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WEDNESDAY, MAY 4, 1927
ITALY AS I FOUND HER
By Kennedy Allen
More than another institution the stage is the mirror of a people's temperament. This is certainly true of Italy .
The sentimental and emotional Italian nature expresses itself in music rather than in prose. Opera is the nation's chief joy. All classes, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, revel in the compositions of Verdi and Puccini and never tire of hearing them. Of these everyone seems to know all the principal lyrics, which, as might be expected, predominate in any typical collection of gramophone records. Watch a crowd promenading in the colonnades of a Roman or Florentine care. The eccentric syncopation that appears to be the outstanding achievement of America expends itself in vain; people go their way unheeding. But a bar or two of opera will cause them to make a mutual stand and drink in the familiar strains enraptured. In winter every town of Italy and Sicily with any social pretensions has an operatic season; in Roma last year one theatre played on until the end of June, and another began in August, the hottest month of the year. So insistent, in fact, is the popular demand for music that in Naples , Turin and Milan , one enterprising firm has established a public hall in which, by means of telephone apparatus, some dozens at a time may, for a small sum, hear almost any operatic selection, according to individual choice. These places, much frequented by young men, especially during the two hours of midday repose, are an excellent aid to the study of the libretto preparatory to an evening at San Carlo, the Regio or La Scala. Apparently a taste for opera is acquired very early in life. I have often observed, above all in Rome, very young children present at nocturnal performances.
The Italian dramatic stage is, on the whole, disappointing. Italy has produced great actors and actresses, from Roscius to Eleanora Duse, but never a Sophocles, an Aristophanes, a Shakespeare, a Moliere, a Racine. What are Plantus, Terence and Goldoni in comparison with those great playwrights. One result of the dearth of native genius in dramatic composition is that the stage of the Peninsula is cosmopolitan. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dumas the younger, Sardou, Ibsen, Sudermann, Shaw, even Rabiivdranath Tagore, are names frequently seen on the posters upon which, for lack of programmes, Italy depends for much of its information concerning prose productions.
The line of demarcation between opera and drama is here sharply drawn. In an operative performance on of the outstanding characteristics is, of course, the orchestra, which at the Scale numbers 110 instruments and is everywhere remarkable for volume, balance and colour. In spoken drama, on the other hand, the music is conspicuously absent. Imagine a curtain rising without an overture! Nothing could be less imposing. Indeed, without the minds of the audience attuned, as only the sweet power of music can attune them, for that which is about to go forward upon the stage, the consequent unimpressive, unannounced laying bare of the boards seems almost brutally abrupt.
Italian dramatic production differs from an English performance in two other respects also. The first is the abundance of natural, spontaneous, appropriate gesture. Nowhere – not even in France – Have I seen hands so eloquent. From their tenderest years the people of this classic land employ their hands thus rhetorically. Once of twice I watched a conversation in a public thoroughfare between a little group of deaf mutes; it was carried on brilliantly by means of gestures, not a word being spelt. Gesture is an unsurpassed aid to effective acting. Why do not English-speaking players devote greater attention to it? Some nights ago I went to see Mr John Barrymore and his company on the screen at the Prince Edward Theatre , Sydney , in “Don Juan”. The scene of this is laid principally in papal Rome . Excellent though the film was as a specimen of the photographer's handiwork, the acting was entirely unconvincing. It suggested rather the periwig aristocrats of the 18 th century England than the warm-blooded Latinos of Renaissance Italy. The reason was that not one had any understanding of Italian gesture. Englishmen are so accustomed to slouching about with hands plunged into their trousers pockets that they must find easy gesture extremely difficult, almost as difficult indeed as mastering another language.
The second difference between an English and an Italian dramatic production is the position and the work of the prompter. In Italy this functionary occupies a little sentry-box let into the stage and projecting a little above it near the footlights and covered on all sides except that which faces the performers. On some occasions his voice is distinctly audible, in the body of the theatre, almost throughout the play. This source of irritation was particularly disillusioning at a presentation of “Hamlet” by a touring company in Turin: even in the most celebrated soliloquies the leading actor required this method of memory-refreshing.
Italian elocution at its best is admirable. In Rome I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Annibale Ninchi in a version of Sophocles's great tragedy “Oedipus Tyrannus”. His variation of tone as the horrid truth dawned upon him, the transition from the dignified and earnest monarch to the crushed, self-abhorring wretch, whom an ineluctable destiny has branded with the brand of parricide and incest, was a model of insight. This play would make an excellent addition to the repertory of Mr Allan Wilkie.
Italians do not know Shakespeare as Germans do, though you will find translations of him in almost every bookshop throughout the Peninsula ; but, like the Germans, they have a great advantage over English-speaking persons who have not studied him. The versions in which he is presented are couched in modern Italian prose and therefore present no difficulties of language to an Italian audience. You will observe signs of appreciation of his genius from the most unlikely people. A Piedmontese housemaid informed me that she had attended a performance of “Hamlet” and enjoyed it; on board steamer I heard an Italian steward declaim from memory, in his own tongue, part of “To be or not to be,” and some of the Prince's bantering conversation with Polonius; and at Turin I was impressed by the interest manifested by the occupants of the gallery in the same great tragedy.
The most hopeful sign discernible in the Italian stage is the set of dramas written and produced by Pirandello. It was my good fortune to attend some half-dozen performances of his troupe at the Goldoni Theatre, Venice . Probably this eminent playwright is better known abroad, in England , France , Germany , and Switzerland , than in Italy ; but he is not without honour in his own country. His season in Venice last November was highly successful. I have never seen, even at the Comedie Francaie, a general level of acting more natural or more satisfying. In Marta Abba, his leading lady, he has a young Milanese actress of unusual charm, intelligence and emotional power. At the close of his Venetian season, after the final curtain, Pirandello himself advanced to the footlights and addressed the large audience. Here is a little of what he said, taken from a summary that I made immediately after returning to my hotel the same night.
He had come forward, he explained, in response to insistent requests for a few words either on literature in general or on his dramatic works and the philosophical idea underlying them. “My concern,” he proceeded, “has been to produce, not a system of thought, but works of art. Certainly it is possible in any composition to discover the thought of the author, but I accept no responsibility for any philosophical doctrine.” Proceeding to answer questions invited from the audience, he said: “I do not deny that reality exists. I say that the reality of ten years ago is not that of today. Life is a continual destruction of forms and a continual recreation. Every form is a prison. It is necessary to destroy in order to create.” To another interrogator he replied: “The man with as much feeling as intelligence is the perfect man.”
A few words concerning the cinematograph. American enterprise has almost completely strangled the Italian film industry. From one end of the Kingdom to the other the great people of Hollywood are as well known as they are in Australia . Yet Italy has proved herself capable of producing excellent films. Perhaps her best photography is not quite equal to the best from America , but her best acting is, in my opinion, superior. Last year was marked by three particularly good productions, namely “Beatrice Cenci,” a story of papal Rome, remarkable for the freedom with which the historical materials were handed and the facts distorted, which had the effect of transforming a parricide into a heroine; “Garibaldi”, a reconstruction of many thrilling episodes in the adventurous life of that hero of two worlds whose memory Italians worship; and “Henry IV” one of Pirandello's plays, the screen version of which was a surprise and a revelation to many of his admirers. The last-named of these productions I saw in a new and elegantly designed picture-theatre in Turin . The orchestra, which was announced as the best of its kind in Italy , played a programme of music composed entirely of Mendelssohn's “Songs without words”. The most handsome cinematograph theatre I have seen is in Milan . The exquisite mural and ceiling decorations – a feature to which Australian theatres leave much to be desired – are in the best Italian taste; the internal illumination, chaste and subdued, is the last word in beauty and effectiveness. A second orchestra played in the richly-carpeted spacious vestibule in order to constrain passers-by to come in. The price of a seat in the comfortable stalls was eight liras (then worth about 1s. 4d.). Even in the smaller towns you may hear astonishingly well-played music. At a picture-show in Ferrara a violinist rendered several of the lyrics in Leoncavallo's “I Pagliacci” to a pianoforte accompaniment. After hearing him I understood why some Italians go to the pictures chiefly for the sake of the music. Why do not the cinematograph orchestras of Australia play more opera and less jazz? By so doing they would prepare us for our infrequent opera seasons.
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