Class Antagonisms in Early Modern Italian Theater

A few years ago I saw an 18th century Italian play put on by the University of Colorado Theater Department. It was very dull; acting was mediocre; stage direction and production desire were pretty uninspired. Costumes were good. I would have forgotten about it completely were it not for the fascinating constructions of Enlightenment Age class antagonism. The play was a throw-away piece by Carlo Goldoni, a Venetian playwright who lived for most of the 1700s and who took special interest in portraying the newly emerging middle class. This revival that I saw was a lethargic comedy of manners about the daughter of a modest merchant who is courted simultaneously by a rich but tactless bourgeois dolt and a duplicitous count who was divested of his estate and has taken to hustling the country gentry for his bread. The two suitors are interesting character types. I imagine both would have been recognizable to people of that time. The bourgeois cittadino is coarse and simple. He is incapable of conversing on subjects besides those he is acquainted with through business. He does not ride. He does not hunt. He knows nothing about books, music or art. He finds no pleasure in good food. He is a comic figure because he is so dull and rigid. He knows enough to make money but he is too little cultured to know how to spend it. I feel like such a creature must have seemed very puzzling to the old ruling classes. Auerbach talks about how the noble aristocracy of the early modern period saw the new bourgeoisie as intellectually deficient and absurd in their values. Men of middle classes earned their fortunes by cultivating specialized talents that were utilitarian. Gentlemen of the aristocracy avoided all productive work as an entitlement of their position. They received rigorous education but were free to study in a variety of disciplines. During the 16th and 17th century, learned men were appraised by the breadth of their knowledge and their ability to converse on a number of topics. Middle class men who practiced professions were thought to be as dim as any peasant. They were just prosperous, nothing more. Of course, the economic environment of a developing and modernizing Europe valued things differently, and it rewarded bourgeoisie professionalism quite handsomely. So, in the Goldoni play, it is the bourgeois factory owner who is powerful and free, and the aristocratic count who has devoted his life to refinement and observance of custom is dissipated vulnerable to the whims of fortune. It is impossible for him to reverse his decline. Tradition prohibits it, and he is too pathetic a creature to fend for himself anyway.

Leave a Reply