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.
The sociability of the theatre distinguishes it from films, where one sits in the dark, and from concerts, where many listen with eyes closed, shutting out the others and the environment the better to take in the sound. One is never lonely in the theatre, whether one holds a single ticket or not. The play is a social event, and watching the audience arrive, observing it during intermissions in the bar or foyer, is one of the playgoer’s privileged diversions, like gazing around at a party and ticking off the guests as they come in. To take one’s seat early and crane one’s neck waiting for the hall to fill up, sometimes with painful slowness, initiates one into suspense, a mixture of dread and longing very like what one will experience when the house lights finally dim and the curtain rises: one inspects the balcony and the gallery—still too few there—follows the usher’s quickening footsteps up and down the orchestra aisles—two more, three more, four!
At the movies, it does not matter if you are the only spectator present; except for the inconvenience of having other people stumble past you, your enjoyment is not affected one way or the other. But at a play it is sad to be surrounded by empty seats. I think I could not bear to be the solitary member of an audience and not just because I would feel sorry for the actors. At a play everybody wants the pride of a packed house. Sitting together with others, intent on a performance that will never be precisely the same, even if you occupy the same seat the next night and for a dozen nights thereafter, makes going to the theatre an immersion into community, like the yearly mass baptism that used to be performed on every baby born in the parish. A theatre audience is a self-constituted assembly and, unlike an anomic film audience, generally has a civic character. Something of the sort happens also at sporting events—people go to the stadium, rather than watch on television, not just to eat hot dogs but to bear joint witness to some feat or dramatic contest—with the difference that in the theatre you are simply absorbed in the spectacle and do not take sides.
Yet in the theatre nowadays that exalting sentiment of community, of civic participation, and the sense of privilege it carries, has ceased to elate the remnant of playgoers, just because we are a remnant, because we are such freaks, such a minority, so unrepresentative. At any given moment, we were always a happy few, since a theatre has a limited seating capacity and does not “project,” but now we are not even envied. The community we take our place in, as the usher leads us down the aisle, has no civic or statistical significance; we might as well be installed around a Ouija board. Uniting to watch a play, whether it is Hamlet or Hair, we recognize ourselves as veteran members of an obsolescent cult or fraternity, some of us, in the stalls, wearing the old class uniform—or vestment—of dinner jacket and evening gown, others in ancient shawls or queer rusty hats; even the children, if it is a matinee, seem to have been freshly exhumed from mothballs to enact, with their parents and schoolmates, the archaic boring rite of being-at-the-play.
Chiaromonte was well aware that some mystery attached to his faithful attendance at this charade. In the essay written after a heart attack had caused him to drop his theatre column for nearly a year, he asked himself why in the world he was starting it up again. What was the use? Writing about the theatre in Italy (where things were even worse than elsewhere), you found yourself saying something negative 70 percent of the time. Since the theatre was clearly dying, what was the point of going on?
His answers to these insistent questions do not wholly dispel the mystery: he likes writing his column and likes the paper (the old Il Mondo) it appears in and the liberty the paper gives him to write about whatever he wants, using the theatre as a spring-board. He likes having a part to play, a role assigned to him, that of the critic, whose mask he wears, in the common drama of society, where we all play our parts, and the theatre is not just a microcosm of the real world, it is a cosmos in which all that is lived in the real world may be clarified and purified to a point where it can acquire significance. Finally, there is not only the real theatre, as it exists today, but also the idea of the theatre, and abominable as the real theatre is, it still fascinates him because of its hideous deformity, as we continue to love an altered, disfigured being and refuse to acknowledge that the creature is beyond redemption. What he is saying, in short, is that he cannot tear himself away from his seat in the stalls since he is in love with the idea of the theatre, even in its fallen state, as one might be with a fallen woman. In sheer horror, if nothing else, he remains in his place, unable to turn his eyes away.
Something like this is what most of us who love the theatre feel, though no one, I think, has expressed it so forcibly. Despite all we know, despite our better judgment, we keep coming back to it. In my own case, I ought to add, it is more in perpetual hope than in despairing fascination. I can never quell a stir of anticipation when the curtain parts. But, unlike Chiaromonte, I have never had the dream of reforming the theatre—only the dream that it would somehow reform itself—which probably means that my passion for it has been less than his.
