History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Italian Post-WWII

Luigi Lunari


Luigi Lunari (1934-2019) excelled in the metaphysical play, "Tre sull'altalena" (Wrong address, 1994), a play with a certain affinity with Sartre's "No exit" (1942) with a fourth character added.

"Wrong address"

A CEO worries over a dysfunctional phone and a Singapore telephone directory

Time: 1990s. Place: Italy.

Text at ?

Ernesto, chairman of the board (CEO) of a small company, expects a rendez-vous with a woman named Annalisa from the Aurora Rooming House. Although able to enter the house, he cannot find her or anyone else. After entering the bathroom, a retired captain of the army secret services, Bigongiari, arrives for a meeting with a man named Anselmi from Infomac, without being able to find him either. While inopportunely opening the bathroom door, he discovers Ernesto, much to the latter’s irritation. The CEO is convinced that the house is situated at 2 Carmel Place, not at 1 Light Horses Street as the Captain Bigongiari thinks, so that as the latter leaves in some confusion, a third man, Professor Vittorio Sapponaro, enters to recover preprints from his publisher, only to find a Bible and the Singapore telephone directory. Irate, Captain Bigongiari re-enters to say that the house is not situated at 2 Carmel Place, a matter confirmed by the professor. It is Ernesto’s turn to leave confused, but yet the captain and the professor discover that each may have the wrong address, as the latter believes he is at Minervini Editions, 12 Pacini Street. Supposing the captain to be correct, Vittorio exits while the captain heads for the bathroom. An even more irate Ernesto charges back to say to the returning Vittorio that it is the captain who has the wrong address after all, both men having verified that their own is correct. On his way back in, Bigongiari thinks to have discovered the solution to their conundrum, for each had entered through different doors, presumably representing different addresses. But yet all three are still befuddled as to whether they find themselves in a rooming house, an information center, or a book publisher. Attempting to leave through the door the professor entered, Ernesto finds it locked, a fact confirmed by the captain, but yet when the professor himself turns the knob, the door opens easily enough. Stumped, Ernesto tries to open the captain’s door, but is unable to. For his part, the professor cannot open either the captain’s door or Ernesto’s, each being able to enter only though his own door. Likewise puzzled but unwilling to wait longer, Vittorio turns away and leaves. In the sunny and hot room, Ernesto grabs a beer from the fridge without finding any orange juice to the professor’s taste until the professor himself finds his own drink inside the fridge. The two are stunned after seeing the professor return again wet through. More surprising still, Vittorio finds his needed hot chocolate in the fridge, all three only seeing the type of drink they desire but not that of the other two. Suddenly, the siren sounds to mark the start of the anti-pollution curfew and so they are forced to stay inside for the night, though with the telephone out of order. While waiting for the all-clear, Ernesto complains of Captain Bigongiari’s comments on death, and so the latter tells a story about a man named Ernesto returning home after 20 years abroad. At every station on the way home, his emotions rise on boat, train, and bus up a mountain pass. Finally, he arrives to his village, walking towards his old home while carrying two suitcases. “At a certain moment,” the captain concludes, “he sees the postman coming. One must imagine his emotion...a childhood friend, one of his favorite playfellows unseen for 20 years, 20 years ago!...Ernesto then puts down his suitcases, so moved that he has trouble talking and yells out: ‘Pietro! Pietro!’ The postman stops, turns around, looks at him and calmly says: ‘O, Ernesto, you are going away on a trip?’” “It’s a scandalous story!” Ernesto exclaims. “Unworthy!” To Bigongiari an amusing one, to Ernesto tragic! For his part, Ernesto remembers a story about people having forgot why they entered a boat until they are put to mind of the danger they were previously in, and realize at last that they are dead. “What if we are like them?” Ernesto wonders. While he and the professor discuss the matter, they notice that the captain is lying on the sofa with his eyes closed. Terrified, Ernesto slowly advances towards him to find out whether he passed away first, until he hears him snoring. Nevertheless, Ernesto remains tormented by thoughts of death, but with no qualms of conscience, he says, except for some tax evasion. Persuaded by such thoughts, Vittorio tries the phone to find out whether he is at home, but it is still out of order. Suddenly, the phone rings. All three freeze in fear until it stops ringing, Ernesto blaming the others for staying put until it starts ringing again, only to hear Bigongiari say it is a wrong number. Yet Ernesto worries over the first call: what if the caller was different? He also worries over the presence of the Singapore telephone directory after discovering his name in it, as do the other two men. Suddenly, a trap-door opens from floor level and a cleaning woman emerges, in the CEO’s view perhaps a presence from beyond. He admits to being an atheist, but only “under normal conditions”. Nonplussed, all three men help her do her job while wondering what to say as she sits down to relax. “Six days non-stop of work and then a seventh day to rest!” she exclaims. “Here, everyone has four days of work. And yet when I stop, everything stops.” Ernesto discovers new qualms of conscience: adulteries, and the unnecessary firing of 20 of his employees, which triggers the captain to admit he abandoned a woman long ago. For his part, the professor refuses to engage in such confessions, solidly confident in rationalism until the chair he is standing on crumbles underneath him. In everything she says, Ernesto discovers some metaphysical significance. “Excuse me,” he asks her. “Your only child was not a carpenter by any chance?” “No,” she answers, “but his father was,” which puzzles Ernesto all the more, as does her equivocal phrase of “as long as the barque moves forward, let it slide.” In the professor’s opinion, the phrase may be deep or trivial depending on context, if found in a song trivial, if in the Gospel deep. As the woman readies herself to leave, Ernesto hands over the telephone directory, but she pronounces that it belongs to someone else. When sirens sound to indicate the all-clear, Ernesto rushes out towards his door, as do the others, but they are all forced to return after discovering that all three doors are now locked.

