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The Stage in Italy by R. Davey

The Italians are undoubtedly the most theatre-loving people in the world. With them the play-house takes the place to a great extent of drawing-room and evening lounge. Almost every Italian family of any social position possesses a box at one of the principal theatres, where visits are received and many a scene from the School for Scandal is enacted whilst the fair gossip-mongers flirt and sip ices. In winter the opera is the standard amusement of the fashionable world, while the favorite resort in summer is the diurno or open air theatre, which is in the form of an amphitheatre, the stage with its accessories facing an unroofed enclosure, with the seats arranged in tiers one above another, and fenced off by an iron balustrade from a terrace which serves the purpose of a gallery. A vast covered corridor is nearly always to be found adjacent to the diurno, beneath which the audience can take refuge in case of a shower, walk between the acts and indulge in bebite—cooling drinks, such as sherbets and beer. The abbonamento (or subscription) to a diurno costs from three to ten dollars for the season of thirty or forty representations. When a dramatic company is about to visit a city the manager first secures his abbonati, for according to their number he is able to regulate his expenses, as he counts little on chance spectators, and is sure to have almost always to play before the same audience.

The lyric stage in Italy takes precedence of the dramatic, and in the large cities, Milan, Venice, Genoa, Florence, Rome and Naples, the production of a new opera is considered a national event, forming for many days previous to its production the chief topic of conversation in salons and caffès. No such enthusiasm is manifested in regard to the first representation of a new play; and although the house may be crowded and the author called before the curtain, he may deem himself happy if his drama is played four times during the season; whereas a popular opera will be given night after night for two months. An opera, if it has any merit, may be the means of carrying the fame of Italian genius to the farthest limits of the earth, but it is a chance if the comedy which pleases at Venice will be appreciated in the least degree at Rome or Naples, such are the variations in manners and customs, especially amongst the lower orders, between one Italian province and another. Hence, opera is greatly fostered and protected. There are a dozen musical conservatori, public and private, in each of the principal cities, for the training of singers, and prizes are accorded to them out of funds especially set apart for the purpose by the government, which also grants large annual subsidies to the leading lyric theatres, such as the Scala at Milan, the San Carlo at Naples, the Fenice at Venice, the Pergola at Florence, the Carlo Felice at Genoa, the Communale at Bologna, and the Apollo at Rome. The dramatic stage has none of these aids, the various companies have to pay their own expenses, and, whatever may be the merits of the artists who compose them, they scarcely ever obtain any special recognition from the government. Although the smallest Italian city possesses its theatre, and some of the capitals—Milan and Naples, for instance—at least a dozen, there is no training-school for the stage in any part of the country. Nor is there such an institution as the English Dramatic College, where decayed artists can retire when their day of glory is past and they have become poor and lonely. Each city has one theatre, the largest and most magnificent, reserved exclusively for operatic performances, and where the unmusical drama is scarcely ever tolerated. I once saw Ristori act in Metastasio's Dido at the Scala for the benefit of the wounded during the war for Italian independence; but this was the only occasion in fifty years on which an actress had declaimed in that enormous edifice, and nothing but patriotic charity would have excused such an infringement of time-honored etiquette. When, therefore, the Italian opera-houses close for the season, they are never reopened for the accommodation of wandering "stars." The consequence of this is, that the drama is banished to the inferior theatres, and whilst thousands of francs are spent on the scenery of a new opera or ballet, the poor player has to content himself with an indifferent stage and wretched decorations. In short, to quote an observation made to me recently by Signor Salvini, "Theatrical affairs are just the opposite in Italy to what they are in America. In Italy the opera-bill is never changed more than three times in as many months: in America it varies almost every evening. In Italy the play-bill is renewed nightly, while in this country and in England a drama, if good, may have a run of over a hundred representations." Nothing surprised Salvini more during his stay in the United States than the splendor of the mise en scène of some of the New York plays, but he accounted for it easily enough. The managers of most of the New York, Paris and London theatres do not hesitate to lavish large sums of money upon their decorations and scenery, because should the piece fail for which they were painted they can be used in some other. The Italian theatres are nearly always the property either of some nobleman or of a company of speculators, whose principal object is to make as much money out of them, and spend as little upon them, as possible. They are rented out for a month or so to one or other of the many troupes of actors which are constantly wandering about the country, and which bring their own scenery and dresses with them, generally of the cheapest and most tawdry description.

A Tuscan proverb says, "Figlio d'attore, attore" ("The son of an actor is always an actor"); and this in Italy is pretty sure to be the case. The three greatest living actors, Salvini, Rossi and Majeroni, belong to families which have long been popular on the stage, and so do the actresses Ristori and Sedowsky. Signora Ristori made her début as an infant in the cradle, and was for years a member of a troupe the leading lady of which was her late mother, Signora Maddalena Ristori, a woman of great talent and merit, whose death at an advanced age has recently occasioned her celebrated daughter poignant grief. There still exists in Italy a Venetian troupe of comedians whose ancestors were the first interpreters of the comedies of Goldoni, and several of them claim descent from players who enacted the tragedies and comedies of serious classical literature before the courts of Lucrezia Borgia and Leonora d'Este. In glancing over an Italian play-bill one is invariably struck by the fact that many of the artists bear the same name, and are evidently connected by ties of consanguinity or of marriage. In the Ristori troupe, for instance, there are several actors calling themselves by the same name as that great artist, and who are doubtless of her family. The Salvini company embraces, besides the two brothers Tommaso and Alessandro, several Piamontis, two or three Piccininis and two Colonellos. I once knew in Italy a manager named Spada who directed a little troupe of buffo actors consisting of his grandfather and grandmother, father and mother, three or four uncles and aunts, two brothers, and one or two sisters, in addition to himself, his wife and children. Such facts are in part accounted for by the social status—or rather want of status—of the profession. Down to within a very recent period ecclesiastical censures weighed heavily upon all actors, and Christian burial was denied them unless during their final illness they had formally declared their intention to abandon the stage in case of recovery. So severe a condemnation on the part of the clergy naturally produced a strong prejudice against those who connected themselves in any way with the stage; and it is only recently that in Italy, a land where social changes are slow, the doors of her somewhat formal society have been opened to admit even persons so distinguished in every sense of the word as are Ristori, Piamonti, Salvini and Rossi. The social unfriendliness of the audiences—who can applaud so enthusiastically that a stranger witnessing for the first time their noisy demonstrations would easily believe every man and woman in the theatre ready to die for the sake of the admired artist—is doubtless the cause of the patriarchal system observable in the formation of Italian dramatic companies. The members thereof prefer adopting their fathers' profession rather than enter another where they would be constantly mortified by being pointed at as the children of actors.

A little research into the history of the stage in Italy will enlighten the reader as to the true cause both of the harsh condemnation of the Church and of the prejudice of society against this great profession. The plays of the old Romans were proverbially loose both in their plots and dialogues, and Juvenal has spoken of the actors of his time with the bitterest contempt. During the Middle Ages the members of the various religious confraternities monopolized the stage with their sacred dramas and mysteries, and the "profane stage," as an Italian writer calls it, was so degraded that more than once both the Church and State had to use their influence to put down performances which were too infamous to be here described. When the Renaissance came the drama was reinstated in the position it occupied during the days of Roman civilization, but the plays of this period were merely imitations of the Latin comedies; and if we may judge by the most celebrated of them which still exists—the Mandragora of Macchiavelli, for example—far exceeded their models in obscenity. When Benedict XIV. ascended the pontifical throne he established a severe censorship, and inaugurated the harsh system to which I have already alluded, with the effect of banishing immoral productions from the stage, though without improving its intellectual tone. In the eighteenth century Goldoni appeared and gave to the world his graceful comedies, which were followed by the lyric dramas of Metastasio and the lofty tragedies of Alfieri. Since then there has been a succession of able dramatists—Monti, Gozzi, Manzoni, Pellico, Ippolito d'Asti, etc.; and as the class of plays acted was elevated, so the character of the performers was also improved. From being dissolute they became generally respectable; and at present it may be safely asserted that a better-conducted, more frugal or industrious class of men and woman can scarcely be found than are the Italian players. That class of actresses with whom their profession is only a means of displaying their beauty and splendid but often ill-gotten robes and jewelry, is little known in Italy, Such persons would be scarcely tolerated either by their comrades or by the public. Indeed, although within the past few years, owing to the unsettled state of affairs, a great many plays of questionable morality have been acted, especially in Rome, still the tone of the performances usually witnessed in an Italian theatre is greatly above the average of what even Americans applaud; and a French play has to go through more careful pruning for the Italian stage than for ours.

