Reading La bottega del caffè, one striking fact is that if you ask who the main characters are, the answer is that there are none. It is truly what we would call today an ensemble piece: there are many characters with interwoven stories. This is notable because it is a comedy from the classical period.

A group of French theorists had defined a set of rules that classical theater was to follow. These rules are, in fact, a reflection of the ideal of stability and order that was sought at the time. Among many other precepts, the rule of the three Aristotelian unities, based on the norms Aristotle defined for classical tragedies, particularly in his Poetics, had to be respected. One of these three unities is the so-called "unity of action." This unity aims to have the theatrical work depict a single action. Subplots are forbidden because they are considered to distract the audience: all their attention must be focused on a single plot.

It is clear that La bottega del caffè does not respect this precept. However, this comedy by Goldoni was written many years after all these rules were formulated. Therefore, I do not know to what extent this can be considered an innovative aspect in theater: this is my question.

Indeed, in his Mémoires, written in French, Goldoni himself talks about this:

      J'avais puisé cette piece dans la classe de la noblesse, et je pris la suivante dans celle de la bourgeoisie; c'était en italien la Bottega di Cafe [sic], et le Café tout simplement en français. Le lieu de la scène, qui ne varie point, mérite quelque attention; c'est un carrefour de la ville de Venise. Il y a trois boutiques en face; celle du milieu est un café, celle à sa droite est occupée par un perruquier, et l'autre à gauche par un homme qui donne à jouer. D'un côté il y a entre deux rues une petite maison habitée par une danseuse, et de l'autre, un hôtel garni.
      Voilà une unité de lieu bien exacte. Les rigoristes pour cette fois-ci seront bien contens de moi, mais le seront-ils de l'unité de l'action? ne trouveront-ils pas que le sujet de cette pièce est compliqué, que l'intérêt est partagé?
      J'aurais l'honneur de répondre à ceux qui tiendraient de pareils propos, que je ne présente pas dans le titre de cette pièce une histoire, une passion, un caractère; mais un café où plusieurs actions se passent à la fois, ou plusieurs personnes sont amenées par différens intérêts; et, si j'ai eu le bonheur d'établir un rapport essentiel entre ces différens objets, et de les rendre nécessaires l'un à l'autre, je crois avoir rempli mon devoir en surmontant encore plus de difficultés.
      Il faudrait lire la pièce en entier pour en juger; il y a autant de caractères que de personnages.

I will try to translate it into English:

      I had taken the previous play from the class of nobility, and I chose the next one from the bourgeoisie; it was la Bottega di Cafe [sic] in Italian, and simply Le Café in French. The setting of the scene, which does not change, deserves some attention; it is a crossroads in the city of Venice. There are three shops across from it; the middle one is a café, the one to its right is occupied by a barber, and the one to the left by a man who runs a gambling operation. On one side, between two streets, there is a small house inhabited by a dancer, and on the other, a furnished hotel.
      Here is a very precise unity of place. The strict adherents will be quite pleased with me this time, but will they be with the unity of action? Won't they find that the subject of this play is complicated, that the interest is divided?
      I would have the honor to respond to those who would hold such statements, that I do not present in the title of this play a story, a passion, a character; but rather a cafe where several actions take place at once, or where several people are brought together by different interests; and, if I have had the fortune to establish an essential connection between these different objects, and to make them necessary to one another, I believe I have fulfilled my duty by overcoming even more difficulties.
      One would need to read the entire play to judge; there are as many characters as there are roles.

  • This article indicates that the rules about the 'three unities' were observed to a greater or lesser extent in different countries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Commented May 11 at 7:54


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