History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Italian Pre-WWII
- 1 Luigi Pirandello
- 2 Ugo Betti
- 3 Luigi Chiarelli
- 4 Marco Praga
- 5 Massimo Bontempelli
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).
Critics have misunderstood "So it is, if you think it is". “The final impression is of the paradox that truth is illusory, whereas it should be that truth is unimportant- especially when set against the compassionate lie” (Gascoigne, 1970 p 103). Skinner (1931) declared that "undoubtedly Signor Pirandello, who likes to appear baffling, thinks he has demonstrated in this three-act 'parable' the utter relativity of truth. One suspects that is why so modern-minded a group as the Theatre Guild took special delight in presenting it, for it is part of the mood of the day to flout all objective standards in the interests of private judgment. How comforting to convince yourself that what you want to believe is true, and then to act on the assurance that it is true because you think it is! Unfortunately (for the moderns) Pirandello has demonstrated only one thing- that he can write a highly diverting play. He leaves the matter of truth just where he found it, divided as it always has been, into one kmd that is relative, because it depends on imperfect personal observation, and another kind that is quite absolute because it is objective. In brief, Pirandello is puzzling only to those who like to puzzle themselves by never defining words, or by using one word half a dozen times to mean half a dozen separate things. It is like using “bread” one minute to mean food in general, the next to mean a baker’s loaf, a third time to mean hot-cross buns, and then concluding with the triumphant statement that there is no one who can possibly know just exactly what bread is after all. Here we have the essence of advanced modern thought!" (p 258). Likewise, Agate (1944) wrote that “the dramatic significance in this play should lie not at all in the question of identity- which is what we are made to pursue throughout the whole evening- but in the influence upon the husband and mother-in-law of their views as to that identity. Is it better to be sane and lose a cherished object, or mad and keep it? This is the true drama, whereas the poser which Signor Pirandello prefers is whether we take the object to be teacup or tea caddy...What interests me in the present play is the ‘story’ behind grief of such momentum that its impact destroys reason. But that is the tale Signor Pirandello will not tell, preferring that we should spend the evening guessing which of two lunatics is the likelier” (pp 188-189). The play is not about guesswork, according to Bentley (1953). “The domestic unhappiness of a husband, a wife, and a mother makes up the tragic triangle. A commentator named Laudisi is the raisonneur à la Dumas. The peculiar thing about the situation in this domestic tragedy is that we do not know what it is: a fact that is as much second nature to Pirandellians as it is disconcerting to others. The peculiar thing about the raisonneur is that instead of giving us the correct view of the tragedy he tells us that all views are equally correct. But then, according to Pirandello, this is the correct view...Pirandello is at great pains to balance the two interpretations exactly, to tug our feelings now this way, now that, now up, now down, on the alarming switchback of his thinking. We may think ourselves on the right track, for example, when the husband, untrue to his story, is furiously angry with the old lady and tries to convince her that his wife is not her daughter. But, as soon as she leaves, his rage subsides. He was just play-acting, he tells us, to confirm her impression- so necessary to her peace of mind- that he is mad...There is a true version of the story but it must not be known lest the lives of three people concerned be shattered. But, someone will protest, could not Pirandello use the prerogative of the omniscient author and tell us without telling the characters what the remedy is which their love has found? He could. But his refusal to do so is more to his purpose. The truth, Pirandello wants to tell us again and again, is concealed, concealed, concealed! It is not his business to uncover the problem and solve it for us as in a French piece à thèse. The solution of the problem, the cure for these sick human beings, is to leave their problem unsolved and unrevealed” (pp 146-149). "It is clear to the inhabitants of a small Italian town that an ambiguous relationship exists between three members of a family which has just come to the town to live. Many versions of the 'truth' are advanced, both by the townsfolk and the three concerned. As in many of the plays, there is a chorus character or 'raisonneur', to present Pirandello's point of view, that it is impossible to discover the truth. Every act, including the last, ends with this character laughing at the discomfiture of the community, for certainly the 'truth' is not discovered" (Fiskin, 1948 p 45). At the end of the play, 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). "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" (Gassner, 1954a pp 440-441). “What is radical about the play [is that the purpose of the drama]...ought not...provide the consolation of an assured ending establishing a specific truth or solving a mystery, a confirmation of the human world’s logic and orderliness” (Gilman, 1999 pp 170-171).
