In Italy around 1750, two gentlemen – not of Verona but of Venice – were fighting it out for the title of best playwright. Carlo Goldoni, a lawyer turned comedy writer, was the reformer, pitching funny and witty plays to the middle class without the usual vaudevillean clownishness. He modeled his work after the great French playwright Molière, and Goldoni himself was much admired by the philosopher Voltaire, who described Goldoni’s comedies as “Italy freed from the Goths.”
Carlo Gozzi, on the other hand, was the purist, a sardonic intellectual who wanted to keep commedia dell’arte’s biting improv, while preserving the tradition of using masks to represent classic characters. To Gozzi, the masks were Italy’s connection with its mighty Roman past. They were portable archetypes, recognized at a glance anywhere in Italy. The language of the play, also, was important to Gozzi, who wanted literature to remain in pure Tuscan.
The two Carlos went toe to toe, the new realist vs. the cultural preservationist. The regressive Gozzi won the battle, and Goldoni moved to France, where he spent the rest of his days producing successful comedies. A loser in his native land, in history Goldoni won the war.
Given the idealogies of the two Carlos, reactionary against modernist, you might think that Aaron Cromie would favor Carlo Goldoni. Wrong. Instead, he focuses on the conservative Carlo Gozzi, introduced as a smart-mouthed know-it-all, but really not such a bad guy once you got to know him. And he was the only guy in Italy able to trump the popular Carlo Goldoni. Goldoni, in contrast, is portrayed as an amiable but sloppy talent, too busy chasing skirts to put serious effort into his theater pieces.
Cromie tells us things that may or may not be true, using real characters and locations. Well, one thing we know is not true. Although Gozzi and his gang did hang out at Colombani’s bookstore, they did not name their salon the Testicular Academy. (Okay, it’s funny. And the Latin root, testa, means witness, so you could almost see it happening.) As the rivalry unfolds, a typical commedia dell’arte play is performed, written by Gozzi. After that, responding to criticism that Goldoni’s work is dull and morally bankrupt, a mere fit of fashion, Goldoni throws down the challenge: “Write your own play! And we shall measure the success by the box office receipts.” Gozzi accepts and asks his cohorts for a story idea. Colombani suggests a children’s story, called “The Love of the Three Oranges.” Oranges turns into a hit, while Goldoni becomes box office poison. But just then, Voltaire invites him over to France, and Goldoni goes. Cromie ends his story with the characters meeting in the afterlife and discussing the historical record that fondly remembers Goldoni, not Gozzi. “Where’s my statue?” Gozzi wants to know.
The reading of Carlo vs. Carlo was performed by the Faction of Fools Theatre Company, in residence at Gallaudet University in Washington DC. Faction of Fools specializes in commedia dell’arte productions. Aaron Cromie, the author, is a Philadelphia-based performance artist. He is a graduate of The Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre.
Carlo vs. Carlo
Faction of Fools Theatre Company
By Aaron Cromie
Directed by Eva Wilhelm
Steve N. Bradford – Carlo Goldoni
Dan Crane – Carlo Gozzi
Tyler Herman – Pietro Chiari
Paul Hope – Gasparo Gozzi, Carlo’s brother
Michelle Tang Jackson – Luisa Gozzi, Gasparo’s wife
Denise Perrino – Saki
Annetta Sawyer – Enzo