PRINT December 1989


I’m out of step with the times, through laziness, or perhaps through wisdom. Through foresight, through economy. And this is because, being able to anticipate end results rather clearly, I can allow myself to deny excessive importance to intermediary stages. Thus I give the impression of being behind the times, or immobile, given that I am in advance. But the avant-gardes, I’m certain, will find me on their path at the point where their experiences are over. For I will not have imitated these experiences, I will have experienced them already, earlier, internally and personally. In other words, I am waiting for these children to finish with their games.
—Jacques Copeau, 1915

DIRECTOR OF THE NEAR-MYTHICAL Piccolo Teatro of Milan (which he conceived and established, with Paolo Grassi, in 1947), and also, from 1982 until earlier this year, of Paris’ Théâtre de l’Europe; recently named the director of the Union des Théâtres d’Europe; member of the European parliament in Strasbourg; among the most prolific and admired theater directors of our century (since 1943 he has produced more than 250 plays and operas); actor and creator of actors. These and more is Giorgio Strehler, born in Trieste and Milanese by adoption, now 67 years old, inclined toward boldness and a certain coquetry, a man about whom it is difficult to write without resorting either to hagiography or to a critical tone that ends up merely peevish. For within the panorama (and not just theatrical) of postwar Italian culture, and in the very particular location of Milan, the Milan of the national reconstruction and the utopian social dream attending the end of fascism after World War II, Strehler has been for years a sort of guiding figure. Initiator, model, experimenter, he tackled the ruin of the tired, enfeebled Italian theatrical tradition centered on the figure of the actor showman and on a comic repertory resembling boulevardier-style entertainment, a tradition that seemed dated even to the bourgeoisie for which it was intended. The society of which he was part knew itself to be in need of political and cultural redefinition and self-definition. Discussing his first productions, done in the early ’40s, Strehler has said,

It wasn’t easy for a young director even to state the principle of direction, and to bring a bit of European culture into circulation, . . . in a theater world that was behind the times by almost half a century. All around us were ruins, misery, and unemployment. We had to maneuver our way through, using old structures and materials. On the one hand the public, groping in the dark, asked no more than to become acquainted with the new authors. But on the other hand even the actors who had been famous and acclaimed were moving about like the survivors of a shipwreck. They either didn’t know the new writers or knew them but didn’t know how to interpret them. How was one supposed to read Wedekind, Tennessee Williams, Sartre, or Camus? But that ignorance was our good fortune, and the good fortune of Italian theater as well.1

The battle Strehler fought was directed not only against this type of ignorance—a kind of cultural delay arising from the isolation, the provincialism, and the myths of autarky produced during the twenty years of fascism. It was also a question of reapproaching the great writers of the past, of reinterpreting them in inventive ways that would restore the power, truth, and originality of texts that had been destroyed by lazy, conventional, blind, opportunistic direction, or that had dropped altogether from the repertory. Convinced that he could not believe in an avant-garde that eliminated or railed against the past, from the beginning Strehler established with certain writers a relationship that endures today:

With Shakespeare, whom he approaches “with attention and prudence. . . . Because there is no other way to approach Shakespeare. He is a demanding, almost tyrannical author; he requires absolute commitment. He is like a watershed separating those who play with theater from those who believe in it.”2

With Chekhov, whose plays’ “invisible splendor”3 he tries again and again to reveal.

With Goldoni, seen not as an author of comic dialect plays but as a minute recorder of everyday reality, and as a playwright of the comédie humaine.

With Pirandello, an author clearly dissimilar to Strehler, and one, in fact, who has never become a reference point for the Piccolo, the director’s laboratory-like instrument. But the two do share certain existential and historical questions: what is the meaning of reality? How does one approach the group of problematic issues that combine into the human? The Pirandello plays that Strehler has produced since 1947—from I giganti della montagna (The mountain giants, 1931–) and Questa sera si recita a soggetto (Tonight we act extemporaneously, 1930) to Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six characters in search of an author, 1921)—are actually among the least violently “Pirandellian” of the author’s works, and also among the most tied to the theater’s reflection on itself, on art, and on the relationship between reality, fiction, and illusion.