In any case, though, why the theatre? What caused him to fall in love with that sad strumpet in the first place when he might have chosen a good woman—painting, sculpture, poetry, instrumental music—or even that demi-rep, opera? And if he wanted to suffer, what about films, which offer plenty of opportunities for exasperation to anyone who has a pure “idea” of the cinema? The truth is he was allergic to the silver screen. Like most people who care about the stage, he would rather see a play, any play, providing it was serious, than a film “masterpiece” that everybody was talking about. On the screen, not being a puritan, he appreciated ribald farce and fast-moving comic extravaganzas (on the order of Dr. Strangelove, Divorzio all’Italiano); it was the “art” film he could not tolerate and the widely diffused belief that the cinema, with its greater powers of representation, had superseded the theatre qua dramatic art, as though the limitations of the stage had been a mere matter of technical incapacity which the camera had rendered otiose—the oft-voiced idea, that is, that if Shakespeare had only been born in the age of the moving picture he would have been the first to write movie scripts, grateful for the exciting possibilities of a medium that would free him from the cramped makeshifts of the Globe.
Still, if Chiaromonte obstinately resisted the seduction of films, he was genuinely fond of music and poetry and more than fond of painting—he even practiced it a little—and his first long work, lost in France in 1940 during the mass exodus of poli c exiles fleeing from the Nazis, was manuscript on Michelangelo. He also had a gift for journalism and might have become, like Victor Hugo (Choses Vues) and Dostoyevsky (Diary of a Writer), a regular critic of the national life, including crimes of the passionate sort; as readers of his “Notes” in Tempo Presente and his “Letters” in Partisan Review know, he had a great relish for the “small” human event buried in a news item or spread out in the headlines of a tabloid. Yet with all these capacities and endowments (which were the reflection of an unusual inner activity; his soul had no dead areas, calluses, or proud flesh), not to mention his philosophic interests, centering on history and politics, he elected the theatre as, you might say, his scene of combat, his preferred arena.
It was combat from the very beginning. A note passed on by a friend and Roman contemporary of his informs me that Chiaromonte, as a young man of twenty or perhaps still a boy of nineteen, belonged to a group that called themselves I Sciacalli (the Jackals) and went to the theatre to hiss fashionable bourgeois plays and applaud Pirandello and other writers of the avant-garde. The playwrights they were hooting hired “provocative elements” to put on counter-demonstrations, but without much effect. The Jackals prevailed; then gradually young fascists added their voices to the ensemble, and bit by bit Nicola’s group broke up. It is strange now to think of Chiaromonte playing jackal, i.e., running in a sportive pack to hunt prey, but to come upon the name Pirandello suddenly throws light. Here we may have the clue, finally, to what caused his young emotions to fasten so inflexibly on the stage.
Chiaromonte’s championship of Pirandello never lost its vigor. If he comes back again and again to worry the case of Bertolt Brecht, for him symptomatic of what was basically wrong with the theatre of today, he returns again and again to Pirandello to illustrate what was—or might have been—right. Commenting on current productions, Chiaromonte was not satisfied to praise or condemn. He always saw lessons to be learned, for the director and play-wright, and Brecht was the great negative lesson whose anatomy he patiently dissected, while Pirandello he perceived as a model, not of course to be copied but to be studied in depth and understood.
Even Pirandello’s weaknesses are instructive for Chiaromonte in that they show him in the act of misunderstanding his own strength. Or, as he himself puts it in the long review of Vestire gl’ignudi (Clothing the Naked), there are times when Pirandello does not accept in full the logic of his own inspiration: seeking a pathetic effect, he falls into the very staginess from which he ought to have set the theatre free with Six Characters. For Chiaromonte, it could not be enough to state this. He must make us see it, and, using the same components of character and event (a seduced and abandoned girl tries to kill herself), before our eyes, as if at a drawing board, he brilliantly sketches out the play as it would have been, had the Pirandello of Six Characters rigorously thought it through. This careful demonstration, which almost makes us laugh aloud at the ease and simplicity of its means, is an object lesson itself in the how of theatre-reviewing.
