PRINT Summer 1991


Dramatizing Dante

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
Death could scarce be more bitter than that
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God’s

—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, trans. John Ciardi

THREE YEARS AGO the director and actor Federico Tiezzi, along with his group Magazzini Produzioni (originally named Magazzini Criminali, and formed by Tiezzi, Marion D’Amburgo, and Sandro Lombardi), began the staging of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, the poem that is the foundation of Italian language and literature. Commissioned by the Teatro Metastasio in Prato, the seven-hour trilogy was presented in March at the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari.1 Tiezzi’s Commedia is a work both suggestive and original, demonstrating a real interaction between the directing of the actors, the treatment of the text, the staging, and the overall understanding of theater. Here, the obsolete division between theatrical theory and practice is overcome.

Besides the Magazzini members, the young and unknown actors in this Commedia are all recent graduates of different Italian acting schools, as if Tiezzi, in casting the work, had devised a self-imposed condition that would inevitably introduce an element of chance. In different groups for each of the poem’s three books, the actors face Dante’s unfathomable text as an initiatory journey, complete with a series of stations or trials—not least Dante’s language itself. The Divina Commedia contains more than fifteen thousand lines of “vulgar” Italian, that emerging vernacular, still full of Latinisms, that served as the incubation chamber for the written and spoken Italian of today (regrettably pale and bloodless by comparison). To interpret this work for the stage, the director must first struggle with the language’s literal content before suggesting how the actors may transmit it. The recitation of the poem calls for a phonetic and acoustic intuition that will render the verses’ meanings without destroying their unique and particular sound. Yet this large difficulty is merely a technical issue in relation to a fundamental problem: how to bridge the profound abyss between Dante, the medieval poet and philosopher, and the men and women of today.

Tiezzi has asked three contemporary poets—Edoardo Sanguineti for the Inferno, Mario Luzi for the Purgatorio, and Giovanni Giudici for the Paradiso—to decode and adapt Dante’s text. This they do in at least three ways: by cutting each book from its original five thousand or so verses to about two thousand; by inserting other texts, their own poems and quotations from Ezra Pound and Franz Kafka; and by designing theatrical forms for Dante’s nondramatic poem. First the Inferno, the book of the damned, becomes a series of monologues, and the monologue is by definition a ruptured communication, elocution without interlocution. The characters—large, completely rounded figures—are closed into themselves, into emblematic portraits to which the confused poet/wayfarer/pilgrim is a mute and helpless witness. These souls talk, rave, inveigh, curse—prisoners of a word that separates them, condemns them to solitude, instead of putting them in touch.

The Purgatorio, by contrast, is constructed through dialogue. Those confined here are permeated by a need for verbal exchange. Their need is more than just instrumental: these souls depend on the prayers of the living to shorten their time in purgatory. Furthermore, a remnant of life, history, something of the world, stays with these penitents. Their incessant search for contact reflects not some distortion of the process of communication but rather a continuity of the human experience, which they have not yet sublimated into memory.

Tiezzi locates the inferno as a sort of large swamp crossed by wood and metal footbridges fitted with trapdoors and manholes. All above is neat and clean, but the lower level is seething, viscous, putrid mud into which the damned fall one by one. There is something more everyday and human about Tiezzi’s purgatory. The metaphor there is of voyage, of transit: the scene opens on a journeying group of souls, joined in a melancholy wandering that leads them to question both the future and the past. And after the desolate darkness of the Inferno, the Purgatorio takes place in a gray auroral zone suitable to the simplicity of the waiting souls. The stage is bare, essential, sparsely furnished, but thronged with sorrowful people, their metaphoric dimension minimized by their ordinary modern-day clothing. The platforms that make up the floor are movable, sporadically rising and falling to move the characters now nearer to heaven, now farther away. Cold gray and blue lighting is used to divide the characters, and to create symbolic pavilions for them to occupy and then to flee, as if pulled by the light, impermanent, immaterial, yet a vector toward the ultimate goal of paradise.

For Tiezzi, “Dante’s third book, with its perfect accentuations, with its poetic and conceptual contents that seem a divine rather than human piece of writing, functions as a mantra.” What form can one give to a subject that is by definition unrepresentable? How can one create a theatrical metaphor for it? How can one give voice to Dante’s hendecasyllables, which are intellectually dense yet mysteriously express an incorporeal state of grace? Following a suggestion from the critic Gianfranco Contini, Tiezzi gives us Dante as a kind of Proust, an old man alone in his study in Ravenna. The poet is our narrator—he tells us the poem, transforming it and clarifying it into a fantastic tale, an attempt to recapture, through memory, a paradise lost. Thus narrative substitutes for direct experience. The original, ineffable vision of the Paradiso is replaced by a view of paradise from a distance, through the mediation of a man describing a journey he made in the unattainable past.

Dante appears here in the double guise of viator (one who lives through conversations with the people he meets) and of auctor (one who writes). Split in two like this, the character makes Tiezzi’s paradise a place in which it is the boundary, the divide, that is the sublime aspect of humanity. Paradise as a space of memory is revealed through a series of breaches as the various characters arrive. This last station of the trilogy is designed as a neutral white space bathed in festive bright light. Familiar elements of 14th- and 15th-century Italian painting bring touches of glorious color—Gothic golds, for example, merging with the pure Renaissance palette of Piero della Francesca. The characters also wear warm-hued costumes, appearing as visual quotations of figures from 15th-century paintings, and the space has a perfect vanishing point, providing the illusion of a theoretical convergence at infinity.

The metaphors of Tiezzi’s work are carried through sound as well as sight. For the Inferno, Sanguineti has created an acoustic babel of a text, an impossible combination of Latin, Italian, ancient French, English, Provencal, and song, which the actors interpret expressionistically in torment and bombast. But the sound and acting style of the Purgatorio strike the plain, undecorated tone of everyday life. The Paradiso is more complex to invent: the character of Beatrice, for example—the woman Dante loved, and the narrator’s guide in this part of the poem, as well as the incarnation of theology and the symbol of the pure, eternal state of delight—is performed by three actresses united into one figure by a splendid costume in which their bodies merge. But their voices interplay, chase each other, and grow larger, eventually becoming a song. For souls that Dante writes about in particularly mysterious, exalted language (souls that “dwell within me, dwell within you, dwell within God, dwell within the future”), Tiezzi uses not only precise vocal techniques but also the methods of “eurythmic,” an art of physical and spiritual expression developed in the early 20th century by Rudolf Steiner. Neither naturalistic nor forbiddingly alien, Steiner’s movements and gestures (in which the body seems to write the letters and sounds of the alphabet in space) are the director’s media for conveying an inexpressible text.

With the Dante trilogy, Tiezzi and Magazzini Produzioni move beyond the orbit of so-called new experimental theater, a circle both protective and paralyzing. Yet they have not changed course, or betrayed or forgotten their origins. In fact the Paradiso in particular revives the issues of Magazzini’s 1980s work (from Crollo nervoso [Nervous breakdown, 1980] on). The coexistence in the Dante character of both a narrator and a protagonist, for example, echoes the role of the actor in Ritratto dell’attore da giovane (Portrait of the actor as a young man, 1985). There, too, the play was structured by an oscillation between past and present, and suggested memory’s associations, projections, and outpourings of emotion and imagination through the objects, sounds, music, and words that populated the stage.

For some time now Tiezzi has based his theater on what Sergei Eisenstein called the “montage of attractions.” He avoids, in other words, linear story lines and workaday naturalism, though he is quite prepared to tell some kind of story and to present recognizable characters. What he will not do is force actors into prepackaged character roles. The actor supplies the director not only with a body, a voice, and a technique, but also with a human material, dense with ideas, experiences, and knowledge, to be used as a grammar in the composition of the work. Alongside the actor is the text. For Tiezzi, neither the use of a preexisting poem for a performance nor the collaboration with poets as playwrights is a novelty or a contradiction. As he said in 1982, speaking of a “theater of poetry,” the word is found in the dark magma of the stage. As sound and as signifier, as orality, it moves out of the stage’s silence, out of its diorama of visual perception, to become content, meaning, message. Like Robert Wilson or Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group, Tiezzi sets the creation of a theatrical language, and the choosing and adapting of a text suitable to it, at the center of the director’s function. The director does not so much conform to a verbal text as insert it within a theatrical score—“geometric, mathematical, musical,” in Tiezzi’s word—that involves a series of acoustic, visual, and tactile stimulations.

A necessity for any theatrical production is a dramatic situation and a certain “tenability.” The fulfillment of this need transforms the director into an inventor: he who seeks, discovers, and reveals what is hidden, buried, abstract, silent and enclosed within the written page. To give voice to the text through the bodies and the gestures of the actors, and through sound, is to create a dramatic whole that reinterprets the text, rewrites it. As Tiezzi asserts, “After Artaud and Brecht, a new dramatic form cannot seek Drama separately from the Stage: it must be sought in the Stage, because it belongs to it. ”

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in Rome and New York. She contributes frequently to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.



1. Federico Tiezzi is about to begin a film version of his Dante dramatization.