Britain's Christmas Pantomime is deeply rooted in the theatrical buffoonery of 16th Century Italy's Commedia dell'Arte (literal translation: the art of comedy; preferred translation: Italian comedy). Troupes of players roamed the country, performing on temporary stages set up on city streets, in parks and courtyards — wherever they could attract a crowd. The better troupes, such as Gelosi, performed in palaces, and even traveled throughout Europe.
Note that I said "Commedia dell'Arte relies" (present tense) on physical humor..." because it is an art form still being taught today.
And it's still being professionally performed today, as evidenced by the following photos of Ferruccio Soleri in the title role of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano's production of Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters, part of New York's Lincoln Center Festival 2005.
Originally a slapstick adaptation of the Commedia dell'arte, harlequinade is a performance piece that revolves around its five main characters: Harlequin, Pierrot, Columbine, Clown, and Pantaloon. The British harlequinade, begun in the 18th century, wove scenes from serious plays based on myth or folklore, with the typical slapstick of Harlequin and his cronies.
In this 1906 photo, a youthful Billie Burke (at far right) portrays Columbine. Can you think of a more perfect role for her?
Stage Whispers is published by carlacushman.blogspot.com/