He did not hesitate to call Six Characters a “milestone” of the modern theatre—an assertion that may startle a foreigner. For us, Pirandello has been more of a curious bloom on the tree of modernism than anything as solid and perduring as a milestone on a road leading into the future. Even twenty or thirty years ago, to us he appeared as old-fashioned as the dark suits and widow’s crape worn by the automata that were his characters. His “psychology” or “philosophy” (an extreme relativism or, vulgarly, “It’s all in your mind”) had pasted him for us in a period album of the Twenties. Indeed, he seemed a prime example of a writer who had been locked into a set of once-current notions and sealed off from posterity as though in a time-capsule, and the very theatricality of his plays, while it encouraged their revival with period costumes and accessories, identified him as a dramaturge, i.e., an old-time wizard and prestidigitator skilled in theatre magic and particularly in the art of “freezing” actors in a tableau.
Reading and rereading Chiaromonte on him, I have become convinced that we missed the point. But whether the Pirandello he teaches us to see is the real Pirandello or Chiaromonte’s own ideal construct, it is clear that the Pirandello he expounds to us is indeed a crucial and disquieting contemporary figure. A line can be drawn from Pirandello that will pass through Artaud, Ionesco, Beckett, Genet, and skirt altogether Brecht, Sartre, T.S. Eliot, Peter Weiss’s Marat-Sade, and the American realists. Strindberg and Shaw have a place in the line, which can be extended backward to Chekhov and Ibsen. Those two (and behind them the Greeks) are the playwrights Chiaromonte dwells on with love, from whom he has learned, to whom he goes back, as if for a refresher course and to reassure himself of his bearings.
On nearly every page of his commentary, however big or small the occasion that prompted it (Genet’s The Blacks or a hippie version of Euripides), we find a reaffirmation and testing of principles. And yet what principles, the reader might ask, looking down an inventory of the blessed that embraces Pirandello, Beckett, Sophocles, and Jean Genet? What can they have in common? In fact how can Chiaromonte’s principle of the theatre as reasoning action (azione ragionante) accommodate Artaud’s notion of the stage as a concrete physical space to be filled with spectacular violence, sound, and gesture? Is it not capricious, then, a sheer matter of taste, to draw the line at Brecht?
Our wonder has something familiar about it. We are feeling the same mystification as we did at the outset when we confronted the fact of his theatrical “calling” or vocation. Perhaps the two enigmas are bound up together: if we can find a common factor or factors among the objects of his preference, we may be close to the idea Chiaromonte formed for himself of the theatre—the idea he espoused for better or for worse on first meeting it in the work of Pirandello.
Well, one common factor gradually becomes discernible; from the Greeks through Genet, all those figures are non or anti-realist, or so Chiaromonte argued. He had a bias against realism (which, since I do not share it, I consider a prejudice) and seldom lets pass a chance to vent his feelings on the subject. A good deal of his sympathy with Genet comes from the playwright’s insistence on “an absolute break with representation” and his expressed desire for “a declamatory tone”—in production often denied him by directors. Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty attracts Chiaromonte for a number of reasons, among which he lists first, as a cardinal point, its remoteness from any kind of realism or naturalism. It is no problem for him to find the same virtue in Shaw, whom he cites once as the true inventor of distancing.
Yet at other times Chiaromonte’s reprehension of realism is selective: determined to make his case, he relies on a certain willfulness, not to say contrariness, of definition. In exculpating Ibsen and Chekhov from the sin, he concedes that in these authors there is something that may look like realism or faithful representation (the telegraph poles in The Cherry Orchard, Trigorin’s checked trousers and Uncle Vanya’s splendid neckties, the declared prosaic intention of Ibsen’s great middle works), but, with them, he maintains, it is tempered by something else—lyricism in Ibsen and, in Chekhov, a kind of immateriality. One can agree that there is a lyric strain in the middle Ibsen and that in Chekhov there is a loving perception, filtered through pity, of a world beyond Trigorin’s ephemeral checked trousers but yet comprising them. Still, you and I might call this realism—what else?—in its purest distillate. Or, as Chiaromonte puts it himself, writing of Hedda Gabler: “In these dramas of ordinary bourgeois life, destiny strikes through the ordinary, the mean, the petty.”