With Brecht, of whom Strehler says, “What he has taught me and what he continues to teach me is a human theater, rich, completely theater, but not theater as an end in itself, not only theater.”4 Strehler has used Brecht constantly as a reference point, to the degree that he has been accused of “Brechtomania”; yet he writes, “With Brecht, everything still remains to be done.”5

Moving between the eclectic and the faithful adaptation of a text, between the openness of experiment and the discipline of exhaustive study, Strehler has often produced the same plays in a series of different versions. This continuity that he imposes is not repetition but coherence, for “the theatrical work is uninterrupted. Like poetry. Like science.”6 Thus Goldoni’s play Arlecchino, servitore di due padroni (Harlequin, servant of two masters, 1745), produced in six different versions since 1947, has become not only a trademark of the Piccolo but also a demonstration of a performance’s evolution. With other plays that Strehler has directed, it is a testing ground for a method that emphasizes the text, and the history of the text, but also an investigation of the uses to which the text is put over time and in memory. In 1947, when Strehler began his first Servitore, he felt that “there had never been a commedia dell’arte in modern and contemporary theater.” To develop a new one he looked at a variety of sources:

There were the improvisations and drafts of the [16th–18th-century] actors . . . , texts that ended up in the dark corners of libraries or dispersed in rare-book shops. There was Marivaux’s Arlequin of 1720, and the Servitore staged twenty years before mine by the great Max Reinhardt, which approached the rhythms of an exquisite ballet. Then, and this was really everything, there was our young people’s lovely unawareness, their belief that they could do anything at. . . . [There was] what Marcello Moretti [the best-known of Strehler’s harlequins] believed he had learned through his Venetian roots and from an Academy sage; Chaplin’s intuited reincarnation of Harlequin as the little man with the cane and the flat feet; and uncertain information about an improbable interpretation by Antonio Gandusio, and about a surviving, very old harlequin living in Bologna. We went to look for him; we found an actor without memories, though he told us that he achieved his ridiculousness by eating on stage, with primal hunger, a large plate of spaghetti, and that he painted his own masked face. In other words, we tried everything.7

This is theater as empirical, dialectical method, in continual, inevitable transformation. Both times and sensibilities change; and with them the texts change, like protean use objects flying through time. Every age appropriates them with its own tools. As far as possible, one must restore their original sense, or create a modern version of it, avoiding any prejudices as to what means and styles would befit them.

It is the human that is the guarantor of this operation of reinterpretation, which abuses neither the text nor the audience’s diachronic relationship with it. For the human, “the subject of this dialectic, is at its origins, and exercises choice, while the rest is a totality of inert materials.”8 Asked to explain his relentless cyclical return to Chekhov and particularly to The Cherry Orchard, 1903, Strehler has said, “Because it is a magnificent work, because I love it and find it necessary. And if it is necessary to me, I believe that it is so to my contemporaries also. There are certain great theatrical texts in which humanity is called upon to recognize itself.”9 Strehler’s approach to a play’s writing and stage directions is never only stylistic or esthetic. Banishing both naturalism and strict symbolism, he meets Chekhov “at the intersection of two planes, that of everyday experience and that of fantasy constructed out of memory.”10 Thus Chekhov’s orchard, too poetically allusive to be conveyed by a naturalistic stage set and too real to be a scenic abstraction, becomes, in a design by Luciano Damiani, a container that is both “space and time, sky and leaves and season.”11 The critic Paolo Emilio Poesio writes,