The Italian actors have always been in the habit of forming themselves into troupes, or, as they call them, compagnie, placed under the direction of one person, who is both manager and principal performer. They divide these troupes according to the various kinds of acting; thus, there are companies of tragic, melodramatic and comic actors, but it is very rare to find a combination of tragedy and comedy in the same entertainment. There are at present about eighty different troupes of actors in Italy, including those devoted to the marionnette and dialect performances. The principal are the "Salvini," "Ristori," "Majeroni," "Sedowsky," and "Rossi" for tragedy, the "Bellotti Bon" for high comedy, and the "De Mestri" for farce and vaudeville. The "Ristori," "Salvini" and "Rossi" troupes have been the round of the world. The "Bellotti Bon" has, I believe, never quitted Italy. It is a remarkable combination of well-trained actors, devoted exclusively to the representation of modern society plays and dramas, mostly translated or adapted from the French. Bellotti-Bon, the director, is not excelled in his own line even on the stage of the Théâtre Français. His company is rich, and its scenery and dresses are tasteful. The late Signora Cazzola, formerly the leading lady of this troupe, was perhaps the best high-comedy and dramatic actress Italy has produced. Signer Salvini informed me that Alexandre Dumas fils told him he preferred this lady's interpretation of the rôle of Marguerite Gauthier (Camille) in La Dame aux Camélias to that of Madame Doche, who created the part. She produced a great effect when the dying Camille looks at herself in the glass for the first time after her long illness. Instead of screaming or fainting, as is usual with most actresses who undertake the character, Signora Cazzola stood for a long time gazing intently at the havoc disease had wrought upon her lovely countenance. Then, with a deep sigh and an expression of intense agony, she turned the mirror with its back toward her, implying that she could never again endure the pain of seeing herself reflected upon its truth-telling surface. On the toilette-table was a vase full of camellias—those beautiful but scentless flowers which were emblematic of her brilliant but artificial life. Taking one of these in her hand, she plucked it to pieces leaf by leaf, and when the last petal fell to the ground went quietly back to her bed, there hopelessly to await the coming on of death. Her parting with Armand was very pathetic, and her death, although harrowing and true to Nature, was not revolting, its horrors being moderated by artistic good sense and delicacy. This great artiste died young, worn out by the strong emotions she not only represented, but actually felt.

Signora Cazzola, together with Virginia Marini and Isolina Piamonti, was a pupil of Signor Salvini. Virginia Marini is well considered in Italy, and used to be the leading lady in the Salvini troupe. She now directs a company of her own, and has been succeeded in her former position by the estimable Signora Piamonti, whom Salvini declares to be one of the most versatile artistes he has ever known, equally good in the highest tragedy or the liveliest farce. Her Dalilla in Samson was much admired in America, but her rendering of the rôle of Francesca di Rimini in the tragedy of that name is perhaps her greatest performance.

Signora Sedowsky is undoubtedly the greatest tragic actress of Italy. She is perhaps less stately and grand than Ristori, but in fire and depth of feeling she greatly surpasses this eminent tragédienne. Her Phèdre is pronounced by excellent judges equal to that of Rachel. Signora Sedowsky was born at Naples, and is the proprietress of three large theatres in that city. She is the wife of a wealthy nobleman. Notwithstanding her rank, she still keeps on the stage, but is received with honor in the first society. She has never acted out of Italy, and very rarely beyond the walls of Naples.

The superlative merits of Signora Ristori are so well known in America that the mere mention of her name is sure to recall some of the most delightful evenings ever spent by many of my readers. Her genius and beauty, her majesty and glorious method of declamation, have won her a foremost rank in her profession, and her virtues and nobility of conduct the esteem of all who have ever known her. There are indeed few women more estimable than Adelaide Ristori, Marchioness Capranica del Grillo. It may be a matter of surprise to some who are not aware of the fact when I tell them that in Italy Ristori is more famous in comedy than in tragedy. She is inimitable in such parts as the hostess in Goldoni's clever comedy of La Locandiera.

Of all Italian actors, Gustavo Modena was the most renowned. He is to the stage of his native land what Garrick was to that of England, and his conception of the various parts in classic drama, his "points," and even his dress, have become traditional, and are almost invariably retained by his followers. I never saw him act, but I once heard him recite in a private salon his famous rôle of Saul in Alfieri's tragedy of that name. In person he was tall and largely built, His countenance was not prepossessing, and, like Michael Angelo, he had a broken nose. His eye could assume a terrific aspect, and his voice was rich, powerful and varied in its tone. At times it rolled like thunder, while at other moments it was as soft and tender as the sweetest notes of a flute. Signor Modena died some years ago. He was the master of Salvini, and to him that illustrious actor does not hesitate to attribute much of his fame.

Rossi, the only living rival of Salvini, is still a young man, and doubtless has great talents. I think him even more impetuous and ardent than Salvini, but he is less intellectual, and his elocution is decidedly inferior.

Majeroni is an actor of the same school, but he is becoming old, and has a tendency to rant.

Tommaso Salvini, our late visitor, is of Milanese parentage, and was born in the Lombard capital on January 1, 1830. His father, as I have already said, was an able actor, and his mother a popular actress named Guglielmina Zocchi. When quite a boy he showed a rare talent for acting, and performed in certain plays given during the Easter holidays in the school where he was educated, with such rare ability that his father determined to devote him to the stage. For this purpose he placed him under the tuition of the great Modena, who conceived much affection for him. The training received thus early from such able hands soon bore fruits, and before he was thirteen Salvini had already won a kind of renown in juvenile characters. At fifteen he lost both his parents, and the bereavement so preyed upon his spirits that he was obliged to abandon his career for two years, and returned once more under the tuition of Modena. When he again emerged from retirement he joined the Ristori troupe, and shared with that great actress many a triumph. In 1849, Salvini entered the army of Italian independence, and fought valiantly for the defence of his country, receiving in recognition of his services several medals of honor. Peace being proclaimed, he again appeared upon the stage in a company directed by Signer Cesare Dondini. He played in the Edipo of Nicolini—a tragedy written expressly for him—and achieved a great success. Next he appeared in Alfieri's Saul, and then all Italy declared that Modena's mantle had fallen on worthy shoulders. His fame was now prodigious, and wherever he went he was received with boundless enthusiasm. He visited Paris, where he played Orasmane, Orestes, Saul and Othello. On his return to Florence he was hospitably entertained by the marquis of Normanby, then English ambassador to the court of Tuscany, and this enlightened nobleman strongly encouraged him to extend his repertory of Shakespearian characters. In 1865 occurred the sixth centenary of Dante's birthday, and the four greatest Italian actors were invited to perform in Silvio Pellico's tragedy of Francesca di Rimini, which is founded on an episode in the Divina Commedia. The cast originally stood on the play-bills thus: Francesca, Signora Ristori; Lancelotto, Signor Rossi; Paulo, Signor Salvini; and Guido, Signor Majeroni. It happened, however, that Rossi, who was unaccustomed to play the part of Lancelotto, felt timid at appearing in a character so little suited to him. Hearing this, Signor Salvini, with exquisite politeness and good-nature, volunteered to take the insignificant part, relinquishing the grand rôle of Paulo to his junior in the profession. He created by the force of his genius an impression in the minor part which is still vivid in the minds of all who witnessed the performance. The government of Florence, grateful for his urbanity, presented him with a statuette of Dante, and King Victor Emmanuel rewarded him with the title of knight of the Order of the Saints Maurice and Lazarus. Later he received from the same monarch a diamond ring, with the rank of officer in the Order of the Crown of Italy. In 1868, Signer Salvini visited Madrid, where his acting of the death of Conrad in La Morte Civile produced such an impression that the easily-excited Madrilese rushed upon the stage to ascertain whether the death was actual or fictitious. The queen, Isabella II., conferred upon the great actor many marks of favor, and so shortly afterward did King Louis of Portugal, who frequently entertained him at the royal palace of Lisbon.

Signor Salvini's recent visit to America I need scarcely mention: its triumphs are still fresh in the memory of the public, and the only drawback to its complete success was the unhappy fact that the eminent artist did not appeal to his audiences in their own language.

I know of nothing more remarkable than the difference which exists between the Salvini of the stage and the Salvini of private life, the one so imposing, impetuous and fiery, the other so gentle, urbane, and even retiring. He is a gentleman possessing the manners of the good old school—courtly and somewhat ceremonious, reminding one of those Italian nobles of the sixteenth century of whom we lead in the novels of Giraldo Cinthio and Fiorentino—uomini illustri, e di civil costumi. His greeting is cordial and his conversation delightful, full of anecdote and marked with enthusiasm for his art. When I first became acquainted with him I was of opinion that his interpretation of Hamlet was based only upon the translated text, but in the course of a very long conversation on the subject I discovered that he was well acquainted (through literal translations) not only with the text, but also with the notes and comments of our leading critics. In speaking of the part in which he is altogether unrivaled he said, "I am of opinion that Shakespeare intended Othello to be a Moor of Barbary or some other part of Northern Africa, of whom there were many in Italy during the sixteenth century. I have met several, and think I imitate their ways and manners pretty well. You are aware, however, that the historical Othello was not a black at all. He was a white man, and a Venetian general named Mora. His history resembles that of Shakespeare's hero in many particulars. Giraldo Cinthio, probably for better effect, made out of the name Mora, moro, a blackamoor; and Shakespeare, unacquainted with the true story, followed this old novelist's lead; and it was well he did so, for have we not in consequence the most perfect delineation of the peculiarities of Moorish temperament ever conceived?" The costumes worn by Salvini in this play are copied from those depicted in certain Venetian pictures of the fifteenth century in which several Moorish officers appear. It took him many years to master this rôle, and he assured me he could not play it more than three times in succession without experiencing terrible fatigue. "It is a matter of wonder to me," he observed, "that English actors can play a great character like this so many nights in succession; and, above all, that they retain self-possession whilst the fidgety noise of scene-shifting is going on behind them. To avoid this, I have been obliged to cut Othello into six acts, and to make many changes in Hamlet." The intensity of feeling with which he throws himself into the part he is representing was especially evident on the occasion of his playing Saul. After the performance I was invited to go behind the scenes to speak with him, and was surprised as well as pained to find him utterly exhausted. I could not help saying, "How can you exert yourself thus to please so few people?" There were scarcely four hundred persons assembled to see this sublime performance. He answered with honest simplicity, "They have paid their money, and are entitled to the best I can do for them; besides that, when I am on the stage I forget the world and all that is in it, and live the character I represent." "You will," said I, "make a grand Lear." "Yes," he replied, "I think I shall be able to make something out of the old king. I have been reading the tragedy for some time, but it will still take me two years to study it thoroughly."

Salvini related to me several anecdotes which show how quick he is to master any difficulties accident throws in his way. "Once I bought," he said, "a play of a poor young writer which I thought I could make something of; but when we came to rehearse it for the last time before representation, it seemed to me utterly flat and unprofitable. The piece was called La Suonatrice d'Arpa ('The Harp-Girl'). The actors all said the last act was so stupid that we should make a fiasco. I at last hit upon an idea. We had, however, only a few hours to execute it in. I changed the story: instead of the play ending happily, I made the father kill his daughter accidentally, and then die of grief. All the dialogue had to be improvised by the leading actress and myself. I played the father, and Signora Piamonti the daughter. Such was the success of our invention that the piece was played eight nights in succession, and a rival actor, hearing of the triumph achieved by The Harp-Girl, bought from the author for a handsome sum the privilege of acting it in certain districts which were not included in my purchase of the drama. Not being aware of the alterations we had made, and performing it according to the letter of the text, he made un fiasco solenne—a dead failure."

After the first performance of Zaïre I took the liberty of observing to Salvini that a superb piece of "business" which marks his acting in the last act was not to be found in the text. "Oh," he replied, "I will tell you the origin of it. I was playing at Naples, and one night, when I threw the body of my murdered wife upon the ottoman in the last act, my burnouse fell off and fixed itself to my waist like a tail. I saw at once that if I was not careful I should provoke laughter, and instantly imagined that I would pretend to believe the clinging drapery was the wounded Zaïre grasping me behind. I appeared to dread even to look round, lest I should encounter her pallid face. I hesitated, I trembled, and when with a supreme effort I at last grasped the burnouse and cast it from me, I still lacked the courage to ascertain what it really was, and stood shivering before the white heap it made upon the floor. Finally, just as I thought public curiosity to know what I was going to do began to grow weary, I stooped down and seizing the white mantle dashed it from me with contempt, showing by the gesture that I had discovered what it was, and felt anger that such a trifle should thus alarm a bold man who had committed murder." This pantomime obtained for Salvini at the New York Academy of Music one of his greatest ovations.

When asked why he did not learn English, "Ah!" he replied, "I am too old; and even if I mastered it, I could not control my knowledge of it. When excited I should be lapsing into Italian, which would be very absurd. You asked me the other day why I do not play Orestes. I should make a queer young Greek with an Apollo-like figure now-a-days! The time was when I looked the part and acted it well, and then I liked to play it. I must leave it, with many other good things, to younger men." Speaking about dramatic elocution, he said, "The best method is obtained by close observation of Nature, and above all by earnestness. If you can impress people with the conviction that you feel what you say, they will pardon many shortcomings. And, above all, study, study, study! All the genius in the world will not help you along with any art unless you become a hard student. It has taken me years to master a single part."

Salvini's visit to America has been fruitful of a double good. He has shown forth the splendor of Italian genius, even revealing to us new marvels in that mine of wealth, the works of the greatest Bard of the English-speaking race; and he has gone back to Italy to tell her people of things he has seen in the New World which his great compatriot discovered—as wonderful in their way as any related by Othello to Desdemona's willing ear.