Italy

Two Hundred and Nine Days

Source: Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Two Hundred and Nine Days; or, The Journal of a Traveller on the Continent (London: Hunt and Clarke, 1827), pp. 72-73

Text: [Saturday, 10 December 1825] I visited in the evening a theatre, named Teatro del Fondo; there was an opera and a ballet; the performance was good, the house commodious, and the price of admission moderate; but great was the smell of garlic. At a small theatre this was to be expected; for at the great theatre of S. Carlo, I had complained, that my place was too remote, and was brought much nearer the stage amongst a higher order of beings into a sort of fops-alley; but the fops smelt so strong of garlic, that it was difficult to live in the atmosphere of this more refined society. I had frequent examples of what I had heard before, that when the Italians are pleased with a performance, they hiss, to command silence and attention; the opera, and especially the ballet, were received this evening with much hissing, that is, they gave great satisfaction. At the end of the ballet, the audience called for the ballet-master; the curtain was drawn up immediately, and a melancholy man in a suit of black was led on the stage between Cupid and Psyche, in the midst of the smoke and flames with which the piece had concluded; to express, as I was told by a lady, who, perceiving that I was a stranger, kindly took much pains to make me understand the whole allegory, the glowing ardours of love; he was hailed with loud applauses, and retired bowing, with an air of modest confusion, that would have been becoming even to Psyche herself.

Comments: Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862) was an English lawyer and writer, a close friend of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He went on a continental tour of Europe over 1825-26 and his published diaries record many visits to the theatre in different countries. The Teatro del Fondo in Naples was founded in 1779; it is now known as the Teatro Mercadante. The S. Carlo theatre is the Teatro di San Carlo, also in Naples.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Ars Poetica

Source: Extract from Horace, Ars Poetica (c.19 BC), translated by Ben Jonson (posthumously published 1640) and reproduced in W. Gifford, The Works of Ben Jonson… with notes critical and explanatory, and a biographical memoir (London: G. and W. Nicol [etc.], 1816), vol. 9, pp.105-113

Text:
Hear what it is the people and I desire:
If such a one’s applause thou dost require,
That tarries till the hangings be ta’en down,
And sits till th’epilogue says Clap, or crown:
The customs of each age thou must observe,
And give their years and natures, as they swerve,
Fit rights. The child, that now knows how to say,
And can tread firm, longs with like lads to play;
Soon angry, and soon pleas’d, is sweet, or sour,
He knows not why, and changeth every hour.

Th’ unbearded youth, his guardian once being gone,
Loves dogs and horses; and is ever one
I’ the open field; is wax-like to be wrought
To every vice, as hardly to be brought
To endure counsel: a provider slow
For his own good, a careless letter-go
Of money, haughty, to desire soon mov’d,
And then as swift to leave what he hath lov’d.

These studies alter now, in one grown man;
His better’d mind seeks wealth and friendship; than
Looks after honours, and bewares to act
What straightway he must labour to retract.

The old man many evils do girt round;
Either because he seeks, and, having found,
Doth wretchedly the use of things forbear,
Or does all business coldly, and with fear;
A great deferrer, long in hope, grown numb
With sloth, yet greedy still of what’s to come:
Froward, complaining, a commender glad
Of the times past, when he was a young lad:
And still correcting youth, and censuring.
Man’s coming years much good with them do bring:
As his departing take much thence, lest then
The parts of age to youth be given, or men
To children; we must always dwell, and stay
In fitting proper adjuncts to each day.

The business either on the stage is done,
Or acted told. But ever things that run
In at the ear, do stir the mind more slow
Than those the faithful eyes take in by show,
And the beholder to himself doth render.
Yet to the stage at all thou may’st not tender
Things worthy to be done within, but take
Much from the sight, which fair report will make
Present anon: Medea must not kill
Her sons before the people, nor the ill-
Natur’d and wicked Atreus cook to th’ eye
His nephew’s entrails; nor must Progne fly
Into a swallow there; nor Cadmus take
Upon the stage the figure of a snake.
What so is shown, I not believe, and hate.