On May 22, 1974, whoever harbored the illusion of witnessing a revival of the 1955 performance was disappointed the moment he entered the hall on via Rovello, to find himself immersed in a symphony in white: white interior walls, a white slope where, in the second act, a sort of “déjeuner sur I’herbe” was enacted, and white costumes for the women and men, in a scale of subtle, almost imperceptible shades, ranging from white pink to ice white, in sharp contrast with the black costumes of the servants. And this immaculate universe was shouded by an immense white veil—a lyrical image of the foliage of the flowering cherry trees, and an aerial gloss for the action on stage. Subtle drafts of air made this magical cloud, this pale sky, swell and deflate, rear up and sway, raining down tired leaves, pulled away from ancient branches, on the characters. With this veil, Strehler on the one hand resolved the debated question of how to represent the flowering cherry trees (without representing them), and on the other hand overcame every remnant of more or less Stanislavskian naturalism.12

To direct his Chekhov anthology, from The Seagull, 1896, to The Cherry Orchard to Platonov, 1880, Strehler has pursued a philological research into the historical and cultural motivations behind the individual texts. Under his direction, the plays are a document of the evolution of customs that has allowed the contemporary world to give up the past and to take on its own shape. But they are also a theatrical terrain in which to show that the narrow boundaries of a strictly environmental, positivist reconstruction of a play are in fact escapable. The director can use the play to pose questions that are more general, or, better, that are more specific to the human condition of individuals in his or her own time.

Strehler’s productions of Shakespeare began with a 1948 version of Richard II, a work rarely staged in Italy. This was followed in 1950 by Richard III, and then by other plays from the less-known Shakespearean canon. They were, in other words, relatively fresh territory, in which it was possible to be innovative without alienating a public shakily wedded to old traditions. It is also significant that the series commenced with history plays—works specifically set in an utterly particular place and time. Yet Strehler’s productions were not costume dramas and used only the most minimal props. The director has said, “For me, the beginning was dismaying and painful. In fact, the Shakespeare text sets the problems of its utter polyvalence (it is historical and political, lyrical and existential) and of all the possibilities of the Elizabethan stage.”13 This question of staging is not only a question of staging. For the Elizabethan stage was always clearly a stage; there was little means to give it the illusion of reality. A theater that followed this example would always reveal itself as theater at the same time that it pursued the human concerns of the play.

Strehler’s Richard III brought together Shakespeare’s entire “theater-world”—simultaneously magical, theatrical, and concrete. It was completely nonnaturalistic, a symbolic theater enacted in a stage language that rejected the imitation and the appearance of reality to strive for the essence and the absoluteness of the human condition. The production was rigorously metatheatrical, focused not so much on the conveyance of the story and on cultural issues as on the nature of theater as an instrument. For the mounting of a play, as Agostino Lombardo writes, consists in an “excavation of a text, an extraction from it of all its possible meanings and their secret essences, and then their translation into scenic symbols to tell their story.”14 The results can still be spectacular, as in Il gioco dei potenti (The game of the powerful, 1965), a digest of the three parts of Henry VI, and a sort of dramatic colossus of which Strehler has said, “It was certainly my greatest effort as a director. A sort of delirium. . . . Someone wrote that I put as much theater as possible into it, with all the theater’s prescriptions for pacifying the public: festivities, fairs, battles, revolts, ambushes and vendettas, court ceremonies, cemetery scenes, bedroom secrets. It was true; I let myself be intoxicated by the space of the stage.”15 Or the work can be rarefied and magical, as in the most recent, splendid version of The Tempest with the Théâtre de l‘Europe in 1983, a dense, stratified production in which philosophical, historical, political, existential, and metatheatrical dimensions converged through precise, essential, symbolic gestures (as when Prospero finally broke the sorcerer’s wand, affirming the honor of ordinary life) and splendid scenic inventions (the tempest created by boys rippling veils to simulate a stormy sea, or the suspension from a winch of the sprite Ariel [Giulia Lazzarini], so that he could bound in leaps of a few inches or thirty-odd feet).

