Among the forty-odd plays that Luigi Chiarelli wrote, there are farces, comedies, political satires, serious bourgeois dramas, melodramas, reworkings of ancient myths, symbolic pieces, and the grotesque plays for which he is best known. Although his efforts at straight comedy and straight drama were less than successful, one can find some dialogue, certain scenes, or entire acts written with flair, distinction, and engaging liveliness. On the whole, however, these works (some of them performed a few times, others unpublished or unperformed) do not succeed in communicating a universal truth or a new artistic vision, and are remembered primarily by students and historians of drama.
Chiarelli’s particular talent revealed itself in the plays he wrote at the beginning of his career and on which his reputation as a playwright therefore rests. These plays inaugurated and are an integral part of that Italian dramatic mode known as the Theater of the Grotesque.
Although The Mask and the Face is immediately associated with the Theater of the Grotesque—indeed, it has been labeled its manifesto—Chiarelli was neither the most famous nor the most talented among the group of playwrights employing this style in the years surrounding World War I: Pirandello, to name only the most illustrious of several, also wrote in the grotesque style; other dramatists commonly associated with the style Chiarelli inaugurated include Rosso di San Secondo, Luigi Antonelli, and Enrico Cavacchioli. While the giant Pirandello went beyond this style to challenge fundamental concepts of the theater, the others continued for the most part to work within the limits established by Chiarelli.
The circumstances that gave rise to the new dramatic expression in general and to Chiarelli’s expression in particular are to be found (as new trends in art often are) in a situation of crisis. This artistic phenomenon was both the response to that crisis and an attempt to overcome it. The crisis was twofold: spiritual and artistic. During World War I and the period immediately preceding it, thoughtful people in Italy and Europe as a whole were experiencing intellectual and moral disorientation. Old institutions remained in force, but they represented old ideals that had lost their authority; the human relationships permitted by the old mores did not fulfill the individual’s needs. Indeed, those relationships appeared mechanical and meaningless, and the individual often felt caught in a stagnant daily routine without challenge, growth, or sense. The artistic crisis consisted of the impasse at which the theater found itself at the beginning of the twentieth century. The dominant dramatic works were in the tradition of Romantic drama, a mimetic theater that for decades had mirrored and mimicked the life of the dominant class, the bourgeoisie. While the realistic theater in France challenged the Romantic tradition by deliberately representing the experience of the lower classes, the revolt in Italy was more extreme, challenging the mimetic element itself: The new playwrights continued to construct “traditional” plots centering on honor, love, and money, with the usual complications and subplots and the traditional characters—husband, wife, and lover—but portrayed these situations and characters with a new, contorted, bizarre twist, rendering plots that confounded theatergoers’ expectations. The new plays appeared strange, proportionless, unnatural, unreal—grotesque. This new use of traditional plot situations and characters to evoke unexpected reactions and outcomes was the essence of the new theater and its aim: to raise questions in the minds of theatergoers concerning accepted, but no longer valid, bourgeois values.
Another important influence on the new Italian drama was the centuries-old commedia dell’arte. The characters of the new dramatists are at times exaggerated to the point of parody and act in an unrealistic, puppetlike fashion reminiscent of the types of the commedia dell’arte. The new drama employed such caricatures to expose the barrenness and rigidity of bourgeois mores.
The Mask and the Face
Chiarelli’s appropriate description of The Mask and the Face as a “grotesque” drama gave the name to the new movement. He knew that his play was neither tragedy nor comedy and was aware of the originality of his experiment. His chosen label alludes to the definition of the grotesque in painting used as far back as the sixteenth century by the Renaissance art critic Giorgio Vasari: “monsters deformed by a freak of nature or by the whim and fancy of the workers, who . . . made things outside of any rule.” Chiarelli saw the deformation of the traditional play that his own play signified, and so did the critics and audiences in Italy and abroad. The play seemed a “small revolution at home.”
The Mask and the Face is a freakish, whimsical, and fanciful mixture: tragedy bordering on the comedic, tears on the brink of laughter. The characters (a count, a magistrate, a lawyer, an artist, and beautiful wives and women), the setting (a rich villa on Lake Como), the situation (a romantic triangle), and the fatuous conversation—all hark back to the traditional bourgeois drama at the play’s outset, but toward the end of the first act, the action takes on a less familiar form, one that is both familiar and a caricature of the familiar. The plot clearly shows the double distortion. Count Paolo Grazia discovers that his wife, Savina, has taken a lover on the same evening that he has vowed to his friends (in adherence to the traditional code of honor) that he would kill his wife were she ever to take a lover. Having made this discovery, he finds himself honor-bound to commit murder.
The melodrama requires a death. At this early point in the drama, the coordinates of duty and feeling, ideals and reality, beliefs and impulses, and reason and spontaneity are set at odds. Paolo seizes Savina by the throat but cannot bring himself to kill her. Savina, intuiting his feelings, responds: “Paolo, for heaven’s sake, drop this mask. Be sincere with yourself. Look into your heart. Don’t be a slave to your words and to your conventional ideas.” Paolo is confronted with the fact that he cannot act on his cruel (and stupid) words, which came not from his heart but from the common coin of his culture. Realizing that he has been living according to societal convention, that he has taken his mask at “face” value, he rebels against his acculturation and sends Savina abroad, telling everyone that he has shot her and dumped her in the lake. He then turns himself in to the police. The obvious irony consists of a situation that does not...
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