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Nicola Chiaromonte and the Theatre

When Nicola Chiaromonte died in January, 1972—of a heart attack, just after taking part in a discussion program on Italian radio—there was a remarkable outburst of emotion. To his widow (Miriam, an American and a former teacher of English at Washington Irving High School in New York) in their Roman apartment came a continuous flow of telegrams and letters from Italy, France, England, the United States. The messages expressed the grief of people of the most varying kinds, from the head of state to the old woman who used to sell him newspapers in the village in Liguria where he once spent his summers. One of the most moving was from a young member of Potere Operaio (an extreme leftist group), which read something like this: “He has been a model for everyone of intellectual and moral lucidity.” When he died, Chiaromonte was in his late sixties and far in his thinking from the extreme left. The memorial tributes that followed during the next weeks in the press were, again, from the most varying sources: ranging from the centrist Corriere della Sera and La Stampa to the communist-inclined Paese Sera. Most interesting was the fact that in all those words written and wired there was scarcely a one that had an official or conventional ring, even those sent by official “personalities.”

Chiaromonte would hardly have guessed that he had “stood for something” to so many and might even have tried to refute the evidence as it poured in. He had left Italy as a young man to become an anti-fascist exile in Paris, where he was close to non-violent anarchist groups. He took part in the Spanish civil war, enlisting in Andre Malraux’s air squadron, he is the character who is always reading Plato in Man’s Hope. At the time of the Nazi invasion, in 1940, he fled with his wife to the south, his wife died in Joulouse, and he eventually continued on, reaching the United States, via North Africa. It was there that he met Camus, who became his close friend. In America, he wrote for the New Republic, Partisan Review, and Dwight Macdonald’s politics. His friends here were Macdonald, Meyer Schapiro, James J. Farrell, Lionel Abel, Niccolo Jucci, Saul Steinberg, and—less close then—me.

In the late Forties, he went back to Europe, working first for UNESCO in Paris (for which he was very unsuited). He returned finally to Rome, where he started doing a theatre column for the old II Mondo, a liberal (in the American sense) weekly. In the Fifties, with Ignazio Silone, he founded the monthly Tempo Presente. When he died, he was doing theatre reviews for L’Espresso and writing political and philosophical reflections about once a month for La Stampa. His ideas did not fit into any established category, he was neither on the left nor on the right. Nor did it follow that he was in the middle, he was alone. Though his thought remained faithful, in its way, to philosophical anarchism, he had long lost the belief in political “effectiveness.”

In America, after the Forties, he was not well known. He sent occasional “Letters” from Europe to Partisan Review and wrote occasionally for Dissent. In 1966 he gave the Christian Gauss lectures at Princeton. They dealt with the novel and the idea of history in it, and were published, as a volume, in London under the title An Age of Bad Faith. In Italy, his volume of theatre essays, La Situazione drammatica, had won a prize in Venice, and his Gauss lectures were published in book form as Credere e non credere.

Since his death, his widow has had a grant from the Agnelli Foundation to publish four volumes of his uncollected writings and correspondence. The first, consisting of political texts, will be brought out in Italy by Bompiani. The second, for which the present essay is a preface, is a selection of his theatre reviews and essays, not including those in La Situazione drammatica. It is characteristic, probably, of our period that his death should have prompted what might almost be called his “discovery.”Consciousness of a loss has awakened curiosity as to what exactly was in the vacated space. For young people, I think, finding him will be a very exciting thing. What he says and said all along speaks more directly to them than to his own positivistic generation. Young Americans, in particular, most of whom have surely never heard his name, will benefit from our loss if an American publisher now finally makes his writing available.

Nicola Chiaromonte deeply loved the theatre. The fact was surprising, “out of character,” to those who knew him as a man attached above all to ideas and principles, a theorist and reasoner, and—perhaps more important in this connection—a detester of artifice. He was every one of those things, though it did not follow that he was also, as some imagined, a puritan and therefore a natural enemy of the stage. Yet grease paint and footlights, the make-shifts of illusion and impersonation, were scarcely, you might have thought, his element. The glamour of the theatre, long recognized as one of its essential attractions (a collection of theatre pieces by the excellent American critic Stark Young was called simply Glamour), ought to have been a source of repulsion for Chiaromonte, even as a youth. And, unlike many or most play reviewers, he had never, so far as I know, cherished any ambition to tread the boards himself.

