brothers, Brendan O’Carrol and so on owe it to Commedia dell’Arte.

See also:
Commedia dell’Arte – the name
Vulgar Comedy and its origins in Scandinavia
Micke’s Commedia dell’Arte lecture

Filed in 1 Commedia dell'Arte, 2 Vulgar Comedy, The Roots | 2 Comments

Stage strategies (Part 2)


The second group of strategies he call dividing the stage:

  • Windows are the easiest way to divide the stage. By using windows on the backdrop (as talked about in THE STAGE), where a mask can look out, we work on height. The mask in the window is also fixed to one place on stage. The mask in the window can on his own decide whether he is seen of the others or not, by using or not using reactions to what is happening down on the stage.
  • Stepping back is when one or more masks steps back to one upstage corner where they are passive onlookers to the action on stage. This convention allows the masks upstage not being seen by the other masks. They must be very careful not using to big reactions.
  • Tunnel vision is a convention where a mask makes an entire without seeing or registers the other masks. This way he has a separate moment with the audience before Interacting with the other masks. The masks that are already on stage can choose to see him and react to him, ignore him or not see him at all. The mask that not is seen does not exist for the other masks. Like in the classic scene when two Innamorati run around looking for each other on the same stage.
  • Private confabs allow a mask to bring another mask to the side of the stage to have a confidential conversation. There they can talk without the other masks hearing or observing them. They take down their movements and act as if they didn’t see or hear the masks on the side. It may also work for to masks just to bend down and act in another level, when they for example stand in between other masks.
  • Parallel actions are when we have to actions going on at the same time. They are always autonomous and work as sovereign actions on stage. But they are still depending on each other either they contrast each other or they work simultaneous. One of the most common examples is when two Innamorati have each monologue saying the same things with different words or contrasting each other without seeing each other.
  • Asides are the classical aparte lines when a mask simply takes a step out (or even just a turn of the head) to the audience for a brief moment and addresses them. The rest of the action on stage stops so that the actor doing the aside doesn’t have to deal with the other masks during his aparte.


Other related posts about Commedia dell’Arte is:
The content in  Commedia dell’Arte
The roots to all popular western comedy
Commedia dell’Arte lecture

Back to PART 1

Filed in Performance structure | Comment Now

Stage strategies (Part 1)


Whether we believe in Commedia dell’Arte as in totally improvised genre or not, there is always an element of improvisation in it. As an actor one can only be in control of two other elements at the same time. One of these elements is always the audience since they are an active part in Commedia dell’Arte. That leaves us with only one mask to interact with simultaneous. Therefore we need strategies to deal with situations when there are more masks on stage.
The stage is also usually very small; wish is also a reason for dividing the stage, as we talked about in the STAGE.

Here we can take help from Tim Fitzpatrick who has studied strategies to solve situations like this. He has divided the plot in segments and has made a system of different techniques to create binary relations. Most of the time we use this strategies or conventions without thinking about it, but it still very good to have in the back of our heads when we start improvising.TS61

  • The first group of strategies he calls paired masks:
    Unison masks is about two or more masks that acts together as one unit, but still as individual masks. The masks in the unit can either be active or passive listeners, but they always act together.
  • Subordinated masks are when a third mask becomes something of a listener on stage. This is used when a mask is indispensable for a scene, either for plot or comical reasons, but don’t have anything specific to do. The classic example is when Arlecchino is eating cherries and spitting out the stones while the lovers have a love scene. He is necessary both for comical reasons, the contrast between the actions, and for the plot, he might need to see the love scene.
  • Fixed staging might be the most simple, but also the most (at least for the actors) boring solution. By fixing the movements on stage the actors always knows where the focus is, but they have no space for improvisation. This is mostly applied in mass scenes, the opening and the finale.
  • Fixed activities are rather how a lazzo works. Here we are talking about rehearsed gag or segments in a play. It can start anytime an actor give the cue, the other actors prepared for it and know focuses places on the stage.

Go to PART 2

Filed in 1 Commedia dell'Arte, Performance structure | 2 Comments

The Stage


Traditionally a Commedia dell’Arte stage was used to be a banco, made of wood, about two meters tall and not much bigger than a horse driven cart, about 3 x 4 meters. It usually had a simple backdrop and where very easy to transport, but it could also be much more elaborated with walls and a roof over the stage.

The backdrops had usually two or three entrances representing the doors of the vecchi’s houses, wish where painted on it. It made the stage depicting a city square. The houses usually had painted window that could open so the actors could talk from within the houses.


Nowadays most stages have just a bright colored backdrop with entrances so that it easier can be seen from across a big plaza. Since there is nothing painted on it the plot can always be anywhere or nowhere. As Commedia dell’Arte nowadays is for the most part representing archetypes of our inner life (See HERE) it seems more adequate.
The two or three entrances still have to be there for the mask’s entries and exits.  Whether we use a blank or painted backdrop the stage is always bare, allowing the actors to use their skills to give energy and play to the stage and let them be the visual focus.

