Is Commedia dell’ Arte the godfather of physical theatre?

Yes – but it is one of many!  Theatre has always been physical.  The naturalistic style of drama, with people sitting around in a domestic setting, talking earnestly or perhaps shouting at each other, is relatively new.  And, for all the great plays that have been written in this vein, it is relatively limited.

From everything we know, the Greek theatre that gave us Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides was something like opera today: large in gesture, vocal intonation and spectacle.  The Romans added spectacle of many kinds: chariot races, gladiators facing off, sporting events.  Not theatre?  Are you sure?  Even today, the largest audiences are drawn by the improvisational passion of sports events.  They feature trained ensembles, strong objectives, live interaction with the audience, conflict, high stakes, heroism, dastardly fouls, and epic failure or redemptive success.

Shakespeare is thought of as a verbal writer, one of the greatest poets in the English language.  Yet his plays could be viewed as a series of crossovers: they are always on the move.  And he made sure that different classes, contrasting characters, and contrasting emotional tones would jostle against each other.  Just as they do in the Commedia dell’ Arte, the Italian style of improvisational street theatre that arose around his time.


In cultures around the world, we find masks, puppetry, storytelling and “total theatre,” invoking the physicality of dance, acrobatics and animal movement.  And this theatrical spirit is unquenchable.  Just when naturalism and “eyeball-level” acting seemed to predominate in theatre and film – lo, the Superheroes are now in the ascendant, with their masks and contradictions and extreme physicality.

The Commedia dell’ Arte is one instance of the spirit of theatricality bubbling up – in this case, in Europe in the late Middle Ages.  Physical, bawdy, transgressive and funny… the spirit of Commedia is still alive in the clowns and standup comics of today.