Feature: Carlo Goldoni

Date posted: 4 Feb 2013Author: STC

Carlo Goldoni was born in 1707 into a middle-class family in Venice. As a child, he was fascinated by theatre, playing with puppets and writing his first play at the age of twelve. His father attempted to distract him from a dishonourable career in the theatre by sending him away to study at various schools, but each time Goldoni either ran away or got expelled. During one of these incidents, he joined a company of touring actors and travelled back to Venice, the adventures he experienced on this journey solidified his love of theatrical life. Eventually, in 1731, he graduated from law school and started practising in Padua. The lure of the theatre was too strong however, and the following year he was back in Venice, writing. Goldini's path to stardom was not smooth; his first play, a tragedy called Amalasunta [1733], was a flop. He threw the manuscript in the fire, and wrote a tragicomedy, Belisario [1734], the success of which launched his career.

Over the next ten years, Goldoni took up a succession of resident dramatist roles at various large theatres and opera houses, writing opera librettos and tragic works, before discovering comedy was his ideal form. His first major comedy, L'uomo di mondo (The Man of the World), premiered in 1738 and he followed it with a succession of hits, including, in 1746, Il Servitore di Due Padroni (The Servant of Two Masters). The play was written for a famous harlequin called Antonio Sacchi, (whose stage name, Truffaldino, is the servant's name in the play) and was based on an existing plot. In 1748, Goldoni joined Girolamo Medebac's company, who were resident at the Sant'Angelo theatre in Venice.

Medebac was a famous theatrical manager who had assembled a cast of eminent actors, and Goldoni wrote a series of plays, experimenting with form and honing his skills. It was whilst he was installed with this company that Goldoni achieved his now infamous challenge of writing sixteen comedies in two seasons; a play a week. Goldoni's relationship with Medebac deteriorated over rows about royalties, and in 1753 he defected to the Vendramin family at the rival Teatro San Luca, where he stayed until 1762.

These years were dogged by a rivalry with fellow playwright, Carlo Gozzi [1720-1806], which played out publicly in the press and divided Venetian theatre audiences. Gozzi felt Goldoni was destroying the traditions of Commedia dell'arte and making the form banal; Goldoni, in turn, believed Gozzi's work to be too fantastical and therefore artificial. By 1762, Goldoni was tired of the dispute and accepted an invitation to direct Italian plays at the French court of Louis XV [1710-1774]. After his contract ended, he stayed at court to teach Italian to the royal family, and was subsequently granted a pension for life. Unfortunately, the French Revolution [1789-1799], interrupted these payments and Goldoni lived out the rest of his life in poverty. He died in 1793, having never returned to Venice.

Goldoni lived a colourful life, he was often involved in disputes over money and women, and many of his experiences ended up in his plays. His memoirs, published in 1787, are full of amusing anecdotes, although many have questioned the accuracy of some of these adventures, suspecting he preferred a good story over the truth. He wrote 200 plays, including 150 comedies, redefining Italian theatre.

Commedia dell'arte is shortened from 'commedia dell'arte all'improviso', meaning 'comedy through the art/craft of improvisation', but also translates as 'comedy of the guild'; Europe's first professional theatre. Previously, theatre had been provided by amateur academics, writing and performing their own plays (known as 'commedia erudite'; 'learned comedy'). Commedia originated in Italy in the mid-16th century with companies consisting of ten or so touring players, often playing improvised outdoor venues. The more prestigious companies had patrons amongst the nobility and the rest relied on carnival organisers hiring their services, or audiences tipping them. The actors specialised in playing particular stock characters and wore masks depicting these personalities. Unlike British theatre, where Shakespeare's heroines were being played by young male actors, commedia used actresses; attempts by the church to ban actresses for their corruptive influences never succeeded.

There were no written scripts in commedia; companies improvised their shows along predetermined plot scenarios, knowing the rough structure of the narrative. Each actor knew where their character's story began and concluded, and therefore the various plot-points they needed to hit in order to complete their character's journey. They memorised speeches, songs, poems and sections of dialogue so they could recall them on stage as necessary. Commedia also had roots in the art of touring jongleurs, wandering entertainers, who performed a mix of acrobatics, songs and audience interaction (not dissimilar from the likes of contemporary street performers in Covent Garden). From jongleurs, commedia inherited lazzi, comic verbal or physical set pieces, which they studied and honed, incorporating them into the action when applicable.

Goldoni's earliest writings for the theatre consisted of sections of dialogue for the players to improvise with, but he soon recognised that in order to become a playwright like the European writers he admired such as Molière [1622-1673], then he needed total control over the whole play. He began writing full scripts and banned masks which he felt were an unnecessary barrier between performer and audience, his changes met with resistance from the actors who resented handing control of their art over to a new party. Commedia as a form was 200 years old however, and becoming stale; Goldoni determined to explore real Italian life onstage, and the audiences responded.

His plays often had a satirical edge, commenting on contemporary issues and relationships, and he fairly portrayed people from different classes, condemning the immoral whether they were poor or rich.

This history was created for the National Theatre education department.

One Man, Two Guvnors, Sydney Theatre, 30 March - 11 May, 2013.