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Written in the Spring of 2011 for a production of The Servant of Two Masters, directed by Chris Bayes. -DL

The commedia dell’arte all’improviso (“the comedy of the art of improvisation”) is a bastard form of art. It has no true father, since no one really knows when or how it began. And like a bastard, it can speak surprising truths to power without fear of reprimand. It is the drama of the little man, the servant of many masters who is the subject of none. Its topsy-turvy world of reversals and complications is carnivalesque in its implications, offering the promise of kingship for a day to the lowest of fools. From Harlequin to Pulcinella to Pierrot and Pantalone, its masks are eternal symbols of the human comedy. Like Beckett’s clowns waiting by the side of the road, they carry a surprisingly potent political charge, even as they embody the artifice of the theatre at its purest.

An intensely popular form of theatre, the commedia began in the town squares and street theatres of Italy, probably around 1520. By 1600, it was the theatrical lingua franca throughout Europe. Feted by kings, beloved by the masses, detested by moralists, the Italian commedians were the rock stars of their day. Theirs were the first professional acting troupes, and also the first to employ women. The golden age lasted until the end of the 18th century. For some reason, the commedia troupes never had the same kind of cultural currency after the French Revolution, a societal transformation they had in a large sense helped to create.

The basic plot of a commedia piece, such as Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, has infinite variations, but it is always the same archetypal structure. Let’s just say that two young and nubile naifs are kept apart by parental obstacles and are forced to rely on a servant, the real star of the show, most often a sublimely rude simpleton (in this case, Truffaldino, a cousin of Harlequin). Each night, a different variation of this scenario would be nailed to a wall backstage, outlining the basic premise and the order of scenes. The outline was a pretext, of course, for the most wild and unexpected kinds of improvisations. These improvs were drawn from a polyglot of sources—phrasebooks and almanacs, or simply the fertile minds and bodies of the actors in the troupe, who were responsible for their own lines and played the same role each night. Four of these traditional commedia masks have survived in Goldoni’s Servant—from Truffaldino and his friend, the wily scamp Brighella, to the miserly Venetian merchant Pantalone and his friend the Doctor, a quack from Bologna, known for garbling Latin phrases.

The most distinctive part of each commedia show is always the lazzi, distended comic set-pieces which often interrupt the narrative, like circus tricks or stand-up comedy routines. Lazzi vary from actor to actor, and they can range from surreal acrobatics to shows of cunning wit or grotesque slapstick. The best somehow manage to combine all three. Charlie Chaplin, whose lovable tramp was also a servant of many masters, was a virtuoso of the latter-day lazzi,  as when he ate his boiled shoe as an entire meal in The Gold Rush (1925). The lazzi could be vividly tragicomic, as in the case of Giorgio Strehler’s 1947 production of The Servant of Two Masters, in which the starving Truffaldino ate a loaf of bread and then swallowed a string in order to catch the food and yank it back out of his stomach.

Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, written in the mid-1700s, hails from the twilight of the commedia’s 200-year reign. Goldoni wrote the play for the Venetian Antonio Sacchi, the most famous Harlequin of his day. Drawing on centuries of tradition, the play is a tribute to the wealth of the commedia tradition and at the same time a bellwether of its end. Originally written as a scenario in 1744, Goldoni would rewrite the play in 1753 to bring it in line with his project of theatrical reform. By writing out each part, eliminating the most ribald jokes, and carefully structuring the play in three acts, Goldoni attempted to impose authorial control over the usually chaotic commedia proceedings. Ironically, the play has become Goldoni’s most popular work in the 20th century, precisely because it demands the balance between text and improvisation which he worked so hard to abolish.

Try as hard as he might, Goldoni was ultimately unable to suppress the socially revolutionary message inherent in the commedia dell’arte form. As a dynamic process rather than a scripted text, the commedia appears to us as a series of tricks and artifices, a puppet-show version of the world that nonetheless demands spontaneous participation on the part of both actors and audience. Despite its grotesqueries, its slapping sticks and waggling masks, the commedia has always offered audiences something infinitely more valuable than art. What it really offers is truth.