Italian drama

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Plays

Absolutely! (Perhaps)

Luigi Pirandello
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (7), Female (7), Neutral (0).

Absolutely! (Perhaps) is a sparkling comedy on the elusive nature of reality, in which truth is negotiable and identity is performed. It is an adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s first play Così è (Se Vi Pare), and opened at the Wyndham’s Theatre in 2003.

In a small Italian town lives Signor Ponza, his wife and his apparent mother-in-law Signora Frola, who he will not allow to visit. With the neighbours gossiping over his cruelty, Signor Ponza claims that Signora Frola is mad and refusing to accept that her daughter is dead, and that he now lives with his second wife. Signora Frola counters the accusation, claiming that Ponza has unwittingly re-married his first wife. Impossibly, the Signora Ponza in question claims to be both daughter and second wife, plunging the play into a tangle of fractious theatricality.

Filumena

Eduardo De Filippo
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (8), Female (5), Neutral (0).

Filumena is de Filippo’s best-known work and arguably his finest comedy-drama, drenched in Neapolitan atmosphere and full of entanglements at once cynical and romantic.

In the heat of late-1940s Naples, Filumena Maraturano lies on her deathbed awaiting her marriage to Domenico Soriano, the man who has kept her as his mistress for twenty-seven years. But no sooner has the priest completed the ceremony than Filumena makes a miraculous recovery. As he reels in shock, Domenico discovers that this brilliant, iron-willed woman has a few more surprises for him.

Is Filumena a simple, illiterate woman who wants to create a family for her children, or a ferine, opportunistic prostitute? Will Domenico, the selfish aged gigolo, learn to accept his responsibilities? Exploring themes of family, age and love, Filumena exemplifies De Filippo’s trademark moral optimism and warmth, coupled with unflinchingly astute and humorous observation of his characters.

This striking translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker was first performed at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, in 1998.

Filumena Marturano

Eduardo De Filippo
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (8), Female (5), Neutral (0).

Filumena is De Filippo’s best-known work and arguably his finest comedy-drama, drenched in Neapolitan atmosphere and full of entanglements at once cynical and romantic.

In the heat of late-1940s Naples, Filumena Maraturano lies on her deathbed awaiting her marriage to Domenico Soriano, the man who has kept her as his mistress for twenty-seven years. But no sooner has the priest completed the ceremony than Filumena makes a miraculous recovery. As he reels in shock, Domenico discovers that this brilliant, iron-willed woman has a few more surprises for him.

Is Filumena a simple, illiterate woman who wants to create a family for her children, or a ferine, opportunistic prostitute? Will Domenico, the selfish aged gigolo, learn to accept his responsibilities? Exploring themes of family, age and love, Filumena exemplifies De Filippo’s trademark moral optimism and warmth, coupled with unflinchingly astute and humorous observation of his characters.

This translation is by Carlo Ardito.

Grand Magic

Eduardo De Filippo
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (11), Female (9), Neutral (0).

Unhappy wife Marta needs to take a drastic step if she wants to escape her jealous husband. To that end, she and her lover recruit the help of a seedy magician, who chooses Marta as his volunteer for the ‘disappearing person’ trick in his act.

When her jealous husband realizes that Marta is not reappearing, he demands that the magician return her.

In Grand Magic, Eduardo de Filippo, explores questions of faith, obsession, and delusion.This translation was first performed in England at the National Theatre, London, in 1995.

The Local Authority

Eduardo De Filippo
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (12), Female (8), Neutral (0).

When the court system is corrupt, where can people turn for justice? In a small town in Napoli – the setting for The Local Authority – justice rests in the hands of the local mafia on, Antonio Barracano.

But when Antonio is shot during the mediation of a dispute, he must struggle in his final hours to prevent a blood-feud from erupting after his death.

Written in 1960, The Local Authority was first performed in England in 1979.

Napoli Milionaria

Eduardo De Filippo
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (14), Female (7), Neutral (0).

Desperate to survive during the Second World War, Matriarch Amalia directs her family’s activities in the Italian black market, despite the disapproval of her husband, Gennaro.

When Gennaro returns from his time as a prisoner-of-war, he discovers that his family has descended even deeper into the criminal world.

First written in 1945, de Fillippo's play examines the plight of the poor and the moral corruption of the black market. Its first production featured both the author and his sister in major roles. This adaptation premiered at the National Theatre, London, in 1995.

Six Characters Looking for an Author

Luigi Pirandello
Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (7), Female (8), Neutral (0).

Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author is an extraordinary and influential play, a sharp-edged labyrinth of humour, pity and profundity. This text, entitled Six Characters Looking for an Author, is a new version by David Harrower.

Six people arrive in a theatre during rehearsals for a play. They are the characters of a play that has not yet been written. Trapped inside a traumatic event from which they long to escape, they desperately need a writer to complete their story and release them. Intrigued by their situation, the director and his company of actors listen as the characters begin to describe and argue over the key events of their lives.

Pirandello’s play deals at one level with the nature of theatre, the mystery of imaginative creativity and the clashes between life and art, and at another with the suffering of humanity, the bitterness of family breakdown and the pathology of guilt.

Six Characters in Search of an Author caused a riot when it was first produced in Rome in 1921, and was banned in Britain until 1928. Harrower’s version premiered in 2001 at the Young Vic Theatre, London.

The Syndicate

Eduardo De Filippo
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (15), Female (5), Neutral (0).

The Syndicate is a dark comedy of pathos and farce by one of Italy's pre-eminent dramatists of the twentieth century, Eduardo de Filippo.

Smuggled out of Naples in his youth after stabbing a brutal nightwatchman to death, Antonio Barracano returned home in the 1960s as a wealthy man. He used his newfound status to quash his murder conviction, and was soon feared but respected throughout the city. Don Antonio has made it his life's work to bring rough justice to the criminals of Naples who otherwise have no fear of the law. He rules the city's underbelly with a rod of iron.

The play begins when a respectable but poor young man who has resolved to murder his father comes to Don Antonio for advice. The Neapolitan 'Godfather' emerges from the shadows to make the young man's father an offer he can't refuse. The comedy grows blacker as 'respectable' Naples collides with its criminal underworld. The Syndicate is a grippingly theatrical examination of fear and alternative justice.

De Filippo's Il sindaco del rione Sanità is made newly accessible and contemporary in this translation by Mike Poulton.

1900–1970

Even after political unification in 1861, Italy remained a country of the city state, of the region. No unity was to be found in arts and literature. In drama there were major differences in language, form and audience make-up, particularly between the north (the locus of economic and political supremacy, concentrated in cities like Turin, Milan and Venice) and the south (Naples and Sicily). Marked differences were also to be found among the main northern cities.

While theatre in general was dominated by the opera, ‘straight’ drama at the end of the nineteenth century was characterized by the naturalist movement verismo, with its faithful and photographic depiction of reality. Its major representative was the Sicilian Giovanni Verga (1840–1922), whose narrative and theatrical works were studies of society in its historical context. His regional perspective underlay denunciations of the conditions of the poor and the working classes in Sicily.

The first two decades of the twentieth century marked the end of the romantic-verismo tradition and saw the emergence of anti-naturalistic movements like Futurism and the Theatre of the Grotesque, and of important writers such as Gabriele D’Anunzio and the highly influential Luigi Pirandello. Interest in the theatre of Carlo Goldoni (1707–93) was still very much alive, especially in the Veneto region from which he came and about which he so famously wrote, while a new enthusiasm grew for the commedia dell’arte and its masks from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; having in the intervening period been suppressed by the literary tradition, it began once more to exercise a fascination for anti-naturalistic authors and directors. In this context the variety theatre and cabaret played important roles, becoming, together with the circus, a great school for theatre and film actors such as Ettore Petrolini and Totò (Antonio de Curtis), as well as the theoretical model for the later avant-garde movement. And lyric theatre, which had dominated the ninenteenth century, slowly gave ground to drama, although its importance never died.

A novelist and war hero as well as a dramatist, D’Annunzio reacted against verismo, escaping from reality to take refuge in a world of beauty and of opulent and barbaric sensuality. He held both the peasants and the petty bourgeosie in contempt, and yet he created the myths through which the petty bourgeoisie realized their forbidden dreams of exceptional loves and later of nationalist and imperialist longings. He was also the poet and dramatist who personified the last fantasy of Italian tragedy, based on a classical past and an ill-fated grandiose scheme for total theatre in the open air. Also well known at home and abroad was the work of Roberto Bracco (1862–1943), who went beyond the world of verismo to present spiritual and religious problems and the conflicts of the subconscious.

The years of political stability and economic prosperity up to 1920 were also marked by a growing industrialization and the formation of a mass society. Nationalist tendencies became more virulent, as seen in colonial expansion in Libya, and this led later to the birth of a single Fascist party and incipient civil war. The spirit of futurism – a literary and artistic movement – represented the modern industrialized world of capitalism. The futurists were eager to destroy the past and the old ways of life in order to build a new world. In the theatre, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the father of futurism, wanted to destroy the concepts of proportion, perspective, time and space. He wrote his first experimental works in Paris, and it was there that he launched in 1909 the Manifesto of Italian Futurism, which provided a platform for new forms of literature and drama in Italy and abroad and had longer-term reverberations, especially in the 1960s and after.

