Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Fascist Theatre

In a passage of A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf reported that Italian men of letters had expressed their hope – in a telegram to il Duce Benito Mussolini – that ‘the Fascist era would soon give birth to a poet worthy of it’. She, for one, was skeptical: ‘The Fascist poem, one may fear, will be a horrid little abortion such as one sees in a glass jar in the museum of some county town. Such monsters never live long, it is said […] Two heads on one body do not make for length of life.’

Instinctually, one tends to feel that Woolf was right: why wouldn’t beastly politics produce beastly art? And, indeed, as I began delving into theatre under fascism, I found quick support for such assumptions: arguments stating that cultural autarky closed Italy’s creative borders, shunning the inspiration that could’ve come from foreign exchange; that draconian censorship wiped all complexity from the stage and, even before that, self-censorship (for fear of the fascist cudgel or loss of work) lead authors to write safe but dull plays; and, especially, that none of this should be surprising anyhow, for it is understood that fascism and culture are two concepts inherently and necessarily in opposition. As a theatre specialist who had stumbled by chance into modern Italy, I couldn’t not ask myself if it was all a waste. Consensus seemed to have it that this theatre wasn’t worth the effort. And yet. What I was reading from the period did not confirm what I was reading about the period. After all, the best-known theatrical figures (many of whom had explicit ties to fascism) were hardly slouches: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the futurists, Luigi Pirandello. Thus I set out to resolve the question; thus now, many years later, Mussolini’s Theatre is born.

The Ugly: The map of the world from Cesare, 1940, by Giovacchino Forzano (in collaboration with Benito Mussolini) Courtesy of the Biblioteca Nazionale di Roma

As it turned out, the fascist dictator shared Woolf’s doubts. While he encouraged dramatists to write plays that would “stir the collective passions,” he also stressed – from the mid-twenties and for at least a decade to come – that he didn’t want “fascist chronicles,” nor would he prescribe a style like his Soviet counterparts so famously did with Socialist Realism. The cinema, he had declared, was the most powerful propagandistic weapon around, but the theatre could achieve higher ends, elevating the tastes and general culture of the populace he thought needed to be reforged. A lifelong theatergoer and reader of drama, encouraged by the adherence of worthy intellectuals to his political program and firm in his conviction that Italian genius would produce the longed-for fascist art, Mussolini invested vast resources in all kinds of public performance and, crucially, in theatrical training for the next generation – those fascistized young (mostly male) minds that would form the nation’s future ruling class.

The Bad: Mussolini’s note to the theatre censor: “No — it’s French.” Leopoldo Zurlo, Memorie inutili. La censura teatrale nel ventennio (1952)

Italian stages therefore hosted the good, the bad, and the ugly. This latter – unabashed and sometimes but not always artless propaganda – made for a small portion of the offering, for fascist dramatic persuasion would largely work through other ways and means. The bad, that is, the standard commercial fare of the bourgeois playhouse, often French bedroom farce (or more melodramatic versions of the same), Mussolini despised so much he called it porco – pig – and in a 1933 speech urged the theatre set, “Enough with the infamous triangle!” Still, he rewarded the troupes that did it best, for they had to earn a living and were, after all, filling the playhouses… Then there was the good. Far from castigators of “degenerate art” (although a contingent bewailed the influence of depressing Nordic plays), Mussolini and the other officials in charge of the stage had a penchant for modern dramaturgy and design: they refashioned the classics, from Sophocles to Schiller; they championed modernist iconoclasts like Pirandello; they put a network of experimental playhouses into student hands; they welcomed the imported figure of the theatrical director. Most performance, then, wasn’t obviously “fascist,” and scholars have generally celebrated, as Virginia Woolf would have, the blackshirts’ failure to create a theatre of their own. Whether and why we might call their production fascist, or if therefore we can speak of failure, are the kinds of questions Mussolini’s Theatre works through. But that there is no blog-length answer to such queries suggests that, good bad or ugly, fascist Italy bequeathed a world of theatre indeed very worthy of exploration.

Mussolini's Theatre by Patricia Gaborik
Mussolini’s Theatre by Patricia Gaborik

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