Italian Futurist Theatre 1909-1944 (review)
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Theatre Journal 53.1 (2001) 184-185

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Book Review

Italian Futurist Theatre 1909-1944

Italian Futurist Theatre 1909-1944. By Gunther Berghaus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998; pp. 596. $120.00.

Gunther Berghaus has penned a complete and thorough histoire of the immediate, explosive, and yet still-vibrant effects of Futurism. His work begins with its opposition to the conservative and thoroughly retrograde fin de siècle theatre/visual arts scene in Italy and its antithesis in the forward dynamic of Modernism in Europe in the early twentieth century. Indeed, as Berghaus clearly implies, it was this very friction which gave Futurism its intoxicating dynamic.

There is much that is excellent in this work. One of the best elements of the work is the explication of Filippo Marinetti's shrewd manipulation of image [End Page 184] as a Futurist strategy--an art form in itself. The author's description of the legendary Futurist Serate (provocative theatre evenings) is also quite wonderful. His work gives well-ordered and fully explained accounts of the rise of the movement, the background of individuals who drove the engine of Futurism, and such important effects as its interaction with the French and German avant-garde, the Ballet Russe, Fascism, and later modernist movements. The book is easy to read and understand yet thoroughly documented.

The difficulties with the work as a whole, however, come from the extensive coverage that this obvious labor of love presents. Berghaus has lived with this material so long that he has pre-digested all of the facts and their interrelation and come to conclusions for his readers. There is no denying that he documents his conclusions very well, but the reader must ask why the editorial choice was made to hold back the primary documents-in-evidence for us to examine and analyze for our own purposes.

The Futurists used highly confrontational language as a kind of spiritual battering ram to break down resistance to new ideas and to lay waste to conventional thought in order to recontextualize everything. Their leaflets, broadsides, poetry, and manifestos were "agents provocateurs" in virtual absentia for their authors. The Futurists intended this posture as a tactic to provoke the reader into the act of self-revolution. Berghaus has provided summations about this aspect of their work throughout the book, but there are scant few texts of the poems or even a single healthy cutting from one of the plays for us to demonstrate the power of the text itself. An inclusion of primary documents in the text would have been most valuable. It is not until almost halfway through the book that even any of the provocative titles in Italian (full of insult, iconoclastic puns and political references) are actually translated into English. It would be much more illuminating to have the translated titles throughout in order to give us a flavor of genre. Sadly, this monolingual treatment of the provocative titles is resumed shortly thereafter.

Futurism was also a movement that included the visual and other arts. I felt the need for more examples of Futurist painting or architecture, pages of Futurist music, or a lexicon of existing recordings. The set design illustrations that are included are quite interesting, and their influence on Pablo Picasso, André Breton, Antonin Artaud and others is clear. Yet, though this is a book on the total effect of a theatre movement, no examples of the work of Picasso on Parade, for example, are shown to compare it to the set design work of Fortunato Depero and others from which Parade may have sprung in whole or in part.

The Futurists contributed to the foundations of modernist thought with the "cornerstone" idea that, in the twentieth century, the dominant cultural experience would not be any single technological change but the experience of change itself. On this point they were so fundamentally and profoundly correct that their manifestoes amount to a new biblical testament, a kind of Dead Sea Scrolls for the modern age. The Futurists developed the manifesto, not as an empty literary form but as a combative art form. To them the...