Commedia performances essentially were a form of improvisational street theater. Individual street performers banded together to form traveling troupes, and the players developed their own chosen roles. The first record of a commedia troupe dates to 1545. The most famous early troupe, the Gelosi, was founded by a husband-and-wife team and performed from 1568 to 1604. Over time, universal stock characters were created: vecchi (old men/masters), a category which included Il Capitano, a bullying braggart in military uniform who is always revealed to be a secret coward; innamorati (young lovers), who must overcome obstacles thrown at them by the vecchi; and zanni (eccentric servants/ clowns, including Pierrot and Harlequin. This is the origin of the English word zany).
|Renoir's "White Pierrot"|
Although the basic parameters of character and plot were preplanned, all of the dialogue and some of the stage business would be improvised, which allowed talented actors to adapt their schtick to suit the preferences of particular audiences and to add topical humor to the mix. Just as in modern-day improv, the players had to be witty, flexible and creative. In short, the phenomenon of commedia dell'arte (literally, "comedy of professional artists") introduced the concept of professional actors to Italy, and from there, to the rest of Europe.
|Watteau, "Italian Comedians"|
And video games. Stay with me now. Role-playing: check. Stylized characters: check. Clearly identified good and bad guys: check. Need to improvise: check. In my opinion, all fans of role-playing games owe a debt of gratitude to these 16th-century innovators.