PRINT Summer 1994


Venezia salva

THE ONLY PLAY by the French philosopher Simone Weil, Venise sauvée (Venice saved) was written and rewritten at different points of an exile that began with the Nazi occupation of Paris, in June 1940, and ended, with the play unfinished, at Weil’s death, in London, in August of 1943. With her parents, Weil, a Jew, had fled Paris, her birthplace, for the south. When she began Venise sauvée, she was “twisted with rage”1—stretched out on a sleeping bag in the kitchen of a small rented apartment in Vichy, with an injured leg that wouldn’t heal.

Earlier this year, at Turin’s Teatro Carignano, the Italian director Luca Ronconi produced Venise sauvée in its entirety, and in its mysterious, and powerful, state of incompletion. (There were later performances in Perugia and in Rome.) Besides a radio version aired in England by the BBC in 1957, the play had been produced only once before—in 1964, in Marseille, in the form of a recitative. Many followers of European theater think that in reviving the piece (under the name Venezia salva), Ronconi confirmed his position as one of the most thoughtful stage directors in Europe today, one of the few to unite artistic talent, political awareness, and social commitment. It was Ronconi who, at the height of the troubles of 1968, staged Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso almost as a comment on the changes in Western society; who organized a superb production of Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Humanity on the eve of the Gulf War; and whose recent production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure described a climate of sickness that resonated profoundly in this age of AIDS.

Europe 1994: behind us the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet regime, the dream of reconciliation between East and West, the retreat from the lethal logic of the Iron Curtain. Ahead and in process, the resurgence of other political archaisms: a turn toward nationalism and racism, tribal war in the former Yugoslavia, an increase in terrorism, intolerance, and violence, an acceptance of the principle of “might makes right.” It is as if culture right now were on a tightrope between reason and force, hope and horror, a balancing act among the fierce contradictions of history. And this was the moment when Ronconi chose to “speak” through Weil’s text.

Venise sauvée, which Weil called a “grand tragic oratorio on the loss of reality,” was inspired by an event of 1618, when a handful of mercenaries conspired to overthrow the city of Venice and bring it under Spanish rule. It is a critical commonplace to recognize in Weil’s plot an allegory of France and Germany in World War II. To speak of Europe’s consumption by Hitler, Weil used a story from the 17th century; in the same way, Ronconi’s production of Venise sauvée was a way of talking about the present—about today’s world in general, and also about Turin, then his home, a car-manufacturing city now in the same kind of trouble Detroit went through in the ’70s. “The greatest misfortune that could occur among men,” Weil, discussing the siege of Troy, wrote in her “L’Iliad poema della forza,” “is the destruction of a city.”

Facing off in Venise sauvée are, on the one hand, Venice, the past, beauty, civilization; and on the other, the conspirators, “men of action and adventure, the dreamers [who] prefer the dream to reality. But with arms they force others to dream their dreams. The victor lives his dream. The vanquished lives the dream of others.” The dichotomous terms of this conflict are broken when the chief plotter, Jaffier, feels pity for “unknowing” Venice: “A few hours yet and the city will be dead:/Stones, a desert, lifeless bodies scattered,/And the survivors, they too corpses./Mute and stupefied, they will only know to obey./All beloved creatures tainted and killed,/Each will hurry to comply with what he detests.” To save the city, Jaffier betrays the plot, his comrades, and himself. The play is an anguished reflection on power and die individual conscience. Weil also correlates “beauty”—in this case, Venice, that precious distillate of time and human genius—and the human self.

Yet Venice, la serenissima, locus mirabilis of nature and art, is governed by the merciless, rigid laws of politics. Though the Council of Ten, the city’s governing body, has promised Jaffier that they will spare him and his co-conspirators in exchange for information, they actually imprison and execute them. From the political point of view, the ingenuous Jaffier—a very human hero, in love with everyday life to the point where he puts the salvation of the city above his loyalty to his comrades—can only be seen as a coward (unable to perform the action to which he has committed himself) or a traitor (betraying his friends). In fact, as both Weil and Ronconi bring out, the logic of war simply doesn’t allow for halfway measures, second thoughts, or uncertainties. And yet we know that it is the modern condition to doubt, to admit fallibility, to mediate rather than confront, to disbelieve in innocence.

Venise sauvée is a densely argumentative work. Part verse, part prose, it is also unfinished—in the manuscript, the margins are crowded with notes and comments that Weil didn’t have the time to transform into text, yet that refer to an embryonic completeness. To direct the play was complex: “I was interested,” Ronconi has said, “in seeing if Venise sauvée is as dramaturgically incomplete as it graphically seems.” His practical solution was to stage everything Weil wrote, right down to her handwritten notes, memos, and skeletal remarks. In Ronconi’s version, some of these jottings became crucial simply as notes: the audience was faced with both text and “paratext,” and had to use this supplementary information—sometimes obscure, sometimes rudimentary—to get through the parts of the play where Weil’s language is rough or incomplete.

Visually, Ronconi’s Venezia salva looked like a modern urban nightmare. Bare, metallic, sunk in a livid, lunar light, the stage—almost unchanging (Weil respects the Aristotelian unities of time, space, and action) suggested some crumbling engine room, or the desolation of some old industrial site. From offstage came the creaking of invisible, rusty-sounding shutters, the shrill cries of gulls, the sound of water flowing in far-away drains. Water dripped from exposed pipes over the actors’ heads, then stagnated in large puddles on the floor. The players, wearing industrial or military-camouflage jumpsuits and knee boots, had to walk through these puddles, prisoners of some malarial underground that seemed an inversion of the airy Venetian canals, or perhaps a prophesy of their future. Clambering on precarious metal scaffolding, the actors sometimes seemed to be observing the city from above—yet they never left their subterranean habitat.

In fact the stage’s homogeneous look was broken only twice—once when a large, brightly lit glass wall slid silently onstage, again when the introduction of a few furnishings suggested, by the barest of allusions, the luxury of a Venetian interior. These ruptures had an oneiric, uneasy sense of dislocation. They were accompanied by the appearance of two symbolic figures, a courtesan and a young girl—the only female presences in an otherwise noticeably homoerotic dramatic context. Taking his cue from Weil, Ronconi seemed to be saying that the female has no role in the game of war—a game of men fighting other men, in which the vanquished and the victor can be interchangeable. Yet without care and compassion, human beings produce not change but sterile machines of destruction.

Maria Nadotti lives in Milan and writes frequently on the performing arts. Her latest book, Silenzio = Morte: Gli USA nel tempo dell’AIDS, a collection she edited, was published recently by Edizioni Anabasi, Milan.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.


1. See Gabriella Fiori, Simone Weil: An Intellectual Biography, trans. Joseph R. Berrigan, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989, p. 52.