To come closer to today, Chiaromonte is able to admire Beckett and Ionesco (able to censure them too, on occasion), both for themselves and for the imprint of Chekhov he perceives on them. What other theatre critic would have had the acuteness to notice that “Beckett’s maggot-men seem to come straight out of a sentence in The Sea Gull” (in the play-within-a-play, at the opening, when a time 200,000 years from now is foreseen, on an empty cold planet where “all living things have completed their sad cycle”)? In Ionesco he also notes traces of Pirandello. Yet what he may have failed to see is that both Beckett and Ionesco, after their fashion, are latter-day realists. In comparison with Genet’s The Screens, Beckett’s Happy Days looks like a “slice of life”: if you take the postulate of a fifty-year-old woman buried up to her waist in the sands of time, this is how she would be, down to the last, harshly observed detail of handbag, toothbrush, lipstick—a bundle, to use Chiaromonte’s words, of “small satisfactions, habitual gestures, false triumphs, held together with animal selfishness.”
Something similar could be said of Ionesco’s Amédée ou Comment s’en débarrasser: if you postulate a foot belonging to a corpse in an adjoining, unseen room that keeps growing and inching its way into the family dining room, that is exactly how the family would behave toward it. In both cases, the inability of the characters to “rise” to an enormous exterior fact such as the silting in of the world or the slow intrusion of a dead body enhances the horror and monstrosity of their daily, “realistic” circumstance. Or put it the other way around: representation in an eschatological context (the ever-present doomsday of those playwrights’ vivid metaphors of burial and encroachment) survives, like Winnie’s toothbrush, at the cost of becoming caricature.
In fact, thinking it over, I am not sure that Chiaromonte failed to see the realistic component in Beckett and Ionesco. Perhaps the reservations he felt about them can be attributed to a suspicion on his part that the break with representation there, despite appearances, was something less than absolute—reservations he never felt about Genet. Yet we will not understand his reprehension of realism unless we understand that the term for him meant something less and more than the rules and conventions of lifelike stagecraft. By that standard, Ibsen would be more of a realist, i.e., a culprit, than his epigone Arthur Miller, who violates time sequences, lets his archetypal characters declaim and soliloquize, and embodies dreams and memory fragments on a bare or near-bare stage.
When Chiaromonte anathematizes realism, he has in mind the error of mistaking the surface of life—or lives—for reality. Surface conceals while, in his view, the theatre’s function is to strip and lay bare. In the light of this, we can see his objection to elaborate stage settings, multifarious props, studied costumes—the whole ponderous deployment of illusionist stage machinery, including the machinery of plot. What he held against the illusionist theatre was the naïve or else false importance given to externals, not only of dress and furnishings but of events and happenings. An importance lent these latter by suspense, as though in The Three Sisters the question agitating the audience were the same as the one working in the sisters at the curtain’s rise: will they get to Moscow or not? That they will not is for Chekhov a foregone conclusion, and to invite the spectators to “identify” with the sisters in their disappointment would have trivialized the drama, which shows us the irreducible reality they face, of which not-getting-to-Moscow is only the tiniest and most superficial part.
The plots of such plays as Death of a Salesman (which treat destiny in terms of averages and statistical expectations) turn on questions of success or failure—realistic questions in that they appear vital to the principals, as they would to us in their place in real life. But not on the stage, Chiaromonte insists, where success or failure in an enterprise—will Romeo get to marry Juliet?—is neither here nor there. Except, I would add, in determining whether the nature of the genre is comic or tragic: comedy has a resolution, a happy wrapping up, usually signified by a marriage or multiple marriages, where tragedy has none—the death of Macbeth, while doubtless a happy solution for Scotland, settles nothing for Shakespeare. This glad wrapping up of an awful tangle of cross-purposes is improbable and often incredible (as people are wont to complain of some of Shakespeare’s darker comedies), but this only means that the characters’ getting together cannot be taken as a permanent resolution of anything; it is a moment of joy and celebration such as reality also contains and on which the play chooses to stop. The pairing off that signals the finale of Love’s Labour’s Lost (or The Marriage of Figaro) makes us laugh and clap because, among other things, it is so funny, too Noah’s Ark good to be true.
