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literature, is indeed, in that country, at the lowest ebb; that music has the exclusive control over the Italian stage, and that the two or three plays which we have placed at the head of this article, with a few others enjoying even less notoriety, are perhaps the only tragedies that have appeared since Manzoni and Pellico retired from the petty cares of the literary world, to give themselves up to the contemplative ecstacies of their ascetic discipline.
According to the statements of a recent traveller there is scarcely one theatre in Italy open for dramatic performance to every three consecrated to the opera and ballet. We shall not attempt to vindicate the Italians from the charge of sensuality and effeminacy of taste, to which their blind partiality for music has given rise. The astonishing diffusion of that formless style of performance amply demonstrated how even the sounder judgment of other nations might be carried away by the melodious allurements of that syren which threatens to drive the drama from the stage, all over the world.
The opera is perhaps much less of an animal enjoyment than is generally supposed. It has some advantages over the drama to which rigid censors have not often adverted. The emotion worked on the human soul by a dramatic performance must be the result of close attention, of absolute long-continued abstraction. The drama is a tyrant that must absorb all our faculties, and whose chance of success depends on a thorough illusion. A slight reaction of reflection, a pre-occupation, an instant of listlessness or ennui, an ill-timed jest, a fortuitous interruption, and the spell is broken and the interest slackens.
Not so the opera. Music is no intruder. It asks for no admittance into the sanctuary of the mind, it hovers round its threshold like the minstrel at the entrance of a nuptial apartment; it breaks not, interferes not with the train of thoughts or feelings, it brings into them a gentle agitation, it fans them, it gives them an harmonious, delicate turn,-it rouses, soothes, enflames, spiritualizes them.
The effect of music is immediate-it requires no activity on the part of the mind, it urges not, importunes not; it awaits the proper moment, it steals upon us unconsciously, unexpectedly, when our eyes are turned away from the spectacle, when our cares or sorrows unfit us for every other mental exertion.
By the invention of a spectacle in which every thing was calculated to give music a boundless ascendency, the Italians provided for the wants of their own restless and highly sensitive nature, which sought in the theatre the source of an easy and genial relaxation, and to which a long silent sitting of about six hours in a play-house, as our good customers of Covent Garden or
the Hay-market have the constancy to endure, would be utter misery.
A box in an Italian play-house is a drawing-room, at Milan and Florence, not unfrequently used for supper. In the pit, in the gallery, in the six tiers of boxes, there are other interests at stake than the catastrophe on the stage. Every where there is nodding, and smiling, and flirting, and waving of fans and handkerchiefs; two-thirds at least of the performance are drowned by the murmur of a general conversation, until occasionally a burst of applause, or the strokes of the director of the orchestra, announce the entrance of a favourite singer, or the prelude of a popular air, when, as if by a common accord, that confused roar of six thousand voices is instantly hushed,—all laughing, coquetting, and ice-champaign drinking is broken short, and all the actors in the minor stages submit themselves for five minutes to behave like a well-mannered and intelligent audience. All this has been said in order to prove, that although the Italian opera has been imported in all its splendour in this country, and though we pay rather dearly for it, we are as yet far from understanding half its mysteries, or from enjoying its real advantages.
In such a state of things it will be readily believed, that the actor's trade in Italy, as well as the best interests of the drama, must be in a very precarious condition. The few wandering companies, except such as are entertained by royal patronage, are every day decreasing in number and importance, and some of them reduced to the last stage of penury. Dramatic poets would fare still worse, if there were any longer in Italy persons following that calling. We know of no instance, since the times of Goldoni, in which an author's labours received any better fees than the popular applause, which he must accept as a pledge of the remuneration that posterity may award him.
The great number of private theatricals, however, and the zeal of numerous dilettanti of every class, have power to prevent the art from falling into utter discredit, and the talent of declamation is reckoned among the essential accomplishments of gentlemanly education. The drama, at least as a branch of literature, is still held in honour in Italy, whatever may be thought of it as a popular amusement.
Goldoni and Alfieri are still the leading names on the Italian stage. Overrated as the productions of these two eminent authors may be said to have been by their countrymen, they have however been too hastily and indiscriminately sentenced abroad. The best comedies of Goldoni are still unknown ground for foreign critics. We never met with any attempt at a rational examination of any but the worst of them, such as "La Bottega del Caffé,"
"Il Servitor di due Padroni," and other such premature essays, in which efforts poor Goldoni, while he gradually endeavoured to reform the bad taste of his contemporaries, was obliged to submit to it. These are also the first that are given to foreigners as his "Commedie Scelte." Sismondi, from whose eyes the spectacles of criticism seem always to fall whenever he loses sight of his faithful escort, Ginguéné, has grounded his judgment merely on a few of these juvenile performances: Goldoni's master-pieces in the Venetian dialect, such as "Le donne Gelose," "I Rusteghi," "Todero Broutolou," "Le Baruffe Chiozzotte," and perhaps twenty others, which are a breathing picture of low life in that part of Italy where national manners preserved to the last their most striking peculiarities, are still, on account of the language, works of very difficult access, even for persons conversant with Italian. The recent reaction in favour of Goldoni, brought about by the exertions of Augusto Bon and his excellent company, has rendered the Venetian dialect familiar and easy to Italian ears, and given it a peculiar charm in the different provinces. But a French or German critic must not be expected to relish Goldoni's idioms, any more than an Italian could appreciate our Doric dialect or broad Yorkshire.
