Except among serious students of theatre and opera, Carlo Goldoni is not exactly a household name. That’s a shame, because the 18th-century playwright not only was a truly transformative figure in the history of Italian theatre, but also led a long and fascinating life, of which he left detailed memoirs.
The son of a Venetian apothecary, Goldoni was obsessed with theatre from an early age, ran away to join a company of strolling players after his family sent him to study with a philosopher, went to college to study Greek and Roman drama and comedy, then got kicked out of school – run out of town, in fact – for writing libelous satirical poetry about the daughters of some prominent Venetian families. He went to law school, practiced law for a while, but kept being drawn back to his primary passion.
Goldoni burned the manuscript of his first serious effort at playwriting when a mentor criticized it for being too true to classical principles, instead of responsive to the demands of the famous performers who dominated Italian theatre at the time. Turning to comedy and opera librettos, he found greater success. His dozens of collaborations with the composer Baldassari Galuppi are considered central to the rise of the form known as opera buffa that later inspired the great comedic works of Rossini, Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. He also wrote the libretto for Haydn’s 1768 opera The Apothecary.
Goldoni is remembered today mainly for his comedy The Servant of Two Masters, which is about to be revived by Drama students at SUNY-Ulster under the direction of Stephen Balantzian. Servant is often cited – somewhat erroneously, as it turns out – as a prime example of the popular Renaissance-era theatrical form called commedia dell’arte, on account of its reliance on certain stock characters that go back to the Roman Plautus and beyond. The play’s protagonist Truffaldino, for example, is an Arlecchino or Harlequin who draws on two such classical archetypes: the “clever slave” and the gluttonous “parasite” character. It also features the usual thwarted lovers, a Pantaloon or miserly old man who comes between them, a Colombine or clever, conniving maidservant and so on.
But commedia dell’arte by definition relied heavily upon improvisation. The plays themselves were but sketchy outlines, within which actors who specialized exclusively in a particular character “type” would do their schtik, including song-and-dance routines. This seeming artistic freedom, paradoxically, led to rigid predictability of product. Audiences knew exactly what they’d be getting based on which familiar mask an actor wore, and performers were judged on the basis of their singing and dancing skills and how well they riffed on their stock character’s accepted attributes. It was hardly improv as we know it today.
Well-schooled as he was in the commedia dell’arte tradition, Goldoni longed to transcend its rigid limitations and create something new to Italian theatre: plays with a more humanistic spirit, well-rounded characters that resonated emotionally with middle-class audiences and better-developed plots that had topical relevance to 18th-century Italian society and manners. His earliest draft of Servant – commissioned in 1743 by actor Antonio Sacco, famed in his day for his Arlecchino characters – left large gaps to allow for improvisation. But the playwright revised it a decade later with a more defined structure, reflecting his desire to modernize the commedia form; so it can be seen as an important transitional work in the development of Italian theatre.
Goldoni’s idol was Molière, who had taken commedia archetypes to a new level and imbued them with satire that repeatedly scandalized the French aristocracy and church. In fact, after a protracted quarrel with another popular Italian playwright named Carlo Gozzi, who specialized in fluffy, lightweight dramas with lots of fairies in them, Goldoni disgustedly moved to France at age 54 and remained there for the remaining three decades of his life. His later works are written in French and enjoyed great success, until the Revolution came along and cut off his royal pension. He died in poverty in 1793 at the age of 85.
Alone among Goldoni’s works, The Servant of Two Masters has never gone out of circulation. The convoluted tale of a nimble, scurrilous, perpetually hungry servingman who schemes to double his wages by hiring himself out to two masters simultaneously will remind audiences of Molière’s Scapin as well as the twin Dromios in The Comedy of Errors and other clowns in the Shakespeare canon. The two masters – unwitting, of course, that they have both hired the same man – also happen to be this play’s separated lovers, their relationship further complicated by the facts that he has murdered her brother and that she is currently disguised as said dead brother.
So you can expect abundant confusion, energetic helpings of physical comedy, narrow escapes, well-earned humiliations and improbable reconciliations by the end of this classic farce. The SUNY-Ulster Theatre Program’s production of The Servant of Two Masters uses the 2004 translation/adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher and Paolo Emilio Landi. It opens this Thursday, November 7 and runs for two weekends, with performances beginning at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, plus Sunday matinées beginning at 3 p.m. in the Quimby Theatre on the Stone Ridge campus. Tickets are available at the door for a suggested donation of $10. For more information, call (845) 688-1959 or visit www.sunyulster.edu.
Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, Thursday-Saturday, November 7-9, 14-16, 8 p.m., Sunday, November 10 & 17, 3 p.m., $10, Quimby Theatre, Vanderlyn Hall, SUNY-Ulster, 491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge; (845) 688-1959, www.sunyulster.edu.