It was not, then, that Chiaromonte wished to see the stage draconically purged of such common objects as easy chairs, kitchen sinks, baby carriages, ironing boards (though, given his bias, an ironing board, stage center, in a contemporary play was likely to provoke a defensive reaction, whereas the baby carriage wheeled across stage rear in Act 4 of The Three Sisters entertained him). Nor was it an insistence on ideal types, even if it may be true that, as an Italian, that is a man of the south, he found warty realism of portraiture deeply uncongenial: compare the ugly, grinning peasant by-standers surrounding an Adoration or a Nativity in northern painting with the ideal figures assisting at Italian holy scenes. For him, reality was, above all, sad, even in its humors and extravagances.
He quotes Pirandello’s definition of humor as the “sentiment of the contrary”—a feeling in which critical recognition of what ought to be mingles with compassion for what is. Pirandello had used as an example Manzoni’s parish priest, Don Abbondio, in I Promessi Sposi, asking: “who is Don Abbondio? He is what you find in the place of what you would have wanted.” The contrary of your expectations of the ideal figure of the perfect priest. “The down-to-earth, dispirited shadow of cautious Don Abbondio falls across the sacerdotal ideal.” But that definition of humor—or the comic—comes very close to Chiaromonte’s own definition of the real. Don Abbondio is a little piece of reality, and pity, as with Chekhov, is the agency that allows us to perceive it. “Pitiless realism” was detestable, clearly, to Chiaromonte and as remote in his eyes from the real, which would shrink from its touch, as any other form of “graphic” representation that took itself for the truth.
Chiaromonte, it must be remembered, was a modern, a deep-dyed modern, going tirelessly into battle against the fallacy of representation. That is, he was very much an “engaged” intellectual of his time, having entered the fray in the Twenties to do his bit in the vanguard onslaught on the continuum of appearances which the majority still took to be solid and durable, despite the shock of the First War that had demonstrated—as plainly, one would have thought, as an earthquake—the crack or “fault” in the substratum. The demolition work had already been begun by the cubist sappers before the war, but in the theatre Pirandello was the first to expose the fissure, which was why he was the hero of the Jackals. Chiaromonte notes the fragmentation of the Six Characters (1922), as after an explosion.
For those who came later it is hard to appreciate the passion and valor of the modernist undertaking; we forget its unpopularity. And when we remind ourselves that it had no evident political overtones and yet evidently voiced a protest of some radical, disturbing sort, we are puzzled to determine where that protest, almost a war cry, was coming from. The rejection of old forms—i.e., of old ways of seeing—was proclaimed in martial language reminiscent of field dispatches; there was continual news of “break-throughs” on one front or another, and the term “vanguard” or “avant-garde,” having been borrowed from the military, was appropriated with bold finality by artists. In fact, as Duchamp made clear, the movement was aimed at subverting Art, perceived as a bundle of tricks, and it often took its cues from science and advanced technology. The discrepancy between appearance and what lay underneath was repeatedly “proved” by modernists in a variety of fields. There was no “break” with reality—only a tremendous shattering of surfaces. Honesty, an ever-greater honesty, was the rallying cry responded to by architects and furniture designers as well as by wordsmiths like Joyce and Pirandello. What had happened to the Six Characters, Chiaromonte notes, was that a fact had exploded among them.
Anyone who knew and loved Chiaromonte will recognize that an intransigent and fearless honesty was a basic trait of his character. Still the value he set on modernism in the theatre (when he could dispense with it more readily in the other arts) may seem bewildering if we do not grasp what he conceived the theatre’s function to be. His ideas on this score were highly independent, at any rate not current in his profession, where few ideas of what the theatre is or could be are ever framed in the shape of a thought. Meditation had convinced him that the theatre, among the arts, had a special, privileged position in that its forms—comedy, farce, tragedy—constitute means by which reality is met and accepted for what it is, i.e., that which is ineluctable and cannot be altered. No other mode of seeing and rendering experience possesses this capability.
