A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 5 - Winter 2012-13

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A Glance at the Reception of Bernard Shaw in Italy

by Antonius J. Jesensek, the University of Auckland, New Zealand

Research into Bernard Shaw’s reception in Italy has until recently been minimal. I will begin by locating Shaw in the Italian cultural context in which his plays first appeared and trace the early response to his plays by Italian audiences and critics.

When Shaw’s plays were introduced to the Italian public in 1909, the climate in Italy was one of instability punctuated by widespread social and political changes. After unification (1861), Italy experienced the effects of what is now referred to as “the period of nation-building.” Critical changes were also felt in the theatre. Appolonio states:“E’ evidente che alla crisi della societa’ europea dell’Ottocento-Novecento si accompagna la crisi, gravissima, della drammaturgia popolare; il cosiddetto teatro borghese, che vedremo tanto disprezzato dalle Avanguardie” ‘It is evident that the European social crisis of the nnineteenth and twentieth centuries also manifested itself in serious crisis of the popular theatre, the so-called “teatro della borghesia” (“the theatre of the middle classes”) which was scorned by the avant-garde’ (787). The “teatro della borghesia” was considered simply a “divertimento serale” (“evening entertainment”) and meeting place, a tool of hegemony in the formation of the middle class and in the organisation of evening entertainment” (Trifone 86).

To counter this, the avant-garde advocated radical changes. Among the avant-gardists to rebel against the “teatro tradizionale” (traditional theatre) was the so-called Futurist, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), who published his famous “Manifesto” in the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dell’Emilia in Bologna 5 February 1909. This manifesto outlined an artistic philosophy that rejected the past and advocated the modernisation and rejuvenation of Italy. Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), also rebelled against the traditional values of the “teatro borghese”: “… mettendo in crisi il mito ottocentesco dell’oggettivita’ cui quel teatro era legato, e dando voce per la prima volta alle oscure angosce esistenziali del Novecento; …” ‘… upsetting the myth of the nineteenth-century objectivity to which the theatre was linked and gave, for the first time, voice to the dark existential anguish of the 1900s’ (94).

Amidst this climate of crisis, Shaw’s plays further upset the illusory stability of the popular theatre, and his provocative ideas, long discussions and original, albeit controversial, use of theatrical techniques shocked a public used to conventional romantic themes, predictable plots and romantic endings; a public that, in short, simply wanted to be entertained.

Shaw, as a Fabian socialist, had been advocating social and political reforms even before he became a playwright and this polemic is usually at the core of his plays. He used the theatre as a platform from which to expound his controversial ideas in England and, through translations, in other countries. The long, dialectical discussions by actors who questioned or alluded to topical social and political issues, combined with Shaw’s extraordinary mix of theatre techniques, were new to British audiences and to Italian ones.

I will now attempt to shed light on Shaw’s reception in Italy by referencing some of the number of translators’ reports, critical essays, dramatic reviews and spectators’ comments that I have encountered thus far in my research.

Antonio Agresti (1866-1926), Shaw’s first Italian translator and literary agent from 1906 to 1926, must be credited with introducing Shaw to Italian readers. Agresti was an anarchist – in fact a member of the London anarchist society - and an editor of the Roman newspaper La Tribuna. It was for his political stance, not for his talent as a translator, that Shaw made him his official Italian translator. Shaw seemed to have had complete confidence in Agresti, who within a year (1908) had translated seven of Shaw’s works, the so-called Pleasant and Unpleasant plays. Most of Agresti’s translations were, by and large, faithful to Shaw’s original.

In a rare extant letter of 3 December 1911 (Crawford) to Shaw, Agresti informed him about several issues involving the staging and relative success of some of his plays in Italian theatres. This letter revealed various aspects of Shaw’s early reception in Italy. The general tone of the letter was optimistic, predicting a favourable reception: “Gradually we are making headway,” he began. But this optimism became clouded when he reported on the reception of The Man of Destiny: “The critics were not very favourable”. However, Agresti went on to predict future successful productions starring Emma Gramatica (1874-1965), the most famous Italian actress of the day, and he said that more plays would be staged, “Mme. Gramatica proposes to restage Mrs Warren’s Profession in the coming year, and I feel sure she will make a success of it.”

