Open main menu

CHAPTER XXII

THE COMEDY OF MASKS—THE OPERA—DRAMA OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

The eighteenth century, if chiefly remarkable in Italian literary history for the dawn of national regeneration, and the assimilation of literature to the type prevailing in other European countries, is also memorable as the period when Italian dramatists first acquired a European renown. This recognition may be considered to date from the production of Marquis Maffei's Merope in 1714, and from the summons of Apostolo Zeno to Vienna a few years afterwards. These two men represented, one, the classical tragedy, which, notwithstanding its conventional acceptance, has ever remained an exotic in Italy; the other, that special creation of Italian genius, the musical play or opera. Later in the century, Alfieri and Metastasio carried both forms nearer to perfection, and Goldoni gave his country a comedy at once brilliant and regular. Yet the genuine dramatic life of the nation is to be found in the commedia dell' arte, or Comedy of Masks, contemned by the learned, but dear to the people, which, except for a brief interval in the hands of Carlo Gozzi, failed to clothe itself with literary form, but has pervaded the theatres of Europe in the costume of harlequin, columbine, and pantaloon.

As the simplest, the commedia dell' arte is probably the oldest form of the drama. There can be no question that the Greek rustics who smeared their faces with wine-lees at the Dionysiac festivals, and from whose improvised songs and gestures Greek comedy was developed, virtually enacted the same parts as the Tuscan and Neapolitan peasants, who, inheriting this rude entertainment from Roman times, preserved it through the Middle Ages, until it assumed new importance in the general awakening of the sixteenth century. The original wine-lees gave place to masks, and as masks cannot be varied ad infiniium, the characters became limited to a few well-defined and salient types. Hence every piece had substantially the same personages; although the Italian comedy allows of numerous variations upon its four stock parts. This caused the dialogue to be mainly extemporaneous; and as comedy is more easily extemporised than tragedy, the pieces tended more and more towards farce. At the same time, "the fertility of fancy, quickness of intelligence, facility of utterance, command of language, and presence of mind," indispensable to a good impromptu comedian, bestowed a certain regularity upon the performance. The actor was obliged to observe the conditions imposed by the character he represented, conventional as this was: if he enacted Pantaloon, he must not comport himself as Brighella or the Doctor, and vice versâ. As in the Indian drama, the comic passages were usually in dialect; the serious, if any, in cultivated language. Despised as literature, these pieces attained great popularity even beyond the limits of Italy, especially in Paris, where they divided public favour with the national theatre for a hundred and fifty years. As, however, they were mainly improvised, and no care was taken of such parts as might chance to be written down, they have virtually perished. No literary relic of their palmy days seems to exist except the scenarios or skeleton plans of some of them, mere outlines to be filled up by the performers. Modern readers will hardly obtain a better idea of their spirit than from Vernon Lee's inimitable Prince of the Hundred Soups, a fantastic tale laid in the seventeenth century, the culminating period of these dramatic impromptus, towards the close of which they began to yield to the musical drama. Their capability of real dramatic excellence is revealed by two more recent developments—the improved Pulcinella farces of Francesco Gerlone, a Neapolitan tailor, who, in the later half of the eighteenth century, "lifted," says Scherillo, "Pulcinella from the crowd of masks, and made him the monarch of the popular theatre"; and the fairy dramas of Carlo Gozzi, a Venetian of the same period. Both usually wrote their plays out, or at least left comparatively little to the invention of the actors; but Cerlone composed entirely in the spirit of the commedia dell' arte. His Pulcinella is commonly a butt, designed to keep the audience throughout in a roar of laughter by his ridiculous adventures, an object most fully attained. Gozzi's pieces are of higher literary quality, and demand a more particular notice.

