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  • In MemoryCarmelo Bene 1937-2002
  • Allen S. Weiss

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Carmelo Bene in Hommelette for Hamlet (1988). (Photo by A. Vasari)

Carmelo Bene, the extraordinary Italian actor, playwright, and filmmaker, died on 17 March 2002. He began his stage career in 1958 acting in a play by Nino Massari, and in 1959 achieved a succès de scandale for his performance in Alberto Ruggiero's adaptation of Albert Camus's Caligula. In 1960 he directed and played in his first creation, Spectacle Maïakovski, and then produced his own version of Caligula in 1961, marking the beginnings of a flamboyant career (often punctuated by accusations of provocation and obscenity) that not only transformed Italian theatre, but also tested the limits of theatrical production and theory. The 30 odd plays which he wrote, directed, produced, and performed in were largely based on a radical principle of adaptation: to work in the "hollow" spaces of the text; to eliminate or "subtract" the major dramatic structures of a play in order to reveal a revolutionary "minor" discourse; to break open the representational system of both text and theatre. Clearly one of the major avatars of Artaud, Carmelo Bene was variously inspired by the classics (he staged five versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet, plus adaptations of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard [End Page 8] III; Collodi's Pinocchio; Lewis's The Monk; Cervantes's Don Quixote; Kleist's Penthesilia ; Wilde's Salome), by the fin-de-siècle French decadents (Huysmans, Corbiè re, Barbey d'Aurevilly, Rimbaud, Laforgue), as well as by the avantgarde ( Jarry, Artaud, Maiakovski). He also staged his own creations, most notably Nostra Signora dei Turchi (staged in 1966 and filmed in 1968) and S.A.D.E. ovvero liber-tinaggio e decadenza del complesso bandistico della gandarmeria salentina (1974).1

Carmelo Bene insisted that he never offered a personal interpretation of Shakespeare (and, by extension, the other classics he treated), but rather a critique. What he attempted was to unfix their classicism, undo their ideology, and disrupt their established theatricality: not to create an avantgarde theatre (he always denied his appurtenance to the avantgarde, however much his critics so classified him), not to contest official theater, but to proffer "the spectacle of the ridiculousness of spectacle" (Bene 1996:n.p.; see also Manganaro 1996).2 This he did with a vengeance: his plays were severe reductions of the originals, pushed to the limits of the absurd, manifesting the violence of editing and the brutality of adaptation; his vocal techniques (mixing live, amplified, and playback sound) centered on points of linguistic breakdown, from the stasis of aphasia to the perpetual transformations of delirium; his acting style valorized corporeal disorganization, from minute indications of ataxia to hyperbolically hysterical gestures. As Gilles Deleuze explains in his analysis of Carmelo Bene's Richard III (a reading that obtains, mutatis mutandis, for his other adaptations), "the piece concludes with the constitution of the character, and it has no object other than the process of this constitution, and does not go beyond it" (1979:91).3 To abstract the character from the drama in this manner is to subtract the play from power structures (textual, theatrical, political), revealing theatre itself as the representation of such power relations. Founded on the contentious belief that "communication is corruption" (Bene 1977:122), such theatre is the site of the destitution of theatricality and representation. As Camille Dumoulié shows in his detailed analysis, Carmelo Bene effectively disarticulates the sound, sense, space, and time of speech, so as to establish an abject orality: first, "to show the obscene, in order to pervert the logic of representation by bringing it back to its own perversion," and consequently "to exceed the obscene by an excess which, if it is dramaturgic, is first of all the surpassing of language" (1990:42-43).4 The result, as explained by Jean-Paul Manganaro, Carmelo Bene's French translator and one of his major interpreters, is a theatre of pain, cruelty, and furor: "What Carmelo Bene reveals, without hesitation, but with the thousand devils of ambiguity, is how theatre can be created [...] in this ecstatic and definitive present, uniquely...


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