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).
In “Henry IV”, the actor had turned madman, now the madman turns actor (Brustein, 1964).
In “Six characters in search of an author", 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 Brustein (1964), the girl’s death and the son’s suicide are instances of melodrama and unconvincing. It may be argued that they rather reflect the intrusion of chance into reality.
"So it is, if you think it is"
Time: 1910s. Place: Italy.
Agazzi, a counselor, 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. This cannot be verified 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, 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 the father against the 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 the result of a fall incurred during a Medieval pageant 15 years ago. Matilda further explains he was in love with her at that time. She 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." Genoni concludes that Henry, like children when they 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 ago. 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 and that the latter was inside the building on the night he 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 unlikely to be innocent. 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. However, tired about the whole affair, Cust 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 in 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, Mario expresses the opinion that if a woman leaves her husband, his duty is to kill her. Alone with her lover, Franco, Savina is irritated at his zeal, 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," says Franco, to which she ironically replies: "I'll write your epitaph: hers lies Franco Spina, as usual." She wants him to come to her room from the terrace to take the gift away. 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 George's 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 has 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," says Ugo. 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 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 his female characters, who are 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 ‘à quoi bon?’, ‘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 her secret. He embraces her with love and pity. She now agrees to let him go to Africa. “It is my punishment,” she affirms. She specifies that she and Decio stopped being lovers when he 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 leave. She will be confronted with her aunt and her grandmother, two old women. The parish priest, Don Ludovico, is more philosophical. “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 in sorrow after seeing her son and ex-lover leave together.