Ugo Betti’s theater is relentlessly preoccupied with humanity’s penchant for evil. With a mixture of anguish and clinical detachment, Betti observes the human condition from the vantage point of a judge’s bench, reflecting on a bitter paradox: While seeking happiness, humankind acts to destroy it.
Following Luigi Pirandello’s metapsychological lead, European theater had turned a decisive corner in its treatment of the motivation of character. Modern dramatists, while drawing on naturalistic psychology, emphasized the contradictory and irrational, forces at work in human experience, forces hardly comprehended by the Darwinistic, materialistic worldview of naturalism. The question Betti poses is quite clearly stated in his notes, which he painstakingly accumulated before each play, attempting to formulate the psychological nature of his characters. If human beings want to escape anguish and sorrow, why do they cultivate vices, why do they commit crimes? Why do people so often act against their own interests?
Betti pondered on this paradox and continued to test various explanations for it throughout his life, refining, as he progressed, a metaphor he had drawn in his early notes: People, he suggested, are incapable of attaching importance to their existence as long as they look on it as “an apple ready to fall,” deprived of “dignity and duration,” ugly because it is transient and “soon to rot.” Many of Betti’s characters reflect this secret bitterness at the nature of life.
As a man and as an artist, Betti set out early in his life on a long search for God, but was able to find him in his true essence only toward the end of his journey—as a God of mercy. All his plays revolve around a single message, proclaimed in an anguished voice: Human values need revising and must be rebuilt so that humankind can rise above its destiny and freely pursue the road to justice and redemption.
Betti’s basic themes are present in embryo in La padrona, his first play, in which the vibrancy of life is embodied in Marina, while her stepdaughter Anna, afflicted by consumption, symbolizes death. In spite of the shabby existence that is all that he can offer Marina, Pietro hopes that the child she is carrying will cement their union. It is Anna who shatters her father’s dreams of building a happy life with his young and seductive second wife, revealing to him that the unborn child is not his. Cynically destroying Pietro’s dream, Anna takes revenge against the stepmother she hates for her exuberance, and pushes Pietro to the brink of killing Marina. Only Anna’s sudden death prevents her father from committing the crime.
Written in 1926, and still relying heavily on the tenets of naturalism, La padrona depicts the bleakness of the dilapidated surroundings in which the characters move, as well their inner misery. As is true for the majority of Betti’s plays, the plot of this drama is rather commonplace, merely a backdrop against which the playwright can observe and analyze motives of his characters.
What was to be innovative in Betti’s theater is partly previewed by the author himself in the introduction to La padrona. His intention, Betti explains, is to force the reader to think of those things that dismay and horrify human beings most—above all, death—to determine how humankind can be worthy of carrying that “crown of thorns” which is its conscience.
Unlike her stepmother, who is bound by her sensuality, Anna, whose life is eluding her, seeks happiness in the simple beauty of each sweet sunny day, in the garden, in the hope that fortune will lead to her path human beings who can share her joys. Yet Anna dies young, having hardly begun to fulfill her plans for living. Her father, Pietro, too, is left with his unfulfilled dream of a lasting domestic joy, which had been so close at hand. He accepts what must be, for evil, as well as good, must have its reason. Pietro repeatedly says that he “would like to know . . . who orders us about, who keeps us bound.” While Pietro thus voices Betti’s concept of the limitations of human liberty, it is Marina who embodies humankind’s propensity to self-destruction. Her unbridled sensuality binds her and ultimately destroys her.
To deal with the universal themes of his dramas, Betti’s images are both lyric and harsh in tone. In La padrona there are ample illustrations. The antinomy of good and evil, for example, is expressed in the metaphors of the “leafy branches shining up there,” and “in the roots suffering deep down in the earth.” Betti also employed unnamed characters to universalize the action in his plays. In La padrona, “the lame,” “the neighbor,” and “the relative” are commentators in the manner of a Greek chorus. Betti’s characters often bear foreign rather than Italian names: They belong to no country, yet they are from everywhere.
In 1932, with Landslide, Betti established his place in the world of Italian letters. Widely acclaimed at home and abroad, this play was labeled by the author “a modern tragedy.” Although there are no specific political references in this or in any other of Betti’s plays, the author’s implicit indictment of the Fascist regime can be deduced from the characters’ crimes and vices. At the same time, the foreign names and the setting in a distant city point to the universality of the theme of justice.
The characters’ confession and plea for mercy is exemplified by Parsc. He is a judge unable to pronounce a sentence. He commiserates with the townspeople, who pay with their sorrow every day of their lives for the crimes they have committed. Revealing Betti’s own longing for leniency, Landslide is a plunge into the human soul, in the deepest recesses of which are hidden unfulfilled desires, grudges, emotions, love, and hatred.
A landslide has fallen during a rainy night at the North Yard of the city, causing the death of a number of workers, driving some of the townspeople close to madness. It is up to Judge Parsc to try the case and discover who is responsible for the disaster. Accusations are whirled all across town, for, all feeling guilty, the people all become accused and accusers. In this...
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