Agresti hoped that a revival of Mrs Warren’s Profession, first staged in Rome in 1909, but not very successfully, would be better received thanks to Gramatica. Theatre critic Ettore Albini’s (1896-1954) review of the 1913 production in Milan had nothing but praise for the play and for Gramatica. He exclaimed with delight: “Ah che vivificante ventata intellettuale, nella triste e squallida prosa del teatro cotemporaneo!” ‘Ah, what a refreshing breath of intellectual air in the dreary and squalid prose of contemporary theatre’ (250). Yet Albini thought that the audience was not ready or not sufficiently prepared to understand such a provocative play. The play dealt with prostitution, inequality, poverty and wealth, which were taboo subjects at that time.

The most enlightening observation regarding Shaw’s reception in Italy at this stage was directly related to the attitude of the general theatre-going public. Agresti believed that audiences themselves were responsible for the unfavourable receptions of Shaw’s plays: “The public here is still stupidly romantic and critical realistic plays like yours have to be forced down their throats; they are battles, but battles which are won in the long run” (Crawford 189).

Hinting at romantic encounters was not enough for an audience expecting a happy ending, yet there are no such endings in Shaw’s plays; where romance is suggested or alluded to it does not come to fruition. For instance, in Arms and the Man, Mrs Warren’s Profession, Candida, Man and Superman, The Apple Cart, even in Pygmalion (where a happy ending is hinted at), romantic love does not flourish. If anything, most of Shaw’s plays might be called “anti-romantic.”

In addition, most of the plays end abruptly. In his review of the 1914 production of Pygmalion inMilan (starring Emma Gramatica), Albini commented on Shaw’s plays in general and on the abrupt endings that left the majority of the audience dissatisfied, observing: “Quando ha vuotato il sacco, cala la tela e lascia che ogni uno s’immagini un epilogo a gusto suo. E’ per questo che novantanove volte su cento, il suo teatro lascia la gran maggioranza insoddisfatta” ‘When the characters have nothing more to say, the curtain comes down and leaves each spectator to imagine his or her own epilogue. This is the reason why ninety-nine times out of a hundred his theatre leaves the greater majority dissatisfied’ (285). And yet, he added: “E’ un bagno intellettuale che rinfresca e rinvigorisce; e’ una di quelle poche commedie che fanno ancora amare il teatro” ‘It was a reinvigorating and refreshing intellectual bath, one of those plays that made the theatre still loveable’ (288). At the end of his review, Albini states that the play was indeed favourably received: “Inutile aggiungere l’esito trionfale di Pigmalione” ‘There is no need to comment on the triumphant reception of Pygmalion’ (289).

The impression that the Italian public did not understand Shaw’s plays or was not sufficiently prepared or informed to understand them is a recurring theme in observations by some theatre critics. Giovanni Pozza the theatre critic, writer and poet, (1852-1914) observed in his review of a production of Candida in 1911 that the performance was enthusiastically applauded but also suggests that the audience did not fully understand the play: “Il pubblico seppe ben intenderla ieri sera? Ne dubito. Mi Parve che l’abbia … presa troppo sul serio, che non ne abbia avvertito quello spirito ironico e mordace che s’agita in lei con tanta forza e tanta audacia di paradossi e di contraddizioni. Ma’…essa fu ascoltata con intensa attenzione e col piacere di una sorpresa continuamente rinnovata, e fu vivamente applaudita” ‘I doubt the audience really understood the play. It seems to me that it took it too seriously. They did not see the biting irony, the paradoxes and contradiction. But … the many unexpected surprises were greatly appreciated, and it was enthusiastically applauded’ (588). Pozza’s impression as to why the audience applauded a play they had failed to fully understand was briefly put in terms of what he overheard a spectator say: “Se non altro, diceva qualcuno, abbiamo finalmente udito qualche cosa di diverso dal solito, di veramente originale e significativo” ‘If nothing else, we have finally heard something different from the usual, something really original and significant’ (588). Therefore, Shaw’s theatre was either accepted as novelty by some audiences, or it was rejected by other audiences as nonsensical and disturbing.

Like other critics, Pozza went on to acknowledge that Shaw’s dramas were different from what the Italian public expected to see in the theatre even saying that: “Candida, infatti, e’ una commedia che non s’assomiglia a nessun’altra. Candida e’ una commedia indefinibile” ‘Candida is,in fact, a play that does not resemble any other. Candida is an indefinable comedy’ (588).He enlightend his readers on what he thought was the essence of Shaw’s plays, concluding that “Non solo non teme di essere sincero; vuol esserlo anzi ad ogni costo – a costo di non esser capito e di essere fischiato. La sua arte non e’forse un’arte creatrice: e’ un arte che deride e che distrugge. Le sue commedie non sono fatte di vicende e di personaggi, ma di idee, di quelle idee specialmente che piu’ contrastano coi pregiudizi e colle menzogne convenzionali” ‘Shaw does not fear to be honest; he actually wants to be honest at any cost even at the cost of not being understood or being booed. His art might not be a creative art; it is an art that mocks and destroys. His plays are not made of events and characters, but of ideas, especially those ideas that most contrast with conventional prejudices and lies’ (589).

Other Italian critics observed that Shaw’s plays were not understood by audiences and caused general confusion in the theatre. In his article Villanova d’Ardenghi Le Idee di G.B.S. observed: “G.B.S. sconvolge, la maggior parte delle volte, ogni nostra idea in fatto di teatro” ‘Most of the time, G.B.S. upsets all of our ideas about the theatre’ (2). He objected particularly to one essential feature in Shaw’s plays: his notorious and unconventional combination of theatrical techniques, the unexpected changes in tone. These were especially disturbing to Italian audiences. He pointed out: “Nulla ha urtato il publico di tutti i tempi piu’ degli improvisi mutamenti di tono nel corso della rappresentazione … il publico dei teatri vuol seguire la logica degli atti, non puo’ ammettere un atto dov’e’ bagliore di tragedia alternato inaspettatamente ad un atto di farsa” ‘Nothing has ever irritated the audience more than the sudden changes from one mood to another during the course of a play … the theatre audience wants to understand the logical sequence of the acts; it cannot tolerate the unexpected changes, the shift from an air of tragedy to one of farce’ (2).

Echoing Agresti, d’Ardenghi made an important comment in the light of Shaw’s reception in Italy. He assumed a thorough knowledge of Shaw’s modus operandi in writing plays: Shaw’s social and political polemic, his unusual themes and controversial ideas, and his choice and unexpected combination of theatre techniques. He suggested: “E se il pubblico non e’ in tal modo abilmente preparato, l’effetto viene a mancare: il riso si muta in ghigno, lo spettatore si vendica della burla contro l’autore” ‘If the (theatre) public is not well informed of the playwright’s ideas and particular writing techniques, it will not understand his plays and will turn against him’ (3). D’Ardenghi then described the daring nature of Shaw’s plays in terms similar to Pozza’s, to instruct the public about Shaw: “Nulla puo’ resistere alla demolizione in una commedia di Shaw. Moralita’, onesta’, affetti famigliari, onore, tutto egli trascina nella sua furia iconoclastica; anche l’amore, che altri vuol ritenere al di fuori di ogni calcolo, quando sia sentimento vero, sincero” ‘Nothing escapes the destructive powers in a play by Shaw: morality, honesty, affections, honour; he attacks everything in his iconoclastic fury, even love, which, when it is true and honest, is deemed untouchable by other authors’ (9). Although d’Ardenghi saw in Shaw a great, original author worthy of being studied “un autore originale, degno di studio”, it was necessary, he observed, at the outset to understand exactly his critical reasoning and his philosophical and sociological views; this was culturally very challenging.

It took a few years, but some audiences became more receptive to Shaw’s plays in due course. Theatre critic Adriano Tilgher (1887-1944), in his review of the 1926 production Santa Giovanna (Saint Joan)in Rome, praised Shaw, the play, and the audience: “… la mirabile opera del grande drammaturgo incontro’ il piu’ entusiastico assenso del fitto e intelettuale pubblico del Valle” ‘… the marvellous work by the great playwright was most enthusiastically received by the large and learned audience of the Valle Theatre’ (370).

Yet for theatre historian Silvio d’Amico (1887-1955) the theatre public was still not informed enough. He complains about the general state of public ignorance of contemporary playwrights: “Il pubblico, che come si sa non sempre e’ molto informato sugli autori contemporanei compresi  i  piu’ celebri, parve lietamente sorpreso nello scoprire uno Shaw apologist della monarchia ...”   ‘The public, which, as we know, is not always sufficiently informed about contemporary authors, not even about the most famous, was surprised to discover that Shaw was an apologist for the monarchy…’(78). It seems the humour, irony and wit, Shaw’s trademarks, were completely missed by the audience.

