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A New Scholarly Book on Modern Italian Theater: a Review
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-11-11 13:34:47
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Modern Italian Theater: from Praga to Sciascia (Text and Context),
by Professor Emeritus Michael Vena



A new scholarly book on Modern Italian theater has appeared recently.  Ovi readers are already familiar with its author, Michael Vena, a fellow Yale alumnus who participated in the Ovi Symposium when it dealt, for a while, with the theme of the theater (see http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/10780). He received his Ph.D. at Yale University where I met him in the late 70s and struck an enduring friendship with him. As the book’s back cover informs the reader, Professor Vena has been interested in modern Italian theater from a literary standpoint and as a tool in language acquisition.

This has led to various published texts, translations and articles on language, literature and theater. The previous one was also on Italian drama, and was discussed and examined in the Ovi symposium (Italian Playwrights from the Twentieth Century). His renaissance interests have led to discover innovations in Alberti’s language, which were incorporated by two etymological dictionaries. This latest book of his follows-up on those interests and provides a needed informative guide for anybody interested in discovering the modern Italian theater.


Dr. Michael Vena

With the possible exception of Pirandello who won a Nobel Prize for literature, few people, even if educated, are able to mention any modern Italian dramatist. To mitigate this deficiency Vena offers us seven of them: Marco Praga (The Jovial Wife), Giovanni Verga (From Yours to Mine), Roberto Bracco (Holy Priest), Rosso di San Secondo (Puppets of Passion), Eduardo de Filippo (Christmas at the Cupiellos and Inner Voices), Diego Fabbri (Jesus on Trial), Leonardo Sciascia (The Politicians). They were all translated from Italian (or Neapolitian dialect in the case of De Filippo) by Professor Vena, with the exception of Jesus on Trial by Diego Fabbri which was translated by Emanuel L. Paparella. They all have an introduction which delineates the role of each dramatist in the pantheon of Italian literature and language, all by Vena, again, with the exception of the one on Fabbri written by yours truly. There is also an introduction by Professor Annachiara Mariani who teaches Italian at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She describes why those plays are important for both students of Italian and for those interested in any way in Italian Literature.


    Praga                    Verga                  Bracco           San Secondo


De Filippo                      Fabbri                           Sciascia

And not only that, Vena also gives us an overview of the premiere Italian theater production from the tenth to the twentieth century, a whopping 1000 year take of dramatic production. In the book it spans 9 pages and includes notables such as Ariosto, Trissino, Machiavelli, Ruzante, Aretino, Tasso, Bruno, Guarini, Michelangelo (16th century) Sabbatini (17th century),Metastasio, Goldoni, Alfieri, Foscolo, (18th century), Monti, Manzoni, Verga, D’Annunzio, Praga, Simoni, (19th century), Marinetti, Pirandello, De Filippo, Rosso San Secondo, Betti, Fabbri, Buzzati, Fo, Sciascia, Patti, Flaiano, Brusati, Pasolini, Griffi, Ginzburg, Maraini, just to mention a few. This in itself is a veritable treasure throve.

As mentioned, most of the translations and the introductions are from Vena. They are all excellent translations which capture in English the nuances of the Italian and the Neapolitan dialect of the original. To be sure, this is not an easy accomplishment. A good translation of a literary or philosophical work requires that the translator be equally versed in the two languages involved, but also thoroughly familiar with the field or the discipline within which the work is inserted. Undoubtedly, Italian Drama is a field thoroughly familiar to Vena, one of his scholarly fields of specialization on which he has been working for decades of his academic career. Even now, when he is retired, he continues his labor of love in the field.  

Impressive too are the particular authors and dramas he has chosen, all revealing the influence of Pirandello. Playwrights such as Fabbri, De Filippo, Sciascia are the kind of artists whose plays are invariably imbued with a social and ethical milieu in a theater which can be characterized as one of social consciousness and responsibility. And this besides their uncanny ability to capture the zeitgeist of the times and places they portray via a superb command of the language. Themes such as social justice, the family, historical amnesia, the self, social conventions, the ravages of war, human solidarity, marital unhappiness and feminism, that is to say, a general moral inquiry into the realities of the human condition, whether they be they happy or sad.

What I say about Fabbri in the introduction to his “Jesus on Trial,” can easily apply to all the other six playwrights of this book: these dramatists, like Pirandello, are concerned with philosophical-ethical issues relating to the existential human condition…in search of solidarity and the analysis of that solitude of spirit which Vico dubs “the barbarism of the intellect” afflicting post-modern man. In that sense Vena’s choices are well within the universal tradition of Italian Humanism which connects Christian principles to antiquity, to Aristotle’s conception of the theater as catharsis and education. Such an undertaking remains one of the most noble in academia and education in general. Vena’s book, a paperback which spans 500 pages is to be recommended to anyone of any nationality or language in search of their own self and humanity. We ought to be grateful to Professor Vena for continuing his indefatigable pedagogical mission even after his retirement from the world of academia. We look forward to more enlightening books from his prolific pen.

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Emanuel Paparella2014-11-11 14:23:29
A footnote: for those readers who are interested in acquiring this veritable treasure throve of Italian drama, the book was published by EX-Libris Publishing (2014), is available at the Amazon.com site, and costs $22. It spans 500 pages and it's all in English. A real bargain, if I may say so!

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