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Replacing Farces with Comedies

By Elaine Pilkington

Stage-struck at an early age, Carlos Goldoni wrote his first comedy when he was eleven, stowed away with a group of traveling actors when he was fourteen, and was later expelled from the ecclesiastical college of Pavia for writing a dramatic satire on the college. Even though he obtained his law degree when he was twenty-five, “his face was too jovial to attract clients,” and he eventually joined a group of “strolling players,” writing “scenarios for their comedia dell’arte performances.” Once married, he returned to practicing law in Venice and then Pisa until he was lured back to the stage in 1747 at the age of forty (Frederick Davies, Goldoni: Four Comedies [New York: Penguin Books, 1968], 11 13). Throughout his career, he wrote more than 150 plays.

It was Goldoni’s ambition “to reform the decadent comedia dell’arte and replace it by an Italian theatre that would rival that of England and France” (Davies, 13). He did not, however, diminish the energy or humor of his plays’ ancestral origins. Rather than relying merely on the fixed masks, broad shtick, obscene gestures, and grotesque noises of comedia dell’arte, Goldoni incorporated more serious themes and conflicts into his plays, writing in his Memoires his hope “to replace farces with comedies” (cited by Pierre Louis Duchartre, The Italian Comedy [New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1966], 48) and regarding “comedy as a means to correct ‘faults and foibles’” (Theodore W. Hatlen, Drama Principles and Plays [New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967], 40).

First written in 1743, The Servant of Two Masters followed the comedia dell’arte tradition by using its stock characters—the greedy Pantalone, the overbearing Doctor, two sets of young lovers, and a tricky servant, but unlike the improvised scenarios of comedia dell’arte, all of the dialogue was written with the exception of certain scenes in which Truffaldino, the tricky servant, improvised the action and the words. By the time it was published in 1755, Goldoni had written the complete text (Phyllis Hartnoll and Peter Found, The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992], 190). The success of his play,The Clever Woman, had convinced Goldoni that plays of written dialogue would be accepted by his audiences in place of outlined improvisations. It was “the first play ever written down in entirety for a company of comedia dell’arte players” (Davies, 13).

The Servant of Two Masters is one of Carlos Goldoni’s best known and most frequently produced plays. Like Shakespearean comedy, it deals with the course of true love, disguised maidens, male inconstancy, and mistaken identity. The happy betrothal of Clarice and Silvio is spoiled by the arrival of Federigo Rasponi, the man to whom Clarice was formerly betrothed. Having been told Federigo was killed in a duel, Clarice’s father Pantalone has agreed to the marriage of his daughter to the man she truly loves, but feels a greater obligation to Federigo because he has more money than Silvio. Little does he know that the person who claims to be Federigo is an imposter, Beatrice Rasponi disguised as her brother to travel safely in pursuit of her lover Florindo (who also happens to be the murderer of her brother). Short of money, Beatrice comes to collect from Pantalone money due to her brother, and in order to maintain her identity as Federigo, must insist Pantalone honor the betrothal agreement.

Beatrice’s servant, Truffaldino, is the center ofThe Servant of Two Masters. Truffaldino seems a final incarnation of Harlequin, one of two comedia dell’arte Zanni born in Bergamo. Harlequin “was a simpleton from the beginning, while Brighella, the other Zanni, . . . was extremely crafty” (Duchartre, 124). Initially, Harlequin’s humor was broad, his antics primarily physical, and his movements almost acrobatic, but as he evolved from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, his flashes of wit and cunning became more common, his romances and intrigues more than slapstick. By the time he is transformed into Truffaldino in the eighteenth century, he seems to be a split personality of sorts, part Harlequin and part Brighella.

At Truffaldino’s first appearance, Pantalone says to Dr. Lombardi (Silvio’s father), “I think the man’s a fool,” and Dr. Lombardi replies, “I think he is playing the fool” (Carlos Goldoni, The Servant of Two Masters in The Classic Theatre Volume 1: Six Italian Plays ed. Eric Bentley [Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958], 150). Throughout the play, other characters cannot decide if Truffaldino is a fool or a knave.

It becomes apparent to the audience, however, that even though Truffaldino aspires to be a knave, he remains a fool. He may be able to originate a wonderful scheme, but he lacks the mental ingenuity necessary to complete it successfully. Because Beatrice has not returned from her errand, he accepts employment as servant to another person—Beatrice’s lover, who has just arrived in Venice. When Beatrice does return, he resigns neither position but resolves to serve them both, thinking it will give him twice the money, twice the food, and show what a wonderfully capable fellow he is. His rash action repeatedly brings him to the brink of discovery and requires increasingly more demanding physical and mental contortions to maintain the fiction. More from luck than skill, he just barely manages to pull it off, and the humor and suspense build with each narrow escape.

Goldoni’s life was, at times, as precarious as Truffaldino’s employment. His success caused a jealousy so severe in his contemporaries, particularly Carlo Gozzi, that he left Venice in 1762, “accepting an invitation from the King of France to write plays for the King’s company of Italian actors in Paris.” The actors were uncooperative and less skillful than those in Venice. Eventually, Goldoni learned French and wrote plays in that language. Three years after his arrival, he lost his sight but slowly regained his vision in his right eye.

He became a tutor for the French princesses and was eventually given a pension by the king. That pension ended when the Bastille fell in 1789. Goldoni’s friends helped him financially until his death on February 6, 1793, “eighteen days after Louis XVI, who had brought him to Paris, died on the guillotine” (Davis, 15 16).

Despite the uncertainty of his profession, Goldoni’s love for and joy in the theatre were ever present in his life. Like Goldoni’s other plays, The Servant of Two Masters is “orchestrated movement” and needs “to be seen in performance in order to realize the full enjoyment . . . [it offers]. From the moment the curtain sweeps back . . . , one feels that sense of happiness which comes too rarely in the modern theatre. For all that Goldoni offers is simple enjoyment” (Davies, 17).

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