It 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granted by Louis XVI being withdrawn by the National Convention.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
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.