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A Well-Made Comedy: The Legacy of commedia dell’arte & Carlo Goldoni

Commedia dell'arte scene in Italian Landscape, Peeter van Bredael, 17th/18th Century.

“If we are to make plays of commedia dell’arte, we shall want to make them well.” So insists the fictional Placida, a leading actress depicted in Carlo Goldoni’s play The Comic Theatre.

Her sentiment seems obvious enough, but—like commedia itself—it merits a second look.

For starters, this sentence penned in 1750 is often cited as the first appearance of the term commedia dell’arte. Though the tradition of Commedia had begun in Italy more than 200 years earlier, it was previously known by other names: The Improvised Theatre, The Zanni-esque Theatre (with reference to bumbling servants called Zanni, from whom we get the English word “zany”), The Theatre of Masks, or—more widely in Europe—simply, The Italian Comedy. It was Goldoni who popularized a new and lasting name for the art form: commedia dell’arte, which is best translated into English as Professional Theatre (with Arte denoting “skill, technique, craft, or profession”). Ironically, Goldoni, whose name is forever linked with the commedia, coined the phrase to describe a style of theatre that he did not like.

Goldoni’s dissatisfaction with commedia dell’arte raises a larger issue embedded in Placida’s plea, an issue that still plagues modern comic artists: What is the measure of a well-made comedy? Is it enough to do as Donald O’Connor insists in Singin’ in the Rain and “Make ’em laugh”? Or, if we agree with Placida and want to make our plays well, must we do something more?

This question undergirded the positive critical reception of Christopher Bayes’ The Servant of Two Masters when it premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2010. Reviewers unanimously insisted that the play was funny—genuinely funny. They guaranteed a good time and promised audiences, “It has you belly laughing yourself silly.” (Begelman, David, The News-Times, 2010).

However, most critics verged on apologia when insisting that the play was not mere empty guffaws, but rather something more. They wrote urgent disclaimers to assure readers that the silliness was something sophisticated. Surely a cultural icon as venerable as Yale Repertory Theatre (or the lauded Shakespeare Theatre Company, for that matter) would not subject its patrons to something so frivolous as a good time! No, this play, critics assured their audiences, is commedia dell’arte, but it is commedia dell’arte “made well.” Not merely “funny” but also “enchanting” and “magical.”

Rave reviews are nothing new for commedia dell’arte. Five-hundred-year-old audience reports describe a similar sense of enchantment and magic. The tradition grew out of necessity and invention, when, around the 1520s, Italian comic actors began to create models for achieving that elusive dream: to make a living in the arts. The resulting work not only kept them fed, but it revolutionized drama throughout Europe, spawning many innovations that are now taken for granted. Italian Commedians signed the earliest documents of incorporation recognizing performance as an industry and the theatre “company” as a business entity. These artist-entrepreneurs were the first to employ women on the professional stage, a regular occurrence in Italy 100 years before it would become standard practice in England. Touring companies played to every major court from Queen Elizabeth’s London (1602) to Empress Anna’s Moscow (1733), and Italian Comedy was at the vanguard of modern, trans-national business. For its contributions to the theatrical profession alone it is fitting that Goldoni dubbed the style commedia dell’arte: Theatre of the Professional.

As for the product, 16th- and 17th-century commedia dell’arte performers set new standards in dramatic technique and audience members described witnessing a theatrical virtuosity never seen before. Touring companies brought the rich heritage of Italian stories, characters and dramaturgy to the rest of Europe, helping to fuel the Golden Age in Spain and the Renaissance in France and England. Their legacy inspired subsequent entertainers as distinct as Mozart and the Marx Brothers.

Scholarly consensus has highlighted myriad ways in which Elizabethan dramas (including the plays of Shakespeare himself) are indebted to commedia conventions, and it is likely that Shakespeare’s famous clown Will Kempe traded professional secrets with Italian Commedians on tour in England. In France, the connection was stronger still as Italian companies made Paris a permanent home, occasionally sharing venues with Molière. The French playwright was quick to “share” their material as well, borrowing heavily from the commedia repertoire in the creation of a French national theatre.

