Other Literary Forms
Carlo Goldoni is remembered only for his contributions to Italian drama. The major source of information about Goldoni and his theater is his autobiography, Mémoires de M. Goldoni pour servir à l’histoire de sa vie, et à celle de son théâtre (1787; Memoirs of Goldoni Written by Himself, Forming a Complete History of His Life and Writing, 1814). Commonly known as his Mémoires, Goldoni’s autobiography was written in Paris, where Goldoni spent the final years of his life.
During a lifetime that spanned the eighteenth century, from 1707 to 1793, Carlo Goldoni wrote prolifically for the Italian stage, producing more than 120 comedies, as well as a number of tragedies and tragicomedies and more than fifty scenarios. Through his comedies, Goldoni was largely responsible for the transformation of Italian drama from the unwritten, improvisational performances that flourished in Italy from approximately 1660 to 1800 under the name commedia dell’arte to the modern, written drama of contemporary European theater.
The commedia dell’arte was characterized by its improvised performances, its lively dialogue and plotting, and its song, dance, and acrobatics. Starting with a scenario, troupes of actors would make generous use of lazzi—routinely improvised stage business expressing an emotion or reaction and often featuring practical jokes, gags, and buffoonery. Each actor in the troupe portrayed a particular stock character that did not vary from one performance to another. The character was identifiable by the mask he wore, by the dialect he spoke, and by his mannerisms. The commedia dell’arte borrowed freely from the plots of Greek and Roman plays, and, in the seventeenth century, from the plots of Spanish dramas. The success of a performance, however, depended less on the original plot than on the ability of the actors to make the drama interesting and alive.
By the late seventeenth century, the commedia dell’arte had exerted considerable influence on the drama of other European countries. The troupes traveled to France and to England; William Shakespeare borrowed plot devices and characters from the commedia dell’arte; and Molière incorporated several stock characters into his comedies. In Italy, however, the commedia dell’arte was not successfully incorporated into written comedy.
By the late seventeenth century, too, the commedia dell’arte had begun to lose its imaginative spontaneity, in spite of a preponderance of good actors. Once, the commedia dell’arte had captured the everyday lives of its audience and interpreted those lives in an imaginative, highly stylized form. Yet, in an attempt to hold the interest of audiences no longer content to applaud the old lazzi, the actors neglected their improvisation, and the lazzi descended to a more vulgar, often obscene, level. The actors of the commedia dell’arte thus alienated the emerging middle class, which had a stricter sense of propriety than had earlier audiences.
Goldoni’s middle-class background made him sensitive to the artistic tastes and moral standards of this emerging audience. Inspired by the comedies of Molière, Goldoni sought to create an Italian comedy that would keep the best elements of the commedia dell’arte—the fresh and earthy sense of reality, expressed by fast, witty dialogue—while once again reflecting the everyday life of its audience. Working with the actors of the commedia dell’arte troupe of Guiseppe Imer, including the renowned actor Antonio Sacchi, who played the role of...
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