Nor must the fable, that would hope the fate
Once seen, to be again call’d for, and play’d,
Have more or less than just five acts: nor laid,
To have a god come in; except a knot
Worth his untying happen there: and not
Any fourth man, to speak at all, aspire.

An actor’s parts, and office too, the quire
Must maintain manly: nor be heard to sing
Between the acts, a quite clean other thing
Than to the purpose leads, and fitly ‘grees.
It still must favour good men, and to these
Be won a friend; it must both sway and bend
The angry, and love those that fear t’ offend.
Praise the spare diet, wholesome justice, laws,
Peace, and the open ports, that peace doth cause.
Hide faults, pray to the gods, and wish aloud
Fortune would love the poor, and leave the proud.

The hau’boy, not as now with latten bound,
And rival with the trumpet for his sound,
But soft, and simple, at few holds breath’d time
And tune too, fitted to the chorus’ rhyme,
As loud enough to fill the seats, not yet
So over-thick, but where the people met,
They might with ease be number’d, being a few
Chaste, thrifty, modest folk, that came to view.
But as they conquer’d and enlarg’d their bound,
That wider walls embrac’d their city round,
And they uncensur’d might at feasts and plays
Steep the glad genius in the wine whole days,
Both in their tunes the license greater grew,
And in their numbers; for alas, what knew
The idiot, keeping holiday, or drudge,
Clown, townsman, base and noble mixt, to judge?
Thus to his ancient art the piper lent
Gesture and Riot, whilst he swooping went
In his train’d gown about the stage: so grew
In time to tragedy, a music new.
The rash and headlong eloquence brought forth
Unwonted language: and that sense of worth
That found out profit, and foretold each thing
Now differed not from Delphic riddling.

Thespis is said to be the first found out
The Tragedy, and carried it about,
Till then unknown, in carts, wherein did ride
Those that did sing, and act: their faces dy’d
With lees of wine. Next Eschylus, more late
Brought in the visor, and the robe of state,
Built a small timber’d stage, and taught them talk
Lofty and grave, and in the buskin stalk.
He too, that did in tragic verse contend
For the vile goat, soon after forth did send
The rough rude satyrs naked, and would try,
Though sour, with safety of his gravity,
How he could jest, because he mark’d and saw
The free spectators subject to no law,
Having well eat and drunk, the rites being done,
Were to be staid with softnesses, and won
With something that was acceptably new.
Yet so the scoffing satyrs to men’s view,
And so their prating to present was best,
And so to turn all earnest into jest,
As neither any god were brought in there,
Or semi-god, that late was seen to wear
A royal crown and purple, be made hop
With poor base terms through every baser shop:
Or whilst he shuns the earth, to catch at air
And empty clouds. For tragedy is fair,
And far unworthy to blurt out light rhymes;
But as a matron drawn at solemn times
To dance, so she should shamefac’d differ far
From what th’ obscene and petulant satyrs are.
Nor I, when I write satyrs, will so love
Plain phrase, my Pisos, as alone t’ approve
Mere reigning words: nor will I labour so
Quite from all face of tragedy to go,
As not make difference, whether Davus speak,
And the bold Pythias, having cheated weak
Simo, and of a talent wip’d his purse;
Or old Silenus, Bacchus’ guard and nurse.

I can out of known geer a fable frame,
And so as every man may hope the same;
Yet he that offers at it may sweat much,
And toil in vain: the excellence is such
Of order and connexion; so much grace
There comes sometimes to things of meanest place.
But let the Fauns, drawn from their groves, beware,
Be I their judge, they do at no time dare,
Like men street-born, and near the hall rehearse
Their youthful tricks in over-wanton verse;
Or crack out bawdy speeches, and unclean.
The Roman gentry, men of birth aud mean,
Will take offence at this: nor though it strike
Him that buys chiches blanch’d, or chance to like
The nut-crackers throughout, will they therefore
Receive or give it an applause the more.