Carlo Gozzi (1720–1808), brother of Gaspare Gozzi, already mentioned, would merit an honourable place among Italian writers merely on the strength of his entertaining memoirs, translated by Symonds. His real significance in literary history, however, is confined to the four brilliant years in which he carried all before him on the Venetian stage by his fiabe or dramatised fairy tales, composed in the spirit of the commedia dell' arte, in so far that many of the characters belonged to the old conventional types, and that a portion of the action was highly farcical. These characteristics were nevertheless combined with a regular plot capable of exciting deep interest. The fiabe originated in a literary quarrel. Goldoni, the restorer of true comedy to Italy, had denounced the buffooneries of the old commedia dell' arte, and Gozzi, who had himself cultivated that form, and whose partiality for it was enhanced by a misunderstanding with Goldoni, determined to show its capabilities, and at the same time to ridicule his dramatic rivals, Goldoni and the Abate Chiari. To this end he hit upon the extremely happy idea of dramatising the fairy tales in Basile's Pentamerone, thus creating a form represented in English literature by the admirable burlesques of Planche, but with even more resemblance to an ancient form of which no complete example remains, the mythological parodies of the Attic Middle Comedy, which combined ridicule of the tragic poets with a regular plot derived from ancient tradition.

In the scenario of his Three Oranges, a play not preserved in its entirety, Gozzi has explained how he burlesqued his rivals, as, for instance, when the long journeys which Chiari's personages are supposed to perform within the compass of a single action are ridiculed by Tartaglia and Truffaldino being propelled two thousand leagues by the devil with a pair of bellows. ("They sprawled on the grass at the sudden cessation of the favouring gale.") The success of the Three Oranges was immense, and contributed to drive Goldoni from Venice. It was followed by a rapid succession of similar pieces, tending, however, to assume more of a literary character, and become more and more remote from the original type of the Comedy of Masks. This, if diminishing their value as illustrations of popular manners and sentiment, renders them more generally enjoyable; and they would have a wide European reputation were they not principally composed in the Venetian dialect. Turandot, in the translation, or rather imitation, of Schiller, is known wherever German literature extends; but the scarcely inferior merits of the Blue Monster, the Green Bird, and the like, have not in general induced foreigners to learn the Venetian patois.

Gozzi, in truth, just missed greatness; he had the artistic talent to work out a clever idea, but not the poetical fancy requisite to elevate this to a region of ideal beauty. As suggested by Symonds, his pieces would supply excellent material for operatic libretti. Tieck subsequently undertook the task with higher qualifications, but the favourable moment had gone by. Gozzi's plays are the true offspring of the national spirit, Tieck's merely importations. After four years of brilliant triumphs, Gozzi stopped short, fearing to fatigue the public taste, or conscious of having exhausted his vein. The remainder of his career as a dramatic author was chiefly occupied with adaptations from the Spanish.

While in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth century the Comedy of Masks was decaying, a new form of drama was silently growing up, the operatic, "a thing," says Vernon Lee, "born of scenic displays and concerts, moulded into a romantic, wholly original shape, by the requirements of scenery, music, and singing." Its character as a literary production is indicated by the fact that its proper title of melodrama has become synonymous with something quite different, the prose tragedy which aims at strong sensational situations; while melodramatic evokes no association with music.

The chief representatives of new literary forms are frequently heralded by precursors, who, if serving in some sense as foils to their genius, yet deprive them of the praise of absolute originality. What Phrynichus was to Æschylus, and Marlowe to Shakespeare, Apostolo Zeno (1668–1750), a Venetian of Caridiote extraction, was to Petro Metastasio. It was not Metastasio but Zeno who gave the musical drama literary rank, and proved that poets as well as musicians might make their reputations and their fortunes by it. Zeno produced his first serious attempt in musical drama in 1695, and long held the position of chief dramatic poet of Italy. After founding and for many years conducting the influential Giornale de' Letterati, he became court poet at Vienna in 1718, and eleven years afterwarrds, retired voluntarily in favour of the rising Metastasio, who completely eclipsed him on the stage, but could not deprive him of the honour of having first taught Italy how dramatic poetry of a high order might be associated with music. Zeno, moreover, was no mere playwright, but a good lyrical poet with a strong dramatic instinct, a scholar, moreover, and antiquary, and a renowned collector of medals. His last years were spent in honour and comfort at his native Venice. Ere his life terminated in 1750 the productiveness of his successor had almost dome to an end.

