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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002) 1-17

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Notes On the Tempest

Giorgio Strehler
Translated by Thomas Simpson


Giorgio Strehler (1921-1997) established the Piccolo Teatro di Milano in 1947 with a production of Carlo Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters that went on to international acclaim and created the director's reputation as the leader of Italian theatre in postwar Europe. Over four decades he produced definitive versions of Shakespeare (Lear and Measure for Measure along with two productions of The Tempest), Brecht (The Threepenny Opera and The Good Woman of Setzuan), and the great Italian dramatic authors (especially Goldoni's The Villeggiatura Trilogy, and Pirandello's Henry IV and The Mountain Giants). His first version of The Tempest was performed in the Boboli Gardens in Florence in 1948 with a translation by the poet Salvatore Quasimodo, and featured characters who emerged from the Garden's famous fountains and reflecting pools. The second production, from which the following text derives, was initially staged in 1978 with a translation by longtime collaborator Agostino Lombardo, and performed in the United States in 1984. In this piece Strehler re-imagines the first twenty minutes of The Tempest through the eyes and mind of a spectator. This piece, "Shakespeare, oltre La Tempesta" was first published in La Nuova Rivista Europea, Vol. 2, No. 5, May-June 1978, 23-40; and then again in the volume Inscenare Shakespeare by Giorgio Strehler, Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 1992, pp. 106-131.


n a theatre, at the proper hour, a storm bursts. Sea, wind, lightning, crashing waves batter the stage and the put the house in turmoil. In the wild disorder of the rising and breaking waves, between one flash and the next, appears a warship, miniscule. In mortal danger, the ship slips and spins helplessly, overwhelmed. As the din builds pitilessly and the freezing wind whirls even through the theatre, the ship vanishes, and before the audience there now appears an enlarged fragment of the same ship, crowded with dark shapes rushing this way and that in panic. The caped figures stand out starkly against a shred of taut sail battered by the wind, barely held by the mainmast whose top disappears up into the flies, powerful and useless. The dark wooden floor, shiny with water, rises and lowers, heaves left and right with irregular motion, driving the figures this way and that on the ship-stage. Desperate for stability they grab at ropes, struggling against the force [End Page 1] overwhelming them. From an opening, dark within the darkness, appear and disappear the faces of other figures, faces of the "nobles," pale and ridiculous in their festive, theatrical costumes: a king in his crown, a counselor in his plumed hat, two figures in mourning. Terrified, they talk, scream, shout remarks, insult each other, as the tempest grows ever wilder in a crescendo of cruel rapid bursts. A bos'n at a rope tries to give orders and yells at the nobles who peek out of their hole like frightened mice, to go below decks. Their titles and reigns count nothing now in this world in torment. What can a king do when nature is in chaos? Command the elements to relent? Restore order with a proclamation or law? Save life with a nod? Go ahead and try, he says. But it can't be done. So go, go down. . . . By now the tempest is at its peak. The mainmast bends slowly before splitting. Overwhelmed, the figures let go their ropes. All hope is lost. The waves rise to cover the fragment of ship and the human cargo that we have seen and heard for a moment among the lightning bolts and crashing thunder. They rush about as each plays their role, tragic or comic, though we still can't make sense of the story or the characters. But there was life, some fragment of life, a microcosm, a flash of life among the electric flashes of the tempest; now it suddenly disappears in a crash of splintered wood...


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