Comments: Quintus Horatius Flaccus, or Horace (65 BC – 8 BC) was a Roman poet. His Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), written c.19 BC, is a poem on the writing of poetry and theatre, among the most influential of all works of literary criticism. His words of advice provide useful evidence on the staging on Roman drama and its reception by audiences. The poem is written in the form of a letter to the Roman consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso and his sons. The Engish playwright and poet Ben Jonson (c.1572-1637) was a deep admirer of Horace, featuring him as a character in his play Poetaster. The earliest reference to Jondon undertaking a translation of Ars Poetica is in 1860, but it was not published until after his death, in 1640. Other translations are more accurate, but among those whose have reproduced Horace in English verse, none comes close to Jonson’s quality.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

First Intermezzo from ‘The Liberation of Tyrsenus and Arnea’

Source: Jaques Callot (ether), ‘Primo Intermedio della veglia della liberation di tirreno fatta nella sala delle comdie del Ser.mo Duca di Toscana il carnovale del 1616 dove si rap.va, il monte d’Ischia con il gigante tifeo sotto’ / ‘First Act of Veglia della Liberazione di Tirreno represented in the comedy hall of the serene Duke of Tuscany during the carnival of 1616, representing the mount of Ischia with the Giant Tifeo underneath’ (1617), Harry R. Beard Collection, © Victoria & Albert Museum

Production: Andrea Salvadori, La liberazione di Tirreno e d’Arnea, autori del sangue Toscano, Uffizi, Florence, 6 February 1617

Comments: This image is an etching, by French printmaker Jacques Callot, showing a scene from La liberazione di Tirreno e d’Arnea, performed at the Uffizi palace, Florence. It was an intermedio (or intermezzo), a dance interlude performed in between dramas, with libretto by Andrea Salvadori and music by Marco da Gagliano, performed as part of a veglia (evening entertainment) to mark the marriage of Ferdinando Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua and Caterina de Medici in February 1617. The dancers at such performances were usually courtiers, same as the audience.

Links: Copy at Victoria & Albert Museum

The Diary of an Ennuyée

Source: Mrs Jameson, The Diary of an Ennuyée (Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1875), pp. 46-50 [originally published 1826 anonymously as A Lady’s Diary]

Production: Salvatore and Giulio Viganò, Didone, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 8-9 October 1821

Text: Last night and the preceding we spent at the Scala. The opera was stupid, and Madame Bellocchi, who is the present prima donna, appeared to me harsh and ungraceful, when compared to Fodor. The new ballet, however, amply indemnified us for the disappointment.

Our Italian friends condoled with us on being a few days too late to see La Vestale, which had been performed for sixty nights, and is one of Vigano’s masterpieces. I thought the Didone Abbandonata left us nothing to regret. The immense size of the stage, the splendid scenery, the classical propriety and magnificence of the dresses, the fine music, and the exquisite acting, (for there is very little dancing,) all conspired to render it enchanting. The celebrated cavern scene, in the fourth book of Virgil, is rather too closely copied in a most inimitable pas de deux; so closely, indeed, that I was considerably alarmed pour les bienséances; but little Ascanius, who is asleep in a corner, (Heaven knows how he came there,) wakes at the critical moment, and the impending catastrophe is averted. Such a scene, however beautiful, would not, I think, be endured on the English stage. I observed that when it began, the curtains in front of the boxes were withdrawn, the whole audience, who seemed to be expecting it, was hushed; the deepest silence, the most delighted attention prevailed during its performance; and the moment it was over, a third of the spectators departed. I am told this is always the case; and that in almost every ballet d’action, the public are gratified by a scene, or scenes, of a similar tendency.

