Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters

If I were to stage Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters:

Throughout the course and development of theatre, directors have taken the liberty of adapting plays to fit their own time and environment. I firmly feel that this is not the way to approach a play and that when taken out of its historical context; the play does not fulfill the historical expectations with which it was written. When a playwright puts the pen to the paper, he does so with the unconscious ideals of his time working to help write the story. Through the use of costume elements, set design and acting technique, the performance of a Servant of Two Masters, by Carlo Goldoni, should remain as true to the performances of the 1700s as is contextually possible. To experience an authentically performed Commedia Dell’ Arte play is a truly unique affair.  Heinz Riedt, author of Carlo Goldoni, states that Goldoni’s purpose in writing this show is simply, “…for the timeless spell of theatre, for the joy of acting, for people’s amusement” (48). For this purpose should the show be performed; for the amusement of the present day audience.

When it comes to the staging of the production, a proscenium like space is desired. Riedt claims that when Commedia was first blossoming that the, “… the occasional loan from Terence was thrown in” (14). I discovered that the Terence stage affected must of the staging held throughout the sixteenth to eighteenth century. When if comes to the design of this production, the ideas of an A. M. Nagler should be implemented. In his article, Sixteenth-Century Continental Stage, Nagler describes the stage as, “… a defiantly localized play: its platform representing a street outside certain adjourning houses. It is a stage adjusted for off-stage action, as the characters always leave [for unseen places.] Finally: it is a stage that does not encourage the acting of interior scenes” (361). If the budget that is implemented is limitless, so shall the set be. There will be a three-fold set with a straight back and slightly inclining sides to create depth to the space. In the time of Goldoni, Riedt asserts that sets which displayed an outside court or gathering area were favored (54). This idea will be expanded to create individual segments for the different places attended throughout the play.  The left side of the set will display an Italian manor with romantic curling vines that creep up to a second story veranda were Pantalone will meet Beatrice and Truffaldino for the first time (Goldoni Act I). Underneath the porch will be an imitation of a garden where Silvio and Beatrice will duel (Goldoni Act II Scene I).

The right side will show Brighella’s inn. It will be a two-story structure with two doors leading to two different rooms on both levels. These will come in handy when Truffaldino struggles to serve both masters at dinner (Goldoni Act II Scene II) and again on the second story when he is torn between the two Masters’s rooms (Goldoni Act III Scene I).

The middle space will convey an Italian marketplace of the time. There will be a perspectival painting of a street vanishing into the distance with indications of life conveyed through the painting of shops, people’s houses and hanging laundry draped between the balconies. This painting will create depth and bring a sense of realism to contrast the slightly exaggerated acting. These elements combined harken back to the sets used during the sixteen and eighteenth century, which is when the play was written and initially performed. Unfortunately there are no direct references or proof on how Goldoni staged his production, however, based on the historically described sets, one can guess which concepts he might have used.

In order to correctly direct in the Commedia Dell’ Arte style, it is beneficial to understand the components that make up the general characteristics of a performance. Therefore it is quite important to examine each portion that makes up the whole. K.M Lea, author of Italian Popular Comedy, states that Commedia Dell’ Arte is essentially made up of improvisation, the recurrence of historically defined characters and the use of masks in the performance (3). Therefore these issues will be addressed to provide the audience with a genuine experience.

When researching Commedia Dell’ Arte one is bombarded with the mention of improvisation. This component is vital when a director is considering how to approach the direction style and how much freedom one wants to allow the actors. Although Goldoni took a step away from improvisation, there are still occurrences of it in a few of his works. Winifred Smith, the author of The Commedia Dell’Arte, states that Goldoni outlined the, “…plot with all but one role left to improvisation and that one, the principal, written out in full” (73). Therefore the part of Truffaldino, as the main character in the story, would have completely come from Goldoni and not from the improvised ideas of the actor. Given that there were a few roles left to improvisation, it is essential to study how one of the period may have approached the style. According to Richard Andrews, author of Scripts and Scenarios, at the beginning of Commedia Dell’ Arte, the actors would have a basic plot and then draw from their, “… mental catalogue of material…” (181) and fill in the rest of a script. Joseph Spencer Kennard takes this idea a step further in his book, Goldoni and the Venice of his Time, with a statement that implies that the troupe, directors and producers included, would come together and form the story from their minds and with the piecing together of other scripts. He then states that the actor would then turn to his zibaldone. This book is,

…a memorandum book containing the long-winded speeches or the short sallies

that suited his habitual character, strange collections of sayings, proverbs,

snatches of song, quotations from all sorts of books, that were handed down from

one actor to another, always amplified with newly collected material. (34).

The use of such a book is a good way to unify the actors and to additionally force them to focus on this advanced form of characterization. Even though the script for the show is already written and would not be vastly altered, I would allow the actors to throw in little tid-bits where they appropriately fit. This would add to the entertainment of the audience, and to those involved, if the actors had to freedom to explore and insert modern day idioms into suitable situations.

During Goldoni’s reformation of the Commedia Dell’ Arte style, one component that he altered was the use of masked characters. Throughout the course of his playwriting, he did eventually throw all the basic principles of the masked characters and ideals out the window. However, in the beginning of his restructuring, he did not utterly do away with the conventions. He knew that this idea, since the characters are so familiar to the audience, would take time to grow on the audience and the actors; therefore he took his time with this alteration. Smith states that Goldoni kept the main ideals behind the mask, such as the recognition of the characters personality (73).

