History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Italian Pre-WWII
The dominant figure in Italian pre-World War II drama is Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), achieving world-wide fame with such comedy-dramas as "Così è, se vi pare" (So it is, if you think it is, 1917), "Sei Personaggi in Cerca d'Autore" (Six characters in search of an author, 1921), and "Enrico IV" (Henry IV, 1922).
At the end of "In So it is, if you think it is", Lena can only say: “I am the one that people believe me to be." "There follows a stony silence in which are merged the disappointment of the curious, the quickened wound of the three victims, and the tragic laughter of Laudisi...The central idea of the play is the belief that we are absolutely subjective and that the only way to live and to let other people live is to accept this point of view. Lamberto Laudisi does so, and he respects the odd situation existing in the Ponza household. The others, totalitarian logicians, apply to this specific case a generic idea, and by so doing they create their own discomfort and destroy the peace which, even if based on illusion, allows three persons to live peacefully. The gentle, merciful, and human power of illusion has taken life in a situation of unspeakable sorrow and tragedy and has given Signor Ponza and Signoia Frola the calm that they have reached by forcing on themselves a belief that did not correspond to the truth, but was more endurable than the truth." (Vittorini, 1969 pp 126-127) For Gassner (1954), "it is not only that we cannot discover the identity of Signora Prola, but that it is unnecessary to do so. Illusion is a bitter necessity to at least one of the principals of this play, and it must be respected. The town is consequently satirized for its idle curiosity. Judged by realistic standards, Right You Are is of course preposterous, but accepted as a philosophical extravaganza it is neatly pointed, and it comes close to Aristophanic humor. Its real shortcoming is the thinness of the plot." (pp 440-441)
In “Six characters in search of an author", Vittorini (1969) asserted that “the motivation of the play is essentially literary, since there run through it various aesthetic considerations such as: Is life stronger than art? What happens when we attempt to enclose life in the mold of art? Is its reality increased or diminished? Does not the artist owe the reality of his art to the torment and anguish which have gnawed into the soul and the very flesh of the man?” (p 291) From the start, “Pirandello brings into relief the prosaic traits of the actors as contrasted with the impetuous Six Characters...They insist, above all, on their reality...As to actors, the reality of their lives is separated from the content of their art...(p 294) The Stepdaughter voices Pirandello’s revolt against the Father’s attempt at philosophizing about human acts… When the mother intervenes in the brothel, preventing the father from copulating with his stepdaughter and they begin to live together, the “Father refuses to have his whole life caught in that shameful moment as if his entire existence were summed up in that act...But he protests in vain to the Stepdaughter, who sees in him the cause of all her shame and misfortunes...The Son sees half-bred intruders in them all, and looks with cold, indifferent eyes at his Mother, She has belonged to another man. His Father is a libertine.” (p 296) When the brothel scene is enacted “Father and Stepdaughter are unable to recognize themselves,” (p 298) indicating the limitations of artful endeavors and the practical considerations of the theatre, as the director has a mind to audience reaction. “The tragic end of the play reintroduces the original theme of the relation between art and life. Life enclosed in the artificial mold of art breaks its narrow walls, sweeps away fiction, and rules with tiagedy and grief.” (p 300)
For Gassner (1954), "the drama which the six characters insist upon, acting out in defiance of all the contrivances favored by the ordinary theatre is a nightmare of sordid situations and self-torment. The Father, who came to believe that his gentle wife was more in rapport with his humble secretary than with himself, set up a home for them. The family does not credit this motive and suspects that he wanted to rid himself of his wife; and no doubt his motivation was more complex than he can possibly understand or acknowledge. He kept the Son for himself, and the latter grew up into a lonely, embittered youth. After the clerk’s death the Mother, who bore him three children, disappeared with her new family, and the Father met his Stepdaughter only years later in a disreputable establishment. He was prevented from committing incest only because his wife who saw the Father and the Stepdaughter together warned them. The Father took the family back with him, but since then their hearts have been consumed with shame, sorrow, and exasperation. The legitimate Son resents the presence of the Mother’s illegitimate children, the Mother is passively miserable, her adolescent Boy broods upon suicide, the Father is constantly apologizing, and the Stepdaughter cannot ever forgive him or overcome her disgust. Ultimately the Mother’s youngest child is drowned, the Boy shoots himself, and the characters run off the stage in confusion. Try and make a neat little play out of all