Italy

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

The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan

Alcestis being performed at Pompeii, Illustrated London News, 28 May 1927

Alcestis being performed at Pompeii, Illustrated London News, 28 May 1927

Source: Count Harry Kessler (translated and edited by Charles Kessler), The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), p. 315

Production: Euripides, Alcestis, Odeon theatre, Pompeii, 12 May 1927

Text: During the morning the usual tour of Pompeii, but in the afternoon, starting at half past four, we saw the first performance that has taken place for two thousand years in the ancient theatre: Euripides’ Alcestis, in Italian. A very fine and in parts (especially the first half) very harrowing production. The strangely obscure personality of Admetus perhaps defies (like that of Hamlet) the range of any actor. The play’s stupendous boldness of imagination and genius nevertheless remains as fresh as ever. There is a romantic, Shakespearian quality too in the structure of the work, with its compound of tragic and comic elements. And finally, as is the case with Shakespeare, the spectator is left with the feeling that the human soul is a riddle to which events, situations, and catastrophes occasionally supply clues without revealing its ultimate springs of inspiration.

Comments: Harry Kessler (1868-1937) was an Anglo-German aristocrat and diplomat. His diaries are an exceptionally vivid and observant account of art and politics in Weimar Germany. Euripides‘ fifth-century BC play Alcestis was performed in the Odeon theatre at Pompeii. The production was directed (and translated) by Ettore Romagnoli, with Letizia Celli playing Alcestis.

Pictures from Italy

Source: Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy (London: Bradbury & Evans, Whitefriars, 1846), pp. 68-72

Production: Anon., St. Helena, or the Death of Napoleon, Genoa, 1844

Text: The Theatre of Puppets, or Marionetti — a famous company from Milan — is, without any exception, the drollest exhibition I ever beheld in my life. I never saw anything so exquisitely ridiculous. They look between four and five feet high, but are really much smaller; for when a musician in the orchestra happens to put his hat on the stage, it becomes alarmingly gigantic, and almost blots out an actor. They usually play a comedy, and a ballet. The comic man in the comedy I saw one summer night, is a waiter at an hotel. There never was such a locomotive actor, since the world began. Great pains are taken with him. He has extra joints in his legs: and a practical eye, with which he winks at the pit, in a manner that is absolutely insupportable to a stranger, but which the initiated audience, mainly composed of the common people, receive (so they do everything else) quite as a matter of course, and as if he were a man. His spirits are prodigious. He continually shakes his legs, and winks his eye. And there is a heavy father with grey hair, who sits down on the regular conventional stage-bank, and blesses his daughter in the regular conventional way, who is tremendous. No one would suppose it possible that anything short of a real man could be so tedious. It is the triumph of art.

In the ballet, an Enchanter runs away with the Bride, in the very hour of her nuptials. He brings her to his cave, and tries to soothe her. They sit down on a sofa (the regular sofa! in the regular place, O.P. Second Entrance!) and a procession of musicians enter; one creature playing a drum, and knocking himself off his legs at every blow. These failing to delight her, dancers appear. Four first; then two; the two; the flesh-coloured two. The way in which they dance; the height to which they spring; the impossible and inhuman extent to which they pirouette; the revelation of their preposterous legs; the coming down with a pause, on the very tips of their toes, when the music requires it; the gentleman’s retiring up, when it is the lady’s turn; and the lady’s retiring up when it is the gentleman’s turn; the final passion of a pas-de-deux; and the going off with a bound! — I shall never see a real ballet, with a composed coutenance, again.

I went, another night, to see these Puppets act a play called “St. Helena, or the Death of Napoleon.” It began by the disclosure of Napoleon, with an immense head, seated on a sofa in his chamber at St. Helena; to whom his valet entered, with this obscure annoucement:

“Sir Yew ud se on Low!” (the ow, as in cow).

Sir Hudson (that you could have seen his regimentals!) was a perfect mammoth of a man, to Napoleon; hideously ugly; with a monstrously disproportionate face, and a great clump for the lower-jaw, to express his tyrannical and obdurate nature. He began his system of persecution, by calling his prisoner “General Buonaparte;” to which the latter replied, with the deepest tragedy, “Sir Yew ud se on Low, call me not thus. Repeat that phrase and leave me! I am Napoleon, Emperor of France!” Sir Yew ud se on, nothing daunted, proceeded to entertain him with an ordinance of the British Government, regulating the state he should preserve, and the furniture of his rooms: and limiting his attendants to four or five persons, “Four or five for me!” said Napoleon. “Me! One hundred thousand men were lately at my sole command; and this English officer talks of four or five for me!” Throughout the piece, Napoleon (who talked very like the real Napoleon, and was, for ever, having small soliloquies by himself) was very bitter on “these English officers,” and “these English soldiers:” to the great satisfaction of the audience, who were perfectly delighted to have Low bullied; and who, whenever Low said “General Buonaparte” (which he always did: always receiving the same correction) quite execrated him. It would be hard to say why; for Italians have little cause to sympathise with Napoleon, Heaven knows.

There was no plot at all, except that a French officer disguised as an Englishman, came to propound a plan of escape; and being discovered, but not before Napoleon had magnanimously refused to steal his freedom, was immediately ordered off by Low to be hanged. In two very long speeches, which Low made memorable, by winding up with “Yas!” — to show that he was English — which brought down thunders of applause. Napoleon was so affected by this catastrophe, that he fainted away on the spot, and was carried out by two other puppets. Judging from what followed, it would appear that he never recovered the shock; for the next act showed him, in a clean shirt, in his bed (curtains crimson and white), where a lady, prematurely dressed in mourning, brought two little children, who kneeled down by the bed-side, while he made a decent end; the last word on his lips being “Vatterlo.”

It was unspeakably ludicrous. Buonaparte’s boots were so wonderfully beyond control, and did such marvellous things of their own accord: doubling themselves up, and getting under tables, and dangling in the air, and sometimes skating away with him, out of all human knowledge, when he was in full speech — mischances which were not rendered the less absurd, by a settled melancholy depicted in his face. To put an end to one conference with Low, he had to go to a table, and read a book: when it was the finest spectacle I ever beheld, to see his body bending over the volume, like a boot-jack, and his sentimental eyes glaring obstinately into the pit. He was prodigiously good, in bed, with an immense collar to his shirt, and his little hands outside the coverlet. So was Dr. Antommarchi, represented by a Puppet with long lank hair, like Mawworm’s, who, in consequence of some derangement of his wires, hovered about the couch like a vulture, and gave medical opinions in the air. He was almost as good as Low, though the latter was great at all times — a decided brute and villain, beyond all possibility of mistake. Low was especially fine at the last, when, hearing the doctor and the valet say, “The Emperor is dead!” he pulled out his watch, and wound up the piece (not the watch) by exclaiming, with characteristic brutality, “Ha! ha! Eleven minutes to six! The General dead! and the spy hanged!” This brought the curtain down, triumphantly.

Comments: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a British novelist and journalist. Pictures from Italy, published in 1846, was written after a trip Dickens took through France and Italy in 1844. He saw the marionette theatre in Genoa.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive