A Servant to Two Masters

brief excerpt from the section: THE RELEVANT COMMEDIA CHARACTERS

There are of course many characters in Commedia - and many sub-characters, or off-shoots of originals [such as Truffaldino who is an alternative to Arlecchino and shares the same characteristics.] I propose only to concentrate on work around the characters who are in the play you are studying.

You will have to make decisions all along the way, of course, and the first decision is how far you are going to keep to the traditional movement of a character, most of whom would have been masked. The mask often dictates the movement and gives it its particular quirkiness. For instance, Pantalone's mask with its hooked nose coupled with the traditional short jutting beard which the actor grew meant that Pantalone tended to make extended entries with his profile to the audience, to demonstrate the comical effect of the nose and beard practically meeting - after which he would snap-turn his head to address the audience full-face.

Wearing a mask gives a particular type of movement to the head, which follows the nose. You can try this yourself, by imagining that you have eyes at the end of your own nose and see what it does to simple movements. The whole group, as solos, could try:

looking for a lost purse on the ground

hearing a sound behind you and turning to investigate

seeing who you think is a friend coming in and rushing to greet him - only to find it is no one you know. [This can be tried in pairs if you like.]

examining an [imaginary] tabletop for the object you know you put there only a minute ago

You will notice a different way of moving the head occurs, which is very characteristic of Commedia style. The exaggerated, jerky movement that results could perhaps be built in to your characterisation, even without the mask.

Remember that all Commedia characters are obsessive. They all want something, but their desires are usually basic - for money, for food, for sex.

You may want to allocate different characters to each member of the group, which would save time of course, though since they will be writing about the play in the examination an understanding of the performance of every character is required.

PANTALONE [Pantaloon in the play] is the character with the highest prestige. Venetian in origin, he is usually a merchant. His guiding principle is his desire for riches, though in some plays he can be diverted into a desire for sex and he is often shown lusting after some young wench and making himself ridiculous over her.

Full of contradictions, he is miserly but loves pomp and splendour. He was well-known to be subject to sudden fits of fury. He is an authoritarian father who loves to give advice - at length. His age is 50ish, so not ancient. He should be played with an upper class accent , which goes into a treble squeak when he is upset or amorous.

Like all Commedia characters, there are athletic features to his movement. For instance, he will do ridiculous back-falls when he hears bad news.

Talking to different experts there are a variety of opinions as to how he should walk. Try them all out and find the one that you like best for your own characterisation.

a] a contrast between slow hunched movement and sudden bursts of agility resulting in asthmatic panting.

b] Put your ankles together and turn your feet out, bend the knees slightly and lean forward so that you are following your nose. Roll the feet forward, using tiny paces, which are fast. The result should be a scuttling shuffle. Whilst this is happening, the hands move independently, always looking for money or guarding the purse attached to his belt.

c] a very deliberate walk, picking the feet up high, feet turned out, knees relaxed. This is coupled with a flexible back. Exaggerate a lean backwards for indignation, forwards for accusation.

d] This version is if you see Pantalone as older than the fifty years he was supposed to be. By the eighteenth century [when Goldoni was writing] this way would be the more likely way for Pantalone to be performed. Here he is seen as nearly always in a fury, leaning over a stick, knees bent and toes pointing forward, and walking with little but fast steps, constantly having to stop and pause for long wheezing breaths.

WORKING THROUGH THE PLAY IN A PRACTICAL WAY

ACT ONE, SCENE ONE

Pantaloon's house.

The traditional set-up for a Commedia play is to have three house frontages at the back with the requisite entrances. For this play, only Pantaloon's house, Brighella's inn and the street or courtyards outside these places are required, though at least two doors to Beatrice and Florindo's rooms are needed inside the inn and Dr Lombardi's house could be the third house; he and Silvio would then make their entrances from here.

