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FOR Italy, as for other sections of Europe, the seventeenth century was a period of political and military strife, with the art of the stage in a precarious condition. By the beginning of the eighteenth century the commedia dell' arte, or improvised comedy, had begun to decline. The stock types represented by the masks and the conventional comic situations, however, continued to hold the stage. So firmly were they entrenched in the popular favor that talented new writers could but with difficulty dislodge them. The low farcical entertainments constituted the most disreputable rival to regular comedy; but the new art of opera, which had developed with surprising rapidity, was the most powerful rival of all.

Regular comedy in Italy was apparently about to expire when Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) appeared to bring it back to life. He was a native of Venice, and began his career by writing opera librettos. Gaining in experience and in technical skill, he cautiously attempted to replace the empty and pornographic entertainments, which too often passed for comic drama, by plays of innocent action representing contemporary events and characters. One hundred and sixty comedies remain from his pen, twenty of which are in verse, the remainder in prose, either of the Venetian dialect or the national language. He is said to have written as many as sixteen pieces in one year. His invention was remarkably fertile, and his sense of comedy sprang from his understanding of the human emotions, as real comedy always does. He was not profound, but he was charming, witty, true to nature, with buoyant spirits and an inexhaustible humor.

Another attempt at the purification of the stage was made on quite a different principle by Carlo Gozzi (1722-1806), who introduced the fantastic and remote. He dramatized the familiar fairy tales, such as Bluebeard and The Sleeping Beauty, provided them with magnificent settings, and gave them to the public with considerable pomp and ceremony. Gozzi disliked the bourgeois style and parodied the comedies of Goldoni.

The writers of tragedy continued to treat the well known plots in the same old way, growing more and more stale with each repetition. Near the end of the seventeenth century the Academy of Arcadians had been instituted in Rome. This organization attempted to inject new life into tragedy, to broaden the field, and to abolish the old-time stage trappings. Among the few names which deserve to be remembered is that of Scipione Maffei (1675-1775), who possessed undisputed talent combined with sincere feeling. His tragedy Merope (1713) not only won great success, but aroused the admiration of Voltaire, and inspired the English John Hume with the idea of Douglas. It is the last good play of the older Italian school. Metastasio (1698-1782) was educated as a musician under the Neapolitan composer Porpora, but won fame through his librettos. The earliest of these, Dido abandonata (1724), like almost all of the work of Metastasio, is well constructed and entertaining on the stage even without the adjunct of music. He stands out, among the writers of the world in any language, as excelling in pure and harmonious lyric verse. In the later years of his life Metastasio held the post of court poet at Vienna.

The name of Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803) is one of the greatest among Italian playwrights. He was of a wealthy and noble family, and, like Voltaire, was born with a passion for liberalizing the human spirit. He believed that the drama of his country could be purified most effectively through a re-introduction of the classic modes--and he therefore followed in the footsteps of Racine, taking up one, and only one, thread of action, discarding underplots and "relief," and concentrating on the advancement of the plot. The personages of his plays do not grow, but remain the same from the beginning to the end. He was attracted by horrible crimes and abnormal passions, was sombre in temperament and inclined to be somewhat violent in his expressions, but possessed a kind of flaming intensity. Despising sentimentality and the merely pretty adjuncts of drama, he was able to infuse into his tragedies a kind of dark wisdom and sublimity. In almost every play he revealed his detestation of tyranny (which he considered identical with royalty), and his passion for liberty, which he regarded as the dearest thing in life. In five of his nineteen dramas the theme is the struggle for freedom, and one of them is dedicated to Washington, "Liberator dell' America." He pictured the degradation of Florence under the rule of Medici, and deeply resented the condition of Italy in his own time.

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 276-8.


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