The study and use of the particular characteristics of stock characters would be implemented. Riedt states that, “…each masked figure had to comply with the strict register of gestures that tradition had cut out for it” (49). Such gestures include those made with arms, legs, had and torso in addition to specific speech patterns used. He continues to state that the actors from the Goldoni days would have gone to a school to be rigorously trained to perform the specific movements. The role of Brighella or Arlecchino would not have been attempted without an acute knowledge of the specific movements needed for either role (49).  In order to keep with traditions sake and to ensure the exact replica of the performances made in the 1700, the actors in this production would attend the same classes based on movement and vocalization. However, this is only the beginning. While Goldoni didn’t completely leave off the historical stock characters, he didn’t leave them unaltered. In his book The Comic Mask in the Commedia Dell’ Arte, Antonio Fava states that Goldoni takes the traditional characterization of the ‘masks’ and develops their character, using the pre-existing traits, into a realistic being. He continues by asserting that Goldoni would pick out, “… in each person that detail, habit, defect, or good quality, and also that person’s particular way of carrying [these traits], which distinguishes every human from all the others, original and unrepeatable” (32). Therefore, while seriously considering the historical aspect of the ‘mask’, the actors must also inject a sense of believable realism to their character. This could be seen specifically in the character of Truffaldino. Although the character is a farcical person with crazy movement, he is also used to convey certain aspects of the average hungry man from the time period. This actor would need to take these ideals seriously and convey them is a way that balances between funny and woeful.

The movement of the actor is based on the character he or she plays. Lea states that the actors should not take pains to, “… show the development of individual characteristic, but depend for their success upon their immediate recognition as types” (17). Therefore the action of the actor should be exaggerated and highly stylized. To portray how the depth of the study of the character’s traits, an examination of the Zanni, or Truffaldino in the Servant of Two Masters, take place. Fava states that the Zanni character was portrayed as in a state of permanent urgency. Fava goes on to claim that,

This condition is present in his every gesture, pose, action, or movement

of stillness. Zanni’s body follows a broken line along a vertical axis: chest

out; gluteus out; lumbar vertebrae strongly arched; weight always on one leg

bent at the knee, while the other is extended; the arms and hands are “ready”.

His outline is silhouette would be perfectly defined in all its parts; the head,

hyperactive, always checking everybody and everything; he aims when he

looks and launches when he points: his long pointed nose is a periscope, a

camera eye, a gunsight, a cannon (154-155).

An actor must be prepared with all the information essential to portray the character to this extent. He or she must be limber and physically fit in order to perform the necessary exaggerated movements.

In addition to the strict guidelines of the movements, the character could not take shape without the existence of their faces. Although Goldoni did not approve of the use of masks on the stage and felt that the actor, “… evaded their responsibilities of expression by hiding behind masks…” (Smith 72) the concept was an essential element of the theatre of the time and therefore will be implemented in this production. In his article, Commedia and the Actor, Carlo Mazzone-Clementi indicates that the mask was a contrasting piece of art. Staying true to the times, the masks would be constructed from leather which allows the mask to be, “…light and flexible, permitting rolls, tumbles and displays of skill limited only by the   capabilities of the actor wearing it. The choice of leather (animal skin) has a psycho-physical effect, [which is] understood when one has compared [it] to one made of wood, paper, or plastic” (Mazzone 60). Mazzone-Clementi indicates that the mask was made to cover the upper portion of the face with exaggerated expressions and features molded into the formation of the mask. He continues with, “…The immobile upper half is in counterpoint with the mobile lower jaw of the actor, which somehow becomes an ex- tension of the mask itself” (60). The type of character, akin to the movement, determined the shape and look of the mask. Each had their own significant features that would aid with the issue of immediate recognition. For example, Brighella’s character is usually portrayed as having unnaturally circular eyes, huge arching eyebrows, overstated whiskers and a bulging bulbous nose which creates an overly hilarious face (Fava, Pictorial). These characteristics aided the actor in achieving the over character he wanted to depict and bring an exaggerated sense of existence to the face of this larger than life character.

Commedia Dell’ Arte is a complex but historically viable style to portray. It is essential to hold onto the styles of our past in order to pay respect to art forms that are ancestrally linked to modern techniques. Commedia Dell’ Arte brings together complex sets, absurd movement, exaggerated masks and traditionally defined and loved characters. With this production and the use of all these elements, an art form that is both challenging and endearing is created and laughed at through the centuries.

-Miranda Rawson


  1. Andrews, Richard. Scripts and Scenarios: The Performance of Comedy in Renaissance Italy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.181.
  2. Fava, Antonio. The Comic Mask in the Commedia Dell’ Arte Dell’ Arte. Illinois: North West University Press, 2007. 32-155.
  3. Goldoni, Carlo. Servant of Two Masters and Other Italian Classics. New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1986. 81-169.
  4. Kennard, Joseph. Goldoni and the Venice of his Time. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920. 34.
  5. Lea, K.M. Italian Popular Comedy: The Study of Commedia Dell’ Arte Dell’ Arte. Vol 1. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1934.3-17.
  6. Mazzone-Clementi, Carlo. “Commedia Dell’ Arte and the Actor.” The Drama Review 18.1 (1974): 60.
  7. Nagler, A.M. “Sixteenth-Century Continental Stages.” Shakespeare Quarterly 5.4 (1954): 361.
  8. Riedt, Heinz. Carlo Goldoni. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing CO, 1974. 14-54.
  9. Smith, Winifred. The Commedia Dell’ Arte. New York: Benjamin Bloom, 1964. 73.

FEATURE IMAGE SOURCE: By Trestle Theatre Company (Trestle Theatre Company’s archives) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons