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Jack D. Street and Rod Umlas, eds. and trans. The Italian Theater of the Grotesque: An Anthology.

Jack D. Street and Rod Umlas, eds. and trans. The Italian Theater of the Grotesque. An Anthology. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 2003.

The seven plays in this volume, edited and translated by Jack D. Street and Rod Umlas, were originally written and staged within a short span of time (1913-1933), which coincides with a magic moment in Italian dramaturgy. The collection includes The Mask and the Face, by Luigi Chiarelli; What Passion, You Marionettes, by Rosso di San Secondo; The Man Who Met Himself by Luigi Antonelli; and The Bird of Paradise, by Enrico Cavacchioli, which are works by playwrights regarded as the fathers of twentieth-century grotesque, who in cultural terms representa doorway to modernity as they paved the way for new literary manifestations and contributed to the early successes of Pirandello as a playwright. Chiarelli, who gave character and direction to the movement, characterized the genesis of his work as "... born of a critical as well as philosophical and polemical position ... critical because it was subversive of all the rules of the old theatrical practice, shattering the prevailing threadbare norms on which European dramatic literature is based."

Likewise important are the two plays by Massimo Bontempelli, The Divine Miss D and Genuine Minnie, rooted in the grotesque but shifting toward a unique brand of magic. The last play in the selection is When One Is Somebody by Pirandello who not only supported the concepts of the grotesque but extended them in the multi-faceted variations of his production, from his treatise on Humor to such early works as Right You Are (if You Think So).

In her preface to this book, a useful overview of significant English translations from Italian drama is given by Mimi Gisolfi Aponte. She gently comments that such versions represent only "an understock" of a vibrant Italian theatrical production, indeed a sober reflection about the paucity of Italian plays available to the American public in comparison with Italian narrative and poetry. Reflecting on the unequivocal need to reduce the gap also between theater and the other arts, we welcome Jack Street's and Rod Umlas's new tome which is surely a labor of love and a tine example of what can be accomplished by way of interdepartmental collaboration: Streets provides a fitting introduction to the playwrights and to the period while Umlas concentrates in a postscript on a guide to the technical aspects of stagecraft and artistic performance. On a stylistic level, their translation is elegant and painstakingly faithful, as anyone would tell by reading the version of the "Prelude" to What Passion, You Marionettes.

Gisolfi Aponte poses another question as a rhetorical device whether there was 'a call for a fifth version of La maschera e il volto' by Chiarelli or for second versions of the other plays; she points to the merit of comparative translations and to Chiarelli as the forerunner of the movement; we might observe as well that the play remains existentially modern today, given its gaiety and wit, in spite of changed cultural values. We recall Chiarelli's success on the many world stages between 1918 and 1934: Buenos Aires, Warsavia, Bucarest, London, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Budapest, Havana, Santiago del Cile, Lima, Quito, Lisbon, Zagabria, Chicago, etc. Indeed The Mask... was presented in Vienna by the great Max Reinhardt in 1927 and widely acclaimed at the Guild Theater of New York in 1933.

Fairly recently, we've had at least two different stage productions of Antonelli's works: The Man Who Met Himself (October, 1994) and The Teacher (October, 1999) under the direction of Luciano Paesani and two productions of The Mask and the Face in the adaptation of Giovanni Antonucci. The first one was with Lando Buzzanca and Caterina Costantini in Bologna at the Teatro Stabile dell'Emilia-Romagna (March, 2001), while the most recent (Summer, 2003) was given at the Tasso Amphitheater in Rome with Sergio Ammirata and Patrizia Parisi. This latter production ran during July and August for a total of forty performances, a mighty record in Italy! The night I attended, in mid-week, the place was packed and the acting so acclaimed to bring back memories of its successful premier performance on May 31, 1916, across-town at Teatro Argentina. Equally successful was an earlier version still available on video with the well known actor-director Gigi Proietti. As for Pirandello, no one can even guess on the number of yearly performances on his poliedric production.

In the way of editions, we have benefited from the recent work of Giancarlo Sammartano and Luciano Paesani on the entire theatrical corpus, including some previously unpublished works, of Antonelli, Chiarelli and Cavacchioli, critical re-visitations by a number of scholars including this reviewer, an important publication of Antonelli's short stories edited by Giorgio Patrizi, that will shed more light on the author's vast and versatile theatrical and literary enterprise. Lastly, just between 2003 and 2004, the publisher Salvatore Sciascia has brought out five novels by Rosso di San Secondo, most of them published for the first time in volume: Zagru, La contessina Elsa, Sogno d'amore, Lo sdoppiamento di Matteo Derbini, Orlando in Brandeburgo, thus opening up again a whole new world of intertextual relationships.

Such renewed interest in grotesque theater and literature speaks to the modernity of the playwrights whose seminal ideas touched future generations. As ah example we read statements like this: "There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them" (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus). Their grotesqueries shocked us at times but still changed our thinking, and became part of an unrepeatable era in European culture.


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Author:Vena, Michael
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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