The second time I saw the Didone, my attention, in spite of the fascination of the scene, was attracted towards a box near us, which was occupied by a noble English family just arrived at Milan. In the front of the box sat a beautiful girl, apparently not fifteen, with laughing lips and dimpled cheeks, the very personification of blooming, innocent, English loveliness. I watched her (I could not help it, when my interest was once awakened,) through the whole scene. I marked her increased agitation: I saw her cheeks flush, her eyes glisten, her bosom flutter, as if with sighs I could not overhear, till at length overpowered with emotion, she turned away her head, and covered her eyes with her hand. Mothers!—English mothers! who bring your daughters abroad to finish their education—do ye well to expose them to scenes like these, and force the young bud of early feeling in such a precious hot-bed as this? Can a finer finger on the piano,—a finer taste in painting, or any possible improvement in foreign arts, and foreign graces, compensate for one taint on that moral purity which has ever been (and may it ever be!) the boast, the charm of Englishwomen? But what have I to do with all this ?—I came here to be amused and to forget:—not to moralize, or to criticize.

Vigano, who is lately dead, composed the Didone Abbandonata, as well as La Vestale, Oteilo, Nina, and others. All his ballets are celebrated for their classical beauty and interest. This man, though but a dancing-master, must have had the soul of a painter, a musician, and a poet in one. He must have been a perfect master of design, grouping, contrast, picturesque, and scenic effect. He must have had the most exquisite feeling for musical expression, to adapt it so admirably to his purposes; and those gestures and movements with which he has so gracefully combined it, and which address themselves but too powerfully to the senses and the imagination— what are they, but the very “poetry of motion,” la poésie mise en action, rendering words a superfluous and feeble medium in comparison?

I saw at the mint yesterday the medal struck in honor of Vigano, bearing his head on one side, and on the other, Prometheus chained; to commemorate his famous ballet of that name. One of these medals, struck in gold, was presented to him in the name of the government:—a singular distinction for a dancing-master;—but Vigano was a dancing-master of genius: and this is the land where genius in every shape is deified.

The enchanting music of the Prometteo by Beethoven, is well known in England, but to produce the ballet on our stage, as it was exhibited here, would be impossible. The entire tribe of our dancers and figurantes, with their jumpings, twirlings, quiverings, and pirouettings, must be first annihilated; and Vigano, or Didelot, or Noverre rise again to inform the whole corps de ballet with another soul and the whole audience with another spirit:—for

—’ Poiche paga il volgo sciocco, i giusto
Soioccamente ‘ballar‘ per dargli gusto.”

The Theatre of the Scala, notwithstanding the vastness of my expectations, did not disappoint me. I heard it criticized as being dark and gloomy; for only the stage is illuminated: but when 1 remember how often I have left our English theatres with dazzled eyes and aching head,—distracted by the multiplicity of objects and faces, and “blasted with excess of light,”—I feel reconciled to this peculiarity; more especially as it heightens beyond measure the splendor of the stage effect.

Comments: Anna Brownell Jameson (1794-1860) was an Anglo-Irish art historian. In the early 1820s, when Anna Murphy, she travelled to Italy and her diary of the visit was published anonymously, to great interest, as A Lady’s Diary. Salvatore Viganò was an Italian choreographer and composer, whose final work Didone (he died in 1821) was completed by his brother Giulio.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Eleonora Duse

Ilya Repin, ‘Portrait of Actress Eleonora Duse’ (1891), via WikiArt

Source: Alice Meynell, ‘Eleonora Duse’, in The Colour of Life: and other essays on things seen and heard (London: John Lane, 1897), pp. 45-52

Text: The Italian woman is very near to Nature; so is true drama.