Shakespeare balances the Brechtian influence on Strehler’s theater. Yet the director approaches both authors similarly: if “men of the theater will long continue to decipher the Elizabethan world of Shakespeare in seeking to understand their own epoch,”16 then Brecht’s work “refers not to a theater outside history, outside time, not to the eternal theater of forever, not to history as opposed to theater, but to history in the theater.”17 Strehler is not content simply to stage Brecht, but must approach the plays through the Brechtian idea of “epic theater.” The concept is not a banal instruction as to how practically to direct a play, but a way of thinking about theater based on doubt, on continual questioning, on a rejection of a final point of arrival. What Strehler obtains from the epic theater theorized by Brecht is a critical attitude, an idea of creating and revealing the theatrical illusion at the same time. Perhaps this is why Italian critics have felt that Strehler has weighted his Brechtian spectacles as if they were more or less anthologies of the self, dramas whose capacity to represent the outer world the director seriously questioned. It’s true that Strehler has often theorized about the stage as a metaphor for the world, and that he also sees it, paradoxically, as a world unto itself, a self-sufficient core of reality. Yet he is not really arguing for the separation of art and life. For if the stage is real, then to make theater is to have an effect on the world, to transform it. This is achieved through the illusions of representation, certainly, but also through critical intervention. The world—society in its historical, political, and social dimensions—cannot really be outside or excluded from the making of theater.

Two other men have influenced Strehler’s work through their commitment to an “extratheatrical” theater: Jacques Copeau and Louis Jouvet. These actor/directors were certainly skilled at interpreting a play, blocking it out, directing the actors, organizing a production; but more important was their starting point, an enlarged idea of the process and the meaning of work in the theater. Copeau (1879–1949) was “rigorous in his battle against the ham actor and in favor of a dramaturgy in the service of the text.”18 To Copeau, Strehler owes his “moral, austere, almost Jansenist vision of the theater. Theater as moral responsibility in terms of community. It is a painfully religious idea of theatricality. Theater that is absolute commitment, a giving of oneself to others, severe even when comic, exclusive in the quest for order, honesty, truth.”19 Jouvet (1887–1951) also embraced the idea of theater as a public service. (In 1985–87, at the Piccolo’s Teatro Studio and later at the Odéon in Paris, Strehler reproduced the “theater lessons” that Jouvet gave in 1940 at the Paris Conservatoire during the German occupation, retitling them Elvira o la passione teatrale.) Strehler has said of Jouvet, “It is from him that I have learned to think of the theater as a daily activity, not as a divine art. Furthermore, I owe to Jouvet the sense of a ‘critical presence’ in the staging of a performance: the discovery that a production is not only a philological, cultural, or technical effort but also a sensitive reading of a text, an intuitive surrender to its poetic values.”20 It was this lesson in humility and attention that led to Strehler’s directorial method, his capacity to build a performance as a reading (open, problematic, subjective, inconclusive), an interpretation, a rethinking and then another rethinking of an initial text.

Strehler has never wanted to define his work as a director; he has never tried to come up with formulaic explanations or methodological recipes. It is left to the critic to remark that his work seems to position itself at the intersection between “science” and “creation,” between technique and invention. The crucial moment of a theater production is the choice of a critical direction. The director does not present him- or herself as the work’s creator, as the artist: for Strehler, the theater has always been an activity based on the words, the work, the mental universe of another person, and the director’s task is to find and to interpret correspondences—in scene, in action and gesture, in speech—that will take into account the original work but will also provide a key to the play’s interpretation that is current without being forced. The challenge is to make a phrase of the play explode, to illuminate an essential passage, to emphasize a fundamental idea. For “the word is the luminous, iridescent element around which the performance is built, piece by piece. The terribly difficult thing is to find and to reproduce the play’s rules of creative invention. It’s like looking for lost treasure. The point of departure is the zone of light that is the word.”21 And theater is nothing other than “speaking to others with the words of others. So those words won’t die.”22