Among literary forms, the novel deals with the subjective ego and its dreams and reveries, which in principle are only limited by the exhaustion of the novelist’s imagination, but the theatre deals with men and women acting and interacting in a physical space and hence rigorously limited in their outward motions. Each, as he moves, encounters the boundaries that define the others’ outline. These boundaries, at the start of the play, may go unperceived by the characters, who picture themselves as free; it is the discovery of them, swift or gradual, the knocking up against them, rebounding, attempting to circumvent them, that make up the agon, never a straightforward contest between two individuals (Antigone vs. Creon), but between the one and a dense plurality. This plurality may be conceived as Necessity, the Law, the Divine, or simply the Others (Sartre’s Huis Clos)—whatever name is given under the prevailing dispensation to a limit felt to be there, outside, constraining human action, and which, when accepted and measured, in some way liberates the higher faculties for an act of contemplation.
Agon (though I do not recall that Chiaromonte says this) originally meant an assembly, a gathering, rather than what took place in it, and the social character of the theatre, the being together for a limited space of time in a limited but populous space, surely comprehends both the audience and the drama or interplay they watch. The silent participation of the spectator in the give-and-take of dialogue, which is nothing less than a continuous exchange, emphasizes the togetherness (if the word can be excused) of the dramatic situation, just as the solitude of the reader engrossed in a book mirros the subjectivity, represented often by the narrative “I,” of the novel’s consciousness.
Dramatic action, being circumscribed, has a logic far more compelling than that of the strung-out incidents in a novel or tale; within a closed circle, everything follows necessarily, unfolds from what is implicit. This is just as true of comedy as of tragedy, in fact, I would add, more evidently so, since the comic turnabout demonstrates as exquisitely as any syllogism the sequence of somebody’s chickens (Tartuffe’s, Count Almaviva’s) coming home to roost. Chiaromonte’s principle of the drama as reasoning action can be extended, moreover, to fit the characters, who are often logicians, reasoners, even hair-splitters (vide Shakespeare, Shaw), litigants, like Bérénice, like Antigone, forcefully stating their case,’ pleaders like Uncle Vanya.
Yet if the theatre, as Chiaromonte says, has a unique relation with what is and cannot be otherwise, this relation—strangely enough, as it would seem at first glance—has always been posed in terms of masks and illusion. Not only are the play actors pretending to be what they are not—Oedipus or Caesar—but the theatre loves disguises (“Enter Duke disguised as Friar”), in other words travesty, double impersonation, for the “Duke” disguised as a friar is an actor twice dissembled. Worse still, Viola, in Twelfth Night, traveling about disguised as a youth, Cesario, is not just a girl dressed up in boy’s clothes but a boy (the actor) dressed up as a girl dressed up as a boy. The sphere of ultimate, irreducible reality which is the stage is also the licensed sphere of illusion. Actors, flesh-and-blood creatures, induce our belief in immaterial brain-products, inventions of an unseen author. Meanwhile the reasoning, debating action pursues its irreversible course through a mirage of false semblances, error, mistaken identities, till it arrives at anagnorisis: the knowledge that nothing can be done to controvert that which is laid down (doom)—Oedipus is the slayer of Laius; Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane.
Chiaromonte liked to contrast masks with illusion, preferring the mask (characteristically) because it is frank: the man in the mask is clearly an actor, not someone who is half-persuading you with grease paint and false whiskers that he is King Lear. For my part, I do not see that the difference is important except in terms of styles. The masked actor will be skilled in histrionics—the mode of declamation, close to song or chant; the actor in grease paint will be skilled in the mode of mimesis. But nobody is really deceived in the second case: we know that Laurence Olivier in blackface is not a real Venetian general. And in antique comedy and tragedy there must have been some force of illusion working through the mask; otherwise why would the Greek word for actor be hypocrite, one who plays a part, who pretends?
It appears to me that the whole business of dressing-up and make-believe, the “magic” of the theatre, must be a prime ingredient. We consent to the pretense, just as children consent to the notion that the man in the red suit and white whiskers is Santa Claus down from the North Pole even when they are sure there is no Santa Claus and pretty sure that they recognize their uncle. The longing to be deceived, to “dress up” or otherwise alter reality, is both satisfied by the stage and dispelled, as we are obliged to watch it objectively, at work in the dramatis personae. If my contention is right, it does not undermine Chiaromonte’s fundamental thesis; it confirms it.
