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il burbero benefico
27 february 2018
Late in the great Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni's career, he composed a few plays in French for performance in Paris, and then translated them into his native Italian, where they joined the rest of his prolific repertoire. In preparing to read Goldoni with my class this semester, I ran across a digitized copy of a British school edition of Il burbero benefico (1789, translated from Le bourru bienfaisant ), probably published in the 1890s. The provenance of the text is hard to make out – it may actually come from a 1772 translation by Pietro Condoni. But it probably bears some resemblance to something one could have seen on the French or Italian stages in the latter years of the 18th century.
Goldoni is often compared to Molière. Il burbero benefico resembles The Miser to some extent: a household full of young people wanting to get on with their lives, the servants who want to help them, and the tyrannous codger who frustrates their desires. Except in Goldoni, the "beneficent bear" is really a lovely person (Molière's miser is anything but). Geronte, the "bourru bienfaisant" of the title, admittedly has anger issues, but they're all on the surface. It's just that his anger is so terrible that nobody dares to express a candid wish when he's around.
Geronte is a wealthy old coot with a beautiful niece and a shallow nephew. The niece, Angelica, is in love with Valerio, but she is afraid to bring that up. It shouldn't be Geronte's concern, really, because she's an heiress, and her brother Dalancour is her guardian. But Dalancour (shallow, remember) has run through both his money and his sister's, in hopes of pleasing his young wife of expensive tastes. Though (because he's shallow) Dalancour hasn't realized that he didn't need to spend all that money. His wife has actually asked for nothing; he's bankrupted himself in trying to anticipate what he imagines will be her desires.
Learning that Angelica is now without a fortune, Geronte is determined to make her happy. He decides (because he think's she's unattached) to marry her off to his friend and chess partner Dorval. Dorval, for his part, has scruples. He asks:
Vi par poco la sproporzione de sedici a quarantacinque anni?I guess Dorval won't be running for Republican Senator from Alabama any time soon. Geronte, however, assures him that this April/August romance will be fine, and Dorval goes along with it, apparently. But knowing that Angelica really loves Valerio, he engineers a wedding where he will be witness instead of bridegroom. Valerio, after all, has plenty of money, and is happy to take a 16-year-old wife without a dowry.
You don't think the difference between 16 and 45 years old is too much? (36)
Meanwhile Geronte, after beating his manservant (he's not a completely nice guy; comedies from Plautus through Shakespeare and Molière to Fawlty Towers get mileage out of beating servants), and chewing out everybody in his household, finally realizes what's actually going on around him, blesses the marriage, and comes up with some extra dowry funds himself.
Like Molière (but unlike Shakespeare or Ben Jonson), Goldoni's comedy is largely joke-free. There's hardly a riposte or a bon mot in the script, let alone a calembour. Instead, the humor is generated by verbal dynamics: stage directions instruct Geronte on when to get loud, and when to get really loud. And there are the Molièrean devices of having characters talk at cross purposes, or with unintended irony. In the end, as in so many of these send-ups of patriarchy, the women get what they want, without puncturing the egos of the male idiots who run things. The simplicity of Il burbero benefico suggests that it would still work in the theater, and I'd be happy to see it tried.
I'll take a moment to praise A.C. Clapin's work on the school edition that I read. The footnotes are concise and unpedantic, and Clapin supplies a "vocabulary of all the words" in the play (75). If you have some Italian grammar you need nothing more. Clapin won't much care about my praise, because he has probably been dead for a century. Some Googling suggests that Clapin was a bit of a one-man brand in the late Victorian foreign-language business, editing a popular series of textbooks and reading editions of classics in French, German, and Italian. His work holds up into the 21st century.
Goldoni, Carlo. Il burbero benefico. [Le bourru bienfaisant, 1771.] Translated by the author, 1789. Edited by A.C. Clapin. London: Hachette, n.d.