By Marlo M. Ihler
Carlo Goldoni, considered one of Italy’s finest playwrights, was born on February 25, 1707 in Venice, Italy, to a theatre-loving family. By age four, Goldoni had started to read, write, and create little puppet performances for his family; and by age eight he had sketched his first comic drama. Due to his father’s medical practice, his family moved frequently, living in such cities as Venice, Perugia, and Rimini. At age fourteen he was apprenticed to his lawyer uncle in Venice and continued his law studies until he was accepted to the Venetian bar in 1732.
During this time, however, he maintained his passion for theatre by writing plays for amateur companies and studying classical dramatists, especially Molière. His first dramatic venture, a melodrama written during times of clientele shortage, was rejected because it did not adhere to the rules of Italian theatre. He was told, “everything must be done according to a certain form. . . . In France, you can try to please the public, but here in Italy it is the actors . . . whom you must consult” (“Carlo Goldoni,” www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc93.html). Consequently, he burned the rejected manuscript and kept trying.
The style of the day was to write comedy in the “style of the masks,” otherwise known as commedia dell'arte. Although the general public favored this form, Goldoni preferred to try new ideas and styles. He aimed to write about representations of actual life and people and eventually was credited with creating a superior form of Italian character comedy.
In 1736, Goldoni met and married Maria Nicoletta Connio. The following year he became the director of the Teatro San Giovanni Crisostomo, a Venetian opera house. By 1744, he and Maria had moved to Pisa, where he practiced law until 1747, at which time he signed a contract to be the house dramatist for a theatre in Venice. In his third season there (1750 51), he wrote an astounding sixteen comedies in order to promote subscription sales after one of the company’s most popular actors quit. From 1753 to 1762, he wrote for another Venetian theatre, now known as the Teatro Goldoni, where gradually he discontinued writing commedia dell'arte.
During this time he also wrote opera libretti and served as the court poet for a duke. Goldoni was working to expand the content and scope of his comedic plays, much to the criticism of his rivals, Carlo Gozzi and Pietro Chiari. He eventually tired of this struggle, and accepted a position at the Comedie-Italienne in Paris in 1761, where he had only one major success. He retired in 1764 and became the Italian tutor to the daughters of King Louis XV at the Versailles palace. A few years later he emerged from retirement to produce his last successful comedy, The Beneficent Bear, performed by the Comedie-Francaise in 1771.
The last years of his life were spent in Paris, where he wrote his celebrated Memoires and was supported by a royal pension from the French government. However, the pension was discontinued during the French Revolution, and Goldoni died in dire poverty in 1793, only one day after the National Convention had voted to reinstate it.
Goldoni’s work remains very important because of the contributions he made to comedic theatre. He was considered the “first important Italian comic dramatist after the Renaissance.” His early comedies “relied on stock characters who still wore masks, a concession to the actors, who felt threatened by Goldoni’s innovations” (McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, vol. 2, 1984, p. 345-346). Goldoni initially wrote the scenario for The Servant of Two Masters for the commedia dell'arte actor Antonio Sacchi. In 1753, it was published as a fully written-out script of how Sacchi and his fellow actors had developed and performed it the decade before. It is a play that focuses more on the plot than the characters, and its storyline is celebrated as “one of the most ingeniously organized in comic drama” (International Dictionary of Theatre: Plays, vol. 1, 1992, p. 730). It uses stock themes from the then-popular Italian improvised comedy: disguise, mistaken identity, and misunderstandings.
As for the rest of Goldoni’s works, they can easily be divided into five categories. The first group focuses on comedy about the aristocracy. He was able to criticize the upper class without offending. Some of his plays that fit into this category are The Mistress of the Inn (La locandiera, 1753), The Jealous Miser (Il geloso avaro, 1755), and The Contriving Woman (La donna di maneggio, 1757).
The second group centers on the middle class, or bourgeoisie. Generally, they tell the story of a character who has strayed from conventional behavior, but is eventually reconciled. The Prudent Man (L’uomo prudente, 1748) and The Venetian Lawyer (L’avvocato veneziano, 1750) are part of this category.
Some of Goldoni’s best works belong to the third set: those that are written in Venetian dialect. His famous sixteen comedies from 1750 to 1751 are part of this category. Women’s Gossip (I pettegolezzi delle donne, 1751), The New House (La casa nova, 1760), and The Chioggian Brawls (Le baruffe chiozzotte, 1762) are part of this group.
The fourth category consists of his non-Italian comedies such as Pamela the Spinster (Pamela nubile, 1750) and The War (La guerra, 1760).
The fifth group represents his best and last plays: The Fan (Il ventaglio, 1763) and The Beneficent Bear (Il burbero benefico, 1771).
Goldoni wrote over 260 dramatic works of all kinds, including 150 comedies and libretti for over 80 operas. He is credited with creating the opera genre, drama giocoso, or “jocular drama,” (Paul den Auden, “The Opera Librettist,” http://home.prcn.org/~pauld/ata/articles/librettists.htm). In this type of opera, stock characters from serious operas (opera seria) appear with the servants, peasants, and buffoons from comic operas (opera buffa).
“Goldoni is considered by the Italians as the author who carried dramatic art in Italy to its highest point of perfection” (www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc93.html). He is renowned for his inventiveness, the ease and speed at which wrote, and the animation and meaning with which his characters are infused.