Tuesday, January 20, 2015

With all the power of his imagination - Carlo Goldoni reforms Italian comedy

Don’t forget that it is not too late to join in on next week’s Pinocchio fun.  I hope it is not too late, since I just started the book tonight.  It is a commonplace to note that the book is “dark” compared to the Disney version.  “Cruel” is more accurate.

But that is next week.  This will be 18th century Italian theater week, the works of Carlo Goldoni and Vittorio Alfieri,  an event demanded by no one about books loved by few, with one exception.

The exception is The Servant of Two Masters (1745), which I want to save for tomorrow.  I have read five other Goldonis:

The Coffee Shop (1750)
The Holiday TrilogyOff to the Country, Adventures in the Country, and Back from the Country (all 1761)
The Fan (1765)

And although Servant is easily the funniest, and also best, some of these other plays give a better idea of what Goldoni accomplished.  He was a lawyer with a gift for comedy who reformed, or perhaps invented, the modern Italian theater.  His innovation was to take the old commedia dell’arte characters and methods and inject a dose of local detail.  His characters were still types, but recognizably Venetian types, the setting the usual square but now a definably Venetian square.

As if I know much about the commedia dell’arte.  What I really have in mind are the light, elegant, almost abstract French comedies of Pierre de Marivaux, like The Game of Love and Chance, perfect in their way but detached, floating in the clouds.  Was it possible to pull Marivaux back to earth?  That is what Goldoni did.  If he had thought to do this in prose fiction, he would have been among the inventors of the modern novel rather than an ancestor of the sitcom.

Since I also know nothing about daily life in 18th century Venice, I am just taking the word of others that Goldoni is in fact representing daily life etc.  How would I know.

A trivial example, maybe.  The cast of Adventures in the Country has gone to a coffee shop:

GIACINTA.  Coffee.
LEONARDO.  A glass of cold water.
ROSINA.  An iced lime drink.
TOGNINO.  A cup of hot chocolate.
VITTORIA.  Coffee with no sugar.
COSTANZA.  Lemonade.
FILIPPO.  Water with lime juice.
FERDINANDO.  A glass of rosolio cordial.
SABINA.  And bring me a fruit sherbet.  (Act II, Sc. 3, tr. Anthony Oldcorn)

Characters snap at each other, the waiter mixes up all of the orders, poor Filippo gets to indulge the running gag in which he is served last, always last.

The Holiday Trilogy is almost too much like a novel, first in length when I read the three plays together, but also with its well-to-do characters putting themselves in predicaments that demand an ending less definite than what is available on stage.  This is harder to do in a novel, though:

GIACINTA.  Ladies and gentleman, at this point the author, with all the power of his imagination, had prepared a long speech of despair, a regular conflict of emotions, a mixture of heroism and pathos.  I thought it best to omit it, to avoid boring you further.  (Adventures, Act III, Sc. 4)

I will take Giacinta’s advice until tomorrow.


  1. "An ancestor of the sitcom." Shrewdly observed! Giacinta's crack about omitting the author's long speech sounds like something Unamuno would have done--and in fact did--in prose right about 1914. I guess Goldoni was quite ahead of the game.

  2. Goldoni was not ahead; the game was behind.

  3. Goldoni had made the transition to modernity. It was no longer possible for him to seriously write the kind of heroic speeches that Shakespeare, Racine or Marivaux excelled at. For example, as we all know, on Marivaux's Slave Island the part of Cleanthys was originally played by Sylvia (AKA Gianna Benozzi). Here's her famous monologue from scene X:

    There you have it, the people who despise us most in this world, those who are so full of themselves, who mistreat us, and who look upon us as if we were mere earthworms, those people are very happy then, when they find out that we are a hundred times more honest than they are. Yeah right! It is indeed a sad thing when your only merit is the possession of gold, silver and power!

    Now, it all comes down to whether or not to forgive you, and to deserve that gift then, what should you be, please tell? Rich? no, noble? no, a great lord? Nothing like that. You were all of those, and were you worth more because of that? So, what is needed to deserve forgiveness? Ah! Just this: You must have a good heart, virtue and reason, that's all that is needed, that's what is worthy, what distinguishes us, what makes one person better than another. Do you hear me ladies and gentlemen, you the honest people of the world?

  4. That's a great Pirandello moment too! This goddamn post-modernist thing is such an old thing!

  5. If anything I am under-emphasizing the audience-interaction side of Goldoni. His signature device is the aside. He writes conversations which are half asides to the audience. Again, he is trying to do something novel-like on stage, but without the model of what we think of as novels.

    It really is pretty modern. I think humplehappiness is right about the rhetoric, too, that the kind of speeches found in Racine and Marivaux felt false to Goldoni, or maybe not false but not possible with the kinds of characters he was writing.

  6. Did he borrow that scene with the coffees from Friends? It's just short a frappuchino and chai latte of being specifically 1990's comedy. Pinnochio is indeed cruel. I found myself editing frantically when reading it for my daughter when she was younger.

  7. Now that we have, finally, Italianized our coffee shops, the coffee scenes have become perfectly contemporary.

    I may do a cruel post cataloging cruel acts in Pinocchio. Some of them are pretty rough.