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.