Metastasio's long prosperous life was not destitute of romance. The son (born 1698) of a petty Neapolitan druggist settled at Rome, he was adopted by the famous jurist and excellent dramatic critic Gravina, who had heard him singing in the street, for although at the time an inglorious, he was fortunately not a mute Milton. Victor Cousin was similarly snatched from the gutter, for different issues and from different motives. His sonorous appellative was the gift of his patron, Who Hellenised his protégé's original name of Trapasso, and left him a fortune. After wasting most of his benefactor's legacy, Metastasio articled himself to a Neapolitan lawyer named Castagnola, who received him on condition that he should not even read, much less write, a line of verse. This pledge Was broken by the composition in 1722 of the Gardens of the Hesperides, a little mask composed under compulsion from the Austrian viceroy. The secret of the authorship Was ferreted out by La Romanina, the celebrated cantatrice, who pounced upon Metastasio, bore him from Castagnola's house to her own, and made him a dramatic poet. She was a married woman much older than Metastasio, and there seems no suggestion that her affection was other than maternal. It ended, however, unhappily, perhaps tragically.

The immense success of his Didone Abbandonata, performed at Rome in 1723, and followed by a number of similar pieces, had made Metastasio the undisputed sovereign of the lyric stage, and in 1730 he was invited to Vienna to replace the veteran Zeno. He went. La Romanina wished to follow, but never did, and died very suddenly in 1734. Had Metastasio, now devoted to Countess Althan, to whom he is said to have been privately married, obstructed her journey? and was her death natural? There is nothing but surmise as to the precise nature of the case; but Vernon Lee's tragical summing-up is true as a statement of fact: "Thus ended the romance of Metastasio's life, and with it his youth, and soon after his hope and his genius." His Vienna period between 1730 and 1740 was artistically the most brilliant of his life, but he wrote little afterwards; though his dramas long monopolised the Italian lyric stage; and the decline of his productive power seems to have been chiefly owing to the untoward interruption to dramatic performances occasioned by the Austrian war of succession in 1740 and following years. When peace returned, Metastasio had become, nervous and hypochondriacal; he yet gained his culminating triumph with the Atilio Regolo in 1750, and the later half of his life, which ended in 1782, was embellished by his friendship with the Italian singer-statesman, Farinelli. Metastasio was selfish, but not cold-hearted; he pined for affection, but shrank from self-sacrifice, and his self-regarding instinct was not ennobled by devotion to any of the causes or pursuits which inspired Goethe. Yet he was a connoisseur in virtue, and his dramas represent her in some of her most attractive shapes. He saw forty editions of his works in his own library; he had not only accumulated but had refused distinctions; if he could feel free from blame towards La Romanina, there was nothing with which he needed to reproach himself. His life had been a continual triumph; no wonder if he had become weary of it at last.

Operatic success requires two endowments rarely united in the same person, the ingenuity pf a playwright and the melody of a nightingale. Both these are combined in Metastasio; he is a very Scribe for briskness, deftness, and clever contrivance of plot; ere he had become nervous and depressed, his Neapolitan brain seethed at a dramatic situation; his Achille in Sciro, one of the best of his pieces, was written, provided with music and scenery, and thoroughly organised for representation, within eighteen days. Other Italian librettists may have rivalled him in tunefulness or in the faculty of dramatic construction, none in both these respects, and none have been able to impart the like literary quality to their compositions; partly because he possessed and they lacked the indescribable something that makes the poet; partly because the sentiment which with them is merely theatrical, is with him sincere.

The general inferiority of operatic libretti has occasioned the musical drama to be despised as a branch of literature; although, to say nothing of the recent achievements of Richard Wagner, the Euripidean play, with its frequent predominance of solos over choral parts, approximated to the modern opera. It is no doubt true that the first requisite is that the words should be a vehicle for the music, and that, supposing this object attained, it is feasible to dispense with poetry. It follows that poetry usually is dispensed with, and that the only literary gift deemed absolutely indispensable for opera is that of dramatic construction. It is the great distinction of Metastasio to have been at the same time a consummate playwright and a true lyrical poet. Other great playwrights have been great poets in blank verse; but, at any rate for the first half of his life, Metastasio's bosom was as affluent a storehouse of melody as Rückert's; to sing was for him as easy as to speak. He was constrained to submit himself to the laws of the opera, inexorable because founded upon the reason of things. As an opera can be nothing without a cantatrice, it follows that it must turn chiefly upon the passion of love; as the principal performers' throats will not bear a perpetual strain, they must necessarily be sometimes relieved by inferior executants; hence the necessity of an underplot, and of constructive ability to interweave this with the main action. As the musical drama is not, after all, natural, the audience's attention must be kept occupied by continual action and bustle; as the singer must leave the stage at his best, the recitative must be followed by an air. Such tags must be judged simply with reference to the musical effect, which with Metastasio was always very great. On the whole, few writers have adapted means to ends more successfully than he has done, or have more completely solved the problem of investing the amusement of the moment with abiding literary worth.