Dario Fo

Dario Fo amalgamated a fine literary style with popular theatre

Dario Fo (1926-2016) was the most visible representative of late 20th century Italian comedy, featuring the black comedy: "Morte accidentale di un anarchico" (Accidental death of an anarchist, 1970). His comedies are characterized by a mixture of popular and artistic elements.

"The subject of 'Accidental death of an anarchist' is the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, who allegedly threw himself out of the fourth-story window of the Central Police Headquarters in Milan during an interrogation in 1969. The play goes into the case in exhaustive detail, including in the script lengthy citations from the official police report presented as testimony during the inquiry into the circumstances of Pinelli's death" (Cowan, 1975 p 106).

“This farce...was grounded...on 1969 in a bomb exploded in Milan…Pinelli was arrested...and killed...when his body flew out...of police headquarters where he was interrogated...[In the play], it is the maniac’s seemingly insane logic which is instrumental in unmasking the criminal folly of the police in their attempts to cover up their actions...His own distortion of language is the perfect weapon against the distortion of the facts perpetrated by the police and the media...As a certified psychotic suffering, according to the medical report, from ‘histrionic mania’, he is compelled constantly to play the parts of a whole range of characters. His masquerading as Professor Rabbia (the word means madness in Italian) is only the prologue to what will become a rapidly escalating sequence of impersonations. As the judge...he is able to run rings around police in their vain attempt to make sense of their confused and fabricated evidence...He forces the police literally to re-enact the events of the night the anarchist dies, with hilarious consequences, and gets them to admit they completely misled the suspect so as to browbeat him into a confession...They are put in the position of the anarchist as the judge invents the idea of the state using them as scapegoats ‘to salvage what is left of the mangled reputation of its police force’...The farce undergoes a further development with the entry of the journalist, Maria Feletti...Fo has deliberately organized the drama so that the most serious part of the play- the lengthy discussions...which expose...the wider corruption of the establishment- precisely coincides with the most comic: the inevitable realization by Bertozzo that the forensic expert is the maniac and the attempts of the others to silence him on the mistaken assumption that he is the judge in disguise...There is not a gag in the long final scene that is not there to underline a serious point” (Hirst, 1989 pp 41-51).

“Having manipulated the cops into confessing the truth to his fictional judge, Fo proceeds to push the theatrical political paradox a step further, into the realm of the grotesque. Late in the play, the cops coax the maniac to assume yet another character, that of forensic expert, Captain Piccini, for the purpose of deflecting the questions of an investigative reporter who is about to arrive on the scene. Fo incarnates Piccini as a preposterous conglomeration of such blatantly bogus body parts that he is transposed into a virtual marionette. The Piccini puppet features a wooden leg, a detachable wooden hand, a crutch, a glass eye (also detachable) and an outrageously fake moustache and wig. As though this physicialization were somehow too subtle, Piccini then proceeds to underline his grotesque condition with each phrase and gesture in such a way as to oppose or contradict every dramatic action that could be construed as constitutive of social, political, or psychological stability and order. His hand comes off when he attempts to shake hands. Just as he finishes a particularly lucid account of the anarchist's jump, his eye pops out. Then when one cop winks at another in an attempt to gain his cooperation, Piccini drops his eye in a glass of water and swallows it. Soon after the revelation that paid informers are the ‘eyes and ears of the state’, the maniac punctuates a comment about the state's gruesome excesses by removing his wooden leg. He rips off his ersatz eyepatch while announcing ‘corruption is the rule’. As the scene builds, it becomes increasingly evident that the grotesquely corrupted body of the maniac and the body politic are theatrical reflections of each other” (Wing, 1990 pp 145-146). “At the foundation of Fo’s theatre there is the relationship with the people which involves a specific style of representation, the grotesque, and a response-link based on anger, and it is helped and maintained by reason in understanding and analyzing reality” (Ghelardi, 2002 p 224).

“One of the fundamental political purposes of the play...was the need to draw general conclusions from each individual scandal. At one point, the maniac outlines the normal sequence of events: ‘a huge scandal...a lot of right-wing politicians arrested...a trial or two...a lot of big fish compromised...senators, members of parliament, colonels...the social democrats weeping’...The maniac also clarifies why a society obsessed by scandal furthers bourgeois interests: ‘You see, your average citizen doesn’t actually want all the dirt to disappear. No, for him, it’s enough that it's uncovered. There’s a nice juicy scandal and everyone can talk about it...As far as he’s concerned, that is real freedom, the best of all possible worlds’” (Behan, 2000 p 71). "Although Fo certainly pokes fun at the police officials in 'Accidental death of an anarchist', he does not present them merely as comic figures but rather as devious abusers of power...The maniac, at the play's end...threatens to do what Fo has just done: to put the insanity, injustice, and hypocrisy of the system before the people" (Maceri, 1998 p 13).

The play is sometimes distorted in translation, the maniac turned into a fool. “A fool in the US is a harmless entity, a term hardly applicable to the rabid psychotic character Fo created, where the maniac turns into an official investigator to clean up the government’s contradictions. The subject of the play was not a one-off mistake, rather the government’s long-term programme to destroy the left” (Davis, 2017 p 192). “Fo offers a Marxist point of view...If the people producing, directing and acting in a Fo play are non-political, ie if they are bourgeois or liberal-minded, then they are bound to have trouble with this political, Marxist script” (Davis, 1986 p 318).

Fo’s “use of commedia techniques and traditions to create an immediate form of political theatre has stirred controversy because his use of this form, which is often seen as merely lighthearted or decorative by modern audiences, is saturated with his political messages. Fo's goal, since discovering his method and stage persona, has clearly been in sight: marxism as an ideology with a focus on examining the social, economic, moral, and political plights of the middle and lower classes...The approach is that of an epic actor, who sees art as political empowerment, and his work can only be understood as it represents a creative reaction to the most topical social, political, and moral issues. Breaking through the fourth wall of realism, which has dominated so much twentieth-century literary drama, Fo, the playwright and actor, is more the exception than the rule” (Fisher, 2001 pp 51-52). “Dario Fo has transgressed many of the boundaries in which European literature has often been confined: between aesthetic distance and direct political action, between high art and popular culture, between literature and theatre, between acting and writing. His works have redefined the role of the artist as a conduit for popular history, an educator, a commentator, a provocateur, a revolutionary” (Rebellato, 2015, p 82).

"Accidental death of an anarchist"

Giuseppe Pinelli at the Anarchist Circle, Ponte della Ghisolfa, Milan, Italy

Time: 1970s. Place: Milan, Italy.

Text at http://www.socialiststories.com/writers/dario-fo-and-franca-rame/

A madman is interrogated by Police Commissioner Bertozzo for impersonating a psychiatrist. The madman explains he has taken on several other roles in the past, calling his condition "histriomania". When Bertozzo leaves his office for a moment, he identifies himself over the telephone as the commissioner's colleague and gives misleading information about Bertozzo. As a result, the caller comes over to the police station and hits Bertozzo. The madman next takes on the role of a counsellor sent to investigate the suicide of a presumed anarchist who fell from a window of the police station. The false counsellor interrogates a second commissioner and a prefect. He determines that the two men told the anarchist that they had proof of his guilt when they had not and that they had lied to the media about the results of the interrogation. He tells them that the ministry of justice and the interior has suspended them. He utters desperate remarks on their situation while pushing them towards the window, then declares that the report is false. He next determines that the two men had untruthfully told the anarchist how they had evidence that an acquaintance of his had engaged in other acts of terrorism. To lessen suspicions of guilt, the madman tries to make them admit that they encouraged him to reveal himself by tapping him in a friendly way on the shoulder, by saying anarchy will not die, and by singing left-wing songs. In investigating the actual suicide act, a police officer reveals that to prevent the fall he had held on to his shoe so that it came off, but the madman points out that on the victim's body both shoes were on. A woman journalist is announced to conduct an interview on this matter. The madman dons yet another disguise, this time as a police technician working in the laboratory. The reporter determines that since no damage was found on the anarchist's hands, he was probably unconscious or dead before his fall. She next determines that the ambulance was suspiciously called before eye-witnesses ever saw him fall. It seems that the anarchist received a blow on the head after being told that the evidence presented by witnesses of his alibi was inadmissible. Commissioner Bertozzo returns and recognizes the madman disguised as his laboratory officer, but his colleagues try to shut him up. The madman next identifies himself to the reporter as a distinguished bishop sent to investigate the matter. To quiet Bertozzo, he injects him with a sedative. When Bertozzo takes out a revolver to defend himself, the madman tricks him into dropping it and then takes out a tape recorder with all the evidence he needs to expose the police.

Eduardo de Filippo

Eduardo de Filippo plumbed the depths of police mistrust

Eduardo de Filippo (1900-1984) reached dramatic heights with "Il sindaco del rione sanita" (The local authority, 1960) about a man serving as the unofficial judge of legal or ethical conflicts.

In "The local authority", "the entire district depends on Antonio. Between one sentence and another he lightly drops crumbs of meditation; actually he speaks a continual monologue, since no one dares hold an opinion in his presence. The are the meditations of an old man who knows the world: on death, customs, and on the function of a Camorra boss. Every now a then the memory emerges of a long-past bloody exploit which turned eighteen-year-old Antonio from a shepherd into a murderer. He became an American gangster and finally a Camorra boss; he is rich, uncensured, and a protector of those 'ignorant whom he believes are the victims of an unjust society. Only those who 'have saints'- that is support, money, education, etc- go to heaven," which means that they can defend themselves by corruption and the ubiquitous pay-off envelope. Those without 'saints' must seek justice for themselves: threatening, wounding, killing; otherwise they are prey to any bully. Fortunately, the boss is there; he is the 'saint' for the 'ignorants'; he administers justice, makes peace, and controls and limits crime...The comedy's structure- with its long exposure and sudden catastrophe- has been criticized. I don't agree. Even if there is a lack of intensity in the third act, it is not due to a structural fault. On the contrary, the structure is faultless in the third act and masterful in the first two. The fact is there are two opposite interpretations of Antonio's final decision. The first is a confirmation of the Camorra principle: 'he behaves in his own case as he did in others': upholding the peace, limiting bloodshed, and keeping clear of the authorities. In short, his own death has been an accident in the line of duty and the Camorra institution is not involved...There is a second, far more interesting meaning in the dramatic action. To what does Antonio finally bow? To the family. The baker is a hateful individual, 'a heap of dirt..a worm, a sluggard' who deserves death. Certainly Antonio isn't afraid of the sight of blood. What is then that protects the baker?...The rights and dignity of the head of the family" (Codignola and Ruffman, 1964 pp 114-116).

