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  • A History of Italian Theatre
  • Scott Malia
A History of Italian Theatre. Edited by Joseph Farrell and Paolo Puppa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006; pp. x + 432. $110.00 cloth.

In their chronological overview A History of Italian Theatre, editors Joseph Farrell and Paolo Puppa impose an impressive cohesiveness on a text authored by more than twenty contributors, many of whom have written multiple chapters. (The editors themselves wrote nearly one-quarter of the book, primarily the final section on twentieth-century theatre.) In the “Introduction,” Farrell and Puppa differentiate their approach from previous histories in several ways. First, they acknowledge the difficulty of covering hundreds of years of history; theirs is a compendium of moments and people that recognizes the need for expansion. Second, they propose a two-pronged attack on the material “looking outwards at Italian theatre in Europe as well as inwards at the national cultural forces at work” (5). Finally, the editors and their fellow scholars place a strong emphasis on the history of performance. While performance-as-text is never fully engaged, its influence upon this work is clear. Ferdinando Taviani’s chapter on “Romantic Theatre” is particularly persuasive in arguing that actors’ performances are the true dramatic output of Italy.

While some notables like Gozzi and Alfieri naturally merit more attention, overall each period and its artists are given relatively equal space. The first seventeen of the book’s thirty-four chapters are devoted to the medieval era, Renaissance, and Settecento; the second half covers the early 1800s through the relative present. According to Richard Andrews, whose four chapters cover much of the Italian Renaissance, early theatre in Italy was preoccupied with the question of what constituted good drama, championing classical writing and establishing numerous dramatic rules as well as a select pool of sources. Andrews makes a pronounced distinction between academic drama, whose “printed texts existed before any performance was mounted” (84), and popular drama. Academic theatre gained prominence among elite literary circles; few of their plays, however, were performed—or even intended for performance. Still, Andrews and his fellow writers follow through on the editors’ directive to highlight Italy’s impact on European theatre, spotlighting plays such as Gl’ingannati, a Sienese comedy believed to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In their chapter on commedia dell’arte, Kenneth and Laura Richards define popular theatre as performance-based, with neoclassical literary rules largely ignored (unless parodied). They note that commedia dell’arte broadened its audience base by employing “polyglot dialects” (104) in a form [End Page 149] that deemphasized the written text (though they wisely reframe commedia’s reputation as an improvised form).

Following this thread, the second half of the book examines Italy’s search for national identity in the face of regionalized culture. Here, language emerges as a recurring theme, which brings unity to A History of Italian Theatre despite its multiple contributors; virtually every chapter addresses the language question, analyzing the incorporation of dialect into dialogue as well as the use of both verse and prose dramatic writing. To his credit, Roberto Cuppone, in his chapter on the dialect theatre movement of the late 1800s, does not demonize dialect as the defining factor in what some would label the slow progress of Italian dramatic literature; instead, he cites its positive contributions to the proliferation of Italian theatre abroad, emphasizing that plays were translated from various dialects into other European languages. In this way, the rest of Europe gained exposure to much Italian drama without being hindered by dialect.

Puppa’s chapter on post-unification theatre raises the possibility that the drama was not hampered so much by regional dialects as it was eclipsed by other theatrical elements such as the breadth of influence of stars like Duse and Salvini, whose work had an impact on Stanislavski’s approach to acting. Taviani also paints Italian theatre as ruled by starring actors, whose performances were the “masterpieces of the Italian Romantic theatre” (207). While the star system was not unique to Italy, the country’s already limited dramatic output was additionally impeded by this system. In this vein, John Woodhouse’s chapter on Gabriele D’Annunzio...


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pp. 149-150
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