In spite of its outwardly anarchic spirit, the commedia dell'arte was a highly disciplined art requiring both virtuosity and a strong sense of ensemble playing. The unique talent of commedia players was to improvise comedy around a preestablished scenario. Responding to each other, or to audience reaction, the actors made use of the lazzi (special rehearsed routines that could be inserted into the plays at convenient points to heighten the comedy), musical numbers, and impromptu dialogue to vary the happenings on stage.
Masks forced actors to project their characters' emotions through the body. Leaps, tumbles, stock gags (burle and lazzi), obscene gestures and slapstick antics were incorporated into their acts.
The actors of the commedia represented fixed social types, tipi fissi, for example, foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado. Characters such as Pantalone, the miserly Venetian merchant; Dottore Gratiano, the pedant from Bologna; or Arlecchino, the mischievous servant from Bergamo, began as satires on Italian "types" and became the archetypes of many of the favorite characters of 17th and 18thcentury European theatre.