The stage, he says, is the place where men who, unknown or known to themselves, have no choice but to play parts (of king or model housewife or gallant, it does not matter) are slowly divested of their outer garment—the protective casing of hopes, dreams, fictions—and confronted with naked reality. The actor, willing or unwilling, in each of us perceives his prototype on the stage, a walking shadow, the shade of a shade. The theatre is seen finally to be its own subject: a cleansed, stripped model of the world of the watchers beyond the proscenium arch who, led to examination by the dramatic logic, recognize their lives as they truly are. When this recognition is forcible, the theatre becomes a tribunal, as in Ibsen and Genet: the watchers, the bourgeois of the audience, are on trial.
Now in so far as we are all actors or doers (it comes to the same, for doing, as exposed on the stage, is mere feinting, shadow play), the mask we put on is only a metaphor for the illusion we project whenever we appear among others—Yeats’s “sixty-year-old smiling public man.” The incomprehensible mixture of reality and unreality that we are aware of in the acts we perform is dramatically present in the situation of the actor, who consents for our pleasure to be someone both real and unreal. In short, he is a voluntary scapegoat, and if it is his own face—flashing eyes, noble brow, jutting chin—he uses to fabricate the mask, the nightly sacrifice can be more moving. This indeed is the theme of Pirandello’s Trovarsi (Find Yourself), whose pitiful heroine is a famous actress. Still, I do not deny that mimesis is more suited to comedy than to tragedy, where to observe the play of facial gesture, judge the “rightness” of this or that bit of stage business, agree that this is just the hat Tesman’s well-meaning aunt would wear, may become as distracting as taking a quick inventory of the contents of Claudius’s wassailing hall.
Chiaromonte probably owed to Pirandello his original insight into the theatre as a sequence of actions performed by actors—a fact so obvious that nobody had taken note of it. Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” and “Life’s a poor player” might have pointed in the right direction if those soliloquies had not passed into school-room commonplaces, so that what was being said in them, like the purloined letter, was overlooked. The persistent application Chiaromonte made of this seemingly simple and self-evident idea led him to discoveries that illuminate the whole nature of dramatic art, ancient and modern, and that throw light too on the nature of narrative.
On a bare rehearsal stage, Six Characters confronted a troupe of actors with, so to speak, a troupe of actees. What Chiaromonte applauded, with emphasis, in this play was that Pirandello had dismantled the theatre of its bourgeois trappings and restored it to something like its primary form, as though a Romanesque church had been cleared of the accumulated rubbish of baroque chapels and Victorian marble angels and returned to its original intention of worship.
Heuristic too for Chiaromonte, who could be said to have gone to school to Pirandello, was the play’s approach to time. The fact that had exploded among those six people, reducing them to modernist-looking bits and pieces, fragments of their former “academic,” illusionist personalities, had already exploded before the start of the play. At the curtain’s rise, the action had finished; what remained was to rehearse it, go over and over it in the hope of searching out its meaning amid the debris. With this stroke, we are back in Attic drama, where the action, so to speak, has already happened when the first strophes are pronounced. It is not just a matter of the dramatist plunging swiftly in medias res. For the Attic spectator, the story he was going to witness was over and not to be tampered with; it lay in the sacred past of myth and, in Oedipus’s case, even antedated the unwitting protagonist, having been told before his birth by prophecy. What remained was to re-enact it and, with the aid of the Chorus, search out its meaning.
To a lesser extent, this was still true of the Elizabethan theatre and the theatre of Corneille and Racine. The plots of Hamlet and Phèdre presented no surprises to the audience, whose detailed foreknowledge of what was going to happen next made suspense of the modern kind impossible. The spectator of Shakespeare’s time who went to see a tragedy or a chronicle play (it was different with comedy, which offered new or little-known plots that had the effect, almost, of improvisation) entered the theatre in a frame of mind that freed him from care about externals. He had left behind the anxiety so common in his daily life as to how things were going to turn out; he could not hope that Lear would get his crown back or Regan and Goneril reform, as he might with his own disagreeable daughters.
