Beginning during the Renaissance and lasting into the 18th century, traveling troupes performed the 'Commedia dell' Arte', the Italian comedy.
The company's ten or more actors each developed a specific type of character, such as the Captain, two old men (Pantaloon and the Doctor), the Zanni (valet-buffoons). Since all wore masks, their roles were eventually called masks. Along with these comic characters were the lovers. Female parts were originally played by men, but later played by females.
The actors had specific comic business (lazzi) that they developed. Before going on-stage, actors would agree on a basic plot and a general idea of how it should be performed. The improvised performances were never subtle; the humor was often bawdy and coarse.
Starting in Italy, troupes moved into all of Europe, influencing theatre in Spain, Holland, Germany, Austria, England, and especially, France. Below are some links to some useful websites on Comedia dell'Arte: