Italian Drama Since the 1600's Analysis

Commedia dell’arte

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Despite the importance and richness of the written erudite theater, Italy’s most enduring and glorious contribution to the history of drama remains unquestionably the unwritten theater of the streets and marketplaces, the commedia dell’arte , which had its greatest success from 1560 to 1650.

Unlike the written erudite theater of poets and men of letters, which depended heavily on the patronage of courts and academies and was often brought to the stage by refined dilettanti and courtiers, the chief characteristics of the commedia dell’arte were improvisation, a brash and energetic acting style that feigned spontaneity, sudden gags and bawdy jokes known as lazzi, and stock characters, usually masked and immediately recognizable by their garb, played by professional actors.

Although not written, the plays had completely developed plots or scenarios known as canovacci, and each actor, usually specializing in a given role or mask, was expected to “improvise” a dialogue or speech, according to a precise situation or scene called for in the plot, by relying on his experience and on a repertoire of set expressions, proverbs, witticisms, jokes, and brilliant conceits. Often the actors would adroitly adjust their performance to satisfy the mood and temperament of the audience, or introduce lazzi of particular significance to a particular time or place.

From the era that commedia dell’arte thrived, well over one thousand canovacci have survived, the most important being those...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

The Pastoral and the Birth of Melodrama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The second half of the sixteenth century saw, besides the sudden appearance of the commedia dell’ arte, the birth of a new dramatic genre: the pastoral play . Already in the Middle Ages and in the first half of the fifteenth century, imitation of the Virgilian bucolic eclogue had reached a sophisticated poetic level, but the real point of departure for the theatrical version had been Poliziano’s Orfeo. The genre next reached a pinnacle in 1573 with a masterpiece by the poet Torquato Tasso.

When Tasso’s Aminta (pr. 1573; English translation, 1591) was first performed, during the summer of 1573 in the idyllic setting of the island of Belvedere in the Po, Tasso had, like his great youthful predecessor Poliziano a century earlier, miraculously succeeded in creating an unsurpassable example in this genre, a model that was to remain for decades the source of inspiration for countless poets and playwrights all over Europe. The only other Italian play of this genre that can claim comparison with Tasso’s masterpiece is the work of another Ferrarese poet: Il pastor fido (pr. 1596; The Faithful Shepherd, 1602) by Battista Guarini . Wrought in exquisite lyric verses, Guarini’s play attempted to improve on the Tassian model by applying some innovations theorized by its author. Although following to a certain extent the classical models, the studied quintessential musicality of its rhymes and the all-pervading...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

The Rise of Musical Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The time was ripe for further innovations, and when, toward the end of the sixteenth century, a group of gifted musicians under the leadership of Giovanni Bardi, Count del Verino, and the gifted theorist Vincenzo Galileo, father of the famous astronomer and scientist, formed the Camerata, they found in the musical verses and elegiac plots of the pastoral a ready-made medium for their musical experiments.

Galileo, and his fellow musicians Giulio Caccini, Emilio de’ Cavalieri, and Jacopo Peri, together with the poet Ottavio Rinuccini, had maintained that music should be a mere accompaniment to the verses of the poet and should only complement their emotional expressivity without overpowering them; that is, music and words were to remain, as far as possible, equally important.

Adhering to these concepts, and under the leadership of Jacopo Corsi, who had succeeded Bardi, the Camerata artists produced in 1598 the very first opera , Dafne, a pastoral play written by Rinuccini and set to music by Peri. This first opera enjoyed great success and in 1600 was followed by a second one, Euridice, first staged during the celebrations of the marriage of Maria de’ Medici to Henri IV of France. The libretto was again by Rinuccini, while the music was by Peri and Caccini, the former also singing the role of Orpheus.