In contrast to futurism, the theatre of the grotesque playwrights reacted against the old bourgeois, sentimental drama by adopting its basic formulae and applying them to their own contemptuous, cynical and disillusioned work. Their mistrust of human beings led them to view people as puppets in a world driven by the machine. The theatre of the grotesque became known to London and New York audiences through the works of Luigi Chiarelli, in particular through La maschera e il volto (The Mask and the Face, 1916), which many considered to be the ‘manifesto’ of the movement. Also current, and as a reaction to D’Annunzio, was the theatre of the ‘Crepuscolari’ (twilight) and the ‘Intimisti’ (intimate) – the former an ironic portrayal of a prosaic provincial view of daily life in languid tones, the latter a serious, demure expression of private feelings and states of mind. Fausto Maria Martini (1886–1931) was the leading ‘twilight’ dramatist.

During the Fascist period under Mussolini (1922–43), with the exception of a few works that praised the regime and a few escapist plays, the theatre remained substantially unchanged. It continued to be a theatre of famous actors (Ruggero Ruggeri, Ermete Zacconi, Eleonora Duse, Emma Gramatica) and repertory companies. Fascism tolerated some small experimental and avant-garde groups that flourished in Rome and Milan. Most had a very short life, with the exception of the Teatro degli Indipendenti, an experimental studio theatre founded in Rome in 1923 by Anton Giulio Bragaglia (1890–1960), who introduced new ideas of scenography. He saw theatre as a ‘technique of visualization’ and successfully presented a repertoire of Italian and international avant-garde drama (Wedekind, Jarry, Pirandello, the futurists) throughout the 1920s. In 1925, Pirandello created the Teatro d’Arte in Rome a short-lived experiment, lasting only until 1928 – and a travelling company which toured London and other European cities.

Fascism saw the introduction of state support to the theatre (a subsidy was given to Pirandello’s company and to the Teatro degli Indipendenti; financial support was also offered to Duse, which she declined). Among the prestigious institutions founded during the Fascist era were the Accademia d’Arte Drammatica (Academy of Dramatic Arts: a drama school), the Ente Teatrale Italiano (with the aim of promoting and developing theatrical events nationally and abroad) and the Istituto Nazionale Dramma Antico (which promotes classical drama), all of which have survived to the present day.

After the Second World War, with the reorganization of the state and its new republican constitution, there was a strong mood of rebirth. Local councils many run by the left – promoted cultural events, created networks of activities and venues (including the recovery of disused spaces), and helped establish new companies. Diffusion of culture to the masses and especially to young people was a priority. In the theatre, the main developments were the predominance of the director over the actor – teatro della regia and the formation of permanent theatre companies – teatri stabili. The names of some of the leading directors (Giorgio Strehler, Luigi Squarzina, Gianfranco de Bosio) were associated with the major teatri stabili. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the stabili wanted to express the civic ideals of the resistance and of anti-Fascist culture. They were originally formed in order to create a permanent ‘home’ for the nomadic actors, to research and to promote drama throughout the country while at the same time consolidating regional or even civic identity. For example, the first such theatre (and the most famous), the Piccolo Teatro of Milan, explored two genres: the ‘national-popular’, with plays in Milanese dialect or works by Goldoni, and an international repertoire. It was co-founded by Strehler and Paolo Grassi in 1947. Squarzina directed the Teatrod’Arte of Genoa (founded 1951) and de Bosio the Teatro Stabile of Turin (1955). Famous theatre companies were the Giovani (with de Lullo, Folk, Guarnieri, Valli, Allbani); Nuova Scena, set up by Dario Fo; and the Proclemer-Albertazzi, named after its cofounders.

At the same time, the theatre of Ugo Betti and Diego Fabbri was still very popular, an existentialist type of drama with religious overtones based on introspection and moral questioning. The dialect theatre of Eduardo De Filippo was also very successful. The true inheritor of the old Neapolitan tradition, he moved away from typical dialect theatre to a wider form of drama so that his work became a testament to the problems of his time: centrally, the inevitable conflict between the individual and a corrupt, disintegrating society. The search for moral values and the creation of an ethical code even in the midst of total chaos remain constant and central elements of his plays. In 1931 he formed the group Teatro Umoristico i de Filippo with his sister and brother. In 1945 he founded his own company, Il Teatro di Eduardo, with which he worked as writer, director and actor until his death. His work is played abroad with great success.

Between 1950 and 1960, due to the boom of the film industry and the introduction of television, theatre audiences halved, ticket prices doubled and performances came to be concentrated mainly in Milan and Rome. A counter-attack against this trend was mounted through the formation of permanent theatre companies in other Italian cities, through campaigns in favour of season tickets and through an effort to popularize the theatre, with the support of both private initiative and local and central government. The postwar theatre was still a strongly aristocratic, bourgeois and repertory drama. It lacked rapport with the public and failed to portray the social and political situation of the time – and, therefore, to appeal to wider audiences. Cinema, on the other hand, with its neorealism (Visconti, Zeffirelli, Rossellini), was a much more immediate, experimental medium; it successfully managed to attract both theatre people (thanks also to its being more lucrative) and theatre-goers, and to become an internationally famous and influential ‘school’. It continued to affect the theatre throughout the second half of the century; but by the 1980s most cinema actors (for example Benigni, Moretti) were coming from cabaret and the contemporary theatrical ferment.