It was again Copeau who gave Strehler “the feeling of theater’s fundamental unity. A unity between the written word and its representation, and between authors, actors, set designers, and musicians, down to the last stage technician.”23 To understand Strehler and the vitality of the Piccolo Teatro, it is essential to grasp this concept of theater as total experience, a combination of art, culture, and craft. The theater is an overall work to which many hands contribute. As the director, Strehler is both midwife and demiurge, summarizing, combining, and giving order and harmony to elements otherwise scattered and disparate. He is concerned not only with directing the actors and interpreting the text but with a sort of total, minute, recurring inspection of the whole apparatus of a performance, from lights to costumes to music to special effects to such apparently secondary details as the openings and closings of the curtain. It is as though his task were to explain to his collaborators an inner landscape in which they can participate, building something that by its nature must be a group endeavor.

Strehler insists, however, that the group’s concern with the realization and execution of the project does not include its ideation. The work of theater is conceived by the author and the director. It cannot be entrusted to a collective, to some myth of collaboration. Many critics have discussed this position of Strehler’s, and the comments have often been critical. Particularly in recent years he has been accused of narcissism, grandstanding, disrespect for his collaborators, hunger for power, petty tyranny, and so on. It is worth remarking that these criticisms began to appear at the point when the Piccolo outgrew its experimental, extrainstitutional phase and developed into a consolidated reference point for a new theatrical and cultural establishment that had recognized its lessons and assimilated its methods. And the actors who have worked with Strehler, and who continue to do so, have not joined in the attacks. They seem to feel that Strehler’s supposed harsh severity toward them, his tendency to bend them to his own vision of the text and of their characters, is actually part of his generous ability to bring out and illuminate their talents instead of trying to please them or to spare them.

The legend of Strehler as a sort of stubborn, demanding, intractable tyrant, a throwback to Gordon Craig’s actor-as-marionette-style direction, also seems belied by the fact that he is himself an actor, and, though he has chosen to dedicate himself to direction, he remains one by sensibility and by craft. He knows what one can reasonably ask of an actor interpreting a role, and he knows the physical, psychological, and intellectual tactics that allow an actor to invent him- or herself within each new character, which in turn is reinvented and revealed. As Strehler remarks,

You work for weeks and months, you build your ideal performance in your head, you try to realize it on the stage, and then, when the moment arrives to say “curtain up,” you have something like an attack of vertigo, a fear of having built on sand. But it is on sand that one must “make theater.” This means more or less making and unmaking a cathedral every evening. Because with theater, you have the pretense of challenging the sky. But then, at the “opening,” you, the director, consign your work to others and you vanish.24

Today, after a recent and formidable encounter with the theater of Eduardo De Filippo, whose La grande magia (The great enchantment, 1949) Strehler brought to the stage in 1985; after a new, not altogether successful production of Pirandello’s Come to mi vuoi (As you desire me, 1930); and after a lyrical production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, much discussed for its transparently autobiographical elements, Strehler says of himself, “I have remained very curious, with certain regrets (I have yet to tackle the work of Schiller, Goethe, and Molière) and certain accounts left open—with Shakespeare (I still have to take on Hamlet and Othello) and with Racine. In this final phase of my career and of my life, I am gathering together the strong voices that I have within me.”25 Perhaps his account with Goethe is now being settled. For months Strehler has barricaded himself in Milan’s Piccolo Teatro Studio (a new space that will eventually become part of the Città del Teatro, Strehler’s planned theater center for Europe, which should be completed within the next three years). Working both as director and as an actor, he has created the first part of a colossal production of Faust, staged over two evenings last spring. The conclusion will be shown during the 1992–93 season, in a work that will span ten evenings. Energetic, tireless, emotional, even histrionic, but also patient and stubborn in his search for the right solution to every textual or technical question, Strehler-as-Faust has moved nimbly between his two roles. With dazzling flashes of beauty, and with high theatricality, he has once again created the great spectacle. Every spatiotemporal limitation is overcome in this great dramatic work, and the action flies zigzag from the most codified forms of classical tragedy to the excesses of romanticism. Strehler has scored some outright theatrical coups: Mephistopheles emerges nude and spectral from a self-propelled pool hidden by a trapdoor at the center of the stage; the witch’s kitchen is a punk discotheque, where Faust is engulfed in an orgy of leather-clad or narcissistic and provocative nude bodies; God speaks through thunder, through lightning, and through the offstage voice of Tino Carraro (a frequent participant in Strehler’s theater), in an apocalyptic, tempestuous scene rent by luminous rays, fog, fumes of incense, and reverberations of sound. In its almost baroque grandeur, Strehler’s Faust deploys everything the theater can offer in the way of effects, machinery, and stage tricks. At the same time, the work examines the power of knowledge, the challenge to death and oblivion, the force of human genius, and the tragedy of the man who seeks to be something more than he is.