“De Filippo continued the old tradition of Neapolitan popular comedy, which typically involved three interacting sets of characters. His works are set in his native city, and depict a wide spectrum of characters mainly from a lower middle-class background” (Marrone, 2006 p 250). "Naples is the reservoir on which, consciously and unconsciously, Eduardo draws. Not only the city as a whole but the Neapolitan theatre in particular. It is a popular as against an art theatre. This means, to begin with, that it is a dialect theatre and not an Italian one. It uses a popularly spoken language and not an official, national, bourgeois language- in this respect resembling Synge and O'Casey rather than Pinero and Galsworthy. The lack of a national theatrical repertoire in Italy may be deplorable but the quality of the defect is the regional repertoire" (Bentley, 1951 p 121).

"The local authority"

Played by Eduardo de Fillippo, Antonio Barracano is the local authority, dispensing justice to a man played by Franco Folli (1924-2003)

Time: 1960s. Place: Naples and surrounding regions.

Text at ?

Palummiello has just been shot by Nait for attempting to steal his job and is being treated late at night by Dr Fabio Della Ragione. During the same night, Antonio Barracano's wife, Armida, was attacked by one of their dogs and conducted at a hospital by one of their sons. At the age of sixty-four, Fabio has grown tired of his job and consequently wishes to immigrate to America. But he is dissuaded from this purpose after being warned by Antonio, local head of the Camorra, a Neapolitan gangster association equivalent to the Sicilian Mafia. As in other organizations of this kind who needs him to dispense medical treatment just as he himself dispenses justice as the local authority. Indeed, men in the region are in the habit of consulting the respected 75-year old Antonio instead of relying on the police and its judicial system, which is the case of Vicienzo and Pasquale. Vicienzo borrowed money from Pasquale at an exorbitant interest rate so that he can no longer pay the principal. Antonio's judgment is that Pasquale, having obtained more than the principal, should pretend having received his money and forget about it, to which he agrees without protest. Antonio next handles the case of Palummiello and Nait. He lightly blames the former for trespassing into a new territory but blames more harshly the latter for failing to consult him before this happening, slapping him in the face for good measure. Antonio next hears the case of Rafiluccio, a man intent on killing his own father, Arturo, a baker, who will no longer have anything to do with him. Antonio suspends his judgment on this more complex case. He first resolves the question on whether the dog who bit his wife should be shot, concluding that, being trained as a watchdog, his wife is to blame for feeding chickens in the early morning hours. Arturo arrives to explain that his son is shiftless and lazy and useless in his business. Having separated his property in three parts to his progeny in his lifetime, Antonio blames Arturo for being so unfeeling towards a son, but without result. Since Antonio is also unable to dissuade Rafiluccio from his purpose, he heads towards Arturo's shop and is stabbed in the spleen for his pains. "I had my pistol," Antonio explains to Fabio, "but I thought of my sons. If I shoot now, I thought, the chains of killings will stretch our to infinity." Instead, he invites the two along with others to supper and pretends that Arturo gave over to his son a large sum of money, to which Arturo finally submits. But when Antonio dies, Fabio reveals the plot, indifferent to the likelihood of impending massacres. "Perhaps destruction on this scale will pave the way for a different world," he avers, "a world that will have lost some of its gloss but will be that much fairer."

