Friday, December 31, 2004

sturdy reading

At last the evening of the play arrived....The place was full of peasants, waiting with wonderment for the show to begin. The play was La Fiaccola sotto il Moggio, The Light Under the Bushel, by Gabriele d'Annunzio. I expected to be bored to tears by this romantic drama, played by second-rate actors....But I was agreeably surprised. The female divinities, with their large, empty black eyes and attitudes charged with motionless but passionate intensity, played their parts to perfection and, on the stage not more than four yards wide, they stood out most impressively. All the rhetoric, affectation, and pomposity of the tragedy vanished, leaving just what d'Annunzio's drama should have been in the first place: a bare tale of immutable passions against the background of a land that knows no time. At last one of his works seemed to me good, and free of sham aesthetics.

Soon I realized that this sort of purification was due not so much to the actresses as to the audience. The peasants took part in the play with the liveliest interest. Its villages, mountains and streams were not far from Grassano; they knew exactly what they were like, and every time the names came up they murmured assent. The spirits and devils that enter into the story were the same spirits and devils that lived in the clay caves of this region. The plot was true to life, for the audience endowed it with its real atmosphere, that of the closed, hopeless, and mute world of the peasants. This performance, stripped by actors and audience together of its "dannunzianism," had a rough and elementary content which the peasants felt to be a part of their own experience. The whole thing was an illusion, but it demonstrated a truth. D'Annunzio was of peasant origin, but when he became a literary figure he was bound to betray them. His beginnings were in a mute world like this one, among the Abruzzi Mountains, but he sought to superimpose on it the many-colored coat of contemporary verse, which is primarily wordy, sensual, and haunted with a sense of time. In so doing he degraded this world to a mere instrument of rhetoric.... The Sicilian actresses and the peasants of Grassano reversed this: they tore away the layers of counterfeit and grasped in their own fashion the peasant core of the drama. It was this that moved them and fired their enthusiasm. The two worlds which d'Annunzio had vainly tried to weld into an empty aestheticism flew apart, as if aware that they could not fit together, and beneath the flow of superfluous words there stood forth to the view of the peasants the images of Fate and Death.


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