The Land of the Latins

Source: Ashton Rollins Willard, The Land of the Latins (New York/London: Longmans, Green, 1902), pp. 143-147

Text: At Turin, to turn to one of the lesser capitals, there are a number of theatres, but among them the one which rises most distinctly before my mental vision, is the Teatro Carignano, a playhouse which may possibly be quite as old as the Valle, but which is infinitely superior to it in interior beauty. The Carignano of course follows the old pattern, with its box-fronts rising tier above tier to the very dome, — the only pattern of theatre which was known in Europe a century ago. In this particular it resembles the Valle, but where the Roman interior is dreary and bare this is covered with elaborate decoration. The whole surface of the box-fronts seems to be overlaid with gold-leaf subdued to a dull lustre, and in this series of gilt frames the occupants of the boxes are set off in picturesque relief against the deep crimson hangings. Up on the ceiling some clever hand has painted a flight of graceful figures in soft colors, forming a suitable and harmonious piece of decoration. The drop-curtain is not occupied with advertisements but is ornamented — or was as I remember it — with a Venetian picture, showing a high terrace in the foreground and a stretch of lagoon under a sunset sky behind.

It was in this theatre that we first saw Eleonora Duse — saw her in one of those pitiful plays of modern social life of which Camille is the prototype and which has had, alas, so many, many after-types. As we went to the Carignano that evening we found ourselves wondering what particular shape the unfortunate happenings of the play would assume. Would the husband or the wife be the criminal? And how would the wife die in the last act? For that she would come to a tragic end in one way or another, there was little room to doubt. Our preconceptions of what the stuff of the drama would be were, as it proved, wholly justified. It happened to be the husband who was unfaithful, — and the wife’s suffering, which commenced with the first rising of the curtain at nine o’clock, was continued until midnight, and ended finally in suicide. A very large and very representative audience, containing elements from every section of Turinese society, and delegations of reporters from other cities, went to listen to the unhappy tale and showed their appreciation of it by frequent applause while the scenes were in progress and by clamorous recalls after each descent of the curtain. One of the notable features about the tragedienne’s acknowledgment of these noisy plaudits was that she never for a moment issued from her role. If the applause continued persistent after the descent of the curtain, as it generally did, a door would open from the subterranean recesses of the Venetian terrace and the slight and frail-looking figure would come into view. A few sad steps would be taken with a melancholy smile before the footlights and the sorrowful figure would disappear through the other door. There were none of the grimaces by which the “artist” in general seeks to compensate the audience for the honor of its approbation. The unity of the role was never once broken. The note of tragedy was consistently maintained.

It was Flavio Ando who sustained the second rôle on this particular evening, — an ungrateful part which, used as he is to rendering such characters, he must have disliked to assume. Possibly this excused or explained his imperfect memorizing of his lines, which at certain points rather marred the effect of his acting. The rôle of the prompter has not become a wholly superfluous one in Italian theatres, and on this particular evening the invisible man in the hooded box had to recite many passages of the second actor’s part. It was, to say the least, trying to the nerves of the listeners to hear the words which Ando was to utter, hissed out in a more than audible whisper, before they were taken up by the actor himself; and at certain points where this halting echo was supposed to represent an impetuous and spontaneous outburst of passion the effect bordered on the ridiculous.

As to the acting of the heroine, the distinctive quality in it which impressed us at that time, and which has re-impressed us on every occasion when we have heard her since, was its poignant naturalism. She seemed to be not so much putting on agony as actually suffering. The absence of conventional gestures was one of the incidents of her art which contributed very much to this general effect. Intonation was much. The perfect naturalness of the tone and the total suppression of the declamatory and rhetorical counted for a great deal. But the avoidance of “gestures” in the technical sense, certainly had its share. Eleonora Duse as we all know does not keep her hands still. She does not walk about with them glued to her side. But what she does with them is what a natural woman does. She smooths out the folds of her dress. She arranges her hair. She does a thousand and one things which are feminine, which are human, which are natural; and she does not wave them and pose them in the flourishes and the curves which have so long been favored by the artificial persons of the stage.

Comments: Ashton Rollins Willard (1858-1918) was an American art critic, who specialised in Italian art. This extract comes from a chapter on theatres in a his travel book on Italy. The Teatro Carignano in Torino opened in 1753. Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) was an Italian actress of worldwide renown, the performances celebrated for the depth of their sensitivity. She performed in this unidentified production alongside the Italian actor Flavio Andò (1851-1915).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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