Acting is not to be judged like some other of the arts, and praised for a “noble convention.” Painting, indeed, is not praised amiss with that word; painting is obviously an art that exists by its convention—the convention is the art. But far otherwise is it with the art of acting, where there is no representative material; where, that is, the man is his own material, and there is nothing between. With the actor the style is the man, in another, a more immediate, and a more obvious sense than was ever intended by that saying. Therefore we may allow the critic—and not accuse him of reaction—to speak of the division between art and Nature in the painting of a landscape, but we cannot let him say the same things of acting. Acting has a technique, but no convention.

Once for all, then, to say that acting reaches the point of Nature, and touches it quick, is to say all. In other arts imitation is more or less fatuous, illusion more or less vulgar. But acting is, at its less good, imitation; at its best, illusion; at its worst, and when it ceases to be an art, convention.

But the idea that acting is conventional has inevitably come about in England. For it is, in fact, obliged, with us, to defeat and itself by taking a very full, entire, tedious, and impotent convention; a complete body of convention; a convention of demonstrativeness—of voice and manners intended to be expressive, and, in particular, a whole weak and unimpulsive convention of gesture. The English manners of real life are so negative and still as to present no visible or audible drama; and drama is for hearing and for vision. Therefore our acting (granting that we have any acting, which is granting much) has to create its little different and complementary world, and to make the division of “art” from Nature—the division which, in this one art, is fatal.

This is one simple and sufficient reason why we have no considerable acting; though we may have more or less interesting and energetic or graceful conventions that pass for art. But any student of international character knows well enough that there are also supplementary reasons of weight. For example, it is bad to make a conventional world of the stage, but it is doubly bad to make it badly — which, it must be granted, we do. When we are anything of the kind, we are intellectual rather than intelligent; whereas outward-streaming intelligence makes the actor. We are pre-occupied, and therefore never single, never wholly possessed by the one thing at a time; and so forth.

On the other hand, Italians are expressive. They are so possessed by the one thing at a time as never to be habitual in any lifeless sense. They have no habits to overcome by something arbitrary and intentional. Accordingly, you will find in the open-air theatre of many an Italian province, away from the high roads, an art of drama that our capital cannot show, so high is it, so fine, so simple, so complete, so direct, so momentary and impassioned, so full of singleness and of multitudinous impulses of passion.

Signora Duse is not different in kind from these unrenowned. What they are, she is in a greater degree. She goes yet further, and yet closer. She has an exceptionally large and liberal intelligence. If lesser actors give themselves entirely to the part, and to the large moment of the part, she, giving herself, has more to give.

Add to this nature of hers that she stages herself and her acting with singular knowledge and ease, and has her technique so thoroughly as to be able to forget it—for this is the one only thing that is the better for habit, and ought to be habitual. There is but one passage of her mere technique in which she fails so to slight it. It is in the long exchange of stove-side talk between Nora and the other woman of “The Doll’s House.” Signora Duse may have felt some misgivings as to the effect of a dialogue having so little symmetry, such half-hearted feeling, and, in a word, so little visible or audible drama as this. Needless to say, the misgiving is not apparent; what is too apparent is simply the technique. For instance, she shifts her position with evident system and notable skill. The whole conversation becomes a dance of change and counterchange of place.

Nowhere else does the perfect technical habit lapse, and nowhere at all does the habit of acting exist with her.

I have spoken of this actress’s nationality and of her womanhood together. They are inseparable. Nature is the only authentic art of the stage, and the Italian woman is natural: none other so natural and so justified by her nature as Eleonora Duse; but all, as far as their nature goes, natural. Moreover, they are women freer than other Europeans from the minor vanities. Has any one yet fully understood how her liberty in this respect gives to the art of Signora Duse room and action? Her countrywomen have no anxious vanities, because, for one reason, they are generally “sculpturesque,” and are very little altered by mere accidents of dress or arrangement. Such as they are, they are so once for all; whereas, the turn of a curl makes all the difference with women of less grave physique. Italians are not uneasy.

