Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Goldoni's smash hit play - I'm only one man but I got two guvnors

Some of you out there, who understand your commedia dell’arte, those with a liberal education, your hummus eaters, will know that this play is based on Carol Goldoni’s two hundred-year-old Italian comedy A Servant of Two Masters and you will now be saying to yourselves “if the Harlequin, that’s me, has now eaten, what will be his motivation in the second act”.  Has anyone here said that?  Perhaps in an attempt to impress a date.  No.  Good.  Nice to know we don’t have any dicks in tonight.  My character, Francis, has to find a new base motivation to drive his actions in the second half.  Your job is to try and work out what that might be.

This is said by a relaxed, well-fed Francis in Act II, Scene 2 of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s hit 2011 adaptation of – see above for details.  Bean moves the setting to 1960s Brighton and makes the characters idiot British gangsters, giving him a port, slang, and violence, everything he needs to keep his farce cooking.

Bean pins Goldoni down pretty well here.  His is the literature of base motivations.  This one, by the way, appears instantly:  Enter DOLLY, miniskirt, boobs etc.

The story of The Servant of Two Masters is that a clownish, hungry servant finds himself in the service of two masters.  He has to run around doing errands for both without letting the other know, which is comic.  There’s also some nonsense with disguises and who’ll marry whom.  In the center of the play is a long, crazy scene where Francis / Truffaldino / Harlequin is simultaneously serving lunch to both of his guvnors, again, unknown to each other, while he steals scraps, or entire dishes.  Lots of racing around and slamming doors.

Not too long ago I saw a college production of Servant that put a lot of obstacles in front of its actors, but as they moved into that waiter scene, the awkwardness vanished.  The whole thing just took off.  What a scene.  Bean is obligated to escalate the action, and does he ever.  This must be almost painful to watch in the theater.  Laughter, the pain would be from laughter.  When it is over:

What I suggest we do is take a fifteen minute interval here.  You can have a drink.  We’re going to fill out some Health and Safety forms.  (Act I, Sc. 4)

I am tempted to just quote more jokes, but I suppose they lose something without the surrounding patter.  It’s a funny play.  I’m laughing now; too bad you can’t see me.  As I leaf through the actual Goldoni play, the Edward J. Dent translation found in The Servant of Two Masters and Other Italian Classics (ed. Eric Bentley), I cannot help but find it a little thin read right up against the super-charged One Man, Two Guvnors.  So don’t read them in that order is my advice.


  1. I fondly (if only partially) remember the play: I was performed in the play in 1970. With my memory problems, I remember very little about it except one awful rehearsal when I had not learned my lines and I had stopped off at the local tavern for too long before the rehearsal -- the director when nuclear and I was caught in the fallout. That was an ugly evening. (Moral of the Story: a pitcher of Iron City beer and Goldoni do not mix well.)

  2. I took Michael Frayn's Noises Off as a documentary about how theater works. It is a series of disasters until suddenly it all goes right.

    1. Well, I could tell you tales about when it goes horribly wrong -- especially in productions in which I was involved. Perhaps I should post those tales at Beyond Eastrod.

    2. Theater stories - that's a good idea.

  3. It is indeed possible to make a Goldoni comedy funnier by adding more jokes; I don't think a Shakespeare tragedy can be made sadder by adding more drama to it. Or can anyone claim to have LOL'd at Much Ado About Nothing or the Aulularia or Don Gil of the Green Breeches? On the other hand, The Doctor In Spite Of Himself and La Locandiera are still hilarious. I was visiting Haiti when I saw this community theater group from a poor beach neighborhood performing some scenes from Le Medecin Malgre Lui, and I watched as little children burst into laughter as the protagonist was turned into a competent doctor by the expedient procedure of being hit hard with wooden sticks. You may remember this joke as the time Homer Simpson instantly became a very good Jazz pianist by the expedient procedure of being hit hard with a whip.

    What Moliere and Goldoni have bequeathed us is pretty much the basic structure of modern comedy and sitcoms. I have seen scene XIII of the first act of La Locandiera redone so many, many times, from, cough, prurient, cough Japanese movies to Latin American sitcoms and it's always funny.

  4. That is a good distinction. "More drama" would quickly become a punishment, kitsch. But comedy is expandable to some large degree.

    What a wonderful thing to see in Haiti. Comic violence is universal.

  5. I have to read some Goldoni. My only exposure to him was at the Comédie Italienne in Paris at least 10 years ago, and I could not remember which play until you wrote about this one: the waiter running back and forth to both masters is, as comic scenes go, fairly unforgettable. That Richard Bean adaptation sounds like a riot.

  6. At the Comédie Italienne, that's almost as good as seeing Goldoni in Venice.