I stress this point because it is crucial to Chiaromonte’s thought and yet all but inexplicable, I fear, to today’s playgoer, even one repeatedly exposed to the “alienation effect.” How can a big question like Lear’s getting his crown back (with the aid of the French alliance and a landing at Dover) be regarded by anybody in his right mind as non-momentous? Is this critic utterly indifferent to the things that concern us, that we struggle for—power and daily bread and the rights of old age? Certainly such matters, embracing the whole political realm, are a subject of legitimate concern. But not, I repeat, for the stage. True, for those people on the stage we feel something akin to suspense—a kind of fear and agonized longing that the thing we know is coming will not arrive. Also a natural wish to see the wicked punished—that much at least—which comedy usually satisfies; tragedy more rarely. In tragedy the wicked man will often turn simply into a sufferer (Macbeth, Claudius at his prayers), so that you hardly know how to tell him from a good man. In bringing its actors face to face with an ultimate reality, tragedy purges them of faith in norms and outcomes. “Ripeness is all,” King Lear was led through madness and the experience of extreme violence to conclude. The spectator, reconciled by foreknowledge to the irreparable, arrives, ideally, at the same vision. The unpopularity of the theatre with contemporary people is a warning sign that King Lear’s point of view is now pretty well beyond comprehension.
Brecht’s theatre, in appearance, aims at establishing a clear demarcation line, something like the old classic distance, between audience and spectacle. The audience, alerted by the “alienation effect” to the fact that this is theatre, is meant to assume an objective stance. Chiaromonte’s quarrel with Brecht was based on the conviction that this whole procedure was self-deceiving. Brecht’s scenic images, seemingly objectified and held at a distance, were in fact “plastic symbols of predetermined ideas.” The epic theatre, as is plain from its self-chosen name, is not even dramatic; it is staged narrative of a spectacular kind, dependent on scenic effects and living pictures. Closer, in a curious way, to realistic representation, which also cannot do without décor, than to drama, which depends only on speech.
Chiaromonte’s ideas about Brecht and his forerunner Piscator are more various and subtle than I can indicate here; in effect, he respected Brecht’s talent but denied his claim to be anything more than a prodigious impresario of the stage. But it should be plain from what has preceded that an avowed materialist with commitments to social agitation and historical progress could never see human action dramatically—sub specie aeternitatis. For a Brechtian, the very conception of reality as the ineluctable, that which is and cannot be altered, would be bound to be either repellent or of marginal concern. The individual fate, in the epic theatre, has scarcely any meaning in comparison to the happiness of the species. The spectator’s emotions and power of empathy are transferred from the unheroic heroes of the spectacle to a large opaque social unit, represented in the most famous instance by Mother Courage’s speechless wooden cart.
In this essay the initial paradox of Chiaromonte—a man who hated artifice and loved the art of the buskined performer—has not been altogether resolved into a non-contradiction. Yet at least we can now see, I hope, that the paradox is not just a quirk or quiddity of his character but corresponds with the fundamental reality-unreality synergism at work in the drama itself. Chiaromonte was not the first stubborn truth-lover to be drawn as if by tropism to a world of mountebanks (see, again, Shakespeare, and Shaw and Ibsen) and he accepted it as his personal fate, to be borne with philosophy.
To write about him and his ideas, now that he is dead, has been a hard undertaking. I should have liked him to be able to listen, approve (naturally), dissent, modify. Above all, help. Yet in reality, as I suddenly recognize, he has—on the principle of God-helps-those-who-help-themselves—by being absent, beyond recall or consultation. Having been myself a theatre reviewer, off and on, for nearly forty years, shared a lot of Chiaromonte’s judgments, followed his column during periods when I lived in Italy, I have now been made to ponder for the first time on the deeper motives of the dramatic art. Rereading the essays about to be republished and the earlier collection, The Dramatic Situation, rushing back to have a look at Chekhov, Pirandello, Ibsen, dipping into Shakespeare and the dictionary has been an experience like those rare ones of our student days when all at once everything thought and studied hangs together. In other words, one has learned something. It is too much to hope for anything like Elijah’s mantle—even a little piece of it—to fall on me as a reward for industry. But, as you remember from your student days, those moments when everything fitted (even though there was much more to learn and never enough time) left you feeling very happy.
February 20, 1975