Signora Duse has this immunity, but she has a far nobler deliverance from vanities, in her own peculiar distance and dignity. She lets her beautiful voice speak, unwatched and unchecked, from the very life of the moment. It runs up into the high notes of indifference, or, higher still, into those of ennui, as in the earlier scenes of Divorçons; or it grows sweet as summer with joy, or cracks and breaks outright, out of all music, and out of all control. Passion breaks it so for her.

As for her inarticulate sounds, which are the more intimate and the truer words of her meaning, they, too, are Italian and natural. English women, for instance, do not make them. They are sounds à bouche fermée, at once private and irrepressible. They are not demonstrations intended for the ears of others; they are her own. Other actresses, even English, and even American, know how to make inarticulate cries, with open mouth; Signora Duse’s noise is not a cry; it is her very thought audible — the thought of the woman she is playing, who does not at every moment give exact words to her thought, but does give it significant sound.

When la femme de Claude is trapped by the man who has come in search of the husband’s secret, and when she is obliged to sit and listen to her own evil history as he tells it her, she does not interrupt the telling with the outcries that might be imagined by a lesser actress, she accompanies it. Her lips are close, but her throat is vocal. None who heard it can forget the speech-within-speech of one of these comprehensive noises. It was when the man spoke, for her further confusion, of the slavery to which she had reduced her lovers; she followed him, aloof, with a twang of triumph.

If Parisians say, as they do, that she makes a bad Parisienne, it is because she can be too nearly a woman untamed. They have accused her of lack of elegance — in that supper scene of La Dame aux Camélias, for instance; taking for ill-breeding, in her Marguerite, that which is Italian merely and simple. Whether, again, Cyprienne, in Divorçons, can at all be considered a lady may be a question; but this is quite unquestionable—that she is rather more a lady, and not less, when Signora Duse makes her a savage. But really the result is not at all Parisian.

It seems possible that the French sense does not well distinguish, and has no fine perception of that affinity with the peasant which remains with the great ladies of the old civilisation of Italy, and has so long disappeared from those of the younger civilisations of France and England—a paradox. The peasant’s gravity, directness, and carelessness —a kind of uncouthness which is neither graceless nor, in any intolerable English sense, vulgar—are to be found in the unceremonious moments of every transalpine woman, however elect her birth and select her conditions. In Italy the lady is not a creature described by negatives, as an author who is always right has denned the lady to be in England. Even in France she is not that, and between the Frenchwoman and the Italian there are the Alps. In a word, the educated Italian mondaine is, in the sense (also untranslatable) of singular, insular, and absolutely British usage, a Native. None the less would she be surprised to find herself accused of a lack of dignity.

As to intelligence—a little intelligence is sufficiently dramatic, if it is single. A child doing one thing at a time and doing it completely, produces to the eye a better impression of mental life than one receives from—well, from a lecturer.

Comments: Alice Meynell (1847-1922) was an English poet and essayist. Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) was an Italian actress of worldwide renown, the performances celebrated for the depth of their sensitivity. The plays in which she appeared mentioned here are Henrik Ibsen‘s Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House), Divorçons by Victorien Sardou and Émile de Najac, and Alexandre Dumas filsLa Femme de Claude and La Dame aux Camélias.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Two Hundred and Nine Days

Source: Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Two Hundred and Nine Days; or, The Journal of a Traveller on the Continent (London: Hunt and Clarke, 1827), pp. 246-247

Production: Gioachino Rossini, Maometto II [probably], Milan, 31 January 1826

Text: 31 January [1826]: In the evening I visited the Scala, a most spacious and magnificent theatre; well lighted and commodious; the silk curtains in front of the boxes are handsome and useful; they may be drawn close, and the tired spectator may go to sleep, as safely as if he were in bed, without shocking public decency, or impeaching his good taste; and by means of this humane and elegant contrivance, he may be supposed to be enraptured all the time by the performance, and thrown into an ecstacy [sic] by the music: an amateur may even gain credit for attending a whole season, without ever leaving his fire-side, by merely giving the box-keeper a shilling to pin the curtains together once for all. If the curtains were all of the same colour, perhaps the appearance would be better; in one tier of boxes they are yellow, in the other blue alternately. The opera was Mahomet; the ballet was splendid; afterwards was a masked ball, but I did not stay to witness it.