The late 1950s saw the first stirrings of the avantgarde experimental movement, linked to a group of writers, actors and directors (e.g. Carmelo Bene, whose best-known works are Spettacolo Majakowskij, Pinocchio and Caligola, Franco Cuomo, Mario Ricci, Carlo Quartucci and Giuliano Scabia, whose Zip marked the first, unsuccessful, collaboration between a teatro stabile and an experimental group). The avant-garde groups advocated a new concept of theatre based on the connection between theatrical language and theatrical space, with audience participation and the use of visual techniques, unusual phonic systems, dynamic projections and provocative movements. The performance was seen as work-in-progress.

Another moment of change occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the time of student demonstrations, major workers’ disputes, and the beginning of the so called ‘strategy of tension’ with the formation of extremist left-wing groups. Some protagonists of the ‘New Theatre’ abandoned the avant-garde and tried experiments outside theatre structures; others felt the need to search for a new theatrical identity, to go beyond institutional theatre (which included the achievements of the previous generation such as the teatri stabili), to find urban and peasant communities so that they might create a ‘theatre of participation’. Strehler resigned from the Piccolo Teatro in 1968 only to return to its leadership three years later. A significant event at this time was Luca Ronconi’s production of Orlando Furioso (1968), with its experimental use of space and relationship with the audience, showing the influence of the visual and the physical which was strong in Italy. During the 1970s, a decentramento trend, which had its roots in left-wing ideology, attempted to redistribute funds and subsidies from government, independent bodies and also private sponsors (generally given to institutional theatre) to alternative companies and venues all over the nation. Decentralization saw the birth of thousands of small companies, community theatres and student groups which tried to find alternative styles, rejecting the conventional concept of theatre and challenging its hierarchies. Only a few (e.g. Teatro d’Elfo, Il Collettivo di Parma, Gruppo della Rocca, Teatro del Sole) survived when in the late 1970s the funds were withdrawn and re-invested in the established theatre.

Standing in a category of his own is Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo. As writer, actor and director he is one of the most vital, courageous and controversial theatre personalities of the century, and his popularity has extended worldwide. Fo’s theatre is militant, a ‘throwaway’ theatre that aims at stimulating the audience’s opinions and reactions, the embodiment of a serious political and social commitment that goes far beyond entertainment.

1970–2000

From 1970 to the end of the century, the group II Carrozzone (later I Magazzini) – Federico Tiezzi, Sandro Lombardi, Marion d’Amburgo – set the pace for the new avant-garde, from its shocking refusal of theatre convention and teatro di poesia in the 1980s to a deepening of its work in the 1990s thanks to the contribution of poets/playwrights such as Edoardo Sanguineti, Mario Luzi and Giovanni Testori. In the 1980s Giorgio Barverio Corsetti emerged, dedicated to urban panoramas of concept-music, video and body art, and involved in explorations of video-theatre and stage adaptations of twentieth-century literature and poetics. In 1999 he became the artistic director of the Théâtre Viennale in Venice, thus bringing the avant garde experience into established institutions. In the same year, theatre and film director Mario Martone, founder of Teatri Uniti in 1988, became the artistic director of the Teatro di Roma. His reforms, however theatre in alternative spaces, more projects and stagings at lower costs and for a larger audience – did not fit with the administration’s politics of a teatro stabile, and he resigned in 2000.

Many interesting groups appeared at the end of the century. Heirs of Pirandello’s metaphysics, of the avant-garde ‘isms’ and of Carmelo Bene’s genius, they come from small cities and towns and represent a bright alternative to commercial theatre. Iconography and iconoclasm mark the work of the group Motus, creators of performances lacking any defined structure and characterized by typical postmodern ‘hypercitation’. Fanny & Alexander regains the pleasure of words and voices, staging radio-drama versions of Shakespeare; choosing to work with traditional texts, they free themselves from the constraint of giving primacy to storytelling, enabling themselves to deepen their analysis and explore the relationships between the text and other texts and the contemporary scene. Lenz- Rifrazioni affirms the romantic ‘impossibility to represent’, working with actors with mental illness, by this means reaffirming the body-rite of the actor as original ‘locus’ of theatre. Societas Raffaello Sanzio takes this aesthetic to extremes, into a real anatomical theatre: a rhetorical work on bodies and figures meant to incite a more radical form of communication. Working on extra-ordinary, defeated bodies as ‘perfect’ bodies, this group brings on to the stage a truly postmodern transfiguration of myth and fairytale.

from Evita Bier and Massamiliano Cossati, The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).