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Commedia dell’arte in 2012: “One Man, Two Guvnors” robbed of a Tony nomination?

May 2, 2012

What counts as a translation/adaptation and what counts as an original play?

Translations and adaptations have a hard time with the Tony awards.  Case in point:  One Man, Two Guvnors which opened at the National Theater in London (and which was broadcast over National Theater Live to movie houses all over the world on September 15) and has been playing for two weeks at that the Music Box Theater on Broadway.

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One Man, Two Guvnors is a direct adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic Arlecchino Servitore di due Padroni  (Servant of Two Masters) written in 1743 and revised in 1753.  Wikipedia has a plot summary:

The play opens with the introduction of Beatrice, a woman who has traveled to Venice disguised as her dead brother in search of the man who killed him: her lover, Florindo. Her brother forbade her to marry Florindo, and died defending her honor. Beatrice disguises herself as him so that she can collect dowry money from Pantalone, the father of Clarice, her brother’s betrothed. She wants to use this money to help her lover escape, and to allow them to finally wed. But thinking that Beatrice’s brother was dead, Clarice has fallen in love with another man, Silvio, and the two have become engaged. Interested in keeping up appearances, Pantalone tries to conceal the existence of each from the other.

Beatrice’s servant, the exceptionally quirky and comical Truffaldino, is the central figure of this play. He is always complaining of an empty stomach, and always trying to satisfy his hunger by eating everything and anything in sight. In one famous scene, it is implied that he eats Beatrice’s beloved cat. When the opportunity presents itself to be servant to another master (Florindo, as it happens) he sees the opportunity for an extra dinner.

As Truffaldino runs around Venice trying to fill the orders of two masters, he is almost uncovered several times, especially because other characters repeatedly hand him letters, money, etc. and say simply "this is for your master" without specifying which one. To make matters worse, the stress causes him to develop a temporary stutter, which only arouses more problems and suspicion among his masters. To further complicate matters, Beatrice and Florindo are staying in the same hotel, and are searching for each other.

In the end, with the help of Clarice and Smeraldina (Pantalone’s feisty servant, who is smitten with Truffaldino) Beatrice and Florindo finally find each other, and with Beatrice exposed as a woman, Clarice is allowed to marry Silvio. The last matter up for discussion is whether Truffaldino and Smeraldina can get married, which at last exposes Truffaldino’s having played both sides all along. However, as everyone has just decided to get married, Truffaldino is forgiven. Truffaldino asks Smeraldina to marry him.

The most famous set-piece of the play is the scene in which the starving Truffaldino tries to serve a banquet to the entourages of both his masters without either group becoming aware of the other, while desperately trying to satisfy his own hunger at the same time.

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The play is quite well known among fans of 18th century Italian theater; the translation I read is Edward J. Dent’s 1958 translation (currently reprinted in Eric Bentley’s Servant of Two Masters and Other Italian Classics).  Richard Bean’s script tracks Goldfoni reasonably closely; it expresses its debt to Goldfoni on the cover of the published script and in the script itself; for example on page 65:

FRANCIS:  So I’ve eaten.  Now after a lovely big meal there’s a couple of things I just can’t resist doing.  One is having a little smoke – (Drag on cigarette.  Then he lifts a buttock and farts.)

And that’s the other.  Beautiful.  Some of you out there, who understand your commedia dell’arte, those with a liberal education, will know that this play is based on Carlo Goldoni’s two-hundred-year-old Italian comedy A Servant of Two Masters and you will now be saying to yourselves “if the Harlequin, that’s me, has now eaten, what will be his motivation in the second act.”  Has anyone here said that?  Perhaps in an attempt to impress a date.  No.  Good.  Nice to know we don’t have any dicks in tonight.  My character, Francis, has to find a new base motivation to drive his actions in the second half.  Your job is to try and work out what that might be.

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But this was not enough for the Tony Awards eligibility committee.  The New York Times reports:

The eligibility committee for the Tony Awards on Friday denied a request by the producers of the Broadway comedy One Man, Two Guvnors to compete in the category of best play revival. “One Man” would have faced less competition for a Tony nomination — and perhaps a stronger chance of winning — as a revival than in the category of best play. […]

Two members of the eligibility committee disclosed in interviews that the producers of One Man, Two Guvnors had asked for it to be considered a revival, given that the script by Richard Bean is based on the 1746 play The Servant of Two Masters, by Carlo Goldoni.

A committee member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the eligibility discussions are private, said the view among several on the panel was that the One Man producers had been trying to manipulate the categories and avoid the crowded field competing for best play nominations; the play revival category has fewer eligible shows, including Death of a Salesman and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.

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One Man, Two Guvnors, indeed, mixes commedia dell’arte with classic British music hall comedy, as Jason Zinoman explains in the New York Times:

It wasn’t until the joke about passing gas that I realized that Richard Bean’s riotous crowd-pleaser One Man, Two Guvnors is an awfully smart show.

