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  • D'Annunzio, Eros and the Modern Artist:Tragedy and Tragic Criticism Reconsidered
  • Jessica Otey

The critical history of D'Annunzio's first play, La città morta, is particularly lengthy and complex, a circumstance directly related to the fact that its first interpreter was none other than the author himself. D'Annunzio constructs his turn-of-the-century novel Il fuoco as a paratextual imaginary prequel to the composition of the poet-protagonist Stelio Èffrena's first tragedy, La vittoria dell'uomo, descriptions of which (to the extent that they are provided) correspond directly to La città morta. D'Annunzio's insertion of this play into a larger theoretical discussion of his approach to modern tragedy has rendered the interpretation of this play inseparable from the author's theorization of tragedy in general. As a result, much of the scholarship has fused the examination of La città morta with an analysis of D'Annunzio's idea of modern tragedy—two critical questions that might otherwise be posed separately. This tendency has precipitated readings of the play that are simultaneously judgments on the "success" or "failure" of the author's project of modern tragic drama. It is not my intent to "prove" (as if such were possible) that La città morta is or is not a tragedy, or that tragedy is or is not possible within the modern period. These questions, since they depend solely on one's definition of tragedy, are entirely tautological. Instead, the questions one ought to pose regarding D'Annunzio's first play are how the tragedy (I accept its labeling as such) functions within D'Annunzio's larger poetics and how the [End Page 169] play's role within this poetics reflects D'Annunzio's reformulation of tragedy in/for the modern period.

My reading begins with two familiar observations: first, that Il fuoco is a novel about the process of artistic creation, particularly the creation of tragedy by Stelio and Foscarina (the alter-ego of Eleanora Duse).1 The tendency to view Stelio's narcissism as a key element of his artistic process, a process whose goal is to assimilate (and thus diminish) the contributions of other artists, particularly that of Duse/Foscarina, unjustly simplifies the novel's rich and purposeful presentation of the collaborative process of art.2 While there can be no doubt of D'Annunzio's high opinion of himself, the criticism tends to exaggerate his own exaggerations rather than seeking out the places in which he nuances his grandiose claims of artistic singularity. Il fuoco is more than a self-glorifying novel of D'Annunzio's own authorial ability; rather, it functions as a parable of success precisely because it contains not only premonitions of great achievement, but also meditations on the difficulty of artistic creation, specifically the threat of failure. My reading of Città morta begins in this vein, that is, with a consideration of La vittoria dell'uomo as a central moment of such meditation.

The second point of departure for this article is the positing of Eros as the central theme of La città morta, as the driving force that determines the play's resolution. The recent scholarship on this theme looks at the play more in its own right than as an exemplar of D'Annunzio-Stelio's perorations on tragedy. Anna Meda posits the "binomio di Eros e Thantatos" (43) as the play's central thematic, and concludes her Jungian reading with the argument that Leonardo's murder of his sister Bianca Maria does represent the victory of man: "la Vittoria dell'uomo [. . .] altro non è se quella libertà [dagli [End Page 170] istinti] [. . .] e quella dell'uomo moderno su quello primitivo" (79).3 In contrast, Antonio Baldi interprets the play as "il dramma dell'eros invincibile" (306), and thus in direct conflict with Stelio's theorization of La vittoria dell'uomo: "non è il Destino, come sarebbe nelle intenzione programmatiche astratte dell'autore, il centro del testo, la forza propulsiva di tutta l'azione, ma l'eros" (295).4 Therefore, he concludes, "non si può neppure parlare di "vittoria dell'uomo" sul Destino [. . .]" (306). Both of these detailed readings, however, reveal their dependence on the old schema of...


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