Clotilde Masci


Clotilde Masci (1918-1985, first known as Francesca Sangiorgio) wrote "Le escluse" (The excluded, 1950) concerning the interactions between nine women and one man in a boarding house. It is akin to Terence Rattigan's "Separate tables" (1954) in depicting loneliness and separateness in communal living conditions. Masci also wrote "Wedding eve" (1952) about a woman's lie in robbing a jewelry store the day before her wedding and after the real thief is caught, weakly submitting to her husband and relatives. In "Sunset at dawn" (1955), a woman is beaten by her husband but when he dies, her situation remains equally dismal as the result of the constraining state of widowhood. In "Fire on the rock" (1957), a woman experiences disastrous consequences after falling in love with her husband's brother. All these plays are characterized by the unfortunate circumstances attending women in and out of marriage.

"The excluded"


Time: 1945. Place: Italy.

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Since Mrs Romualdi's husband is enamoured of a younger woman, she must knit twelve hours a day in a woman's boarding-house to pay her lawyer and get her money back from him in a lawsuit. She and other boarders, Paulette, Agata, Andreina, learn that a man will soon occupy an extra room in the house, to which Agata is irate. "I've never liked mingling with the opposite sex," she says. "Men are selfish devourers." Andreina is more cheerful about the prospect. Although her fiancé writes to her every day, the letters are uninteresting. "He's just got three topics: my degree, his grocer's shop, and his rhinitis," she says. Mrs Giacometti helps the half-demented 90-year-old Mrs Teresina walk in and sit down, waiting for her son to return, though dead in the previous war. The owner, Mrs Bianco, explains that she is forced to accept a man because a new rule from the House Commission forbids a war veteran to be refused lodgings, all the more so since Daniele spent twenty months in a German concentration camp. "Let's at least hope he can dance the boogie-woogie and has a presentable face," Paulette lightly comments. "I hope not," Agata sourly retorts. "Men are odious and insolent by nature, but if handsome doubly so, unbearable." Mrs Bianco takes Teresina apart to ask her when she will pay the amount owed her. Since Teresina has no money, Mrs Bianco accepts her piano in exchange for two months rent. Mrs Bianco is aghast at the small sum Teresina previously obtained from Paulette for a diamond pin, asking to become from now on her new dealer in jewelry. A few months later, Andreina is smitten by the charms of the new lodger, Daniele, but no longer wants to miss university classes because he wants to go to the cinema, where they get in for free thanks to her relations. Afraid to lose him, she changes her mind after watching him flirt with the housemaid. After she leaves, he flirts with Paulette, from whom he obtains cigarettes. Although engaged to a rich cheese merchant, she nevertheless promises him more cigarettes should he come to her room that evening to chat. For her part, Mrs Romualdi has very rapidly knit a woolen jacket for him while Renata, a school-teacher, gives her old pupil free English lessons since he hopes to obtain a passport and immigrate to America. However, he has difficulty concentrating on the lessons, being more interested in the jewels Teresina keeps in her room. Renata prevents the distracted old woman from going out and selling them herself, promising to take care of them and consult a jeweler to obtain a fair price. To attract Daniele towards Paris, Paulette now admits she separated from her merchant but has obtained from him a monetary settlement. She also promises to get Daniele a passport. On her part, Agata offers to try to get him a job at her office, a notion Renata strongly approves of. One evening, Agata proposes to Renata that they leave the boarding-house to live on their own, but she declines. As Agata leaves, a desperate Daniele knocks at Renata's door to be let in after strangling Teresina for her jewels. He wants to reach the street-door key to escape, but the two are interrupted by Giacometti and Agata who have discovered the dying Teresina, followed by Mrs Bianco, Andreina, Paulette, and Mrs Romualdi, though the purpose of the latter's entrance is to obtain morphine for her stomach pains after being diagnosed with a terminal neoplasm. With the doorman on his way to call the police and Renata helplessly seeking to protect him, Teresina unexpectedly appears to mumble soothing words over a prostrate Daniele as if he were her son. Mrs Bianco orders Daniele out before the police arrive. He does so with hesitating steps. After Teresina dies in their midst, Renata returns to her desk to continue correcting her students' school-work.