Comments: Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862) was an English lawyer and writer, a close friend of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He went on a continental tour of Europe over 1825-26 and his published diaries record many visits to the theatre in different countries. La Scala, or Teatro alla Scala opera house, was inaugurated in 1778. The opera he saw was presumably Rossini‘s two -act work Maometto II (1820).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Coryat’s Crudities

Source: Thomas Coryat, Coryat’s crudities; reprinted from the edition of 1611. To which are now added, his letters from India, &c. and extracts relating to him, from various authors: being a more particular account of his travels (mostly on foot) in different parts of the globe, than any hitherto published. Together with his orations, character, death &c (London: W. Cater, 1776 [orig. edition pub. 1611]), vol. II, pp. 16-18

Text: I was at one of their Play-houses where I saw a Comedie acted. The house is very beggarly and base in comparison of our stately Play-houses in England: neyther can their Actors compare with vs for apparell, shewes and musick. Here I obserued certaine things that I neuer saw before. For I saw women acte, a thing that I neuer saw before, though I haue heard heard that it hath beene sometimes used in London, and they performed it with as good a grace, action, gesture, and whatsoeuer convenient for a Player, as euer I saw any masculine Actor. Also their noble and famous Cortezans came to this comedy, but so disguised, that a man cannot perceiue them. For they Wore double maskes upoon their fates, to the end they might not be scene: one reaching from the toppe of their forehead to their chinne and under their necks; another with twiskes of downy or woolly stufFe couering their noses. And as for their neckes round about, they were so couered and wrapped with cobweb lawne and other things, that no part of their skin could be discerned. Upon their heads they wore little blacke felt caps very like to those of the Clarissimoes that I will hereafter speak of. Also, each of them wore a black short Taffata cloake. They were so graced that they sate on high alone by themselues in the best roome of all the Play-house. If any man should be so resolute to unmaske one of them but in merriment onely to see their faces it is said that were he neuer so noble or worthy a personage, he would be cut in pieces before he should Come forth of the rooms, especially if he were a stranger. I saw some men also in the Play-house, disguised in the same manner with double visards, those were said to be the fauourites of the same Cortezans: they sit not here in galleries as we doe in London. For there is but one or two little galleries in the house, wherein the Cortezans only fit. But all the men doe sit beneath in the yard or court, euery man vpon his sevrall stoole, for the which hee payeth a gazet.

Comments: Thomas Coryat (c.1577-1617) was an English traveller and travel writer. His journeys across Europe and Asia were documented in two lively volumes, Coryat’s Crudities (1611) and Coryats Crambe (1611), which were immensely popular. This passage records a visit to a theatre in Venice. There were professional women actors in Italy from the sixteenth century, but women did not appear on stage in Britain (except possibly in medieval times) until 1660.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

American in Italy

Source: Herbert Kubly, American in Italy (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1955), pp. 114-115

Text: Sicily had made me a puppet fancier. I wanted to visit a Neapolitan puppet theater, known as the Olympia. At the consulate I had been urged not to go. The theater was in a northwest corner of the old central section, a crowded and violent part of Naples said to be hostile to outsiders. “Americans are robbed and beaten,” an official warned. “The police had to rescue four American sailors from a mob last week.”

I found an American journalist to make the expedition with me. We climbed narrow crowded streets that rise from the heart of the town. It was an ordinary midweek night, but the streets were noisy and gay as a saint’s feast. Neon light illuminated holy statues, and the smell of roasting chestnuts was in the air. Young women sold American cigarettes, not in packs, but singly, neatly laid out with American contraceptives, also sold singly. At a wineshop we drank a tumbler of extremely potent dark thick stuff. Many persons greeted us. “It’s all in our psychology,” the journalist explained. “If you reflect a feeling of confidence, don’t appear nervous, and never get angry, you avoid trouble. It’s only when you show fear, nervousness, or temperament that difficulties arise.”