The most celebrated of Metastasio's lyrical dramas are perhaps the Olimpiade, the Achille in Sciro, the Clemenza di Tito, and the Atilio Rezolo. The Artaserse, the Temistocle, the Zenobia, have also a high reputation, and in truth the intervals of merit among his pieces are not very wide. The operatic dramatist is released from many of the obligations which press most heavily upon the tragic or comic poet; he is at liberty to mingle the manners and ideas of different ages and nations as much as he pleases; no great profundity of psychological analysis can be expected from him, for if he possessed this gift the conditions of his field of art would debar him from manifesting it. It is enough if his subject is interesting, his action lively and well combined, and his melody copious and spontaneous. Metastasio selected his themes with consummate judgment, and showed a Scribe-like power of devising bustling action and sudden surprises, while his tunefulness is remarkable even for an Italian poeu His pieces would have enthralled audiences even without literary charm. That they retain their place in the library after their disappearance from the stage proves him a poet as well as a dramatisp His oratorios resemble his secular pieces, but are less interesting. His cantatas have the air of loppings from his dramas. The chief merit of his other lyrical compositions is their inexhaustible melody.

The vogue of the lyrical drama under Zeno and Metastasio was not favourable to the more legitimate forms of the arr. "Ce beau monstre," said Voltaire, "étouffe Melpomène." If so, the Italian drama was stifled, like Desdemona, in her sleep. The extravagance of the first half of the seventeenth century had been succeeded by the torpor of the second, and nothing really good had been produced in either. It was not until 1713 that a tragedy appeared which deserved and obtained a European reputation. This was the Merope of Marquis Scipione Maffei, whose principal work, his Verona Illustrata, has already been mentioned, and who, besides many other claims to distinction, gained an honourable fame as a natural philosopher, as the critical historian of chivalric orders, and as the denouncer of duelling. A man of this stamp, however gifted, was not likely to be richly endowed with the poetical temperament; and Maffei's Merope shares the almost universal fault of modern tragedies on classical subjects, it is essentially a work of reflection. It was composed with the deliberate purpose of retrieving the Italian drama from its degraded condition, and was the result of conversations with the actor Riccoboni, author of an esteemed work on the Italian stage, who lamented that the theatre of his own country afforded him no fine parts. The want was well supplied by Merope, the plot being highly dramatic, and the treatment, in the opinion of Matthew Arnold, more poetical than that of either of Maffei's successors, Voltaire and Alfieri.

Maflfei nevertheless was to yield to one of the most extraordinary men that Italy ever produced, one brought up under so many disadvantages that it might seem impossible that he should occupy a high place in the literature of his country, and who nevertheless, by the mere force of will and character, has fought his way to almost the highest in his own field. It must be added that although Count Vittorio Alfieri (1749–1803) might probably have been eminent as an historian or a political writer, tragedy and satire were the only departments of poetry in which it seems possible that he should have excelled. This is as much as to say that he was by nature little of a poet. He was also little of an Italian, being by birth a Piedmontese, a people whom the Italians of that day regarded, from an ethnographical point of view, much as the Greeks of Philip's day regarded the Macedonians, and who were in truth destined to work out the parallel by subduing the rest of the peninsula, though with very different aims and to very different results. Alfieri was indeed more like an Englishman than an Italian, and might well have sat as a model to some delineator of the haughty, eccentric, whimsical, misanthropic, hopelessly perverse, but on occasion extravagantly generous being who is still accepted on the Continent as the embodiment of British national character. He did, in fact, belong to a type more common in England than elsewhere, the patrician republican of the mould of Algernon Sidney or Savage Landor, animated by an unaffected passion for liberty, and yet arrogant, exacting, domineering; fired by a disinterested love of man, and always quarrelling with men.

