Literary Criticism and Significance
While the play has gone in and out of favor in the more than two hundred years since it was written, its reputation grew considerably in the twentieth century. Arguably the most significant forces in its renewed reputation were Italian theatre director Giorgio Strehler and his company at the Piccolo Teatro di Milano. The play was part of the theater’s very first season and, over Strehler’s five-decade career and beyond, the play has been performed continually as part of the company’s repertory. What makes its longevity so significant is that Strehler repeatedly refashioned the production, retain ideas from previous iterations while simultaneously introducing new ideas. In addition to touring throughout Italy, the Piccolo company has toured throughout Europe and the United States.
As a result, Goldoni has earned the reputation of “Italy’s Shakespeare,” and The Servant of Two Masters is one of his key works. While this title might seem Anglo-centric, it does create the necessary parallel for Goldoni’s status. Furthermore, since the play developed of a commedia dell’arte scenario, it serves as a direct link between Italian improvisatory theatre and scripted drama. Many productions utilize the play as a vehicle for exploring performance techniques of the commedia dell’arte. In Strehler’s productions, as others, many of the actors wear masks and the actors perform extended bits of physical comedy called lazzi.
The strongest criticism of the play is that the plot is unnecessarily dense for a light comedy. Indeed, the first two scenes are two of the longest in the play and their function is almost entirely expository. Other critics also cite the play as a kind of ossified theatre, in which the goals of most productions are reconstructive, seeking to recreate old ideas rather than invent new ones. Such critics often point to the most famous scene in the play (in which Truffaldino attempts to serve a meal to both of his masters simultaneously) as an example of the play’s weakness. In their view, this superfluous scene exists purely for comic mugging and has little relationship to the story at hand.
Still, the impact of the play is undeniable. In the last fifty years, the play has been translated numerous times and has become a staple of regional professional theatre. Furthermore, its popularity has paved the way for the translation and production of other Goldoni works. In this way, Goldoni and The Servant of Two Masters have mutually cemented each other’s reputations in the theatrical canon.