Italian Characters

Introduction to Character Type | List of Plays | Up One Level

Introduction to Character Type

The Italian character type can be divided into three subgroups. First, one of the main functions of this character type is to satirize Italian opera, a popular genre with which the London stage was very competitive. Secondly, like the characters of the "German" group, the "Italian" characters are often English people impersonating Italians, rather than people of actual Italian origin. Thirdly, there are a few real Italians, though certainly not so many as there are French characters. This distribution of Italianate characters suggests that most of the London audience's exposure to Italians was obtained through opera, and that a foreign accent was an advantage, often suggesting artistic taste.

The first trend occurs in Ut Pictura Poesis! (1789) and in The Musical Lady (1761; published 1762), both by George Colman the Elder. Ut Pictura Poesis! features an Italian music-master, Castruccino, and his pupils Castruccina and Picolina, who sing Italian opera. Castruccino, who insults a Welsh madrigal, is mocked at the end of the play by an angry mob. The Musical Lady concludes with Sophy's return to her English identity and her abandonment of her Italian affectations. The punishments and transformations of Italian opera characters at the plays' conclusions satirize the folly of London's Italian opera craze.

English characters who impersonate Italians or who affect Italian characteristics are found in Bickerstaff's Dr. Last in His Chariot (1769), The Musical Lady, Cowley's The Town Before You (1794; published 1795), and Garrick's The Male Coquette (1757). These include Hargrave, who impersonates an Italian language-master to seduce Nancy in front of her father; Sophy, who aspires to be an Italian opera-singer; Mrs. Fancourt, who dresses up as a Savoyard fortune-teller to warn Georgina of the plot against her; and Sophia, who pretends to be an Italian nobleman to expose her suitor Daffodil's multiple flirtations. These characters tend to use non-standard grammar, orthography and vocabulary to create an illusion of foreignness.

Finally, the real Italian characters are not linked by any linguistic trend, as Signor Boccalini, of Murphy's News from Parnassus (1776; published 1786), speaks in Standard English, while the Italian family in Sheridan's The Critic (1779; published 1781) speaks only in Italian. Both groups of Italian nationals are affiliated with the operatic scene, another indication of the English audience's limited perspective of Italian culture. Another interesting character is the interpreter for the Italian family in The Critic, who does not speak English and attempts to translate his customers' Italian phrases into French.

The plays in this collection suggest that Italian culture was uniquely associated with the arts, particularly with Italian opera, the London audience's most accessible vantage point towards the culture. The recurrent satire of Italian opera by playwrights who were also playhouse-owners (Colman and Garrick) is a method of obtaining the audience's sympathy towards English theatre and of distancing the audience members from the rival opera-house.

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List of Plays

Dr. Last in His Chariot (Bickerstaff)

The Musical Lady (Colman)

Ut Pictura Poesis! (Colman)

The Town Before You (Cowley)

The Male Coquette (Garrick)

News from Parnassus (Murphy)

The Critic (R.B. Sheridan)

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©2008 Arden Hegele