Carlo Goldoni

Carlo GoldoniIt was reserved for Carlo Goldoni to effect the dramatic revolution so frequently attempted by men whose talents were unequal to the task. Goldoni, a native of Venice, was born in 1707, and almost lived out the century, for he died in Paris in 1792. In his memoirs, written by himself, is depicted with the utmost liveliness the born comedian, careless, light-hearted and with a happy temperament, proof against all strokes of fate, yet thoroughly respectable and honorable. Such characters were common enough in Italy, and it is somewhat remarkable that he should have been the only one of his many talented countrymen to win a European reputation as a comic writer. In tragedy other names have appeared since the death of Alfieri, but Goldoni still stands alone. This may be partly explained by the absence in comedy of a literary style which at the same time was national. Goldoni gave to his country a classical form, which, though it has since been cultivated, has never been cultivated by a master.

The son of a physician, Goldoni inherited his dramatic tastes from his grandfather, and all attempts to direct his activity into other channels were of no avail. Educated as a lawyer, and holding lucrative positions as secretary and councillor, he seemed, indeed, at one time to have settled down to the practice of law, but an unexpected summons to Venice, after an absence of several years, changed his career, and thenceforth he devoted himself to writing plays and managing theatres. It was his principal aim to supersede the comedy of masks and the comedy of intrigue by representations of actual life and manners, and in this he was entirely successful, though not until after powerful opposition from Carlo Gozzi, who accused him of having deprived the Italian theatre of the charms of poetry and imagination. Gozzi had obtained a wide reputation by his fairy dramas, and this so irritated Goldoni that he removed to Paris, where, receiving a position at court, he passed the latter part of his life in composing plays and writing his memoirs in French. Notwithstanding that his works became extremely popular in Italy, he could never be induced to revisit his native land. In his last years he was afflicted with blindness, and died in extreme poverty, a pension granted by Louis XVI being withdrawn by the National Convention. It was, however, restored to his widow, at the pleading of the poet Chénier. "She is old," he urged, "she is seventy-six, and her husband has left her no heritage save his illustrious name, his virtues and his poverty."

Goldoni's first dramatic venture, a melodrama named Amalasunta, was unsuccessful. Submitting it to Count Prata, director of the opera, he was told that his piece "was composed with due regard to the rules of Aristotle and Horace, but not according to those laid down for the Italian drama." "In France," continued the count, "you can try to please the public, but here in Italy it is the actors and actresses whom you must consult, as well as the composer of the music and the stage decorators. Everything must be done according to a certain form which I will explain to you." Goldoni thanked his critic, went back to his inn and ordered a fire, into which he threw the manuscript of his Amalasunta. He then called for a good supper, which he consumed with relish, after which he went to bed and slept tranquilly throughout the night.

Goldoni's next attempt was more successful, though of its success he afterward professed himself ashamed. While holding a position as chamberlain in the household of the Venetian ambassador at Milan he made the acquaintance of a quack doctor who went by the name of Antonimo, and was the very prince of charlatans. Among other devices to attract customers the latter carried with him a company of actors, who, after assisting in selling his wares, gave a performance in his small theatre in a public square. It so happened that a company of comedians engaged for the Easter season at Milan failed to keep its appointment, whereupon, at Antonimo's request, Goldoni wrote an intermezzo entitled The Venetian Gondolier, which, as he says, "met with all the success so slight an effort deserved." This trifle, despised by its author, was the first of his performed and published works.

Goldoni took for his models the plays of Molière, and whenever a piece of his own succeeded he whispered to himself, "Good, but not yet Molière." The great Frenchman was the object of his idolatry, and justly so, for not only was Molière the true monarch of the comic stage but nearness of time and place, with similarity of manners, made the comedies of the French master suitable for imitation. By the middle of the eighteenth century none but literary enemies contested Goldoni's title as the Italian Molière, and this has been confirmed by the suffrage of posterity. Un Curioso Accidente, Il Vero Amico, La Bottega del Caffe, La Locandiera and many other comedies that might be named, while depicting manners of a past age, retain all their freshness in our own. Italian audiences even yet take delight in his pictures of their ancestors. "One of the best theatres in Venice," says Symonds, "is called by Goldoni's name. His house is pointed out by gondoliers to tourists. His statue stands within sight of the Rialto. His comedies are repeatedly given by companies of celebrated actors." As Cæsar called Terence a half-Menander, so we may term Goldoni a half-Molière. The Menandrine element in Molière is present with him, the Aristophanic is missing. Goldoni wants the French writer's overpowering comic force, and is happier in "catching the manners living as they rise" than in laying bare the depths of the heart. Wit, gayety, elegance, simplicity, truth to nature, skill in dramatic construction, render him nevertheless a most delightful writer, and his fame is the more assured from his position as his country's sole eminent representative in the region of polite comedy. "The appearance of Goldoni on the stage," says Voltaire, "might, like the poem of Trissino, be termed: 'Italy Delivered from the Goths.'"

In the outset of his career, Goldoni found the comic stage divided between two different species of dramatic composition--classical comedy and the comedy of masks. The first was the result of careful study and strict observance of Aristotelian rules, but possessing none of the qualities sought for by the public. Some of them were pedantic copies of the ancients; others were imitations of these copies, and still others were borrowed from the French. People might admire these pseudo-classic dramas; they certainly admired the more brilliant comedy of Goldoni, but the commedia dell'arte, or comedy of masks, is what pleased them best. To suppress the last of these forms the great comedian devoted his utmost efforts, but though he succeeded partially, and for a time, the task was beyond him; for in the comedy of masks was the real dramatic life of the nation, and though, except in the hands of Gozzi, it never assumed the form of dramatic literature, it was transplanted into several European nations in the costume of harlequin, columbine and pantaloon.

Goldoni is considered by the Italians as the author who carried dramatic art in Italy to its highest point of perfection, and he possessed no common powers. He had a fertility of invention which readily supplied him with new subjects for his comic muse, and such facility of composition that he infrequently produced a comedy of five acts in verse within less than as many days, a rapidity which prevented him from bestowing sufficient pains upon the correctness of his work. His dialogue was extremely animated, earnest and full of meaning; and with a very exact knowledge of the national manners he combined the rare faculty of giving a lively picture of them on the stage.

†This article was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization ed. Alfred Bates. New York: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 63-68.

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