Alfieri fortunately felt moved to write his Autobiography, work of intense interest, and perhaps the most thoroughly sincere among celebrated books of its order of literature. It depicts a man continually under the influence of pride and discontent, but whom pride and discontent stimulate to lofty endeavour and noble actions. Vivid indeed is the picture of his self-contempt for his wasted youth and his ignorance of his own language, the speech of Piedmont being then the worst of all provincial jargons. Most interesting is the detail of his self-education, both in purity of diction and in the dramatic art. This psychological interest is relieved and enhanced by the detail of his numerous adventures, his extensive travels, and his love affairs, three of which were memorable. In London, in 1772, he fought, by the last rays of the setting sun, unattended by seconds, a duel with the injured husband of Lady Ligonier, and wounded in the right arm, was immediately afterwards back in the theatre out of which he had been summoned to the fray. His Milan adventure, if less romantic, was more whimsical: convinced of the unworthiness of his siren, he imitated Ulysses by compelling his servant to bind him to his chair until the craving for her company had passed away.

Alfieri's third escapade of the kind is world-famous, his rescue of Louise von Stolberg, Countess of Albany, from the drunken husband who habitually maltreated her, and who, one blushes to record, was no other than Charles Edward Stuart, the chivalrous and adventurous Young Pretender of a former generation. Alfieri's attachment to the Countess was undoubtedly deep and permanent, and although she seems to have forgotten him after his death, she felt for him when he was the only resource she had in the world. The intimacy might long have remained Platonic but for the extreme brutality of Charles Edward, which compelled the Countess to escape by Alfieri's contrivance to a convent where she saw neither her husband nor her lover. After a while the Cardinal of York, the Pretender's brother, offered her an asylum in a Roman palace, where her acquaintance with Alfieri became more intimate. Afterwards, legally separated by the interposition of the King of Sweden, she withdrew to Alsace, where Alfieri followed her. They eventually established themselves in Paris, and the death of Charles Edward made no change in their existence. Louise, though apparently not a warm-hearted, was a highly intellectual woman; half French, half German, she possessed a range of knowledge and accomplishment which Alfieri could hardly have found in any Italian woman at that date, and her sympathy, without doubt, contributed greatly to the development of his genius. Driven from France by the storms of the Revolution, which he had at first hailed with a warmth which he afterwards repented, Alfieri settled with his mistress at Florence. There he wrote the Misogallo, a furious denunciation of France, and exhausted by hard study and an ascetic life, died in October 1803, as, with an unconscious touch of irony, he was compelling himself to write comedies. There seems no ground for believing that he was privately married to the Countess, who honoured him with a monument beautifully sculptured by Canova. If, however, the mourning figure by the tomb represents the bereaved one, she has taken the lion's share, Alfieri appearing merely as a medallion head in profile. Room should have been found for a bust at least, for whimsical, saturnine, arrogant as he was, he possessed not only a head but a heart. Scornful of superstition, he was endowed with deep religious feeling, and the defects of his harsh, angular character were at all events remote from those national failings which had chiefly contributed to the ruin of Italy.

It is remarkable indeed that a Piedmontese, who had to teach himself classical Italian with infinite labour, and whose character possessed few distinctively national traits, should have been the reviver of the national spirit in Italy. This Alfieri unquestionably was. He had what is so deplorably wanting among the gifted men of the golden age of Italian literature, a passion for freedom and a hatred of tyranny, which impart to his works, however remote in subject from modern times, the air of indignant protests against the subjection and degradation of his country. This feeling, as well as the haughty and self-sufficing independence of his character, brings him very near to the stoical Romans of the age of Nero, whose literary productions he approaches by his declamatory eloquence, his defective feeling for nature, and the generally studied and laboured character of his poetry. Had Seneca possessed the leading requisites of a tragic poet, he would have been a kind of Roman Alfieri. Comparing Alfieri's tragedy with the modern form of the art which owes most to Seneca, the French drama of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we are sensible of a great advance; not that Alfieri is comparable as a poet or a stylist to Corneille or Racine, but that his dramatic economy is improved by the suppression of much conventional machinery, and the subordination of amorous gallantry to more dignified and serious emotion.

