Commedia dell’Arte, an Italian theatre form from the 16th Century, continues to find an audience.

Among the traditional forms of theatre, some die a feeble death, others live a feeble life. Around the world many vintage theatre forms, often ensconced in a community, have blanked out while a handful of others have been valiantly resurrected.

Commedia dell’Arte too had a turbulent life in Italy. It went through its troughs and ups but continues to find a space in the Italian theatre scene. Director Carlo Boso along with the members of the theatre company Il Carro Dei Comici was in the Capital recently to give a fleeting glimpse of the age-old theatre form. They performed “Mori a Venezia”, which was brought to the city by the Italian Embassy and Italian Cultural Centre. The play blends three Shakespearean classics — “Romeo and Juliet”, “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice.” Shylock takes over as a principle character in the play. Here Shylock’s daughter is in love with another outsider — Simbad, the pirate.

In Delhi with his team, Boso with the aid of an interpreter, talked about Commedia dell’Arte and its life in Italy through four centuries. When Shakespeare was riveting the English audiences with his plays, Commedia dell’Arte was creating waves in Italy. “It is a ritual form of theatre based on the tradition of the carnival,” says Boso.

Traditionally, Commedia dell’Arte is a battle between virtue and vice, and the subject is the “power of love and the love of power,” Boso explains. “It is a parable about social contrasts. In fact, the issues projected in these plays exist even today.”

Performed by professional artistes who wear masks, Boso says in the 16th Century, Commedia dell’Arte was performed at the “city squares, open theatres, which was like Shakespeare’s theatre or the city courts.” Then an oral tradition, the stories travelled down the ages, but improvisation happened in the dialogues.

According to Boso, “Every actor specialised in a certain role and performed it for life, a little like Charlie Chaplin.” Contrary to popular perceptions, Boso says Commedia dell’Arte was never complete comedy, but more like a “tragi-comedy.” The form was revolutionary for the times, as women acted in them as far ago as the 16th Century. If English theatre of the 16th Century had boys playing the role of women, this Italian form gave the woman her due. “She had the right to speak in her own words,” says Boso.

If various forms of Commedia dell’Arte sprung up in many European countries, Boso says, “It completely disappeared from Western Europe by 1803.” He points to Napoleon’s edict which banned any improvised form of theatre. About 150 years ago, the form disappeared but interest around the plays gathered drive after the World Wars. “There are a series of people like writer Dario Fo who played a keen role in reviving this form of theatre,” says Boso who was lured to Commedia dell’Arte as it allowed no barrier between the actor and the audience.

In the 1970s, it again went through a rough patch, when the written text of the plays had to be approved by three Censor boards. But as of today, there is great interest in Commedia dell’Arte.

The director says the theatre form transcends language barriers as emotions are portrayed with simplicity. “When they are happy they dance, when in anger, they fence. It is simple yet complicated,” believes Boso who was trained in Milan. “One of the most important aspects is to make the public laugh yet reflect on an issue.”