Among Giovanni Verga’s earliest youthful writings was a play entitled “I nuovi tartufi” (the new Tartuffes), which, according to Frederico De Roberto, he submitted to a competition held in Florence. The play did not win any prizes for him nor has its manuscript survived. A second comedy written in Florence was also unsuccessful and has since been lost. The first play that has survived, Rose caduche, written sometime between 1873 and 1875, was never produced, but was published posthumously in 1928.
Like the novels of passion that Verga wrote during this same period, Rose caduche is set in the atmosphere of the elegant but superficial and frivolous society in which the author was living. By the time he wrote the play, he had apparently decided to emphasize the more negative aspects of this society, particularly the shallowness of the romantic relationships between the sexes. For this purpose, he created four couples and assigned to each the role of a different attitude toward this relationship. Act 1 brings the eight still-unattached individuals together at an elegant garden party in the villa of Countess Baglini. Each of the characters has the opportunity to reveal his or her personality. The countess is egotistical and conniving; Irma Scotti is passionate and defenseless; Lucrezia is sincere and rational; Signoria Merelli is practical and domineering; Luciano De-Galiani is a romantic poet; Paolo Avellani is a levelheaded lawyer; Cavalier Falconi is a charming hypocrite; and Commendatore Gaudenti is a bumbling lecher. This analysis reflects the simplicity of the play itself, whose meager plot involves the mixing and matching of the couples, complicated only by some momentary jealousies and misunderstandings caused primarily by the characters’ inability or unwillingness to speak directly and clearly. Indeed, if Rose caduche has any artistic value, it is in the author’s virtuosity in representing the circuitous speech patterns of his characters. Yet even this virtuosity is compromised by the necessity of too frequently used stage directions such as “ironic,” “ironic with significant accent,” and “with double meaning,” which reveal the failure of the dialogue to convey attitudes by itself.
By the end of act 2, which is set in another elegant gathering in the home of Irma Scotti, the couples have been matched. After sacrificing his right to a duel and promising to leave, Irma cannot resist Luciano’s passionate desire for her. When Lucrezia, who was infatuated by Falconi, realizes that he has only dishonorable intentions, she accepts Paolo’s offer of marriage based on sincere admiration and friendship. The countess, who had desired Luciano, ends up with Falconi, and Signora Morelli and Commendatore Gaudenti come together by default.
Act 3, which takes place sometime later at Irma’s country home, dramatizes the outcome of these pairings. Only Lucrezia and Paolo are happy, because only their relationship is not based on passion and sexual gratification, which are doomed to grow pale, but rather on real love, which is directed toward family unity. Luciano, who still claims to love Irma but no longer feels passion for her, is sent away by her, and as the play ends, she shows signs of incipient madness. Rose caduche fails as a play because it is an illustration rather than a representation. The play’s characters never move beyond the function of role-playing in the literal sense. Because they do not successfully conceal the fact that they are acting, they, and the play, fail to create the illusion of real life.
Verga’s first produced play was the one-act tragedy, Cavalleria Rusticana, and it proved to be an enormous success. By 1883, having fully developed the narrative potential of Verismo, he believed that the theatergoing public was ready to accept it as well. Rather than create a new plot, he decided to transform one of his published short stories into a play, emphasizing the more dramatic aspects of the story. Turiddu Macca, after returning to his Sicilian village from military service, finds that Lola, whom he had intended to marry, is instead married to Alfio, a hardworking and prosperous carter. In order to make Lola jealous, he seduces Santuzza. Lola then invites him to her bed while Alfio is away. These background facts are revealed through dialogue. The action of the play begins with Santuzza looking for Turiddu at his mother’s wine shop. She begs him not to abandon her, but after his refusal, in anger and desperation, she reveals the truth to Alfio, who then challenges Turridu to mortal combat, resulting in the latter’s death.
The realism of the plot must be understood in terms of the traditional Sicilian code of honor, according to which every wrong must be revenged by the victim against the victimizer; in particular, a cuckold must kill the adulterer in order to regain his honor. Verga correctly believed that this kind of primitive action would fascinate the sophisticated audiences of northern Italy, who were weary of the vacuousness of the current Romantic and neoclassical theater. Everything that happens in Cavalleria Rusticana seems to happen, as in Greek tragedy, out of predetermined necessity. In contrast to a play such as Rose caduche, here the characters never seem to be posing or acting. Instead, they appear to be living out their destinies with no possibility of doing otherwise. The audience has the illusion of being an unobserved observer of the unavoidable suffering of the characters. This illusion is created by the rapidly moving action, the decisiveness of the characters, the directness of the language, and the lack of discussion. No one attempts to dissuade Alfio and Turiddu from their duel, and there are no second thoughts on their parts. This primitive fatalism renders all the more effective the hint of regret that Turiddu expresses about the ruined reputation of Santuzza as he goes off to the duel.
Cavalleria Rusticana was an enormous success despite the negative predictions of friends whom Verga had asked to read the manuscript. With the help of the prestigious playwright Giuseppe Giacosa, he persuaded Italy’s best director-actor, Cesare Rossi, to put on the play in Turin, but only on condition that Verga pay for the scenery and the costumes. Rossi’s company included the brilliant young actress Eleanora Duse, for whom the role of Santuzza was given increased importance in the final version of the play. Opening night was January 14, 1884. The author was deliberately not present, but the following night the audience insisted that he receive their ovation from the stage. The play’s reputation was clearly...
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