What is Commedia Dell’arte? And how did we get to Brighton?

Before there was Francis Henshall of One Man, Two Guvnors, there was Truffaldino of Servant of Two Masters; and even before Truffaldino, there was Arlecchino.

Born from the Italian improvisational tradition, the devious character Arlecchino is a cousin of those French clowns we call “harlequins.” Arlecchino is a traditional centerpiece of these performances, where actors donned masks to take on well-known stock character roles. Of those many roles, Arlecchino, with his checkered costume and devious demeanor, is likely the best loved by audiences.

With respect to this traditional Arlecchino stock character, Carlo Goldoni created Truffaldino in Servant of Two Masters. In 1750, Goldoni wrote this master play that would become the template for Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors nearly 250 years later. Improvisational, actor-driven comedies were a longstanding tradition in Italian theater, but Goldoni was truly the writer to popularize the term Commedia Dell’arte.

Despite Goldoni himself naming the genre as we know it, he was concerned about the future of Commedia. He was a reformer, though, and his supporters praised him for restoring a genre that had lost touch with its origins. Goldoni’s comedy was no longer “afraid to appear by itself”: that is, with actors mask-less and lines scripted.

To get back to the essentials of traditional comedic theatre, Goldoni created Truffaldino: the star of Servant of Two Masters. Goldoni resolved to flesh out Servant of Two Masters, adding to the bare-boned improvisational scenarios and integrating Truffaldino’s bodily witticism—his inimitable lazzi. Goldoni left the door open for future talents, hoping performers would be able to return Truffaldino’s story, at least in part, to its original, unscripted form.

Enter Francis Henshall of Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors. Francis is here to take up Truffaldino’s mantle, and Arlecchino’s posterity. Commedia Dell’arte has endured thanks to other artists like Gordon Craig, Jacques Copeau, and Dario Fo, and now Goldoni’s masterpiece, too, has been reprised by new actors and revised by a new crusader, Richard Bean. In his One Man, Two Guvnors, the latest reincarnations of those old, well-loved stock characters travel through time and place to the English coast, to Brighton in the 1960s. And why not? It now has life as an American production, in close proximity to Lake Michigan and Chicago’s very own Navy Pier.