"The Liar" is not the first play of Italy's foremost comedy-writer, Goldoni (1707-1793), to be brought before University audiences in recent years. Professor K. McKenzie's translation of "Il Ventaglio" ("The Fan") was produced some years ago with success by the Yale Dramatic Club, and a playbill of "Mirandolina"--as Lady Gregory has entitled her version of "La Locandiera"--has just come to hand from Oxford.
The theme of the constitutional liar, temporarily staving off detection by fresh falsehoods, but in the end hopelessly enmeshed in the network of his deceptions, was handled in masterly fashion more than a century before Goldoni by Corneille in "Le Menteur". In contrast to the French author's dignified verse-comedy, Goldoni's "Il Bugiardo" ("The Liar") is often broadly farcical.
The translation by Grace Lovat Fraser is spiritedly done. To preserve in a measure the flavor of the original, the translator has rendered into an English provincial dialect the parts of three or four of the characters written by Goldoni in the Venetian speech.
The plot, briefly, is as follows: Rosaura and Beatrice, daughters of Doctor Balanzoni, are courted respectively by Florindo, a medical student living in the doctor's house, and by Ottavio, a gentleman of Padua. Florindo's timidity, however, prevents him from declaring his love except by indirect methods. He causes Rosaura to be serenaded by hired musicians, sends her, anonymously, a gift of lace; and composes a poem setting forth his love, but containing only vague hints of his identity. Instead of handing her the verses himself, he throws them on her balcony.
A Master of Mendacity
Lelio, the liar, son of the old Venetian merchant Pantalone, seeking adventure, encounters Beatrice and Rosaura. Addressing his attentions to the latter, he passes himself off as a wealthy Neapolitan noble and declares himself responsible for serenade, gift and poem. Meeting Ottavio, he boasts not only of serenading the girls, but of having dined with them in their house. Shocked at Beatrice's levity, Ottavio informs her father that he can no longer entertain thoughts of marriage.
The gradual clearing of the complications and misunderstandings resulting from the exuberant mendacity of Lelio occupies the remainder of the comedy, which, after the final discomfiture of the liar, ends with his none too convincing resolution to devote himself henceforward to the truth.
Of the numerous comedies of Goldoni, the "Liar" falls within a group in which the author retains among his personages some of the stock figures--such as Pantaloon, Harlequin and the Doctor--of the popular commedia dellarte, the "comedy of the profession." In this type of comedy the players, instead of having written-out parts, improvised them as they went along, merely keeping to a pre-arranged plot or scenario.
This kind of comedy had been in vogue for about two centuries, and was still popular when Goldoni resolved to attempt to displace it with comedy of a literary type. Examples of the latter had, indeed, existed from the early sixteenth century onward, but had never come into favor with the professional actors or their audiences. Realizing the difficulty of his task, Goldoni, in his earlier comedies, did not deal too drastically with the old favorite stock-characters, and only gradually deprived them of the monopoly of the stage, by relegating them mostly to minor parts. He abolished, however, the element of improvisation. In the main, Goldoni was successful with his innovations, experiencing less opposition from his audiences than from jealous rivals.
The chief merits of Goldoni are an inexhaustible fertility of invention--in one year he announced and executed a program of sixteen comedies--and an unfailing sprightliness in the dialogue.
The dramatic art, poetic gift, keen insight and subtlely of Moliere are lacking, but Goldoni's place in the history of comedy, if not among the highest is nevertheless secure