Because eclecticism is the dominant note in Giuseppe Giacosa’s dramatic production, the following discussion proposes to consider the most important plays from each genre: The Wager, a dramatic legend in Martellian verse; Unhappy Love, a naturalist drama; Like Falling Leaves, by far his most brilliant commedia borghese; and The Stronger, also a commedia borghese, and his last play.
The Wager opens with a prologue in which the author informs the audience that this leggenda drammatica is based on a Provençal romance that he read by chance and found enticing because of its melodious Martellian verse. It is autumn, and like leaves that before succumbing to their seasonal doom burst into multicolored hues, the mind of the poet finds new associations by reading material doomed by long neglect. Aware of the role that reminiscences play in the creative process, the author takes the opportunity to revive the legend and to offer his own interpretation to the reader.
The Wager is divided into two scenes. Both scenes take place in the great hall of a medieval castle in the Alps, decorated with flags, a huge fireplace, and a gothic window. The first scene opens with Renato, the lord of the castle, and Iolanda, his comely daughter, sharing premonitions of the merciless winter ahead. Their isolation would be hardly tolerable if it were not for the love they have for each other. Moved by tenderness for his daughter, Renato declares that while at one time he had wished for a son, Iolanda has fulfilled his every wish so completely that his heart would have no room for anyone else. Teasingly, Iolanda objects that his heart will have to make room for her bridegroom. The old man expresses his desire to hear the laughter of Iolanda’s children. Made bold by this admission, Iolanda shares with him her maiden fantasies of a handsome suitor who might brighten her days with passionate words of love. Renato reminds her of the suitors she has already refused, but Iolanda insists that the one who will win her heart must be handsome. Beauty is first to capture the beloved—the rules of love must not be disregarded. While conversing, Renato praises Iolanda for her great skill in playing chess; even he, her teacher, is no longer a worthy competitor. Iolanda, filled with love and gratitude for her father, surrenders her will in his hands: He will be the one to choose her future husband. As Renato thanks her for her absolute confidence in his wisdom, the sentinel in the tower signals the arrival of a vassal accompanied by his retinue.
In scene 2, Count Oliviero, an old comrade-in-arms of Renato, arrives with his page Fernando and other knights. Oliviero proudly introduces Fernando, who, single-handedly, has saved him from the ambush of ten highwaymen. Renato is touched by the prowess of the young man, who is an orphan and thus must rely exclusively on his ability to make his way in the world. Fernando’s excessive self-assurance, however, brings a fatherly reprimand from Renato, who admires his bravery but regrets what he considers an overdose of conceit. His lack of humility defies fate: His only excuse is his youth. Fernando replies that an orphan is never young, and that his earlier experiences in war and in love have instilled in him tremendous self-assurance and an unshakable faith in his skill to overcome all obstacles. Torn between admiration and anger, Renato challenges Fernando, who claims to be an expert at chess, to test his infallibility by playing a game with Iolanda. If he wins, he will marry her; if he loses, he will die. Fernando accepts, and the game begins. Conquered by Iolanda’s beauty, Fernando makes several wrong moves and loses control of the game. The melodious love duet of the players finds an effective counterpoint in the conversation between Renato and Oliviero, the former expressing his regret and his eagerness to renege on the horrible pact that he has made with Fernando. Actually, Iolanda, much more attentive to the game than the page, is winning without much competition. Renato almost begs Fernando to call off the bet, but Fernando, knowing that his honor is at stake, refuses. Iolanda, unaware of the deal between her father and the page, becomes suspicious, but Fernando is adamant.
In a lovely poetic passage, Fernando describes his native Provence and contrasts the blue-eyed, blonde charm of Iolanda to the passionate, bold looks of the women of his land. No longer capable of keeping his secret, Fernando tells Iolanda of the pact he has made with her father, and Iolanda confesses her love for him. Once she has admitted her love, Fernando is in control of the game, and Renato, caught in his own web, offers Fernando a castle if he will give up the prize. Unwilling to displease Renato, Fernando almost yields to his demands, but Iolanda takes his hand and leads him in the final move proclaiming his victory. Quickly appeased, Renato thanks heaven for giving him a son, and the play ends with the leitmotif of the lovers that became one of Italy’s favorite refrains: “E ancor, paggio Fernando, mi affissi e non favelli? Io ti guardo negli occhi che son tanto belli.” (“Page Fernando, why do you glance at me without a sigh? I gaze into your eyes that are so bright.”) The facile ditty made Giacosa the uncontested ruler of romantic theatergoers, until changing times relegated his melodious game of chess to literary history.
In dedicating Unhappy Love to Piero Costa, a sculptor from his native Piemonte, Giacosa signaled a shift from the Martellian verse of his previous romances to prose. The shift, however, is not merely in metrics. Giacosa displays the influence of the French naturalist theater.Émile Augier and Henry Becque were his favorite playwrights, and Alexandre Dumas, fils’s La Question d’argent (pr., pb. 1857; The Money-Question, 1915) considerably influenced Unhappy Love. In this play, Giacosa explores the established theme of ménage à trois with stark realism, enhanced by a faithful adherence to the Aristotelian unities of time and place.
The action of this three-act comedy is confined to one room in the home of Giulio Scarli, a provincial lawyer whose wife, Emma—Emma Bovary comes unavoidably to mind—is having an affair with his best friend, Fabrizio Arcieri. The closely knitted plot, which culminates in the inevitable discovery of adultery, is forwarded by a terse, compelling dialogue, completely devoid of the romantic commonplaces typical of Giacosa’s earlier plays. The fundamental uprightness of the protagonists and their obvious reciprocal respect save the play from the hopeless fatalism present in so many tranche de vie dramas and allow genuine empathy for the predicament of each character. Although a future reconciliation between Giulio and Emma seems unlikely, family ties prove stronger than personal revenge. Thus Fabrizio leaves town without Emma, who accepts a grim, lonely future to remain at the side of her only daughter, Gemma. Giulio accepts her presence for the sake of Gemma and finds solace—and, in a sense, annihilation—in the ascetic loneliness of his studio, where he will dedicate his life to increasing his fortune, thus making Gemma an heiress capable of marrying a man of considerable wealth. Relieved of pecuniary pressures, Gemma’s husband will be able to dedicate the largest share of his time to making her happy. A wife’s faithfulness, Giacosa seems to imply, is largely subordinate to her husband’s ability to dedicate his time to her need for affection.
Ironically, the problem of conjugal love remains unsolved. Giulio’s stress on the importance that material prosperity plays in the relationship between husband and wife seems to subordinate love to affluence, a notion that clearly points to Giacosa’s most unsuccessful commedia borghese, Like Falling Leaves, in which the theme of Unhappy Love is further explored.
Like Falling Leaves
In Like Falling Leaves, through a reversal of fortune, the immense wealth amassed by Giovanni Rosani through the hard work of a lifetime is irremediably lost, leaving the spoiled family members completely unprepared for poverty and bitterly unwilling to cope with it.
Like Falling Leaves focuses on two themes increasingly central to Giacosa’s philosophical development; financial bankruptcy and moral disintegration. The coexistence of the two evils points to the inability of the wealthy members of society to adjust to reduced financial circumstances with dignity and with a mature acceptance of their new station in life. Like leaves in autumn, beautiful but doomed, pampered individuals must perforce be crushed by unexpected reversals, for they lack the will to overcome adversity through personal labor and effective moral choices. The title Like Falling Leaves is an allusion to Dante’s famous description of the damned seeking to board Charon’s bark to reach their eternal perdition: “Come d’autunno si levan le foglie,/ l’una appresso dell’altra fin che’l ramo/ rende a la terra tutte le sue spogli.” (“Like leaves in Fall, one after another,/ fall to the ground till the bough/ gives back to the earth all its spoils.”)
(The entire section is 3843 words.)