Other operas followed, notably one with music composed by de’ Cavalieri, but Florence suddenly lost her preeminence with the emergence, in Mantua, of one who was to prove the musical genius of the era: Claudio Monteverdi . In 1607, Monteverdi composed his L’Orfeo (pr. 1607; Orfeo, 1949; with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio), and the following year the moving Arianna, with a libretto by Rinuccini. Other important works by Monteverdi were Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria (pr. 1641; English translation, 1942), and L’incoronazione di Poppea (pr. 1642; The Coronation of Poppea, 1927). With Monteverdi, opera took a new direction, music gradually beginning to assert itself and claim the role of importance formerly held by the text, and the other scenic elements gradually acquiring a more spectacular function. Unlike the earlier operas of Peri and Caccini, with their monodic recitatives and the subdued role of the music, Monteverdi’s works disregarded the theories of the Camerata and stressed, instead, the more intense psychological and dramatic development of the characters, a more complex and richer musical framework, and, most important, a more prominent place for music.

Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The musical theater continued its progress toward modern opera by compounding new romantic elements with classical themes and devices while poets and musicians worked ever more closely and combined their skills in perfecting stagecraft and verse-harmony. Toward the second half of the seventeenth century, however, the creative impulses of melodramatic poets in Italy seemingly began to dry up, and the plots became increasingly complicated and full of eccentric and highly improbable situations. The exceedingly rhetorical declamations of actors added a further note of imbalance. The time was ripe for reform, and the Venetian Apostolo Zeno, for more than ten years “Poeta Cesareo” at the imperial court in Vienna, was the first playwright of note to attempt it.

To return Italian melodrama to its original dignity and simplicity, Zeno went back to classical subjects shorn of absurd mixtures of pagan and Christian elements and unnecessary musical “embellishments” or to historical themes carefully researched, with the word gradually regaining its place of preeminence. Noteworthy examples among Zeno’s production of more than sixty dramas are Ifigenia in Aulide (pr. 1718), Andromaca (pr. 1724), and Scipione nelle Spagne (pr. 1722). He introduced some technical innovations, such as the division between the recitativo and the aria, and also added the popular strofetta at the end of each scene. With Zeno, other consummate writers of melodramas and tragedies...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

The Venetian Theater and Goldoni

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

When Carlo Goldoni was born in 1707, the opera was securely established, the Neapolitan opera buffa had become to comedy what melodrama and opera were to tragedy, and the stock themes of the commedia dell’arte were still going strong. Unlike other European nations, however, and aside from some occasional academic dramatic pieces intended more for reading than for performing, Italy had fallen well behind in the production of a national repertoire of spoken drama.

Perhaps not entirely by chance, Goldoni was born in Venice, a city that in those years was still basking in the warm light of its splendid culture and the richness of its slowly diminishing power. Although almost everywhere in Europe, social and economic unrest loomed ominously over ancient governments, in its declining years, Venice still appeared as an oasis of refined tranquillity and aristocratic traditions, seemingly oblivious to all impending changes. Life—that of the old ruling aristocracy, that of the emerging bourgeoisie, and that of the common classes—was gaily lived, almost in a theatrical fashion, in the crowded piazzas and on the bridges delicately arching over the canals, against a backdrop of architectural ornaments and of gondolas slowly gliding over the green lagoon. It was a city at peace with itself, conscious of what was and had been, and enriched by the presence of many great artists such as Antonio Canaletto, Francesco Guardi, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Baldassare Galuppi, and Antonio Vivaldi. It was, above all, a city of a vivacious new middle class whose main aspiration was to inherit, in orderly fashion, the privileges and power previously enjoyed only by the nobility. Goldoni’s best theater reflected these aspirations and nodded understandingly at the changing order.

Goldoni’s dramatic output includes more than two hundred titles, a number of them produced in Paris, where he spent the last thirty years of his life and where he died. After some attempts, some of which were well received, in the tragic and melodramatic genre, Goldoni found his true inspiration in the writing of comedies, a genre in which he was to excel and which he restored to literary dignity. Goldoni’s crowning achievement, however, was to “reform” Italian comedy, which had become imprisoned by the passé and sterile stock formulas of the commedia dell’arte, by gradually introducing new realistic language, themes, and characters and by finally reclaiming for the playwright the traditional dominance...

