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 …

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