History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Italian Realist
The best play of Italo Svevo (1861-1928) is "Il ladro in casa" (The thief inside the house, written in 1886, published in 1932).
"The thief inside the house"
Time: 1880s. Place: Italy.
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Ignazio is set to marry Carla, whose dowry is to be paid by Carlo, her adopted father. However, Carlo's financial troubles force him to ask Ignazio for a delay in the marriage date. In exchange, he offers generous monthly payments in interest. Ignazio refuses. Carlo is so incensed that he suggests to Carla to forget him, but she declines and marries Ignazio. One day, Carla wishes to fire a female servant. Ignazio suspiciously opposes it. But when she confronts him a second time, he yields, having greater troubles on his mind: imminent bankruptcy unless he obtains a loan. Ignazio asks his Uncle Marco for one, but he refuses. He next asks Carlo, though lying about the reason for it, a jewel sale liable to make money for both of them. Carla is surprised at her husband's lie to her father, but keeps silent. The result is that Carlo never gets his money back. More financial troubles force Ignazio to plan escaping his creditors by leaving the city without taking along his wife and her friend, Elena. Carlo learns that other people have borrowed from Ignazio, namely Elena's husband as well as Marco, based on his falsified signature. Moreover, Marco informs Carlo that Ignazio and Carla have moved away no one knows where. Marco threatens to inform the police about the forgery despite Carlo's disapproval. Carla is not with her husband, for he is on his own the better to hide. She admits to Carlo's wife she has kept silent about her husband's shady dealings, to Carlo's detriment, but despite these dealings she would receive him back "with joy". In desperate straits, Ignazio surreptiously enters Carlo's house in the hope of hiding there. Marco tells Carlo he has not followed through with his threat, but worries about not knowing where he is, and Elena all the more so. She tells Carla that Ignazio borrowed expensive jewels from her and does not know where he is. Carla eventually discovers her husband inside the house. He proposes that they should leave the city together with some money he has managed to obtain. They are interrupted by Elena's return, frantic about her jewels. Carla understands the nature of their relation and leaves silently. Ignazio gives back her jewels. When Carlo enters, Carla can no longer restrain her resentment towards her husband, admitting her guilt in keeping silent all this time. Ignazio offers Carlo half his money as compensation for what he owes him. Carlo hesitates, but Carla takes the money for his sake. They next learn that Marco has gone through with his threat after all, as police officers enter the house. Ignazio escapes from the officers by climbing to the roof, but, to the grief of all, slips off and falls to his death.
The lyrical talents of Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938) are in evidence in "La città morta" (The dead city, 1899).
In 'The dead city", Anna is blind; she is the wife of Alessandro, a poet and scholar. Alessandro is morally blind, for he loves the younger Bianca, the sister of his friend Leonardo. Leonardo, the successful explorer and rifler of Homeric tombs, loves his own sister,— that ancient poison working in his veins,— and with this un-canny combination D'Annunzio plays his sinister tunes, evokes his strange harmonies" (Huneker, 1905 p 341). "'The dead city’ is D'Annunzio's first long play and in some respects his best. He was impassioned for Greek tragedy. In ‘The dead city’ he proposed to revive the mode of the Greek drama, and to restate in modern idiom its message. One of its message is the fatality inherent in family-related tragedies...The persons are not convincing as characters; they are rather mannequins in which the hand of the manipulator is constantly apparent, or better, each is an embodiment of some aspect or emotion of their creator, Gabriele D'Annunzio; they all tremble on the verge of madness, like the persons in some Maeterlinckian puppet show...As drama, ‘The dead city’ has this unforgivable fault, a lack of action. The emotional effect is not inherent in the play, but is derived from each person's description of his feelings, from the externals, from D’Annunzio’s description, his figures of speech, his images. Maria, Leonardo and Alessandro are not vital and living beings; what moves us is not their struggle and suffering- but D'Annunzio's description of it. And it is unalterably true that no superweight of meaning, no deep-buried treasure of symbolism can justify lack of action or unreality of characterization in a piece that professes to be a drama” (MacClintock, 1920 pp 104-107).