(The entire section is 1029 words.)

The Pre-Romantic Tragedy

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The crisis of Italian tragedy, specifically of the tragedia erudita, continued in the second half of the eighteenth century despite the various attempts made to revive it. With the exception of the verse tragedy La Merope (pr. 1713; English translation, 1740), by Francesco Scipione Maffei, which was repeatedly performed and whose subject was later imitated by Voltaire and Vittorio Alfieri, the first half of the century had produced no serious drama of lasting significance. Minor tragedians had succeeded only in imitating the external aspects of the French classical theater, producing a congeries of redundant neoclassical pastiches, largely devoid of any artistic merit.

Consistent with their traditional...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

The Road to Alessandro Manzoni and the Risorgimento

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

At the end of the eighteenth century, the French troops of Napoleon invaded Italy, and the hopes of Italians for freedom from a foreign yoke and for political unity were shattered. It was inevitable that this bitter disappointment would be reflected in the works of the poets of the time and echoed in the plays written by the playwrights of the post-Alfierian generations.

Perhaps the most representative of the first generation of writers to be inspired by Alfieri was Vincenzo Monti, who had met Alfieri in Rome in 1781. In 1786, Monti’s first tragedy, Aristodemo (Aristodemus, 1809), which was deeply rooted in the classical tradition and whose protagonist, the king of Messena, showed flashes of a Shakespearean...

(The entire section is 1176 words.)

The Bourgeois Theater and Verismo

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The first attempts at a post-Risorgimento, socially oriented theater were largely devoid of profound political tensions or sentiments and were voiced by Achille Torelli . With I mariti (pr. 1867; the husbands), Torelli interpreted the desires of the emerging social class, the bourgeoisie, for a social order made of solid values and sane, middle-class moral principles. His somewhat less traditional technique and his fresh approach to new dramatic contents aroused enormous public interest and met with the approval of some of the most important critics of the time, including that of the aging Manzoni. Torelli, however, in his other works rarely achieved again the harmonious, realistic effects of I mariti, and he...

(The entire section is 1019 words.)

Twentieth Century Italian Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Drama in the last part of the nineteenth century in general set aside patriotic themes in favor of a more realistic depiction of Italian society and of the socioeconomic tendencies and implications that were then prevalent. Italian realism, or Verism, was receiving continuous support from the regional theater and from the dialect theater, which had become increasingly popular. Only the success of some of Gerolamo Rovetta’s idealist drama, with its classical and Romantic undertones, seemed to offer an alternative to the prevailing popularity of realistic theater. The playwright on whose shoulders fell the task of leading Italian theater in a new direction was the flamboyant and brilliant poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.


(The entire section is 1100 words.)

Contemporary Italian Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

After more than twenty years of Fascism, and in the aftermath of World War II, a curious yet understandable phenomenon took place. After years of censorship and cultural self-sufficiency, Italian producers begin to turn to the forbidden fruit of foreign scripts and ignored, for a while at least, Italian plays. Nevertheless, distinguished Italian dramatists, from Ugo Betti, Diego Fabbri, Eduardo De Filippo, and Dario Fo, undaunted, kept writing plays of significant social value and dramatic vigor. They had not forgotten Pirandello’s lesson, although now the emphasis was placed on an immediate and contingent moral, rather than philosophical level, be it of religious or historical and ideological nature.

Ugo Betti , a...

(The entire section is 1522 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Carlson, Marvin. The Italian Stage from Goldoni to D’Annunzio. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1981. A very thorough and useful account of the dramatic literature and production practices in Italy from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century.

Cope, Jackson I. Secret Sharers in Italian Comedy: From Machiavelli to Goldoni. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. Cope isolates particular comic qualities inherent in Italian comedies from the Renaissance through the eighteenth century.

Di Gaetani, John Louis. Carlo Gozzi: A Life in the Eighteenth Century Venetian Theater, an Afterlife in...

(The entire section is 238 words.)