To be clear: It’s not a particularly thoughtful take on flatulence, but when James Corden’s Francis Henshall breaks wind in the second act with a self-satisfied smile, it serves a strategic purpose.

Francis, a lovable ex-skiffle band player scrambling to work for two bosses, is setting up an uncharacteristically knowing speech about the centuries-old Italian form commedia dell’arte, a nod to the show’s source material, Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters. It’s the only moment when the show gets ahead of the audience and appears to inflate its own significance. The joke, excuse me, lets the air out.

English comedy popular in America is generally more refined. Revivals of Wilde, Coward and Shaw are a regular part of our theatrical diet. Quick-tongued performers like Eddie Izzard, Daniel Kitson and Russell Brand wear their erudition on their sleeves. Much of the British sketch tradition emerges from Oxford and Cambridge (Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe), as opposed to the rough-and-tumble improv world that serves as the farm team for Saturday Night Live. Chicago-style, long-form improv remains rare in London.

One Man, by contrast, embraces English traditions that are more obscure here, although they occasionally show up on Broadway in finely tuned comedies like Noises Off and The Play What I Wrote. The director Nicholas Hytner, the justly celebrated artistic director of the National Theater, which produced One Man, has created an unapologetic celebration of British lowbrow comedy. Set in the seaside town of Brighton in the early 1960s, this gleefully silly production is filled with rigorously clever physical jokes, juvenile wit and an exhilarating improvisational spirit.[…]

Mr. Corden does a magnificent job evoking an ordinary bloke while exuding extraordinary charm. The show nods to farce and pantomime. But mostly what “One Man” evokes is the rambunctious music hall, a British cousin to vaudeville, where the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel got their start. In between scenes, a dynamite band, the Craze, nimbly mimics a variety of English pop bands, including early-’60s Beatles, right down to the way Ringo Starr bobbed his head.

These driving, joyous interludes help turn a well-made comic play into an entertainment with the lift of an exhilarating musical. This mixing of show business genres is characteristic of music hall, whose performers mocked authority, upper-class snobbery and the way a hint of sex could turn grown men into smirking children.

“In England, subversive comedy has traditionally found its form in music hall,” The New Yorker critic Penelope Gilliatt once wrote, adding that its cadences live on in things like the decades-long “Carry On” series, British comedy’s answer to Hammer Films. “Music hall may be dead, but its gags are inextinguishable,” she wrote.

Just because these traditions are relatively obscure to Americans today doesn’t make them less accessible. For one thing, physical comedy travels well. But the spirit of this show will also be familiar, since the greatest American comedians balance smart and dumb. Woody Allen obviously has affection for a Borscht Belt one-liner and a clownish spill. In her best seller Bossypants Tina Fey wrote that she tries to keep her writer’s room at 30 Rock packed with equal numbers of pointy-headed Ivy League wits and visceral improv performers who “will do whatever it takes to win that audience over.”

Comparisons between English and American humor always seem to exaggerate the differences, as anyone who has heard British sneering about our inability to appreciate irony can attest. The British Office may be more caustic than the American version, but can you really draw a sweeping conclusion about national sensibilities when that series was partly inspired by the American Larry Sanders Show, a far more biting send-up of talk show vacuity than the funny British satire Knowing Me Knowing You (with Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge)?

Still, among the English cultural elite, there does seem to be more of a history of condescension toward lowbrow, light entertainments. Shaw wrote, “One of the strongest objections to the institution of monogamy is the existence of its offspring, the conventional farcical comedy.”[…]

British insecurity about such humor can still be found in the recent HBO special “Talking Funny,” a filmed conversation involving the comedy greats Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Ricky Gervais. In the most contentious and hilarious exchange, Louis CK confesses to loving dumb jokes without guilt, recalling fondly a guitar-playing comic who transformed the classic Otis Redding hit “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” into something too obscene to print in a family publication by slightly changing a few words, including “dock” and “bay.” Twenty-five years later, Louis CK said, this joke stuck with him. Mr. Seinfeld and Mr. Rock agreed it was funny, but Mr. Gervais, the British comic, mocked them, cackling, insisting the joke worked only ironically.

On the question of dumb jokes, “One Man” sides with the American stand-ups. Not once do the performers deliver gags with a “Can you believe I said that?” smile. What makes the show work is how earnestly committed the performers are, although that doesn’t mean that they won’t laugh at themselves.

At the performance I attended, Mr. Corden made a pun, paused, turned his head to the audience, his eyes expanding in anticipation. “In Britain, that would have killed,” he said. That may be true, but it got a big laugh here as well.

Yesterday, the Tony Award nominations were announced.  Although One Man, Two Guvnors was nominated for seven awards, it did not receive a nomination for best play and it was ineligible for best revival.  Returning to my original question: What counts as a translation/adaptation and what counts as an original play?  Was One Man, Two Guvnors robbed?

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