this, Pirandello seems to say! This is life! The tragedy of the six characters can never be completely dramatized because their motives are so mixed; because some of them — the Mother and the Son—do not explain themselves sufficiently: because others — the youngest child and the Boy— are inarticulate. Moreover, some of them are too passionately eager to justify themselves and are too bedeviled to stay within the playwright’s frame. Many of the tendencies of the twentieth century—its impatience with formal art, its investigation of the nebulous but explosive unconscious, and its relativist philosophy—are caught in this work. Six Characters in Search of an Author is as important as a monument to the intellectual activity of an age as it is original and harrowing. And it is harrowing despite comic details because Pirandello’s puppets are intensely, if fragmentarily, alive." (pp 443-444) "The whole of “Six characters in search of an author" is a fantastic set of variations on the theme of the difficulties of the creative playwright in his struggle between the apparent reality of the figures his imagination creates, with the pitiful machinery of plot construction, and the crude figures of flesh and blood actors which is all the theatre can provide by way of interpretation." (Drew, 1937, p 32) When the manager cries out “the truth up to a certain point, but not further”, “he is concerned over the sensibilities of the critics and the audience; the limitations of the theatre are those of a society which will not face an unpleasant reality" (Brustein, 1964). According to this critic, the girl’s death and the son’s suicide are instances of melodrama and unconvincing. But it may be argued that they rather reflect the intrusion of chance into reality. Another viewpoint is that the scene reflects the wishes of the characters who seek to their life melodramatized.
In "Henry IV", it is noteworthy that while the doctor believes Henry IV to be a madman, Matilda believes he is pretending, her emotional involvement with the man guiding her more surely to the truth. Vittorini (1969) noted that “It is not correct to state that Belcredi and Matilda are lovers. There is hatred intermingled in their relation. Belcredi is a past master in antagonizing everyone with his insinuating remarks that reveal his perversity and the acuteness of his intellect...She had married another man, had had a daughter, Frida, the living image of her. Her husband had died. Belcredi had taken her body while her soul hated him...” (p 153) "The drama is a subtle study of the interplay of the conscious and the subconscious, the rational and the irrational, as they may be observed in human actions…What compelled Henry IV to leave the artificial groove into which he had gathered whatever debris of his life was left to him, was the call of the living life that reached him through the youth and charm of Frida There was a violent clash between the desolate coldness of his solitude and the warm breath of the world that he had forsaken. That clash made it impossible for him to cling to his illusion and, therefore, it revealed the tragedy of his lucid madness But it also made him feel that he was unfit to reenter the swift current of life that goes on and on, leaving behind all those who cannot keep pace with it. Tragedy stalks in, superinduced by this harrowing contrast." (pp 157-158) Brustein (1964) concluded that the actor had turned madman, now the madman turns actor.
"So it is, if you think it is"
Time: 1910s. Place: Italy.
Counselor Agazzi learns from his wife, Amalia, and his daughter, Dina, that Ponza, secretary at the prefecture, prevents his second wife, Lena, from seeing her own mother except when conversing from her balcony five floors up. Landisi, friend and neighbor to Ponza's mother-in-law, Signora Frola, remarks that things are not always as they appear, a person sometimes being different to different people. Having heard about the evil rumors against Ponza, Frola explains he is "kind, attentive, solicitous for my comfort," but it is his wish to keep his wife all to himself, which they consider extremely selfish on his part. After her departure, Ponza arrives distraught, explaining, to their astonishment, that Frola is insane, believing in her delusion that his present wife is her daughter when actually it is his dead wife who is her daughter. After his departure, Frola returns, as distraught as he, to reveal it is Ponza who is insane. Her story is that Ponza was so seized with love for her daughter that authorities had to take her away temporarily, so that he came to believe her dead. The two versions are unverifiable by official documents because an earthquake destroyed all records in their home town. Nevertheless, Agazzi's family and friends think to get at the truth by confronting Ponza with Frola, but the results are equivocal. Next, they ask Lena to come over, hoping to learn from her whether she is truly Frola's daughter. But before they do, a harassed Ponza, feeling his word is no longer worth anything, resigns from the prefecture. Next a weeping Frola tells them all how miserable they have made her life. At last Lena arrives, but once again the results are equivocal when she says that she is what her interlocutor wish her to be, so that Laudisi laughs on being proven right: two opposite conclusions can be equally correct, it is so if you think so.
Time: 1920s. Place: Italy.
An acting company rehearsing a play is interrupted by the arrival of a family of six: father, mother, two sons, one daughter, one stepdaughter. The father mysteriously announces that they are characters in search of an author. At first, the director considers them mad and wants them to leave, but then is intrigued by their family history to the extent of wanting to produce it as a stage-play. The father blames his wife for most of their disagreements, which forced him to leave the family abode. Many years later, he met his stepdaughter in Madame Pace's whore-house without recognizing who she is. The father and stepdaughter are touchy about the play-acting of this scene, wishing it to appear exactly as it was. The director commands the actors to observe the scene carefully for the forthcoming play, whereby the characters are stunned to learn that they will not be allowed to play in their own play. Madame Pace is needed at this juncture, so that, to the actors' surprise, the father suddenly introduces her to them. Madame Pace tells the stepdaughter she must shape up and do a better job in the scene, otherwise she will show her mother the door. The mother protests about the necessity of this scene, but her opinion is ignored. As the father and stepdaughter act out that part of their life, the director interrupts them. The actors cut in and imitate them, at which the characters frequently laugh aloud at their poor imitation of reality. The director is thus forced to allow the characters to play before their own rehearsal begins. The crucial moment arrives when father and stepdaughter embrace lasciviously until the distressed mother rushes in to cry out her true identity, a scene which pleases the director enormously. While waiting for the next scene, the characters exhibit severe conflicts, especially father against eldest son, the latter appearing almost as a stranger in his own family, having been sent away at a young age. Amid the fray, the youngest boy and girl huddle close together, silently. Amid more squabbles and recriminations, the young girl accidentally falls into a fountain and is drowned. Distressed in the extreme, the young boy shoots himself. While the family grieves on the sudden deaths, the director and actors cannot believe what they have just seen. Is this part of the play?
Time: 1920s. Place: Italy.
A rich man believes himself to be Henry IV, the 11th century German emperor. He is humored in that role by a variety of servants who profit by it. Marchioness Matilda, her daughter, Frida, and Baron Belcredi explain to Doctor Genoni that this unfortunate event was caused by a fall incurred during a Medieval pageant 15 years ago. Matilda further explains that the man was in love with her at that time and remarks that one of women's many misfortunes is to be the mark of "eyes glaring at us with a contained intense promise of eternal devotion." "There is nothing quite so funny," she adds. To shock him back to reality, Matilda pretends to be Henry IV's mother-in-law, the doctor pretends to be Hugh of Cluny, and Belcredi pretends to be a monk. Henry IV enters in penitential sackcloth and is immediately suspicious of the monk, considering him a disguised enemy. He speaks of the nature of our desires, no less ridiculous "when the will is kept within the bounds of the possible". Dr Genoni concludes that Henry, like children at play, both believes and disbelieves in his and their disguises. Frida becomes the Countess Matilda of Tuscany in the likeness of her portrait in the throne-room. The ploy seems to work, as Henry sees all the disguised figures step down from their portraits, especially stunned on seeing Frida as Matilda appeared so many years in the past. But then Henry reveals he had recovered his senses a long time ago, with a sensation that "everything had finished" and that he was arriving "at a banquet which had already been cleared away". He further declares he is cured because "he can act the madman to perfection". To prove it, he draws near the frightened Frida as his long-lost love. When Belcredi bars his way, he stabs him to death.
Beside Pirandello, honorable mention should be extended to Ugo Betti (1892-1953) for "Corruzione al palazzo di giustizia" (Corruption in the palace of justice, 1944) and "Delitto all'isola delle capre" (Crime at Goat Island, 1946).
"Corruption in the palace of justice"
Time: 1940s. Place: Italy.
