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84 Necessity and Invention Ruzante 4 Poet of Hunger No early modern playwright addressed the problem of poverty and hunger in such direct,sustained,and complex ways as did the Paduan Angelo Beolco, known as Ruzante (b. 1496–1502, d. 1542). In a series of astonishing plays written in the crucial decade of the 1520s, in the very years of a catastrophic famine in the Veneto and a series of new municipal laws designed to discipline the widespread practice of begging, Ruzante’s actor-centered, visceral, and embodied theater stages the agon between the raw, material reality of poverty and a series of desperate but inventive responses to it: tragicomic gags stabbing at hunger.1 Like Shakespeare’s As You Like It and King Lear, written in the aftermath of the 1590s Midlands famine and the turn-of-the-century English poor laws,these works of Ruzante stage the “play” between official policy and actual practice, between authoritarian discourse and lived attitude. On the one hand, Ruzante keenly represents the ways in which extreme poverty subjects human beings to the laws of force and necessity, as analyzed by Hannah Arendt in On Revolution:“Poverty is more than deprivation, it is a state of constant want and acute misery whose ignominy consists in its dehumanizing force; poverty is abject because it puts men under the absolute dictate of their bodies, that is, under the absolute dictate of necessity.”2 In plays from La pastoral (1520?) to Moscheta (1529),external biological,economic,and social constraints inexorably press upon the deracinated peasants—the abject heroes of Ruzante’s plays. A brilliant poet of material force, Ruzante finds apt metaphors to evoke such constraint working upon the body, ranging from farming (e.g., the pull of oxen) to metallurgy (e.g., hammers striking anvils). Not unlike Homeric characters under the weight of force and the necessity of ruzant e : ne c e s s it y and i nventi on 85 war, as analyzed in Simone Weil’s brilliant essay“The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,”3 the souls of Ruzante’s characters become things. On the other hand, in agonistic struggle with necessity, Ruzante’s protagonists demonstrate an inexhaustible capacity for invention and autopoesis . The very constraint that forces Ruzante’s peasants from country to city is offset, as if according to a hidden law, by the inventive mobility of Ruzante’s little heroes. The fictionalizing, distorting, sometimes hallucinogenic imagination that we have seen at play in the piazza pamphlets is here brought to bear in plot-driven, dramatic situations, against obdurate antagonists. Such mortal tension between constraint and invention sometimes strains the limits of dramatic form, allowing the centrifugal energies of the stand-up performer more license than can be disciplined by dramatic form. But given the sheer richness of the performing body that emerges through Ruzante’s dramatic text, this is no loss. The “fictions of poverty” improvised by Ruzante’s desperate protagonists function like the lying truths of Poor Tom and the distortions of the carnivalesque piazza pamphlets, fleshing out the formulaic exaggerations of the beggar catalogues with painful existential truth. As with Spanish picaresque novels such as Lazarillo de Tormes, at the heart of these works from the 1520s lies hunger—alternatively obstacle and engine of plot invention, as it would be for the starving but resourceful zanni of the professional Italian theater that emerged just after Ruzante’s death. According to Mario Baratto,“il pane” becomes the “primitive and concrete symbol of their [the peasants’] union through the continuity of the seasons.”4 In a kind of “gastronomic humanism,” bread (and especially the lack of it) becomes a powerful transregional and transnational bond. In the one-act play Parlamento, the protagonist “Ruzante” speaks to his kinsman Menato of his travel to Agnadello and other “distant” places in wartime, asserting com-pan-ionship, etymologically speaking, with peasants there despite cultural differences such as their “slurred speech.” Claiming the need to eat to be a fundamental ground of human identity and thus productive of a “poor theater” that can translate well across national boundaries, Ruzante asserts that the Agnadello peasants are “uomeni de carne, com a’ seóm nu” (flesh-andblood men, just like us), who “make bread like we do, and they eat like what we do, too” (2.48; e sí fa pan com a’ fazóm, e sí magna com a’ fazóm 86 chap ter 4 nu).5 Ruzante’s first play, La pastoral, carries...


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