One Man, Two Guvnors (Music Box Theatre) provides a classic instance of how tastes disagree. Some audience members will find it instantly and continuously hilarious; others, like me, will sit through its two and a half hours rarely cracking more than the occasional smile, wondering why those around them feel such compulsion to laugh out loud. The discrepancy isn’t wholly a matter of low versus high comedy, nor of British comedy versus American, though Richard Bean’s ultra-loose adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century classic, Servitore di due padroni, positions itself emphatically within a British idea of the low-comic tradition. Inside that idea, the piece is realized, under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, about as well as such a thing can be realized onstage today. But that’s not the point: If a better realization of this stuff were imaginable, those who don’t find it funny now still wouldn’t laugh.
A corollary question might be: If the piece were much less well done, would the people who now roar at Hytner’s high-end lowness still do so? Most likely, yes, the difference being not one of low and high tastes, nor of differing national predilections, but of two different sorts of audience. There are people blessed with a willingness to laugh—or maybe cursed with an urgent need for something to laugh at. They see the signal that a joke is approaching, instantly perk up, and start yocking the moment the joke arrives. They do this whether the joke is funny or not, whether it is well delivered or not, and whether it grows naturally out of the situation or not. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they’ve been comedically programmed: When they hear the bell of comedy ring, they salivate, no matter what they get served.
To criticize them for it would be futile. To condition his dogs’ reflexes, Pavlov kept them on the edge of starvation. In today’s miserably unhappy world, everyone’s understandably hungry for a laugh. Those of us who’ve somehow managed to escape the conditioning—and hence don’t find One Man, Two Guvnors all that funny—are more likely to envy the willing laughers than to condemn them. Fortunately, in addition to being a miserably unhappy planet, the world is such an inherently absurd one that you can always find something to raise a chuckle, even if it isn’t an expensively imported piece of low comedy. The spectacle of Rupert Murdoch, in front of a judicial commission, haughtily blaming his employees for having done exactly what he hired them to do, made me laugh much louder than the spectacle of James Corden, as the man with two guvnors, pretending to stick his tongue in a mousetrap, or any of the show’s other gags.
Goldoni (1707-1793) would have seen the humor inherent in the way Bean and Hytner have diced up his most famous play, though he probably wouldn’t have been able to muster more than a rueful smile at their results, the joke being on him. People usually equate Goldoni, mistakenly, with commedia dell’arte; though something more like the opposite is true. First, the term commedia dell’arte simply means something like “professional theater,” theater performed, professionally, with skill (arte)—as opposed to those who perform solely for love, the amatori or “amateurs.” Commedia troupes had existed in Italy for centuries before Goldoni; they played not only comedy but tragedy and fantasy. And, contrary to common belief, the best-trained troupes, like the 17th-century Gelosi (ostensibly the subject of the Ahrens-Flaherty musical The Glorious Ones), played fully scripted texts, including tragedies in verse, as well as the slapstick-laden comedies that were improvised a soggetto, “on a scenario.”
Such comedies weren’t all that improvisational, either. Most commedia troupers kept notebooks, stocked with material from which to build their characters, who often (but not always) recurred from play to play. The low comics wrote down, and rehearsed, the lazzi, elaborate verbal or physical shtick, like “Who’s on first?” or “Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned…,” to be inserted whole, as building blocks, into a given scene. (The surviving scenarios often specify which lazzo goes where.) The young lovers and other courtly figures had concetti (“conceits”)—prewritten monologues or dialogues, developed from a single phrase or image, like the “nightingale-and-not-the-lark” debate in Romeo and Juliet. Bean’s script for One Man, Two Guvnors preserves several samples of the latter convention, though in spoof form, updated to fit his context.
Because Bean preserves so much of Goldoni’s plot, the updating becomes a kind of persistent problem, which he and Hytner treat as a running gag. Lower-class and shady-parvenu Brits, circa 1960, may have shared the toughness of 18th-century Italy’s leading families, but not their sense of propriety: A duel to avenge the family honor isn’t exactly the same thing as a gangster rubout. The downward slippage works well for clownery, since it means that every higher emotion can be treated as a joke, but it plays hell with the effort at coherence and believability that was one of Goldoni’s principal goals as a writer. In his time, commedia had turned stale precisely because the old routines were still being used, long after they had ceased to make any sense in context. They had become mere signals for laughs, rather than sources of laughter. Goldoni made it his mission to re-ground the old comedy in the new reality. He did not stop being funny; he didn’t even stop being shticky. He merely made sure the shtick grew organically out of the people who performed them and the situations in which they occurred.
Therein lies the difference between One Man, Two Guvnors and The Servant of Two Masters. The former sees everything as an opportunity for a joke, but doesn’t feel any particular need to have the jokes come from somewhere or go somewhere; pretty much any joke at any time will suit its purpose. Hung out on the line of Goldoni’s story, which deals with specific people and goes from one specific event to the next, Bean’s lengthy array of jokes ultimately makes the evening droop, like a clothesline hung with a load of wet wash. Even the intermittent songs, by Grant Olding, which give the show a cheerfully bouncy start, run steadily downhill, in a kind of vaudevillian desperation to keep the event in motion, throwing in a song done this way and a song done that way, when there’s no particular need for any songs at all, except to shift scenery or give Corden a break.
Corden works, as has been much noted, very hard and very skillfully. My principal quarrel with his performance may actually be with Hytner, or with the show’s overall tone: He doesn’t rouse me to much laughter because he knows he is being funny, and frequently tells you so. He grins way too often, at his own jokes and at those he sees coming from, or toward, others. For those who laugh when told that something’s funny, he may be the optimal clown for our time. But I suspect that our time contains a great many people who don’t laugh when told to do so—who, in fact, prefer to decide for themselves when and at what to laugh. What they laugh at will include plenty of low comedy, and plenty of British comedy; it just won’t include the instruction manual.