Two reviews by theatre critics of a later date are of interest here. One is by Alberto Savinio (1891-1952), writer, theorist, and playwright of the production of Pygmalion in Rome in 1937 and, for an extreme contrast, the other is by Corrado Alvaro (1895-1956, writer, journalist, and poet, of the production of Widowers’ Houses in Rome in 1942. The first review is a fierce attack on Shaw, on his plays generally, and specifically on Pygmalion, on the performance by actress Elsa Merlini, and on the audience. The second praises Shaw and his play, Ermete Zacconi’s theatre company, actress Ernes Zacconi and other actors of the cast, and even the perceptive audience.

Savinio thought that Shaw’s plays were boring and had nothing to say: “nelle commedie di G.B. Shaw non ce niete da capire” ‘there is nothing in G.B. Shaw’s plays to be understood’ (79). This was reflected in Savinio’s description of the behaviour of the audience which he described with some gusto, expressing his surprise at seeing such a well-heeled audience at a play by Shaw: “Laonde il nostro stupore fu grande quella sera al teatro Barberini gremito del piu’ bel pubblico della cpitale, vedendo signiori d’eta’ e gravi d’aspetto, dame matronali, giovanotti di pretta quadratura sportiva, fanciulle gia’ ombrate di quella tinta … ridere squilantemente per mostrare che nulla sfuggiva, alla loro intelligenza internazionalmente colta, delle umoristiche finezze del grande Giorgio Bernardo Shaw” ‘That evening, at the theatre Barberini, we were greatly surprised to see such a crowd of the well-to-do public of the capital: serious elderly men, dignified ladies, fit-looking youth, suntanned girls, who were laughing loudly to show that nothing of the great George Bernard Shaw’s subtle humour escaped their intelligence and high international education’ (77). This description is a caricature of the middle-class theatre public, a public seeking merely to be distracted and entertained.

Savinio, like Pozza, d’Ardenghi and d’Amico, doubted the sincerity of the audience: “E bisogna credere che quella parte della nostra borghesia che frequenta i teatri continua a prendere Shaw sul serio, se finge di ricrearsi a una enorme sciapata qual e’ questo Pigmalione” ‘Is it credible that that section of our middle-class, theatre-going society continues to pretend to take Shaw seriously by going to see a play like Pygmalion?’ (78). Savinio suspected that the audience only  pretended to understand Shaw’s plays:“Insistiamo sul carattere fittizio del godimento che il nostro pubblico mostra di trarre dal teatro di G.B. Shaw” ‘We insist that the public shows a false appreciation of Shaw’s theatre.’ He observed that the reason for that was a fear that boredom could be interpreted as incomprehension. When he commented on the play’s effect on the audience, Savinio observed that Shaw’s plays were nothing more than “commediole” (little plays) which had nothing important to say and then addressed the audience directly: “Ora noi vorremmo … suggerire a questi membri del bell mondo che se le commedie di Shaw ispirano una noia cosi’ preoccupante, … (e’) perche’  nelle commedie di G.B. Shaw non c’e’ niente da capire. E’ alla sciatteria del testo che va imputata la sciatteria dell’interpretazione?”  ‘We want to suggest to these members of the high society that if Shaw’s plays produce such boredom … it is because there is nothing to understand in G.B. Shaw’s plays. Is it the nonsensical dialogue to which the nonsensical interpretation can be attributed?’ (78).

There was nothing flattering in Savinio’s review, which felt like a personal attack on everything Shavian and everything bourgeois, the very backbone of the theatre-going public. However, the second review seemed to indicate that the theatre public, generally, was not dissuaded by such biting critical attacks. In fact, some plays, such as Widowers’ Houses, Mrs Warren’s Profession and Candida,were greatly appreciated, but this often depended on individual productions and on specific performers, and on a specific audience.

