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...
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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 site, permeated with the bloodshed and horror familiar to readers of Aeschylus and other ancient Greeks, seizes control over Leonardo. He falls in love with his sister Bianca Maria, and when a great poet, Alessandro, falls in love with her, Leonardo kills her. Leonardo, in saying that he has done for her what no one else can do, reveals himself to be a Superman, unrestrained by the ordinary morality and conventional passions of other human beings.
Giaconda and Francesca da Rimini
Gioconda has its Superman in the form of a sculptor, Lucio Settala, who cannot create his art without the adulterous love of Gioconda. The Superman in La gloria is a political schemer of imperialistic and nationalistic beliefs, Ruggero Flamma. He becomes the lover of Anna Commena, the former mistress of Cesare Bronte, a liberal. After establishing an aristocratic dictatorship, Ruggero is assassinated by Anna.
In Francesca da Rimini, Francesca is portrayed with a bit more human sensitivity than D’Annunzio’s usual heroes, and the reconstruction of the historical setting has often been praised, along with many exquisitely beautiful passages.
The Daughter of Jorio
The Daughter of Jorio has often been called D’Annunzio’s dramatic masterpiece. He has often drawn from his childhood in the Abruzzi region for his short stories and sketches in the mode of Verga and de Maupassant, especially in the collections San Pantaleone and Tales from My Native Town. The play is set among superstitious peasants, and the details of their lives and the sense of place manifested in the play are often cited as the elements that make it so much better than many of his other works. In it, the shepherd Aligi and the daughter of a sorcerer, Mila di Codra, are lovers. Aligi’s father comes to the lovers’ cave and demands that his son return to the village and his betrothed. Tensions mount and Aligi strikes his father, killing him. To save Aligi, Mila assumes the guilt, claiming that she used sorcery to make it seem as though Aligi had done it. Eventually, even Aligi comes to believe her account, as Mila is carried away to be burned at the stake.
It is clear, even from this brief outline, how intense a play it is. The plot, though not beyond the realm of probability, is highly melodramatic—operatic—with high emotion: son killing father, woman dying to save the man she loves. The eloquent writing comes dangerously close to dragging down the play. Yet its unabashed emotionalism and eloquence seem appropriate to the story. Though some critics have interpreted the play as being about the good, yet fettered, passions of nature that are unchained and then destroyed by the greed and limited vision of ordinary people, most have accepted it for its surface value: the story of a heroic woman who sacrifices herself for love. On the play’s American tour in 1909, the Boston Transcript summed up the favorable response: “There is no doubting the play’s beauty as poetry, its power as drama, its vividness, . . . its insistent horror—and its insistent fascination.” It was widely performed between its premiere and D’Annunzio’s death.
La fiaccola sotto il moggio
La fiaccola sotto il moggio (the torch under the bushel) presents its theme of love more realistically than The Daughter of Jorio as it reveals the decadence of the family Sangros. La fiaccola sotto il moggio, The Daughter of Jorio, and Francesca da Rimini are often called D’Annunzio’s most beautiful plays.
Più che l’amore
Più che l’amore (more than love) created another scandal at its premiere in Rome, even though it merely reworked the Superman theme. The hero, Corrado Branda, is an explorer in the Italian colonies of Africa who brags about killing a lion single-handedly and leading native troops against the enemy. He is also portrayed as a person beyond ordinary morality, as he cheats at cards and seduces his best friend’s sister.
La nave and Fedra
La nave (the ship) combines the Superman theme with Italian imperialism, but, as Domenico Vittorini has observed, the love of the main character, Marco Gradico, for Basiola gradually obscures D’Annunzio’s call to make the Adriatic an Italian sea. Love, or lust, becomes the major occupation of D’Annunzio’s Superman, and all other ideals become secondary. The same is true of Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus in Fedra (Phaedra), inspired by the ancient Greek myths, Seneca’s tragedy, and Jean Racine’s Phèdre (pr., pb. 1677; Phaedra, 1701).
Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien
After going into voluntary exile in France, D’Annunzio wrote several plays in French. The first, Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, created yet another scandal as the sexual overtones overpowered whatever religious emotion was contained in the piece. Its chief interest today is in the music written for it by Claude Debussy. D’Annunzio’s career in drama ended at the outset of World War I. After the war, perhaps he sensed that whatever he had wished to say on the stage had long since been exhausted.