Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1474
As if to match the fervor with which Gabriele D’Annunzio lived, the passion with which a variety of his writings have been discussed is virtually unprecedented. Few writers have been so provocative in so many genres over such a long period, and, as a result, the measure of his literary achievement has been obscured. Oscar Wilde, playing a similar role in Britain, has drawn sympathy over the tragedy of his later life. However, D’Annunzio, the eccentric fascist hero in his villa, draws no such sympathy, and often it is difficult to tell whether critics object more to his life or his writings. In 1901, Francis Thompson criticized D’Annunzio’s obsession with his role as artist and called it his greatest defect. Benedetto Croce called him a dilettante, while Henry James attributed D’Annunzio’s success to the strange mingling of the aristocratic with the vulgar, which strikes the reader or viewer as odd, and extraordinarily interesting. Clifton Fadiman argued that D’Annunzio’s vulgarity coincided with and enhanced the vulgarity of his epoch.
On the other hand, Arnold Bennett called the sexuality of his works “adult,” “subtle,” and “refined.” Joseph Hergesheimer called him a genius, and Federico Nardelli called him the “only truly great Romantic.” Even after he had cast the great Duse aside and violated much of her privacy with The Flame of Life, she seems to have thought of her lover as the dramatic equivalent to Wagner. She limited much of her repertory to his works and spent enormous efforts on creating the equivalent, for D’Annunzio, to the Wagner festival hall at Bayreuth.
A more balanced appraisal came from Ashley Dukes in 1911. He asserted that D’Annunzio had discovered his gift for word painting to be merely decorative and, therefore, had propped up his dramatic works with “two unsteady supports, a gross form of theatrical sensation” and “a bastard symbolism.” Yet, he added, there was something more to D’Annunzio’s drama than his words. He was a dramatist concerned with the problem of sex. He portrayed “conditions of high nervous tension without the skill to make them develop convincingly.” He commented that D’Annunzio was “meteoric, productive of much dust and little drama,” then added, “But there is grace in his flight. . . . The conjurer is sometimes a magician. He has the will to illusion. Let us be grateful.” Dukes seemed to know that by most standards of dramatic art, D’Annunzio is odd, histrionic, and unconvincing. Yet this makes his often awkward dramas somehow arresting. Opera is often odd, histrionic, and unconvincing, yet arresting because of its music. D’Annunzio’s drama can be seen in this operatic tradition. There is so much “music” in his lush writing that one is often willing to overlook whatever other faults it may contain.
By the time that he had begun writing drama, D’Annunzio was a whole-hearted enthusiast for the concept of the Superman. He had been developing the idea even before his reading of Nietzsche and had never completely conformed his perception of the Superman to that of the German philosopher. D’Annunzio saw himself in the Superman role, and his own courage (or madness) in the face of real danger cannot be doubted. He also found no need to be constrained by conventional moral ideas in his relationships with women, creditors, and the theatergoing public. He has been accused, not without justice, of having only this one idea woven through his entire uvre.
The Dead City
After The Dream of a Spring Morning and The Dream of an Autumn Sunset, D’Annunzio wrote his second most successful play, The Dead City , which clearly reveals the Superman theme. An archaeologist named Leonardo is excavating the tombs of the Atrides in Mycenae. Somehow, this...
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