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Several judges learn from their colleague, Croz, that the ministry has sent Councillor Erzi to investigate some of their doings. Though near death, Judge Croz still harbors a wish to become president. Ludvi-Pol, a man particularly involved in suspicious activities, has committed suicide in the palace of justice. Judge Cust reveals that the man had dealings with President Vanan who was inside the building on the night Ludvi-Pol killed himself. Vanan defends himself badly to the charge of illegally receiving funds from Ludvi-Pol. Though everything seems to point to Vanan's guilt, Erzi points out to Cust that one authoritative voice at least has defended him, Cust himself, so that Cust must be above suspicion, it being unlikely that the guilty turns an inquiry away from a false trail. "The real dangers are inside one's self," Cust comments. "What should the guilty worry about most?" wonders Erzi. "The documents," answers Cust. A much wasted Vanan is about to be interrogated. His daughter, Elena, comes forth with papers proving in her view his innocence. Without reading them, Cust interrogates her and dismisses her arguments one at a time, opining that her father is likely to be guilty. In front of Erzi and Croz, Cust drops the papers in the wastebasket. As they discuss the case, they hear Elena has just suffered a fatal accident by falling down an elevator shaft, at which Cust is devastated. Later, Croz finds Cust suspiciously looking about for documents and thinks to have discovered "the leper" among them. He wishes to reveal this to the others, but before he can do so, suffers a stroke. At his last gasp, he does not reveal his suspicions concerning Cust, named as the new president. Despite the nomination and tired about the whole affair, Cust at last decides to disclose his crime to the ministry.
"Crime at Goat Island"
Time: 1940s. Place: Goat Island, Italy.
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After several years spent in an African jail, Angelo visits Goat Island, where his dead jailmate lived before leaving his wife, Agata. He first meets Agata's sister-in-law, Pia, telling her he has no money and expecting to stay on as a laborer. He asks whether she would be kind to him if he comes to her during the night, but is repulsed. To the mistress of the place, Agata, he specifies he knows all about her from her husband's talk, including her sexual proclivities, showing every sign of wanting to replace her dead husband. Agata repulses him, but with Pia and her daughter, Silvia, retired for the night, she unlocks the door in hope of Angelo's return. He does and remains with the three women. Six months later, Silvia tells her mother she wants to head back to the university. She is scandalized and humiliated that Angelo is sleeping not only with her mother but also with her sister-in-law as well as herself. She pleads with her mother to let him go. Agata refuses. In desperation, she reveals her intention of killing him, which Agata dismisses as idle talk. However, one day, as he bends over to look over some clothes, Silvia creeps up behind him with a loaded gun until intercepted by Pia. Unable to convince her mother, Sylvia prepares to leave when suddenly the ladder slips down their well at the moment Angelo is looking for something in it. He cries for help, but the women do nothing. Two days later, Pia beseeches Agata to bring him back up, but she refuses. Silvia pleads even more vehemently with the same result. A desperate Angelo climbs the wall of the well but then falls as a man comes over to give Silvia a lift back to town. Unable to convince her sister-in-law, Pia leaves as well. With everyone gone, Agata throws down a rope down the well, but there is no response.
Also of note is Luigi Chiarelli (1880-1947) for "La maschera e il volto" (The mask and the face, 1916).
"The mask and the face"
Time: 1910s. Place: Italy.
At Count Mario Grazia's house party, judge Ugo points out to Pier, a banker, that Franco as a lawyer is very adroit with a jury. "And with a woman," Pier adds, though the woman in question is Savina, the count's wife. Before a group of unbelieving or shocked people, the count expresses the opinion that if a woman leaves her husband, his duty is to kill her. Savina is irritated at her lover's excessive zeal towards her, especially after he already paid for a dress and belt she asked him to buy for her in Paris. "Not a night but I dream of you," Franco says, to which she ironically replies: "I'll write your epitaph: here lies Franco Spina, as usual." She wants him to come to her room from the terrace to take back his gift. Meanwhile, Pier overhears his wife, Nina, agree to go to the studio of a French sculptor, Georges, apparently for adulterous purposes. He makes them know he overheard them, then shrugs it off. After learning about this incident, Mario is disgusted at Pier's lenient attitude. Aware of Franco's love of Savina and in love with him herself, Delia pretends she saw Mario enter her room when she knows it was Franco. After hearing this, Mario rushes off to shoot his wife, but is prevented from doing so by his friends. Nevertheless, without caring to know who the adulterer is, he wants her to leave Italy as if she were dead in exchange for money, a subterfuge she is forced to accept. He then confesses to the authorities to his wife's murder and accepts Franco as his defense attorney. The jury finds him innocent because of his wife's presumed scandalous behavior, which becomes a celebrated case. To his surprise and disgust, he receives thousands of approving letters and is banqueted by the city authorities. His story awes wives into submission to their husbands, even Nina towards Pier. Later, a fisherman discovers by chance Savina's dress and belt in the lake next to the count's villa, where Franco threw them away. To prevent their searching for more evidence, Mario says he has discovered the body and pays the mayor so that he need not show it. Instead, he places in her coffin one of Georges' statues. To his surprise and disgust, Savina shows up the night before her own funeral. After spending several months in prison, he is unable to resist her charms in bed, though unwilling the next day to reveal the truth of what he had done in her absence. At last, he feels he ought to. At first his friends do not believe she is still alive, then they advise him to bury the truth in secrecy. "If the public knew of the hoax, you would be nearly ruined," Ugo avers. Pier points out that his supposed deed has had a positive impact on moral principles. But when Nina discovers what her husband has done, she is transformed into her old insolent self towards him.