Consider the following options:

a] a Shakespearian approach, where the stage is an empty space which can denote anywhere according to the furniture or props brought on by the cast. You might want some background to this 'anywhere', which perhaps shows the front of a building or buildings with at least two entrances [further entrances and exits being by way of the wings]. An addition of a portable inn-sign could then perhaps indicate when we are at the inn. The backdrop could also be the traditional Commedia three houses set, as detailed above, which will give three exits at the back.

b] a more representative setting using screens perhaps, which could indicate anywhere and any number of entrances. Coloured lighting on these could indicate different settings - interior or exterior - or a Brechtian type announcement on a screen could tell us in written form where we are.

c] a simple setting that feeds into the farcical nature of the play, especially when the two 'masters' keep only just missing each other whilst staying at the inn. This could be a central revolving door set between two frames. The idea would enable the comic surprise of having people able to wait behind the frames so that on each revolve of the door a different person enters.

d] a more detailed and realistic setting, dividing the stage into two areas. Furnishings in one area would indicate the status of Pantaloon and the period, in the other would show the inn interior - a neutral hall-way off which are two doors to bedrooms. The settings could be permanent with, in each case, the majority of the stage being a spill-over from whichever setting is in use. An alternative would be to have the two settings on a revolve, to block out the setting not in use.

Discuss all these options, and any ideas you might have too. It is important to have an idea of your setting before working practically on the play. At least make decisions as to where your entrances and exits are and indicate these in your studio rehearsal space.

You might want to use elements of more than one of these options, which is of course fine.

Colour, props and furnishings are going to be particularly important, to fit with the style of the play. Consider the following as options:

a] cut-out cartoon-style furnishings brought on by porters/ waiters, perhaps with the additions of cartoon-style labels, hand-written, mis-spelt

Have fun with this idea. This would require miming if anything is used [which is true to Commedia.]

b] the basic furniture [tables, chairs, cushions etc.] real and period, though kept minimal - just sufficient to indicate period and place

c] light modern furniture, painted in bright or light colours - period not being important and the furniture just being useful rather than indicative of period or status.

d] Ridiculous furniture.... too big, or too small, or absurdly ornate, etc.

Think of colours too - bright neon? light pastel colours? black and white? What would fit best with the style of the piece?

Have fun with your ideas, but make sure that any decisions you make will serve the play rather than get in the way of the action. All choices need to be justified. e.g. 'characters are cartoon-like, two-dimensional, so I chose cartoon-like setting...' ; 'many of the set-pieces are clown-like, so I chose furniture that was too [big/small/ wobbly, always moved before being sat upon] to chime in with this idea....'; '.... chose light pastel colours because I see the play as a frothy comedy...'; '... chose to use realistic period furniture because I see the characters as more real and fully-fleshed than the traditional Commedia ideas and believe that this is what Goldoni was seeking to achieve ...' - and so on.

Discuss all the above and their implications. The choices are yours - and you may change your mind as you progress through the play, but bear in mind that all choices affect the finished production and must show a consistency of vision. If your mind does change as you study further, you will need to go back through all your first ideas to make them fit with your final decisions.

It is a good idea, in groups, to make a model set according to your decisions. Make sure that all things are workable [e.g. think of what materials you would use if making things full-size - that they are light and strong enough. Experiment with such as how to make revolving doors, or other surprise entrances.

Each group should present their set, with full justifications as to all decisions in a report-back session to the rest of the class.

The action starts in media res [in the middle of things]. Try out the following as possible openings. Any of them will precede the first line of the play:

a] A mime in which the characters in the scene enter from either side [or from separate houses if you are using that option]. Pantaloon escorts Clarice and Dr Lombardi enters with Silvio. There are greetings, cordial between the two fathers and perhaps too eager between the lovers, which would cause an indulgent smile from the Doctor and an abrupt tug to separate them from Pantaloon. Smeraldina is beckoned in from offstage by an impatient Pantaloon. Brighella mimes rapping on the door and is greeted cordially by both fathers.

b] The above could be done as an improvised extra scene, with speech.

c] The whole cast are on stage in traditional poses as looked at in the Preliminary Work section. Truffaldino, or Smeraldina, introduce us to each character with a little bit of cheeky narration, finishing with him or herself. Whichever of these two narrates could take the opportunity of leering at the other - sharing their attraction with the audience, but hiding it from the other.

d] This could be preceded with appropriate music [modern or a seventeenth century dance tune to set the style and tone of the piece] allowing each character to enter in character and then freeze.

e] There is mime, or narrated mime, which fills in the back-story of Beatrice, Federigo and Florindo too, before going into, say, option a].