Chandler (1914) was morally offended by Leonardo's final deed: "the sense of duty that impels Leonardo to this act is strangely perverted. Had he slain himself, we might have approved the deed as one that had rid the world of a neurotic and erotic degenerate. Leonardo, however, entertains no notion of self-effacement. In fact, he regards what he does as his sister's only salvation. He boasts that there is no love upon earth equal to his own...The friend to whom Leonardo offers this amazing defence, although a married man, has himself been in love with the girl now dead. He accepts Leonardo's explanation and approves the deed...To the Anglo-Saxon mind Leonardo's moral logic appears sadly fallacious. Having banished the temptation to commit one crime by actually committing another, he glories in the deed as an act that will make for his closer friendship with one who had loved the victim of that crime. His motives are thus supremely selfish, yet he lays this flattering unction to his soul that now at last he is purified" (pp 66-67).
"When Leonardo has killed his sister in order that the hideous drama from the world of the dead may not be enacted once more in the lives of the living, the play closes with Anna’s cry. She knows without touching that she is stoop-ing over the body of Bianca. Her cry, “At last I see!” expresses her sudden comprehension of what in her blindness her divining mind had long been reaching out to understand— the nature of the strange trouble which has been creeping upon them. The parallel between Cassandra and Anna is not worked out by the dramatist; he hints at it— uses it as a romantic intensification. Anna comes out of Maeterlinck; indeed the atmosphere is derived from Maeterlinck, with the addition to it of the author’s own careering, quivering sensuality. The best poetry seldom springs from reflected sensibility, and it was in such passages as that describing the delight of drinking with face buried in a stream or in the exalted rhetoric of the love scene between Bianca and Alessandro that power was most to be felt" (MacCarthy, 1940 p 144).
"The dead city"
Time: 1890s. Place: Argus, Greece.
Anna, a blind woman, takes pleasure in touching Bianca Maria's hair, letting it fall all over her. "It is a torrent." she says. "It covers you all over. It falls to the very ground. It covers me too. What floods! What floods! It has a perfume, it has a thousand perfumes. A torrent full of flowers! Ah, you are altogether beautiful, you have every gift. How could you renounce one who loved you? How could you remain in the shadow, you who are made to give joy? Some part of you slept in darkness which has awakened now. You know yourself now; is it not true? I have listened to your step, sometimes. You moved as if you followed in yourself a melody you knew. Ah, if I could tell you the word of happiness, Bianca Maria!" Bianca Maria weeps at this. Anna pretends to her husband, Alessandro, that it is because she had been reading Sophocles' "Antigone". Bianca Maria's brother, Leonardo, arrives with joyful news on the success of his excavations: "The gold, the gold...the bodies... great heaps of gold...bodies all covered with gold," he enthuses. Leonardo loves her, so does Alessandro. "When I look at you, when I hear the rhythm of your breathing, I feel that there are other beautiful things to unveil, other good things to conquer, and that there are perhaps in the world things to be done, as delightful as the most beautiful dreams of poetry," he says. But when he takes her hands, she turns away from him. Anna arrives and asks to be kissed. Bianca Maria kisses her on the mouth. Alone with Alessandro, Leonardo reveals his excavations seemed to have poisoned him. Moreover, he is troubled about Bianca Maria. "She has been the perfume of my life, the repose and the freshness, the counsel and the comfort, and the dream, and the poetry, and all," he declares. Looking at "her little naked feet held out to the heat", he is overcome with repugnance by a "muddy thought". At this revelation, Alessandro staggers out, then comes back and touches his head. Alone with Leonardo, Anna grows disconsolate. "I no longer belong to the beautiful and cruel life, I am an obstacle in the way, a lifeless obstacle against which so much hope and force break and shatter," she says. How can her husband help loving Bianca Maria? Alone with Bianca Maria, Leonardo recognizes that his sister loves Alessando. "I vowed myself yours when we were left alone in the world; I will live in the future only for you. Tell me what we shall do. I am ready," she answers. They go out hurriedly, not answering Anna's call. When Alessandro asks his wife what she knows of Leonardo's horrible secret, she answers: "Only silence is worthy of us." In despair of their future, Leonardo drowns his sister in a public fountain "to save her soul from the horror about to seize on it", after which he feels much better. "I have become pure, quite pure," he affirms. As he and Alessandro lift the corpse, Anna calls out for her. They stand rigid with terror. She stoops over the corpse, touches it, and utters a piercing shriek as her sight is restored.
Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) wrote "Come le foglie" (Like the leaves, 1900) to evaluate the effects of a lack of money on a family, "that subtle analysis of the moral enervation consequent upon the irresponsible possession of unearned wealth” (Henderson, 1914 p 264).
MacClintock (1920) praised the character drawing of "Like the leaves": "Giovanni too wrapped-out in money-making to notice his household, Giulia spoiled by luxury, Tommy lazy and shiftless, Nennele used to luxury but willing to carry a burden. In contrast to Giovanni, Massimo, made rich by his own effort, acquires a large degree of humanity (pp 56-57). McLeod (1912) also praised its characters, including “the frivolous and easily led Giulia...The little speech in which her husband tells Massimo that she had brought an avocado to him with a cut-and-dried scheme for cheating his creditors is perhaps more suggestive of her character than anything that we actually see her do. Giovanni is, as he says, a working ox; full of good intentions, but having this vice— for in a father it is a vice— that he does not rule in his own house. All the minor characters— the aunt, Helmer Strille, the would-be wolf of Giulia's honour wrapped in the sheep's clothing of art, even the old painter, Giulia's second string, who comes in, flustered, after her umbrella— all have just enough character to be a part of the picture. Tommy, hopelessly weak, conceited, and utterly selfish, has a real shrewdness through all his folly and a real affection for his sister, through all his misuse of her. Massimo, sound, honest, and helpful, has just that peculiarly Italian failing— the desire to give reasons for everything. And Nennele, even she, with all her goodness and her common sense, has just two blots on her maidenly perfection, her sadness and her pride: a sadness that clouds her own view of life; a pride that hurts no one but herself. The one showing herself stretched dead on the bed in the room she is quitting, and bidding her write on the window 'a curse on whosoever shall occupy this room after me'; the other letting Massimo go away disconsolate at the moment of his and her utmost need, and scarcely finding breath to whisper when he is gone that accusing but self-accusing 'he doesn't understand’” (McLeod, 1920 pp 77-78).
"Like the leaves"
Time: 1890s. Place: Milan, Italy, and Geneva, Switzerland.
In the wake of financial ruin in Milan, Giovanni accepts a poor-paying offer of employment in Geneva from his nephew, Massimo. He will bring his wife, Giulia, and his two children from a previous marriage, Tommaso and Nennele, along with him, but worries about his wife's state of mind in the crisis. "She brought a lawyer into the house to persuade me to defraud my creditors," Giovanni informs Massimo. She has also sold items illegally. At the last minute, she attempted to go off without paying her dressmaker, but was caught in time. In Geneva, a listless Tommaso comments sarcastically about his step-mother's main occupation: painting landscapes, or "maligning nature with her misguided paint-brush". To make ends meet, Nennele gives private English lessons in French. Massimo tries to encourage her, but not Tommaso, who quit a job offered by Massimo "as foreman of a bunch of laborers boring holes in an ice-covered mountain". Having lost all his money at gambling, Tommaso asks Giulia for some. She yields him part of his request with the following specification: "If you win, you must give me half." When offered a post as secretary to a sawmill owner, Tommaso at first refuses, but then accepts in view of his father's depressive spirits. Later, Giulia asks for the key to a drawer containing the household money, but Nennele, as a prudent household manager, refuses. Frustrated, Giulia appeals to her husband, who informs his daughter that his wife is the household manager. Giulia has managed to sell two pictures, but this was achieved at the expense of her artist-friend, Helmer, who suspiciously invites her to his house. Nennele discovers that her step-mother has stolen her silver frame, but Tommaso declines to cooperate with her story, Giulia striding off vindicated. Frustrated about the poor manner in which the family has adapted to dreary conditions, Nennele asks Massimo whether he feels rebellious. "Do you rebel against leaves scattered in the wind?" Massimo retorts ironically. Though seemingly at work for weeks, Tommaso stayed for only a single day, Massimo discovers. "I give myself up to the current," Tommaso admits. He owes a great deal of money to a woman and will pay her back by marrying her. Seeing Nennele disheartened at these events, Massimo asks her to marry him, but she refuses, convinced the offer originates from charity, not love. That night, Giovanni discovers Nennele about to go out and guesses she means to commit suicide. As they talk, Giovanni seems to notice a man lurking in the shade of the hedge. Nennele sees him, too. "He stayed," affirms Nennele, overjoyed. "He stayed for me. He understood."