Political Theater of Southern Italy 

Critics around the world often use the phrase “political theater” to condemn populist politics, accusing the politicians in question of using the theater’s flashy effects and dramatic devices to drum up support for a platform, or an ideology, that might have only a weak relationship to reality. Within the context of Italy’s politics, however, it seems like the phrase might be mistaken for a compliment. At various points in its knotty political history, Italian political movements have embraced the theater of politics, and, in turn, used the theater itself as a central political tool.

This two-way relationship between theater and politics has existed in Italy since ancient times, up through Verdian opere serie, and continues in today’s contemporary theater and performance art scenes. When one considers Italian theatre La Scala in Milan might be the first place that comes to mind. However, the politics of the south of Italy have a much more complicated and scandalous history, lending the same complications and drama to the theatre of the south. Given this rich field of study at the intersection of an age-old tradition and a fraught political scene, I propose to research the history of political intervention, interference and influence in the theatre of southern Italy, also known as the Mezziogiorno.

During my undergraduate career I conducted an independent study on Italian opera and delved into the rich history of this art form. Using this research, I propose to build upon what I already know to weave a comprehensive image of the historical southern Italian theatrical political scene. With the support and guidance of Dr. Claudia Mariotti, professor of Political Science at Roma Tre University, I intend to uncover and define the state of politics in theatre as it stands today and create a comprehensive comparison between the past and present.

Whether or not Rome is included in the concept of southern Italy is controversial. It does not conform to the business-minded efficiency of northern Italy, or to its majority ring-wing politics; as the seat of government and the Papacy it cannot share the same agriculturally centered history that binds the southern provinces.  However, as the center of politics, and the ancient Italian birthplace of theatre, I would argue that without Rome, the state of the political-theatrical interface in the Mezzogiorno could not exist as it does today. For this reason, I plan to begin and base my research in Rome.

The history of Roman theatre is not only long and rich, but it is unbroken. The foundations of the 350 years old Teatro Argentina in the heart of the historic center of Rome are those of the Teatro di Pompeo, built over 2,000 years ago during the time of the Roman Republic by Pompey the Great. Rome has never abandoned its commitment to this art form. The city is also extremely politically diverse, having large factions of centrists, independents, green party members, right-wing conservatives, leftists, fascists and communists. Being the capital of unified Italy on top of its ancient history has created a strong city identity that combines an enormous range of beliefs and sustains continuous and intense political debate. Strikes and protests are so common that they are cleared with the police beforehand, and when the Occupy movement went global in 2011, Rome’s zealous demonstrators were on the front page of the New York Times.

A few months prior, in June of 2011, a movement began in a nearly 300-year-old theatre (originally an opera house) in the heart of Rome: Teatro Valle Occupato. The occupiers took over the theatre to guard it from closure and privatization thanks to public arts funding cuts from the Berlusconi regime. I propose to use this theatre as one case study for my research. The history of the theatre is replete with momentous occasions: operas and plays by Rossini, Cimarosa and Pirandello debuted there, just to name a few. In fall of 2011 I attended a movie screening hosted by the Teatro Valle Occupato. After the screening I returned a few days later to a generous welcoming and a full tour from one of the occupiers. Since then I have shared my proposal with the Occupato movement to a favorable reception. I am confident that the movement would welcome interviews for the purpose of my research on the theatre’s contemporary state.

The interesting dichotomy found in Southern Italian culture is that between leftist politics and cultural rebellion and that of devout religiosity mixed with an intense commitment to established (secular) cultural values.

Not 150 miles to the south, Naples has a strong theatrical history that is based purely and forcefully around religious themes and seasons. I propose to use Teatro San Carlo of Naples as a second case study. I want to find out if the open political discussions of Rome have found their way in to Neapolitan theatre, or not. Are there leftist groups in Naples that are struggling against the conservative culture to find the same footing as those in Rome? San Carlo’s 2014 – 2015 program will present “Cavalleria Rusticana”, the quintessential story of the Mezziogiorno. As one of the larger and most historical cities in the south, are those from other states in the area flocking to Naples and influencing the theatre’s programming? What are their political leanings?

I propose to spend the first three months in Rome researching the history of political intervention, interference and influence in the theatre of the Mezzogiorno using the libraries at Rome Tre University and under the guidance of Dr. Claudia Mariotti. Once I have mapped out a thorough and comprehensive historical groundwork, I will begin detailed field research on my case studies; namely, Teatro Valle Occupato of Rome and Teatro San Carlo of Naples. In this time I also hope to uncover further relevant case studies. I know that I will be looking for specific theatre’s on which to focus in Sicily so, the final six months of my Fulbright grant will be spent split between Rome/Naples and Palermo/Agrigento.

Pirandello and Verga (of absurdist theatre and the Cavalleria Rusticana, respectively) were both born in Siciliy. Some of the most important and revolutionary Italian literature was born here, and I am interested to find out if this spirit is still alive, if it is visible in the theatre’s of Sicily (specifically Agrigento and Palermo), and if there is any Roman influence to be found that far from the capital. As the birthplace of the infamous Mafia, Sicily is rife with political theatre. Descriptions of true life Mafiosi behavior read like a piece of drama. Is this reflected in the theatre of Sicily? Has real life drama outclassed productions and left the theatrical scene flat? If Cosa Nostra remains in power in these Sicilian cities, how do they compare with the leftist groups of Rome?