We moved deeper into the human jungle. Jagged walls of bombed and deserted buildings loomed up around us. On a bombed side street we found the Olympia. Tickets cost forty lire, about seven cents. It was a new cement structure, clean, whitewashed, and well illuminated; quite different from the dank smelly caves of the Palermo puppeteers. There were about one hundred and fifty chairs and all of them were occupied. Unlike Sicily, there were several shawled women in the audience. The stage was small, and the puppets were smaller than the brass and tin Sicilian warriors. A piano, violin, and horn played Neapolitan folk tunes. Like a movie house, the show, which began at five o’clock, was repeated until midnight. The melodrama upon which we entered ran the gamut from banditry, murder (by stabbing and shooting), and rape to kidnapings. This wide variety of carnage seemed to please the audience greatly. The wicked villain leered at the virtuous lady wearing a tiara and furs and demanded, “Be my mistress or be destroyed!” The virtuous lady screamed, but her husband did not hear her; she chose death and was immediately stabbed. “A scandal! A scandal!” were her dying words. The villain stole the dead woman’s baby and took it to a cabin in the forest kept by a Shakespearean buffoon in pointed boots and a belled cap. The buffoon burned the villain in a furnace and reared the kidnaped child in the forest in the manner of A Winter’s Tale. Twenty years and six scenes later, the child, full grown, was returned to his real father.

In an intermission boys hawked soft drinks, peanuts, and sweets, and members of the audience unpacked lunches from newspapers. The theater became pungent with garlic. The next part of the performance was a variety show, a burlesque with triple-jointed dancers, pumpkin-bosomed female puppets singing ribald songs, sailors paddling little boats across the stage, and a patriarchal fisherman in a candy-striped costume involved in a salty intrigue with some mermaids. I understood very little of the Neapolitan dialect, but the toy performers were wondrously agile and it was enough to watch. The dialogue was peppered with American idioms, G.I. contributions to the patois of Naples. Liberal use of Anglo-Saxon vulgarisms sent the audience into roars. Apparently we had been spotted behind stage as Americans, and the four-letter words were meant as a friendly gesture to us.

Comments: Herbert Kubly (1915-1996) was an American travel writer and playwright.

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The Diary of an Invalid

Source: Henry Matthews, Diary of an Invalid, being the Journal of a Tour in pursuit of health; in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France, in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819 vol. 1 (London: J. Murray, 1824, 4th edition), p. 141

Production: unidentified opera, Rome, 8 January 1818

Text: In the evening we went to the Italian comedy, which was so tiresome that we could not endure more than one scene. We drove afterwards to the opera. The theatre large and handsome;— six tiers of boxes. The seats in the pit are numbered, and divided off separately with elbows:— so that you may take any one of them in the morning, and secure it for the whole evening. Some plan of this kind would surely be a great improvement in our own theatres. The dancing was bad, and the singing worse. A set of burlesque dancers amused us afterwards, by aping the pirouettes of the others. The dancing of the stage gives but too much foundation for such caricatures. It is daily becoming less elegant, as the difficult is substituted for the graceful. What can be more disgusting than to see the human figure twirling round with the legs at right angles? In such an attitude, “Man delights not me nor woman neither.” All postures to be graceful should be easy and natural, and what can be more unnatural than this?

Comments: Henry Matthews (1789-1828) was a British judge. On account of ill health, he went on a recuperative tour of Europe over 1817-1819. The published diary of his travels, The Diary of an Invalid (1820), was very popular and went through a number of editions. The two-volume diary has several entries on theatregoing. The theatre he visited in Rome may have been the Teatro Argentina.

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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).

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