To keep the stage for Commedia dell’Arte small is beneficial first of all to keep up tempo. Distances on stage have a tendency to take time.  On a small stage there is only one step to move from one place to another, representing a much greater distance. So for a mask to move fast or run it is a question of how many steps the mask takes per second rather than how much space each step covers.
Since the stage is so small and the actor have obviously very little space to move in, there are several conventions making the audience agree the actors are in different places or distances from each other on stage (and also to be able to act two and two). I have written more about STAGE STRATEGIES here.
The shallow stage also helps the actors in their entries and exits. Not only because of the timing and short distances, but it also helps the mask in their constant contact with the audience or when leaving the stage by not having to turn their backs to the audience in order to look for the exit.

CdAScen03Then there is naturally different ways when raising the stage OUTDOORS or INDOORS.

Other related posts about Commedia dell’Arte is:
The content in  Commedia dell’Arte
The roots to all popular western comedy
Commedia dell’Arte lecture

Filed in 1 Commedia dell'Arte | 3 Comments

Acrobatics as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte


Acrobatics and slapstick (together with the music) may be the most used discipline in Commedia dell’Arte. They work with symmetries, physical turns or physically exaggerated reactions or positions. Acrobatics is a way to stylize and it is used, just as the music, to heighten the atmosphere. Both acrobatics and slapstick can also be used to physically carry the plot or as storytelling, but mostly is just used as a joke in itself.
Then one of the advantages in comparison with verbal comedy is that it doesn’t slow down the pace of the show since one doesn’t have to wait in laughter in order to be heard. In that way we can build joke after joke before the audience have recovered from the last one, and build up the frenzy that are so vital for all Vulgar Comedy. It also helps us giving the audiences surprises when we don’t give them time to think ahead. With the right timing this is the place for building up real convulsive laughter.
For the same reason – among other reasons – it is important not to “sell in” different acrobatic numbers or figures as in circus and kill all opportunities for surprise. I must always come in organically or as the obvious way to express or do something and then just be an elevated part of the acting. It can be both annoying and embarrassing with this “selling” that promise a much higher level. The more we sell the number the more we promise. And if we don’t deliver the audience will lose its confidence in us. Kult77 When we, by selling in every acrobatic number, we are moving the focus to the numbers instead of the plot. Therefore we are also crossing the limit between theatre and jugglery. The focus for the latter is the tricks and numbers they perform whereas theatre is focusing on its plots and its characters. It is just as important how to end an acrobatic figure without clumsiness at the end. If we look down on the floor, take those extra steps or stop for a second to concentrate after an acrobatic figure we kill the elegance of it at the same time. It is as we tell the audience that we are not really able to do it, a little like a singing a song out of key or end a beautiful song on a weird cord.
Even when we not are using the acrobatics it is an asset for the actor to know, or give the audience the feeling of always being ready to do a flip or just a great leap. This feeling of opportunity is one of the basics in Commedia dell’Arte. It creates the impression of freedom, that the masks are not restrained by the laws of nature or gravity. It is a way for the mask and for laughter itself to acknowledge their immortality and hopefully to share it with the audience.


See also:
Disciplines in Commedia dell’Arte
Music as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte
Mime as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte

Filed in Disciplines | Comment Now

Mime as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte


All disciplines are not equally easy to use in Commedia dell’Arte. As an example on a problematic discipline we can look at mime or rather mimed objects. All objects on stage should be real. If we start to mime object on stage we also start to experiment with different acting styles at the same time. That may very well start a chaos in the audience since the style of Commedia dell’Arte is so expressive, so fast, so big and the style is also very often new to the audience how are fully occupied getting in to the style. It is an unnecessary difficulty for the audience to keep track of mimed objects as well.
Off course there are lots of exceptions, like when a mask is imagining or fantasize an object; or when a an object is too small to see like “Arlecchino and the fly”; or when something is not happening here and now on stage; or using gestures to show what he does or have in front of him.


See also:
Disciplines in Commedia dell’Arte
Music as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte
Acrobatics as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte

Filed in Disciplines | Comment Now

Music as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte


The music is off course the most central of all disciplines in Commedia dell’Arte. It is there to heighten the performance and it helps up the atmosphere of feast that is so characteristic in Commedia dell’Arte.

I the very first descriptions of Commedia dell’Arte shows one could read about the use of music. It had several madrigals for four or even five voices. Many of the first operas were based on Commedia dell’Arte as well, with the use of mask, plots and crude lazzi.
We usually start with an opening song that gives a sort of atmosphere of fest and joy. It also presents the masks, the plot and gives a feeling for the sort of play that will happen. The music also involves the audience physically; they are clapping hands or sing along. The music in itself gives a feeling of involvement.
In the rest of the show the music is used in songs where the masks get the chance to express their feelings or point of views, or in choirs or antiphons that helps moving the plot forward. We also use the music instrumentally as mod music, background music or sound effects. In all these ways to use the music it is describing and clarifies or emphasize what is happening on stage. The show ends in a song that sums up the plot and returns the mood to the initial atmosphere of a fest.


See also:
Disciplines in Commedia dell’Arte
Acrobatics as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte
Mime as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte

Filed in Disciplines | 2 Comments