The strongest family likeness prevails among Alfieri's tragedies. "He is," says Arnold, "a noble-minded, deeply-interesting man, but a monotonous poet." The quality of "narrow elevation" which Arnold finds in Alfieri is indeed most apparent throughout all his plays; but they are not, like so many productions of the classical school, tame and frigid from pedantic over-correctness, nor are they untrue to nature through servile adherence to tradition and convention. Their dignity and nobility of feeling inspire deep respect; the author is evidently akin to the heroes he depicts, and in their place would have been capable of their actions. His genius did not lead him to the imitation of the Greeks; his plays are rather such as a Roman poet might have produced if he could have more completely emancipated himself from Greek models. He aimed at nervous conciseness and attained it. The eloquence which he acquired by a Demosthenic severity of study may be fitter for the forum than the stage, but rarely degenerates into mere rhetoric. His theme is always some grand action derived from history or mythology. His predilection is rather for the heroes of liberty, like Timoleon or the Brutuses. Saul, however, is probably his most successful play upon the whole, though Myrrha may produce the greatest effect when an actress can be found competent for so exceptional a part. Philip the Second inspired Schiller's Don Carlos. Antigone, Orestes, and the Conspiracy of the Pazzi may also be named among Alfieri's most successful pieces.

Alfieri's prose-writings possess no great value, except the Autobiography, which is invaluable alike from the interest of the character depicted and of the events narrated, and from its transparent candour. As a rule, the only quite trustworthy autobiographic delineations are the unconscious ones. Pepys has undoubtedly portrayed himself just as he was, but it is equally certain that he had no intention of doing so. Alfieri may or may not have depicted himself as he was, although the portrait is perfectly in harmony with the impression derived from his writings. But he has unquestionably depicted himself as he appeared to himself, and more could not be expected. Alfieri's minor poems display the "narrow elevation" ascribed by Matthew Arnold to his tragedies. He has little music, fancy, or variety, but expresses strong feeling with unusual energy, especially when moved to wrath:

"Was Angela born here? and he who wove
Love's charm with sorcery of Tuscan tongue
Indissolubly blent? and he whose song
Laid bare the world below to world above?
And he who from his lowly valley clove
The azure height and trod the stars among?
And he whose searching mind the monarch's wrong
Fount of the people's misery did prove?
Yea, these had birth when men might uncontrolled
Speak, recad, write, reason with impunity;
Not from the chair was cowardice extolled;
Not for free thinking would indictment lie;
Nor did the city in her Book of Gold
Inscribe the name and office of the spy."

If Alfieri was a manifest child of Melpomene, the third great dramatic writer of the age bore the impress of Thalia with no less distinctness. Carlo Goldoni's memoirs paint with the utmost liveliness the born comedian, careless, light-hearted, proof by a happy temperament against all strokes of Fate, yet thoroughly respectable and honourable. Such characters abound in Italy, and wonderful it is that only one member of so observant and lively a race should have won an European reputation as a comic author. Tragedy has in some measure flourished since the death of Alfieri, but Goldoni still stands alone. The absence of any predecessor is explicable from the circumstances enumerated at the beginning of this chapter: the national style of comedy was not literary, and no literary reputation could be built upon or out of it; while those who followed a different path produced simply academic work devoid of all vitality. Goldoni broke the spell; and gave Italy a classical form of comedy which has not indeed remained uncultivated, but has never since his time been cultivated by a master. He was born at Venice in 1707, and was the son of a physician. His dramatic tastes were inherited from his grandfather, a Modenese, and all the endeavours of his parents to direct his activity into other channels came to nothing. He was indeed educated for a lawyer, graduated, held at different times a secretaryship and a councillorship, seemed to have settled steadily down to the practice of law, when an unexpected invitation carried him off to Venice, and for years he did nothing but manage theatres and write plays, directing all his energies to supersede the national Comedy of Masks, and comedies of intrigue dependent upon intricacy of plot, by representations of actual life and manners. Many of his best plays were written in the Venetian dialect. At length (1761) umbrage, as was thought, at the vogue of Gozzi's fairy dramas induced Goldoni to accept a royal invitation to Paris, where he spent the remainder of his life composing plays in French, and writing his memoirs in the same language. He survived the downfall of the monarchy, and died in 1793, just as the pension of which he had been deprived was about to be restored to him. The first half of his life had been full of vicissitudes and entertaining adventures, agreeably recounted in his memoirs.

