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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Cranston Lawton (1853–1941)

By Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793)

ITALY is generally felt to be, above all other lands, the natural home of the drama. In acting, as in music, indeed, the sceptre has never wholly passed from her: Ristori and Salvini certainly are not yet forgotten. The Græco-Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, the rhetorical tragedy of Seneca, have had a far more direct hand in molding the modern dramatists’ art than have the loftier creative masterpieces of the great Attic Four. Indeed, Latin has never become in Italy a really dead language, remote from the popular consciousness. The splendor of the Church ritual, the great mass of the educated clergy, the almost purely Latin roots of the vernacular, have made such a loss impossible.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Terence and Plautus were often revived on the stage, still oftener imitated in Latin. Many of the greatest names in modern Italian literature are in some degree associated with drama. Thus Machiavelli made free Italian versions from both the comic Latin poets, and wrote a powerful though immoral prose comedy, ‘The Magic Draught’ (Mandragola). Tasso’s ‘Aminta’ is as sweet and musical, and hardly so artificial, as that famous ‘Pastor Fido’ of Guarini, which has become the ideal type of all the mock-pastoral comedy out of which the modern opera has risen.

So, when Goldoni is hailed as the father of modern Italian comedy, it can only mean that his prolific Muse has dominated the stage in our own century and in its native land. In his delightfully naïve Memoirs he frequently announces himself as the leader of reform in the dramatic art. And this claim is better founded; though there is a startling discrepancy between the character, the temper, the life of this child of the sun, and the Anglo-Saxon ideal of “Man the Reformer” as delineated, for instance, by our own cooler-blooded Emerson!

Under the lead of Goldoni’s elder contemporary Metastasio, the lyrical drama of pastoral and artificial love had become fully wedded to music; and it is rightly felt that the resulting modern opera is a genus of its own, not essentially nor chiefly dramatic in character and aims. An opera can be sung without action; it cannot be acted without music. On the other hand, the farce had become almost restricted to the stock masked characters, Pantaloon, the Dottore, Arlecchino, and the rest, with a narrow range of childish buffoonery in the action. The companies of professional actors, endowed with that marvelous power of improvisation which the very language of Italy seems to stimulate, hardly permitted the poet to offer them more than a mere outline of a shallow plot, to be filled in from scene to scene at the impulse of the moment on the stage!

Under these circumstances it was indeed necessary to reclaim the rights of the dramatic poet, to reduce to decent limits the “gag” which the comic actor has doubtless always been eager to use, and also to educate or beguile his public up to the point of lending a moderately attentive ear to a play of sustained interest and culminating plot. In this seemingly modest but really most difficult task, Goldoni scored a decided success,—a triumph.

Even his checkered life as a whole was, at eighty, in his own retrospect a happy comedy, mingled with few serious reverses and hardly darkened at all by remorse. Such lives at best are nowise numerous. Adequate self-portraitures of successful artists are so rare that the autobiographies of the gentle Goldoni, and of his savage fellow-countryman Benvenuto Cellini, almost form a class of literature by themselves.

Born in Venice in fair social position, Goldoni spent his childhood chiefly in Chiozza, a ruder and humbler miniature of the island city some twenty-five miles away. Though an incurable wanderer,—indeed, so filled with the true Bohemian’s feverish love for change that he never could endure even success anywhere for many summers,—he yet gave more of his best years, and a heartier loyalty, to Venice than to any other home. He knew best, and delineated best, the ordinary life of the lagoons. Mr. Howells, himself by long residence and love a half-Venetian, declares that the comedies in the local dialect are invariably the best, and next best the Italian plays whose scenes are at least laid in Venice. Perhaps the critic is here himself unduly swayed by his affections. Goldoni knew well nearly all Italian lands. He had even, for a series of years, a career as an advocate in Pisa. “My comic genius was not extinguished, but suppressed,” he explains. He did not even then give up play-writing, and a traveling theatre manager easily beguiled him back to Venice. This was in 1747, and this same manager, Medebac, setting up a new theatre in Venice, absorbed Goldoni’s energies for several years. It was in 1750 that he successfully carried out a rash vow to produce sixteen new comedies in a single year! Among these are a goodly number of his best, including ‘The Coffee-House,’ from which a few scenes are given here.

Though he passed over into the service of a different theatre, traveled constantly with his actors, accepted invitations to Parma, Rome, etc., to oversee the performance of his plays, yet he never gave up his home in Venice altogether, until summoned to Paris in 1761. These fourteen years, moreover, form the happiest period of his life. His income from the theatres, from published editions of his comedies, and from his inherited property, would have made him wealthy, but for his extravagant and careless mode of life.

Despite one notable success in French with the comedy ‘The Surly Benefactor’ (1771), Goldoni’s life in France was relatively unprofitable and ignoble. He became Italian teacher of various royal princesses, with the utmost uncertainty and delay as to his salaries or pensions. Yet he could never break the fascination of Paris. The art of the French actors was a never-failing delight to him. There, at the age of eighty, in French, he wrote and published his ‘Memoirs.’ The Revolution swept away his negligent patrons. In poverty and utter neglect he died at last, just as the republicans were ready to restore his royal pension.