By the mid-18th-century, Italian artists like Goldoni lamented that their own native theatre paled in comparison to their European rivals, whose national dramatic traditions had blossomed after, ironically, taking root in soil fertilized by earlier Italian tours. Within Italy, however, innovation had apparently slowed and commedia was on the wane. In The Comic Theatre, Goldoni’s mouthpiece Placida describes the situation:

The world is bored with always seeing the same things, with always hearing the same words, and the audiences know what Arlecchino is about to say before he even opens his mouth.

(act 1, scene 2)

To Goldoni, this “Professional Theatre” had grown stale and commercial, marked by predictable improvisations, hackneyed knockabouts and ubiquitous scatological humor. Apparently the artist-entrepreneurs had lost the hunger that had first prompted their ancestors to innovate.

Goldoni responded with a self-described mission of “reform,” a project which he details in his Memoirs. In his view, Commedia had given a propitious birth to modern theatre, but it was high time for the Italian stage to grow up. The Venetian lawyer-turned playwright planned to lead this painful maturation himself, waging war on three fronts.

First, Goldoni worked with renowned commedia actors of his day, whose careers had been built on improvisation, but he dared to give them scripts, insisting as Shakespeare had done 150 years earlier that the actors “speak no more than is set down for them.” Detractors claimed that the playwright was squelching creative fire, but literarily-minded audiences agreed that Goldoni’s poetry and crafted narratives were an improvement over improvised texts.

In his scripts, then, Goldoni attempted to shift the theatrical style from “farces” to “comedies of character.” In his view, the farce was built on theatrical conventions—tired gags and worn-out shells of archetypes named Arlecchino, Brighella, the Doctor and Pantalone. These stock characters had once been unique creations by innovative actors, but after two centuries of use the old types were verging on cliché. Goldoni hoped that a new “comedy of character” would revive the theatre with a sense of realism and particularity drawn from modern, middle-class life: merchants, courtiers, waiters, porters and the like—real people presented not as types but as individuals.

The last and most controversial of Goldoni’s reforms was a slap to the very face of Italian culture: he began to require that his actors perform without their venerated leather masks. Commedia—the so-called Comedy of Masks—had flourished based on a system of character masks, and the material culture of the leather mask was a source of Italian popular pride, even outside of the realm of theatre.

In some cases, the public responded with rage, and Goldoni describes being accosted by people who accused him of killing their culture by daring to present unmasked comic actors. Goldoni, however, saw himself as a harbinger of the future, insisting that modern, realistic theatre required a nuance, a pliability and a life that the mask would not allow: “The actor must, in our days, possess a soul; and the soul under a mask is like a fire under ashes.”

Some theorists still say that Goldoni killed commedia. In his words, he merely reformed it. Either way, his work helped to shape a new Italian national theatre based on more realistic characters, more naturalistic representations and the primacy of the playwright over the actor. As Shakespeare was to 16th-century London, as Molière was to 17th-century Paris, so Goldoni was to 18th-century Venice. It is worth remembering, however, that all three of these legendary poets built their craft on the backs of comic actors from Renaissance Italy. Poor players strutting and fretting their life upon the stage with one simple goal, a goal shared by Truffaldino in Servant: to work hard enough to gain a bite to eat.

Hunger and hard work. Heartache and happiness. These are the basic ingredients of commedia dell’arte, and of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. Servant is one of Goldoni’s earliest plays, in which Commedia clearly exerts its lasting influence and the innovations that would mark his later career are only faintly prefigured. Nevertheless, the playwright demonstrates his care for the genre and his love of the characters by painting broad comedy in gentle brushstrokes. It is funny, yes—audiences laughed at the commedia when it first revolutionized theatre in the 1500s; they laughed through Goldoni’s reforms of the 1700s; and they are still laughing today—but it is also something more. Familiar but spectacular, universal but particular. Silly, yes, but also “enchanting” and “magical.” This is commedia dell’arte “made well.”

Matthew R. Wilson is Artistic Director of Faction of Fools, D.C.’s Commedia dell’Arte theatre company. He holds an MFA from STC’s Academy for Classical Acting and is pursuing a PhD in Renaissance Theatre History at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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