The manners of the higher classes, such as they were in the idle and effeminate period that preceded the French revolution, with all the intrigues and mysteries of ancient Italian cicisbeism, such as Goldoni pourtrayed in his "Il Cavaliere e la Dama,” “ La Dama Prudente," "Le Femmine Pantigliose," etc. and the petty tracasseries, the ups and downs of middle life, such as were represented in his three comedies "La Villeggiatura," or in those on "Zelinda e Lindoro," so eminently Italian, and a few of his historical productions, chiefly in verse, such as "Il Terenzio," " Il Moliere," "Il Medico Olandese," "La Pupilla," have never perhaps been read out of Italy.
This rare poet, whose inexhaustible, original vein, whose unparalleled vis comica has furnished the Italian theatre with better than one hundred and twenty comedies, has been, as we have said, recently restored to the stage, together with the modest and gentle though rather cold and infecund Nota, with the wild and not unfrequently licentious Giraud, with De Rossi, Albergati, and a crowd of more recent imitators, whose performances are distinguished by the appellation of "Commedie di Carattere,” the comedy of the genuine Italian school.
The Commedia Goldoniana" has thus by turns superseded the wild phantasmagorias called "Commedie d'Effetto," of which the famous Fiabe of Count Carlo Gozzi, now so greatly admired in Germany, were the first models,--the sentimental comedy
"Commedia Piagnolosa," derived from the French and English novels of the worst school-the philosophical comedy "Commedia Morale," consisting in apt illustrations of the specious theories of the philanthropic school of Voltaire, and modelled after the productions of Beaumarchais; the "Commedia Romantica," from the German of Kotzebue and Co., filling the stage with horrors, with tears and groans, and finally the "Commedia d'Intrigo," of which Camillo Federici was the first master, and in which the Protagonist is invariably a duke or an emperor travelling incognito, to surprise his ministers or his subjects in flagrante delicto and to perform the duties of an amateur police.
All these different schools have had their day. The Italians who can patiently listen to the same opera for a whole season, betray an inexhaustible thirst for novelty and variety in the drama. No dramatic performance can go through more than three successive representations; and as the original "Repertorio" would be easily exhausted, poets and actors have recourse to frequent translations and imitations, especially from the French theatre. There is scarcely an example of any of Scribe's farces and vaudevilles rising into notoriety in Paris, without being forthwith "tradotte e ridotte" for the Italian stage. But of all branches of literature the theatre is the one that belongs most essentially to the nation, and admits less of foreign imitation, and after an ephemeral aberration of taste the Italians are sure to return unanimously and enthusiastically to their "gran Goldoni.”*
The formless and grotesque performances in the different dialects, such as they are exhibited at the San Carlino in Naples, Girolamo at Turin, and Stenterello at Florence, as well as in every other town, are to be considered as the remains of the ancient" Commedie dell' Arte,” which Goldoni had the merit of of banishing from the stage, and may perhaps be referred to the Oscan farces, which formed the delight of the Roman people ere the introduction of Grecian classicism. As these extravagances, however, are seldom written and never printed, they can hardly fall within the province of literary criticism.
Alfieri and the Italian tragedy, though more known, can hardly be said to have been better appreciated abroad. Nothing is more common than to hear foreigners unanimously deploring the fondness which Italians seem to attach to the harsh and dry style of their only tragedian. The Germans, faithful to their romantic ideas, are disposed to look upon this superstitious enthusiasm of their southern neighbours as a fresh instance of degeneracy of taste, not unlike the ephemeral hallucination which dazzled the
One of the most successful performances in the style of Goldoni is "Se fossi ricco," a comedy by F. A. Bon, lately performed at Milan.
Italian minds in the age of Marini. The English, the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, by reason of consanguinity a nation of eminently romantic taste, could hardly fail to fall in with their cousins of Germany. Henry Lloyd, Esq., who translated the twenty-two tragedies of Alfieri into English verse, by a strange contradiction, entered, in his preface, into a long dissertation on the flagrant demerits of his original. Alfieri has scarcely an advocate beyond the Alps, and must rest satisfied with the suffrage of his own countryman.
Alfieri was in Italy the last of classics, and happy was it for that school that it could, at its close, shed so dazzling a light as to shroud its downfal in his glory, and trouble for a long while, with jealous anxiety, the triumph of its hyperborean rival-the romantic school. When we number the greatest tragedian of Italy among the classics, we consider him only in regard to the form and style of his dramas, not to the spirit that dictated them. Properly speaking, he belongs to no school, and founded none. He stands by himself, the man of all ages, the man of no age--whatever might be the shape which his education or the antique cast of his genius led him to prefer in his productions, no poet ever contributed more powerfully to the reformation of the character of his countrymen. For that object he only needed to throw before them the model of his own character; it mattered little whether it was drawn with the pencil or carved with the chisel, whether it was wrapped up in the Roman gown of Brutus, or in the Florentine cassock of Raimondo de Pazzi.
Alfieri had lofty ideas of the duties and the influence of poetry, he had exalted notions of the dignity of man, an ardent though a vague and exaggerated love of liberty and of the manly virtues. which it is wont to foster. No sooner did the wild predilections of his dissipated youth give way to his thirst for fame, than his first verses were dictated by indignation. He felt that, of all branches of literature, the theatre has the most immediate effect on the illiterate mass of the people. He invaded the stage. He drove from it Metastasio and his effeminate heroes. He substituted dramatic for melodic poetry, manly passions for enervate affections, ideas for sounds. He wished to effect upon his contemporaries that revolution which his own soul had undergone,he wished to rouse them, to wake them from their long lethargy of servitude, to see them thinking, willing, striving, resisting.
To a man that wrote actuated by such feelings, the mere form was nothing. He had no models before him but Corneille and Racine, to which he added a very imperfect knowledge of the ancient classics. For Shakspeare he indeed evinced an indefinable admiration. He felt overawed by the extraordinary powers,