Goldoni was the child of Italy and of the eighteenth century. He had no serious quarrel with his environment. He was not greatly superior, in actual character or aspirations, to his associates. His affection for his devoted wife did not save him from many a wandering passion. The promising prima donnas, in particular, found in him an all too devoted instructor and protector. The gaming-table and the lottery are apparently irresistible to any true Italian, and Goldoni knew by heart the passions which he ridicules or condemns, though without bitterness, upon his stage. His oft-repeated claim to have reformed the Italian theatre meant chiefly this: that between the lyrical drama of Metastasio on the one hand, and the popular masque with stock characters on the other,—and while contributing to both these forms of art,—he did firmly establish the comedy of plot and dialogue, carefully learned and rehearsed, in which the players must speak the speech as it is pronounced to them by the poet.

Goldoni himself acknowledges, perhaps not too sincerely, in his Parisian memoirs, the superiority, the mastership, of Molière. In truth, the great Frenchman stands, with Aristophanes and Shakespeare, upon a lonely height quite unapproached by lesser devotees of Thalia. We must not seek in Goldoni a prober of the human heart, not even a fearless satirist of social conditions. In his rollicking good-humor and content with the world as he finds it, Goldoni is much like Plautus. He is moreover under a censorship hardly less severe. He dares not, for instance, introduce upon his stage any really offensive type of Venetian nobleman. As for religious dictation, the convent must not even be mentioned, though the aunt with whom the young lady is visiting sometimes becomes as transparent an idiom as the “uncle” of a spendthrift cockney! The audience, moreover, demand only diversion, not serious instruction (as Goethe complains, even of his grave Germans, in the ‘Prolog im Theater’). It is remarkable, under all these conditions, how healthy, how kindly, how proper, most of Goldoni’s work is. Doubtless, like Goldsmith, he could preach the more gracefully, persuasively, and unobservedly, because he never attempted to escape from the very vices or indulgences that he satirizes. But even the most determined seeker for the moral element in art will find little indeed thereof in Goldoni’s merry comedies. Incredible as it seems to us Puritans, he really made it his mission to amuse. Thoroughly in love with the rather ignoble, trivial life of his day, he holds the dramatic mirror up to it with lifelong optimism and enjoyment. His wit is not keen, his poetic imagination is slight indeed. Aside from the true dramatist’s skill in construction, in plot, his power lies chiefly in the rapid, clear, firm outlines of his character-drawing. These characters are for the most part just about such men and women, such creatures of impulse and whim, such genial mingling of naughtiness and good intentions, as we see about us. He never delineates a saint or a hero; hardly a monster of wickedness. He had never known either, and would not have been interested if he had. The charm of Goldoni is felt chiefly in Venice, or at least in Italy, while listening to his comedy and watching the enjoyment mirrored in the faces of his own audience. It evaporates in translation, and his plays are meant only to be heard, not read. To Mr. Howells’s own affectionate testimony we may add his happy citation from Goethe, who is writing from Venice in 1786:

  • “Yesterday, at the theatre of St. Luke, was performed ‘Le Baruffe-Chiozotte,’ which I should interpret ‘The Frays and Feuds of Chiozza.’ The dramatis personæ are principally seafaring people, inhabitants of Chiozza, with their wives, sisters, and daughters. The usual noisy demonstrations of such sort of people in their good or ill luck,—their dealings one with another, their vehemence but goodness of heart, commonplace remarks and unaffected manners, their naïve wit and humor,—all this was excellently imitated. The piece moreover is Goldoni’s, and as I had been only the day before in the place itself, and as the tones and manners of the sailors and people of the seaport still echoed in my ears and floated before my eyes, it delighted me very much; and although I did not understand a single allusion, I was nevertheless, on the whole, able to follow it pretty well…. I never witnessed anything like the noisy delight the people evinced at seeing themselves and their mates represented with such truth of nature. It was one continued laugh and tumultuous shout of exultation from beginning to end…. Great praise is due to the author, who out of nothing has here created the most amusing divertissement. However, he never could have done it with any other people than his own merry and light-hearted countrymen.”
  • Of Goldoni’s one hundred and sixty comedies, only a scanty handful have been tolerably translated in English. As accessible and agreeable an introduction as any, perhaps, is the version of four notable plays by Miss Helen Zimmern in the series ‘Masterpieces of Foreign Authors.’ The ‘Memoirs’ have been fairly rendered by John Black, and this version, considerably abridged, was served up by Mr. Howells in 1877 among his series of ‘Choice Autobiographies.’ Mr. Howells’s introductory essay appeared also in the Atlantic Monthly. It has been drawn upon somewhat in the present sketch.