Dino Buzzati’s writings, both for the page and for the stage, have a distinctive aura of ominous threat and loneliness. His stories and plays often feature protagonists caught in mysterious and incomprehensible circumstances. In many cases, a character must satisfy terms that unknown forces have dictated, even if the purveyor of the terms appears as a pleasant and cheerful character whose real menace becomes gradually transparent. There is a rich sense of irony running through these works, linking Buzzati to the earlier writers of the Italian teatro del grottesco or Theater of the Grotesque , which emphasized the curious affinity of the horrendous with the laughable, seen in the work of such writers as Luigi Chiarelli, Pier Maria Rosso di Secondo, Luigi Antonelli, and, of course, Luigi Pirandello. The effects Buzzati creates in this way have often inspired the adjective Kafkaesque, for his characters have a strong kinship with those hapless protagonists in Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930), and Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936). Because of the surreal and metaphysical quality in his writing, some critics have associated him with E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe. The paintings of Giorgio De Chirico are often likened to the atmospheric effects in Buzzati’s stories.
There is a natural theatricality to Buzzati’s work, even if he favored the novel and short-story form. That sense of impending doom and frightening isolation could only be heightened in the theater, where the audience must endure the plight in the immediate moment. His association with the working theater was relatively brief and never fully comfortable. Almost all of his plays date from between 1953, the year of the production of his Un caso clinico, and 1968, the year of his last play, La fine del borghese. The famous director, Giorgio Strehler, co-founder with Paolo Grassi of the Piccolo Teatro of Milan, sensed this potential in Buzzati and urged him to write for the stage. He in fact suggested that Buzzati adapt his short story, “Sette piani,” and the result was the play Un caso clinico, which Strehler then directed. On Buzzati’s part, the theater was an intimidating form, dependent as it always is on the work of many collaborators and the vagaries of an unpredictable public. Buzzati has described in his interviews with Yves Panafieu the nerve-wracking anxiety of watching rehearsals, which on one occasion prompted him to stand up and shout “That’s not it!” and storm out of the rehearsal hall when Strehler was directing his one-act play, La rivolta contro i poveri, only later to find that the public loved it. By contrast, watching rehearsals of Maner Lualdi’s one-act adaptation of his La fine del borghese, everything seemed perfect in rehearsal, yet once the audience arrived, it was greeted with a great yawn. The theater, he has said, is like a drug: It sucks people in and mesmerizes them. It can be perverse and pernicious. People devote their whole lives to working this magic as actors, directors, designers, and playwrights, yet its rewards are fleeting and completely unpredictable.
Perhaps for this reason, Buzzati chose to resort to narrative rather than dramatic fiction. Certainly on the international scene he is much better known for his novels and short stories than for his plays. This is evident, for example, in the fact that none of his plays is readily available in English.
Un caso clinico
Giovanni Corte, the protagonist of Un caso clinico (a clinical case), is a powerful industrialist, used to calling all the shots and...
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maneuvering others into deals that yield great rewards for himself and his company. He has begun to hear the strange, hollow sound of woman singing, but no one else can hear her. After visiting a seven-story medical clinic, he finds himself admitted for observation. Professor Schroeder, chief doctor of the clinic, organizes it so that the patients are placed on higher or lower floors according to how sick they may be, the hopeless cases on the ground floor and the healthier ones on the top floor. Step by step Corte is moved downstairs from floor to floor with charming and indulgent explanations by Dr. Claretta, Schroeder’s chief assistant. Corte’s will is weakened with each move until he is virtually paralyzed and on the verge of death.
The play is a powerful and atmospheric piece. The settings remain virtually the same as Corte goes down from one floor to the next, but the lighting and sounds become progressively stranger and more mysterious. On one level, there is satire of the medical profession. Doctors wield such enormous power because of people’s ignorance of what the diagnoses and prognoses might mean. They are powerful enough actually to make people sick. At the same time, there is something strange and metaphysical going on as Corte gradually abandons this world, weakened and summoned by the enchanting voice of the unseen woman, a siren of death.
This is by far Buzzati’s most famous play. Following its success with the Piccolo Teatro in Milan in 1953, starring Tino Carraro, it played in Berlin the next year at the Knorfürstendammtheater under the direction of O. F. Schuh, then in 1955 in Paris at the Théâtre La Bruyère under the direction of G. Vitaly, using an adaptation by Albert Camus. This was a stunning success. It helped create a loyal French following of Buzzati’s work, evinced by the Association Internationale des Amis de Dino Buzzati.
Un verme al ministero
In Un verme al ministero (a worm in the ministry), Buzzati again mixes the satirical (bureaucracy) and the metaphysical (fear of the unknown). Office workers in a government ministry become more and more obsessed with the sounds of underground burrowing, a gnawing in the walls, that seem to be coming from some ominous excavation. Their fear grows into the conviction that they will soon face a squadron of Morzi, revolutionaries and disbelievers in God. They become paralyzed with terror. They do receive the revolutionary leader of the Morzi, and they resort to bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo in a kangaroo court trial they conduct of one of the few honest office workers, Palisierna. One of their number, Morales, rises over the tumult and chooses to take action. By resorting to chicanery, evil, treachery, manipulation, and hypocrisy, he hopes to prepare for the encounter with the Morzi. He chooses to present himself as “godless.” When he then tramples and spits on the crucifix, he is suddenly struck down in a stunning coup de théâtre that brings the play to its end.
The play has much of the same sense of nightmarish uncertainty that often appears in Buzzati’s work, although it tends to throw more emphasis on the satire of bureaucracies. The ending of the play, some critics have said, makes too clear what would be better left to provocative ambiguity.
L’uomo che andrà in America
The action of L’uomo che andrà in America (the man who will go to America) turns on the mystery surrounding the life of the man of the title. The author plays on people’s sense of desperate waiting and their hope of achieving an authenticity that circumstance would violently deny them. America becomes an almost mythical place where their hopes can come true, where people can rise out of themselves and achieve a satisfying integrity. This far-off land, with all its prairies, deserts, mountains, and huge spaces, inspires an intense anxiety in the man, virtually a terror in the face of infinity, even as he manages to board the ship.
It is an allegory in one way on life’s challenges, but it is much more than that, for it develops an interplay between circumstance and inward terror that creates a compelling psychology. The indefinite, the uncertain, and the mysterious all engage the audience with an immediate intensity. The tone is ironic, even bitter, as the situation and the characters develop, making for a subtle balance between the symbolic and the realistic.