It is hard to imagine him dressing up as a child to take part in home theatricals or school pageants, indeed to picture him in any sort of costume or disguise. Nor can I hear him declaiming poetry at a Prize Day to the admiration of teachers and parents. There was nothing histrionic in him; when he spoke in public, he was certainly no orator, though sometimes forceful when angered by incomprehension of what to him intellectually or morally was clear as day. If he was “stage-struck” at any period in his life, collected theatre programs, pored over photos of stars, this cannot have come about through a process of identification with objects of fame and applause. No one could have been less desirous of shining than Chiaromonte, and the hero worship of actors common in his and my day among young people should have been totally foreign to him who had so little interest in the immediate satisfactions of the performing, capering ego.

Nevertheless not only was he a continuous playgoer, both by profession and inclination, but he loved actors and actresses. To go backstage with Chiaromonte after a performance, say at the Eliseo, was a delightful and entertaining experience; though a modest and shy man, he basked in the atmosphere of good will and affection that he seemed both to bring with him into the actors’ dressing rooms and to find there waiting to meet him. As his theatre criticism shows, he was a friendly critic of actors and a respecter of their art—encouraging to young people and beginners but fond too of the old idols even when compelled to remonstrate with them for some misguided interpretation of a scene or role. He had a great simplicity of heart, and if perhaps he looked on actors as children, something childlike in him responded, so that often he seemed more at home, more easily himself, in the greenroom than at any soiree of his fellow writers and intellectuals.

Few theatre critics can have taken the pains Chiaromonte did to go to see what small groups of actors, amateurs or novices, were essaying, usually in some remote, inconvenient part of the city and in a semi-empty hall or room. Whether in Rome, Paris, or New York, he could be counted on to have a sympathetic look. He was not so indulgent with “name” directors. He deplored the ascendancy of the director and blamed most of the evils of the contemporary theatre on a system in which the director was the star, usurping the place of the actors as well as that of the text.

The promotion of the director to top billing coincided with the rise of the movies (of which Chiaromonte was no fan), and the overwhelming emphasis in the contemporary theatre on staging, on decor and “effects,” reflected the influence of the movies, in which the virtuoso director is all-powerful, everything being grist to his mill, capable, that is, of being processed as in a giant factory. There is a film industry, but there can never be a theatre “industry”—a point not understood by hubristic stage directors—because every performance is inevitably one of a kind and cannot be reproduced the following night. Chiaromonte’s love of the theatre must have sprung partly from the love of hand-crafts and dislike of mass production, and the poor ephemerid players with whom he sympathized were its artisans.

Yet this does not altogether explain his fascination with the stage—a love affair constantly frustrated and almost doomed to disappointment, for the theatre, among all the contemporary arts, is the least flourishing. Why go to the theatre at all nowadays, since most plays and most productions are so bad? If you do not care for the movies, why not stay home and read a book? Or watch television or listen to records. And in fact people, by and large, do not go to the theatre any more. A study made last spring in the United States showed that only a minute fraction of Americans under thirty had ever seen a live play. The results would probably be similar in Western Europe; it is only behind the Iron Curtain that the theatre is still valued as an instrument of socialization. In capitalist countries, those of us who continue to go to le spectacle, as the French call it, are conscious of belonging to an ever-dwindling minority—not an elite, really, but a peculiar species of animal nearly extinct.

No doubt there is a vicious circle. The decline in public interest means that playwrights and actors, who must eat, turn to films and television, which means fewer and poorer stage productions, which in turn causes public interest to decline still more. The theatre is dependent on numbers, both to produce it and consume it. Far more than the novel or, say, the sonnet, it is keyed to demand. A sonnet, requiring only one hand to produce, may be composed for a single reader—its addressee—and a novel, also a one-man job, may be written to be read by posterity or circulated in manuscript to friends, but even street theatre demands a troupe, a vehicle, a permit usually, and some curious spectators.

Chiaromonte seems sometimes to have hoped that the theatre might be kept alive by groups of amateurs putting on shows, like children’s plays, for audiences of family and friends. Yet going to a professional performance is a voluntary, spontaneous undertaking (“Let’s get tickets for Sunday’s matinee”) while amateur theatricals, like children’s plays, are to some degree compulsory on members of a small immediate circle, who feel dutybound to attend, and duty, in the long run, is a feeble incentive to spur one to take part, regularly, in what is supposed to be a pleasure.

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