In “Six characters in search of an author", "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" (Gassner, 1954a pp 443-444). “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?”...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...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...[When the brothel scene is enacted], father and stepdaughter are unable to recognize themselves...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 tragedy and grief” (Vittorini, 1969 pp 291-300). "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 characters who seek melodrama in their life. "The arrival of the characters at the rehearsal is due to their desire (largely the father's and stepdaughter's) to work through the pain into some understanding and catharsis of that thing which had happened to them. Their attempts to think the matter through, in turn, give rise to the final tragedy. The dramatic material is not just generalized speculation about life, but a tortured introspection growing out of a particular" (Fiskin, 1948 p 49). In the view of Bentley (1968), only two characters search: the father and the stepdaughter...Even the stepdaughter has only a conditional interest in finding an author, the condition being that the father insists on finding him. Then she will meet the challenge...The various family catastrophes stem from him...The inner world of the father contains nothing much besides his two or three phantasies and the pain he feels in failing to justify himself. The director's outer world is reduced to rituals that preserve the appearances and maintain the occasion, habits, routines, clichés. All that either the father or the director does is repeat himself, a factor which is close to the central metaphor of the play: life as theatre. Which aspect of theatre is exhibited in this play? Not performance. Only rehearsal- repetition. The stage is bare. The auditorium is empty. The theatre, too, is impoverished and deprived. The bourgeois drama, which had become thrilling through a kind of claustrophobic tension, here dissolves in agoraphobia, its opposite" (pp 66-67). "Signor Pirandello has illustrated what every profound dramatist must feel when he sees his characters on the stage; his sufferings at the inevitable distortions due to the substitution of the personality of the actor for that of his character as he imagined it. But he has done more than that. He has suggested the inevitable limitations of the modem drama, the falsifications which result from cramming scenes into acts and tying incidents down to times and places. And he has done more yet; in an odd way he has suggested that the fate of many people is not unlike those of the characters in the play; that many of us are in their predicament, namely, like them, real enough people, for whom fate nevertheless has not written the plays in which we might have played a part" (MacCarthy, 1940 pp 164-165). “To the horror of the actors, the little girl and the boy are found to be really dead. This is not a cheap and sensational ‘coup de theatre’, though it unfortunately may seem so to those members of the audience who, like the actors on the stage, fail to see that it is the simple conclusion of the split between character and actor” (Gascoigne, 1970 p 105). In this scene, “Pirandello securely establishes the proposition that drama may in fact be a species of philosophy and that thought is a form of action” (Gilman, 1999 p 179).
In "Henry IV", “the play’s main weakness is that the drama of its first act depends on our knowledge of what is not revealed till later- that he is sane. Without this knowledge, the act seems a limp indulgence in pathos” (Gascoigne, 1970 p 106). Other critics disagree. “For its first meeting with Henry, the group has dressed to impersonate people the historical emperor has known, the meeting is to be a preliminary to the plan’s master stroke, but it is charged with tension and there is one especially disturbing note. ‘I could have sworn he knew me,” the marchioness tells the others afterward” (Gilman, 1999 p 184). "After the delight or the exasperation in the intellectual prestidigitation palls, the man begins to emerge from under Henry's flamboyant masquerade. The plot changes meaning and significance. To the protagonist the elaborate masquerade was never just a stunt. It was, perhaps a madman's world, but a madman's world created consciously as a means of escape. When sanity returned after twelve years, Henry found that his private world had more reality than the outside world. He had lived the masquerade; the real world had passed him by. His masquerade represented peace; the outside world, only the many problems that would again close about him upon its acceptance" (Fiskin, 1968 p 49). 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...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 153-158). 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.
Text at http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/lp/itisso.htm http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42148 https://archive.org/details/threeplays00pirarich https://archive.org/details/threeplays00pirarich https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.95095
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.
Text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42148 https://archive.org/details/threeplays00pirarich https://archive.org/details/threeplays00pirarich http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/lp/six.htm https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.95095 https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.151773/page/n13
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.
Text at http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/lp/e4.htm http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42148 https://archive.org/details/threeplays00pirarich https://archive.org/details/threeplays00pirarich https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.95095
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).