The absolute contrast was Alvaro’s review of the production of Widowers’ Houses.It spoke of a great success: “Questa commedia … ha appassionato il pubblico fin dalle prime scene” ‘This play … has fascinated the public right from the first scenes’ (209). He praised the director Ermete Zacconi: “… che ha svolto le sue recite con una … cura e una continuita’ di sforzi non commune nel nostro teatro di oggi …” ‘… he directed the performances with energy and care … something not often seen in our theatre’ (209). He praised actress Ernes Zacconi as Bianca (Blanche), and other actors of the company, Edoardo Toniolo (Leccasbrinzi) (Lickcheese) and Giuseppe Pagliarini (Cokane),for their excellent performances.

Although theatre critics such as Pozza, d’Ardenghi, Savinio and d’Amico thought the public only pretended to understand Shaw’s plays, there were also those, such as Tilgher and Alvaro, who praised the plays and the “perceptive public.” This clearly indicates that audiences responded differently in different historical periods to the old popular theatre, the new theatre of the avant-garde, and to Shaw’s plays; thus it is clear that the perception and reception of Shaw in Italy was quite divided. However, I suggest that the reviews were possibly coloured by the critics’ political and social agendas, which will be a topic of study in my thesis.

Most of Shaw’s works were produced in the major theatres in Italy during the period from 1909 to 1942: Teatro Argentina, Teatro Barberini and Teatro Valle in Rome; Teatro dei Filodrammatici, Teatro Trianon and Teatro Manzoni in Milan, and Teatro Goldoni in Venice. When the most important Italian theatre companies such as Emma Gramatica’s (with Gramatica in the lead role) or Ermete Zacconi’s company produced a play by Shaw, it was usually a success. On the other hand, as we have seen, the production of Pygmalion by the Merlini-Cialente company (with Merlini as Eliza) at the Teatro Barberini in Rome in 1937 was a failure.

Generally speaking, Shaw’s plays were challenging and fundamentally different from what the Italian theatre public was used to. They introduced new themes and original technical approaches in the theatre in line with those proposed by the Italian avant-garde, who scorned popular theatre and wanted to change it. Shaw’s plays, like those of the avant-garde, were a threat to the “teatro della borghesia.”

Shaw was a novelty and a controversial playwright for at least four decades since his introduction to Italian theatre in 1909: firstly, because his polemical plays, his controversial ideas and unusual playwriting techniques came as a shock to the audience; secondly, because Shaw brought social reality to the theatre – which was exactly what audiences wanted to escape from. He even suggested that the social conventions and institutions, which were the very fabric of their lives, should be demolished. It was little wonder that in Italy, like in many other countries, some audiences failed to understand his plays, rejected his ideas and considered him a threat to the status quo they wanted to preserve.


Works Cited
Albini, Ettore. “Mrs Warren’s Profession”. Newspaper Avanti 16 January 1913; Cronache teatrali 1891-1925: a cura di Giuseppe Bartolucci. Genova: Edizione del Teatro Stabile di Genova, 1954. 245-250. Print.

----- . “Pigmalione”. Cronache teatrali 1891-1925: a cura di Giuseppe Bartolucci. Genova: Edizionedel Teatro Stabile di Genova, 1954. 285-289. Print.

Alvaro, Corrado. “Le Case del Vedovo di G. B. Shaw.” (G. B. Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses). Cronache e Scritti Teatrali. Ed. Alfredo Barbina, Rome: Edizioni Abete,1976. 207-209. Print.

Apollonio, Mario. Storia del teatro italiano. Milan: Rizzoli, 2003. Print.

Crawford, Fred D. “Shaw in Translation: Part 1.” The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies, vol. 20. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. 177-196. Print.

D’Amico, Silvio. “L’Imperatore d’America di Shaw al Valle.” Cronache del Teatro, vol. 2. Bari: Laterza,1964. 74-78. Print.

Pozza, Giovanni. “Candida” di G. B. Shaw.”  Corriere della Sera, 3 May 1911. Print.  

Savinio, Alberto. “La Merlini in Pigmalione.” Palchetti Romani. Milan: Adelphi, 1973. 77-79. Print.

Tilgher, Adriano. “Santa Giovanna di George Bernard Shaw.” Cronache Teatrali 1914-1926. Genova: Teatro Stabile,1973. 365-370. Print.

Trifone, Pietro. Italiana 2. L’italiano a teatro. Pisa, Roma: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 2000. Print.

Villanova d’Ardenghi, Bruno. “Le Idee di G.B.S.”. Rivista Teatrale Italiana. 1913. 1-9. Print.