Also of note in late 19th century Italian drama is Marco Praga (1862-1929) for "La porta chiusa" (The closed door, 1913). Early critics narrow-mindedly complained of Praga's narrowness of purpose, being especially repulsed by female characters not presented in an idealistic fashion. According to MacClintock (1920), “Praga's limitation is that his process of selection was narrowed and darkened by an intellectual dyspepsia. He saw nature only as "the hog", activity as crime. The drama is made up of human situations and the only human situation Praga seemed to be interested in presenting was one that included adultery. There is no relief from this lurid crime. With deadly recurrence these corrupt and misguided women meet us. The men are either the dupes of their wives or partners in their disgrace. What kind of people could these have been and what kind of world was it he knew? But his pessimism and irony extend to all human relationships. His motto apparently is ‘what’s the use?’”...Though he has had the wide social experience of a man of the world and must have come into close contact with real men and women, Praga's lack of sympathy prevented his understanding them...His studies of women particularly, while they are keen, are curiously geometrical. The Ideal Wife, Paolina of "The virgins", Eugenia of "The enamoured woman" lay bare their souls to us as under the scalpel, but they lack femininity, sympathy, humanity. His scepticism made Praga's talent sterile. He never carries his readers or his spectators with him as a more virile and abounding talent would. He convinces but does not move or inspire.” (p 92-93)
"The closed door"
Time: 1910s. Place: Near Milan, Italy.
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Lucio Galvani Scotti has discovered a region in East Africa and founded a company to exploit it. His friend, Giulio, wants to go with him, but has promised his mother, Bianca, not to. "I must go away, do something, be someone,” he confides in frustration to the family friend, Decio, with whom he has traveled many times. He is also frustrated at his father’s way of life. “A man of his stamp, to eat, to drink, to dress in London clothes, to amuse himself in his own way!” he exclaims. After Decio’s repeated questionings, Giulio finally reveals his suspicion. “You are my father,” he declares. Decio is stunned, sinks on the divan, and by his looks and gestures admits the truth. “A closed door confronts me: I must open it,” Giulio says. Late in the evening, Bianca enters Decio’s room and guesses that Guilio knows their secret. He embraces her with love and pity. She now agrees to let her son leave for Africa. “It is my punishment,” she affirms. She specifies that she and Decio stopped being lovers when Giulio was six years old, at the moment when he felt something strange between them without understanding the nature of the bond. “To live for you, and only for you, seemed to be the one way to redeem my fault,” she adds. At her request, Decio decides to follow his son to Africa. Her husband, Ippolito, always knew he was Decio’s child, but fully accepted the situation. “He loves all women,” Decio comments. “What happened gave him absolute liberty, without question, without trouble.” In addition to Bianca, her niece, Mariolina, is dispirited at seeing both men leave, because she will always accompany her aunt and grandmother, two old women. The parish priest, Don Ludovico, is more philosophical about the trip. “Convince him that it is not dishonorable for him to keep silent,” he recommends to Decio concerning Giulio. “The only dishonor would be to reveal this secret, or even to show he knows it.” But on witnessing Bianca’s grief, Decio changes his mind. “Let me take you away,” he urges. “Giulio can make his own life. Let us have ours at last, together.” But she declines and appears wild with sorrow as her son and former lover leave together for Africa.