"The characters in 'Corruption in then palace of justice' function as little cogs in a huge mechanism, marvelling in the fact that their obscurely motivated actions contribute to a dynamic which is alien to them. Some,like Vanan, may stand still a moment ('one sees all the water go in the same direction.., .and is seized by a vertigo') before giving in to the sway of the universe. But there are others and more often than not, they are the very ones who seem to contribute most to the perpetuation of that mechanism, who cannot suppress an inchoate desire to resist its movement and to assert their freedom. Such is the case of Judge Cust, who is one of those implicated by the investigation at the courthouse...Elena...is...a symbol of uncorrupted and incorruptible childhood: she rejects life rather than submit to the corruption of earthly existence. But it is her redeeming power over Judge Cust that is important to the theme of his spiritual rebirth. This is effected through a more integral working of the regression-progression pattern into the action of the play. During Cust's agony and pathos, the efficacy of Elena's presence is illustrated by the regression of his psyche to his own childhood; and his entire peripety is punctuated by the obsessive memory of Elena's fall. Finally, Cust's confession to Croz is accompanied by his account of a dream vision centered in the child-motif. The three moments marking the path of Cust's regression-progression are: his reaction to Elena when she first appears; his destruction of Elena in Act II; his confession to Croz in Act III" (Rizzo, 1963 pp 112-115). d'Amico and Clancy (1950) viewed "Corruption in the palace of justice" as a place where "fraud is triumphant, cynicism is king, honor is merely a lie: this is the discovery made by the inquisitor who had come to judge the judges, to find out the 'leper' who, evidenced by several inexplicable symptoms, must have brought corruption even to the seat of justice itself. Everyone is officially venerable, everyone is secretly guilty: an absent-minded president, a magistrate to whom everything is a subject for mockery, other justices, all hypocritical and fearful" (p 217).
"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," Cust answers. 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 keep silent over 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 as a play of social criticism is "La maschera e il volto" (The mask and the face, 1916) by Luigi Chiarelli (1880-1947).
"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.
More social criticism, this time in the family domain, is the theme of "La porta chiusa" (The shut door, 1913) by Marco Praga (1862-1929).
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 shut 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.
Another drama of interest, "La guardia alla luna" (Watching the moon, 1920) written by Massimo Bontempelli (1878-1960), features a crazed mother chasing her dead baby.
"Watching the moon"
Time: 1920s. Place: Italy.
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Maria watches over her 15-month-old baby girl in the cradle along with a nun and another woman. A third woman sits farther away with her head bowed. The nun and the other woman encourage Maria to eat and sleep. Although she does not wish to, Maria agrees to follow them, but quickly returns, all the more so after seeing moonlight shining on the cradle. Suddenly, she gropes and frantically searches among the blankets. “Where is she?” Maria cries out. To the distress of the accompanying women, she blames the moon for stealing her baby. To get her child back, she consults a deputy policeman, who is willing to help until Maria declares that she was taken by the moon. “I realized that the moonlight that stole my baby was the very same light- the very same!- as that night when I gave myself to my friend.” She is convinced that the moon takes babies all over the world and is determined to prevent it by discovering where she first enters the earth. “I will succeed,” Maria says. “I’m sure of it,” the deputy responds, resignedly colluding with the delusion. On a transatlantic liner, Maria rejects the advances of young man. “I have a duty ahead of me that’s too great,” she announces. She next finds herself in the alley of a great city leading to a whorehouse. She asks the innkeeper whether the place is Moon Alley, but he seems mad and unable to respond. Mistaking her for a whore, a passerby moves away. A bawd and her assistant emerge and rudely ask her to leave. She stays and yelps enthusiastically after learning from the bawd that the brothel is named “The house of the moon”. The bawd and whores at the windows return inside as another passerby enters the alley. Although Maria wants more information about the house, the man panics after hearing police whistles and leaves abruptly as two policemen seize Maria. “She’s a thief,” a whore declares on her way back. They lead her away with backup help. Injail, she talks to a fellow prisoner in the cell next to hers, who announces that she comes from the moon towns. Maria is startled by the name. “The village is called Three Peaks, precisely because there are three mountain peaks: high peak, cold peak, and split peak,” she says. “They say it is the highest village on earth, that it’s the first village where moonlight strikes.” No further encouragement is needed before Maria heads for the village where she meets the man who had abandoned her and the baby. When a romantic girl passes by enthused about the moonlight, Maria announces her conviction. “The moon comes from heaven through Split Peak to the world,” she says. Her former friend is scared of her and moves away with his current girlfriend. To find the moon, she asks a bellman to wake her at four in the morning when, despite warnings from several people, she climbs to block the moonlight from the earth, convinced that she has succeeded.