Once you have become used to keeping the Commedia-style characters consistent, the play will become easier. Don't allow the exaggeration or the energy to drop. Remember each person's key characteristics.

Having said that, Goldoni wanted the style played down a little and was eager to introduce more realism and depth of character. This approach too ought to be experimented with and discussed as an option.

Look at Dr Lombardi's line, halfway down the page: 'Excellent, that's all sorted then. No turning back now.' Try it:

misty-eyed with sentimental affection

with relief. He knows Pantaloon well and doesn't quite trust him not to find a better offer. But a betrothal in those days was as binding as the marriage itself.

with pompous satisfaction

By experimenting like this, you will begin to find a style for each of the characters that you are happy with.

Smeraldina's line tells us right at the outset that she's on the look-out for a husband. Do you think it is the fun of a sexual relationship that she's after, or the relative 'freedom' of marriage? Perhaps she will no longer have to be a serving-maid if married.

To whom does Pantaloon address the speech beginning 'Well, it's only right and proper...'? It seems clear that it is a response to Brighella's polite speech about honour and privilege. Perhaps Pantaloon is taken aback by such fine words coming out in such a rough accent and his first sentence is a reproof. He doesn't want flowery ceremony when the marriage is going to be low-key.

Try out the movement as follows, changing the recipient of the speech accordingly.

Having heard Brighella, Pantaloon moves over from him to the Doctor for 'After all, I was best man ...' Move away to share with the audience 'It's all a bit low-key....' Raise the voice to a more public volume on '.. a nice quiet little meal....' whilst homing in on the young couple.'

Look at Smeraldina's aside on Page 2, 'That's the tastiest dish for sure.' Try it:

eyeing Silvio lasciviously and practically licking her lips

wryly sharing with the audience her knowledge that there won't be much actual food - our delight at this betrothal is all we'll have to dine on.

Which seems most likely here? In either case, the line is direct address to the audience.

Eager to please Pantaloon, the Doctor hastily protests that they don't want a lot of ceremony either and then backs it up with his huffing windbag wordiness.

Try Pantaloon's line 'Well, I have to say this is a match made in heaven'

disappointed, as if he is really saying, that Silvio is better than nothing ... but not a lot better.

indulgently, matching the Doctor's tone - he does love his daughter

the same as the second option, but instantly catching himself being all lovey-dovey and giving himself a good shake to snap out of it

For the rest of the speech: 'If my prospective son-in-law...' onwards, try it:

gloomily - the loss of all that money is uppermost in his mind

slyly - enjoying torturing the Doctor and making him feel both inferior and as if he should count himself lucky that his son has now won the prize

self-congratulating - how clever he has been to have arranged something so wonderful for his daughter; it's not his fault that the man has had the impudence to get himself killed

Decide which version you like best.

How can you establish the fact that from the beginning the lovers should not be just lovey-dovey and wet? Clarice's 'even if I'd been forced to marry Rasponi...' might occasion a glare in the direction of her father and a toss of the head that tells us there have already been arguments over this. We can then see that there is some steel in her character.

Dr Lombardi goes for the over-pious tone, eyes cast up, perhaps crossing himself. His voice and tone should always contrast with those of Pantaloon. Pace is one sure way of achieving this. The Doctor is ponderous, Pantaloon quicker and more impatient in general.

Whatever Pantaloon's regrets over the loss of such a rich suitor, he has moved on and gone for the next best option as quickly as possible. He is also pleased that this indulges his daughter's wishes. Above all, his tone shows his practicality and lack of sentiment.