The future master of comedy commenced his dramatic career with a melodrama, Amalasunta, which he burned, and followed this up with another, of whose success he afterwards professed himself ashamed. He was not long, nevertheless, in discovering his proper vocation; he inwardly, and from his point of view rightly—for he could never have been a Gozzi—declared war against the popular Comedy of Masks, and when a piece of his succeeded, whispered to himself, "Good, but not yet Molière." The great Frenchman was the object of his idolatry, and justly, for not only was Moliere the true monarch of the comic stage, but his period was neither too near nor too remote, and his world neither too like nor unlike Goldoni's, for successful imitation. By 1753 Goldoni's apprenticeship was over, and none but literary enemies contested his title of the Italian Molière, a title confirmed by the suffrage of posterity. Un Curioso Accidente, Il Vero Amico, La Bottega del Caffè, La Locandiera, and many other comedies that might be named, while true to the manners of a past age, retain all their freshness in our own. Italian audiences yet take delight in his pictures of their ancestors. "One of the best theatres in Venice," says Symonds, "is called by his name. His house is pointed out by gondoliers to tourists. His statue stands almost within sight of the Rialto. His comedies are repeatedly given by companies of celebrated actors." Yet as Cæsar called Terence a halved Menander, so we may term Goldgni a halved Molière. The Menandrine element in Molière is present with him; the Aristophanic is missing. Goldoni wants the French writer's overpowering vis comica, and is happier in "catching the manners living as they rise" than in laying bare the depths of the heart. Wit, gaiety, 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 eighteenth century had thus endowed Italy with dramatic poets of European reputation, worthy to be inscribed on the same roll as Racine and Molière. All the varied dramatic activity of the Cinque Cento, Machiavelli's Mandragola and the two great pastoral dramas excepted, belonging essentially to a lower sphere, fails to counterweigh the masterpieces of Alfieri and Goldoni. Even their achievement, nevertheless, did not amount to the creation of a national drama. If tragedy and comedy can be said to have taken root at all, the latter degenerated, while the former put forth only Sparse and occasional flowers. Alfieri's best plays continue stock-pieces to this extent, that they are revived as offering the most suitable opportunities for the display of the brilliant histrionic genius which from time to time irradiates the Italian stage. A succession of gifted men—Monti, Foscolo, Manzoni, Pellico, Niccolini, Cossa—have continued the tradition, and on the whole the state of tragedy seems much the same in Italy as in England. Comedy, on the other hand, notwithstanding some encouraging signs of revival, is far from vigorous, and the melodrama which occupies the stage is devoid of literary pretensions. Under these discouraging circumstances it is not perhaps very extraordinary, though assuredly it is very amusing, that the Italian literati of the present day, as reported by their interviewer-general, Signor Ojetti, should gravely pronounce the drama which they cannot write a rudimentary and superannuated form of art in comparison with the novel which they can—ein ueberwundener Standpunkt, as would be said in Germany. The idea of modern romancers transcending the art of Shakespeare and Sophocles is delightful from its modesty; but it must be evident that the short story alone can rival the artistic finish of a perfect drama, for every romance on a large scale must necessarily be eked out by descriptions, reflections, and episodes unessential to the main action.

The cause of the failure of the drama to establish itself in the land of opera is certainly not to be found in any preference on the part of the public for the tedious psychological analysis of the modern school of fiction over the rapidity and variety of the stage, but rather in some deep-seated trait of the national character. This is most probably the prevailing sensuousness of the people—a term not here used in any disparaging sense, but as expressing the national preference for the eye to the ear. Segnius irritant, as an ancient. Italian has it. The shows of the Rappresentazioni were undoubtedly more attractive to the Florentine public than the verses which expounded them; and we have seen that magnificent scenic equipments were needed to bring the people to share the dramatic amusements of the courts of the sixteenth century. This tendency would probably be found to be inveterate, and to date from the period when the Atellan farces of Latium prefigured the Commedia dell' Arte. It was not mere love of bloodshed that made gladiatorial shows popular at Rome. Professor Mahaffy remarks that while the refinement of Terence's translations from the Greek in comparison with Plautus attests the improvement of the taste of the Roman aristocracy, "this brilliant success was not popular with the masses, and led to no further attempts in the same direction."


This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.