It is no accident that this challenging text, which is also a metaphoric text, comes during the later (though not the weakening) phases of Strehler’s career. It forces him to transform the working out and the rehearsals of the performance into a great lesson about Goethe’s play—its significance, its meaning, the rhythm of its phrases, and above all the possibility of experiencing it today, nearly 200 years after it was written, without either damaging it or treating it with the cold reverence of the scholar. For Strehler’s approach and method here are consistent with his entire oeuvre. He takes great works and strips them down to their treasure, that hard, resistant, precious core that neither time nor cultural variations can impair. Perhaps this high responsibility—toward the text, toward the craft of making theater, and toward the public—can be linked to what has been recognized, both positively and negatively, as Strehler’s “fundamental eclecticism,” his open-mindedness toward quite disparate languages and techniques: “I am convinced that a mysterious bond unites Stanislavski, Meyerhold, Copeau, Brecht, and Chaplin. My fidelity to Brecht, which has been criticized as a limitation, has consisted precisely in my acceptance of his dialectical method, his distrust for all closed and conclusive systems, and also of his application in theater of the dialectical method. For me, Brecht has never been an idol. He has been the master of a severe liberty.”26

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in New York and Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.



1. Giorgio Strehler, quoted in Ugo Ronfani, Io, Srrehler: Conversazioni con Ugo Ronfani, Milan: Ruseoni, 1986, p. 92.

2. Ibid., p. 137.

3. Ibid., p. 148.

4. Strehler, Un teatro per la vita: Riflessioni, colloqui, note di lavoro, text arranged by Sinah Kessler, preface by Bernard Don, trans. Emmanuelle Genevois, Paris: Fayard, 1980, p. 121. This work was first published, with some variations, as Per un Teatro Umano, Milan: Feltrinelli, 1974.

5. Ibid.

6. Quoted in Ronfani, p. 45.

7. Ibid., pp. 52–53.

8. Ibid., p. 14.

9. Ibid., pp. 151–52.

10. Ibid., p. 152.

11. Ibid.

12. Paolo Emilio Poesio, “Quattro Cechov al Piccolo Teutro,” in Teutro in Europa no. I, Milan, 1987, pp. 63–65.

13. Quoted in Ronfani, p. 137.

14. Agostino Lombardo, “II colloquio con Shakespeare,” in Teatro in Europa, p. 14.

15. Quoted in Ronfani, p. 144.

16. Ibid., p. 147.

17. Strehler, Un teutro per la vira, p. 121.

18. Quoted in Ronfani, p. 60.

19. Ibid., pp. 63–64.

20. Ibid., pp. 62–63.

21. Ibid.. p. 180.

22. Ibid., p. 16.

23. Ibid., pp. 63–64.

24. “L’Indice sul futuro, una conversazione non-stop Ira Giorgio Strehler e Renzo Tian,” in Teatro m Europa, pp. 75–76.

25. Ibid.

26. Quoted in Ronfani, p. 181.